Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt of Rick Perstein's Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, out May 15 from Scribner. Perlstein joins us this week as a contributor on our group blog, TAPPED.
That flag: during the Vietnam Moratorium, New York's Mayor Lindsay ordered it flown at half-staff as a memorial to the war dead. An enraged city council member from Queens tramped up to the City Hall roof and pulled the banner back up himself. "Meanwhile," the Washington Post reported on October 16, 1969, "officials of the Patrolmen's Benevolent and Uniformed Firefighters Association claimed almost total success in their campaign to keep firehouse and precinct station flags at full staff."
After Kent State, Lindsay ordered city flags lowered again. At noon on Friday, May 8, in a cold Manhattan drizzle, students from across the city gathered at George Washington's statue in front of Federal Hall on Wall Street, where representatives of the thirteen colonies first met to petition King George. "You brought down one president," a fifty-six-year-old lawyer told them with delight, "and you'll bring down another!" The mood was joyous.
Suddenly, from all directions, two hundred construction workers marched in to the cadences of "All the way! USA!" and "We're number one!" and "Love it or leave it!" In their identical brown overalls, carrying American flags of the sort that topped off construction sites, they looked like some sort of storm trooper battalion.
They started arguing with the police: Why weren't flags flying in front of Federal Hall like at all the Wall Street banks? Had the hippies stolen them? (The flags, actually, per federal regulations, were not flying due to inclement weather.)
The police report: They argued that this was a government owned building, that it was owned by all the people, and that they had a right to an equal portion of the steps to express their view in support of the American flag and the foreign policy of the United States; that everyone had an equal right to freely express their views.
Some students tried to shout the workers down. Others, nervous, tried to melt into the lunchtime crowd.
The construction workers, reinforced by the rear by some thousand vocal supporters from the Wall Street area, suddenly burst through the easterly terminus of the police line. Demonstrators observed that the police were not particularly enthusiastic about stopping them.
Once atop the steps, the construction workers implanted a number of American flags on the pillars and on the statue of George Washington.
An insurance underwriter, in admiration: "Wow, it was just like John Wayne taking Iwo Jima."
The unusual lunch hour crowd which had, by now, inundated the area completely from building line to building line, loudly applauded the construction workers and their singing of the National Anthem; many onlookers joined in, openly displaying much fervor.
At this juncture a neatly groomed conservatively dressed middle aged man suddenly took a position in the pedestal in front of the statue of George Washington where he thumbed his nose at the construction worker group, shouted obscenities, and ultimately committed an act of desecration upon one of the American flags implanted there by them.
He was variously reported as blowing his nose in the flag, tearing the flag with his teeth, and eating the flag.
The riot began. Workers singled out for beating boys with the longest hair. The weapons of choice were their orange and yellow hard hats.
A construction worker recalled, "The whole group started singing ‘God Bless America' and it damn near put a lump in your throat. . . . I could never say I was sorry I was there. You just had a very proud feeling. If I live to be one hundred, I don't think I'll ever live to see anything quite like that again."
A student recalled, "When I was on the ground, I rolled myself into a ball just as four or five pairs of construction boots started kicking me."
The proletarians marched on City Hall, now joined by hundreds more workers from the city's biggest construction site, the twin-towered "World Trade Center." They were joined, in solidarity, by the capitalists; the New York Stock Exchange ended up having its lowest-volume day in months.
"Lindsay's a Red! Lindsay's a Red!"
"Lindsay must go!"
"Raise our flag! Raise our flag!"
A mail carrier scrambled onto the roof to hoist Old Glory. A mayoral aide followed and relowered it. Construction workers furiously rushed City Hall, crying, "Get Lindsay!" -- almost breaching the building. A deputy mayor raised the flag back up to appease the mob. Workers launched another chorus of "The Star-Spangled Banner"; good patriots, the cops removed their hats and stood at attention instead of attending to the gleeful ongoing beatings.
A municipal secretary: "I saw one construction worker arm himself with a pair of iron clippers and head toward a student already being pummeled by three workers. ... He yelled at me, ‘Let go of my jacket, bitch'; and then he said, ‘If you want to be treated like an equal, we'll treat you like one.' Three of them began to punch me in the body. My glasses were broken. I had trouble breathing, and I thought my ribs were cracked.'"
The Wall Street Journal: "‘These hippies are getting what they deserve,' said John Halloran, one of the construction workers, while the mêlée was still going on. As he talked a coworker standing with him yelled, ‘Damn straight,' and punched a young man in a business suit who said he disagreed."
The mob moved on to nearby Pace University, setting fire to a banner reading VIETNAM, LAOS, CAMBODIA, KENT. The glass doors to the building were chained shut from the inside against attack. Hard hats crashed through them and chased down unkempt students, joined by conservative students angry at strikers interfering with their education. Some longhairs were beaten with lead pipes wrapped in American flags. Trinity Church became a makeshift field hospital (the mob ripped down the Red Cross banner). The New York Times ran a picture the next day of a construction worker and a man in a tie charging down a cobblestone street to beat someone with an American flag. Pete Hamill, who had only the previous year offered his solidarity to "The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class," now withdrew his endorsement in horror: "The police collaborated with the construction workers in the same way that Southern sheriffs used to collaborate with the rednecks when the rednecks were beating up freedom riders."
Police made only six arrests. Perhaps they agreed with the construction worker who told The Wall Street Journal, "I'm doing this because my brother got wounded in Vietnam, and I think this will help our boys over there by pulling this country together."
Nixon had tried to talk to the student demonstrators. He concluded he preferred the hard hats. "Thinks now the college demonstrators have overplayed their hands," Haldeman wrote in his diary, "evidence is the blue collar group rising against them, and [president] can mobilize them."
New York construction workers now took every lunch hour for boisterous patriotic demonstrations. So did hard hats in San Diego, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh. Some of the rallies were not entirely spontaneous: "Obviously more of these will be occurring throughout the nation," White House staffer Stephen Bull wrote in a memo to Chuck Colson, "perhaps partially as a result of your clandestine activity." Peter Brennan, the combative head of the Building Trades Council of Greater New York, accused of organizing the "hard hat riot," defiantly denied it -- then showed what he could do as an organizer: one hundred thousand marchers on May 20, complete with a cement mixer draped with a LINDSAY FOR MAYOR OF HANOI banner. Signs read GOD BLESS THE ESTABLISHMENT and WE SUPPORT NIXON AND AGNEW. Time called it "a kind of workers' Woodstock."
"Thank God for the hard hats!" Nixon cried. He had been so delighted by the liberal Pete Hamill's exposé of the political alienation of the white working class in New York magazine in 1969 that he ordered a Labor Department study on the question. Assistant Secretary Jerome S. Rosow had just delivered his report "The Problem of the Blue Collar Worker." It described a population "on a treadmill, chasing the illusion of higher living standards," fighting via the only apparent weapon at their disposal: "continued pressure for high wages." Their only champions "seem to be the union leaders spearheading the demand." But to reduce the problem to economics, Rosow suggested, was to miss more than half the story. The more profound distress was cultural -- a problem of recognition. Negroes at least had a clamoring lobby -- Daniel Moynihan's "hysterics, paranoids and boodlers" -- making noise on their behalf. Blue-collar whites "feel like ‘forgotten people' -- those for whom the government and society have limited, if any direct concern and little visible action."
Here was the germ of a revolution in the Republican's message. Unless they took workers' votes from the Democrats -- as Ronald Reagan had in California in 1966 -- Nixon would never be able to achieve the New Majority he dreamed of. But to do so with ongoing economic concessions -- previously the only way politicians imagined working-class voters might be wooed -- offended a more foundational Republican constituency: business. And contributed to the inflation that was driving the stock market into the low 600s.
But to extend to blue-collar workers the hand of cultural recognition -- that was a different ball game altogether. It's not that right-leaning politicians hadn't tried it before -- Nixon had done something like it in the Checkers Speech, when he styled the people accusing him of corruption as hopeless snobs, and himself as an ordinary striver just trying to make an honest living. But the hard-hat ascendency set into motion a qualitative shift: the first concerted effort to turn the white working class, via its aesthetic disgusts, against a Democratic Party now joining itself objectively, with their Cooper-Church and McGovern-Hatfield amendments, to the agenda of the smelly longhairs who burned down buildings.
The Democratic Party: enemy of the working man. It was the political version of that New York Times photograph of the stockbroker and the pie fitter joined in solidarity in the act of clobbering a hippie -- their common weapon the American flag. That white men in ties and white men in hard hats were radically opposed to one another was a foundational left-wing idea. But as a Republican state senator from Orange County observed, "Every time they burn another building, Republican registration goes up." Nixon told his team to get to work putting the Rosow Report's insights, "even if only symbolic," into action. Peter Brennan, and Thomas Gleason of the International Longshoremen's Association, vice president of the AFL-CIO executive committee, were summoned to the White House on May 26 -- the day the Dow reached a new yearly low, nine days after the Cooper-Church amendment passed a Senate committee. Brennan presented the president with an honorary hard hat reading commander in chief and left a four-star hard hat to present to General Creighton Abrams, the American commander in Vietnam, and promised continued patriotic marches: "The hard hat will stand as a symbol along with our great flag, for freedom and patriotism and our beloved country." Nixon eventually made Brennan secretary of labor. One member of the delegation said, "If someone would have had the courage to go into Cambodia, they might have captured the bullet that took my son's life." The president choked up. Sweet triumph: who could be more Democratic than union leaders?
The Republican business class, small-town America, backyard-pool suburbanites, Dixiecrats, calloused union members: now it was as if the White House had discovered the magic incantation to join them as one. Nixonites imagined no limit to the power of this New Majority: "Patriotic themes to counter economic depression will get response from unemployed," Haldeman wrote in a note to himself. Then no one would be a Democrat anymore.
Copyright © 2008 by Rick Perlstein. From the forthcoming book NIXONLAND to be published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. N.Y., Reprinted by permission.