Nixon’s Political Football

Amidst the fading days of September 1972, from the steps of Galveston County Courthouse, Democratic vice-presidential candidate Sargent Shriver assailed President Richard Nixon’s fiscal policy as “irresponsible” and decried the administration’s foreign policy as counterproductive. Then, Shriver deployed an awkward football analogy that drew the attention of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP). Accusing Nixon of hiding behind surrogates, Shriver took the president to task. “He’s like those professional football teams … they’ve got what they call the big front four. Those are the guys that are built wide like this, heavy here and rather thick sometimes, too.” John Mitchell, John Connally, Spiro Agnew, and Melvin Laird protected Nixon, he continued, while behind them “they’ve got Tricky dick at quarterback dancing around back there.”[1]

CREEP memorandum demonstrating the committee's attempt to utilize football politically

CREEP Memorandum, “Shriver’s Appearance in Galveston,” September 26, 1972, Box 15, Ronald L.  Ziegler Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

A CREEP memorandum found in the recently opened papers of Nixon’s press secretary Ronald L. Ziegler at the Library of Congress Manuscript Division described the speech as a “shrill diatribe,” and though it’s unclear whether Shriver’s comments actually impugned the intelligence of football players, CREEP sought to portray it that way and quickly recorded a radio spot on the “spotmaster” ( a recording device used for producing campaign commercials) taking issue with Shriver’s remarks.[2] The White House Attack Group (WHAG), a daily planning committee focused on public relations tactics for the 1972 presidential campaign consisting of Chuck Colson, H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and press secretary Ziegler among others, also quickly honed in on Shriver’s comments pointing out the utility of CREEP’s initial foray. “We got a wire story out of  [CREEP’s] use of a Shriver statement that had been playing on Democrat’s Spotmaster. We are going to continue again today, picking up the DNC’s response to [CREEP’s] use of the spot.”

CREEP’s success encouraged further efforts. “We are going to try and find some smart football linemen to respond.”[3] Recruiting football players to critique Shriver proved to be one of the more low key efforts to undermine the vice-presidential candidate, which also included a plan to send a “busload of Nixon supporters – all Black – [to] visit the Shriver homestead in Maryland” where they would proceed to “hand out a brochure prepared by some unknown and unsuspecting foundation,” discussing “the Shriver family, its slaves and Shriver’s confederate ancestors.”[4]

Within forty-eight hours, CREEP had “lined up several football players with Masters Degrees,” notably Rams defensive lineman Merlin Olsen and Dolphins linebacker Nick Buoniconti and wide receiver Howard Twilley, to rebut Shriver’s comments. Quickly utilizing the technology of the day, CREEP arranged to record radio spots by each.

Olson, who had graduated Phi Betta Kappa with a finance degree and master’s in economics from Utah State, proved their most forceful voice, or at least the only one cited by Republican groups like the Ripon Society. Olson dismissed Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern’s income redistribution proposal as “ridiculous” and challenged Shriver to a debate: “Now I would be glad to sit down with Mr. Shriver and talk some basic economic theory, or for that matter, we can talk about advanced economic theory.”[5]

Whether or not subsequent recordings ever made it on the airwaves appears unclear. The Ripon Society noted that CREEP had received “prepared radio transcripts from professional gridders protesting the denigration of their profession,” but made no mention of actual campaign commercials.  A year later, an article in Los Angeles Times referred only to Olson as having sent a letter to Shriver.[6]

Whatever the fate of the aforementioned radio transcripts, the larger point remains that CREEP’s intervention and the WHAG’s enthusiast support of it encapsulates the Nixon administration’s general relentlessness during the 1972 campaign and Nixon’s innovative use of football. He invented “postgame congratulatory phone calls to locker rooms and dugouts,” writes historian Nicholas Evan Sarantakes.[7] Nixon celebrated Vince Lombardi, controversially picked college national champions, and generally used “football to present himself both as a man of the people and as a social authority capable of shaping popular culture.[8]

Not that it always worked. Nixon’s foray into college football in 1969 caused no small amount of consternation. During his famous meeting with protesters on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1970 Nixon, thinking “a bunch of sleepy kids, awakened at 5 a.m., would be puzzled and difficult to reach … tried to loosen them up, establish community, with football talk,” speechwriter Raymond Price told New Republic journalist John Osborne in a 1972 interview.  Nixon’s effort was ultimately misinterpreted. “[T]he students … told the press that the President was interested in [and] could talk only about football,” Price confided, thereby increasing the president’s distress.[9]

With the 50th anniversary of Watergate less than a year away and football season upon us once again, a look at the sport’s role in presidential politics seems appropriate.

Political Football

President Richard Nixon photographed between 1968 and 1972.

Richard Nixon’s use of football as a political tool was innovative for its time. Richard Nixon. Print, between 1968 and 1972.

To be clear, liberal and conservative presidential candidates alike have professed love for football and sought the endorsements of top players. Take Nixon’s 1972 opponent George McGovern. Football players appealed to blue-collar workers, McGovern campaign staff not so much: “Long haired McGovern advisors get beat up in bars, football players didn’t,” historian Jesse Berrett pointed out in a recent phone interview.[10]

In fact, the game’s popularity with presidents stretches back to the early twentieth century. Though he never played, Teddy Roosevelt frequently lauded football as a means to build character and is widely credited with saving it from extinction. Eisenhower played competently at West Point before an injury ended his football career. Nixon’s successor arguably the greatest athlete to ever hold the office of president, Gerald Ford, famously starred for the University of Michigan. Nixon, however poorly, had also played the sport while an undergrad at Whittier College in California. He extolled its virtues regarding team building and individual character. The sport, as Nixon, Eisenhower, and later Ronald Reagan would agree “teaches you how to win and lose as a team, how to accept a loss, how to play fair,” Berrett added.[11]

That being said, few candidates wielded their fandom as Nixon did. Football served as a means to build an electoral base, particularly from the office of the presidency. By the 1970s, Nixon began “to use the sport to construct an electoral coalition that would, he hoped, sustain him into a second term and win the Republican Party in the White House for a generation,” Berrett observed in his 2018 book, Pigskin Nation: How the NFL Remade American Politics. In researching the book, Barrett also utilized the Jack Kemp and Mary McGrory Papers, both housed in the Library’s Manuscript Division.[12]

Football crossed lines of geography, race, and class. Media portrayals only furthered the game’s appeal to “average Americans.” Fans embodied “Middle America in the raw … the Silent Majority at its noisiest,” wrote Time. Historian Arthur Schlesinger cast tweedy aspersions onto vice president Agnew for his basement “rumpus room” filled with “Lawrence Welk records and his Sunday afternoons with the Baltimore Colts. Agnew,” Schlesinger wrote, was “the archetype of the forgotten American who had made it.”[13]

Memorandum from the White House Attack Group with annotations by Ron L. Ziegler

Ron Ziegler’s annotations atop this White House Attack Group memorandum from September 15, 1972 conveys the committee’s desire for secrecy: “[Diane] Sawyer … I want these [J. Bruce Whelihan] memo’s handled with extreme care. Locked in Safe. Not out on Desk. No carbons. No distribution at all–!” White House Attack Group memorandum with annotations by Ronald L. Zeigler, September 15, 1972, Box 15, Ronald L. Ziegler Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Yet as innovative as Nixon may have been, it would be a Republican successor who perfected football’s political utility. Like Nixon, Ronald Reagan was a mediocre player in college, but frequently lavished the game with praise. “There is a mystic something about football … It’s typical of the American personality …” he told the National Football Foundation in 1971. He also had the good fortune of portraying George “The Gipper” Gipp in the film Knute Rockne All American and later adopted the nickname during his successful presidential runs. Reagan even returned to football’s rhetorical well one more time in 1988, urging George H.W. Bush to “make it one more” for the Gipper in his speech at the Republican National Convention. Nixon, Barrett points out, envisioned football – and sports more generally – as “an array of symbols and anecdotes to be deployed for emotive effect.”.[14]

In the end, CREEP’s efforts probably amounted to little. Nixon romped to a landslide presidential victory, though his success had the shortest of coattails. The GOP won only a dozen seats in the House, lost two in the Senate and remained the minority in both. “After you take the President’s personal landslide,” then RNC chair Bob Dole noted, “there wasn’t any landslide at all.”

And what about Merlin Olsen? A year later, in a Los Angeles Times article praising the intelligence of modern-day football players, Olsen walked back his support for Nixon, acknowledging his disappointment and disgust over Watergate while also thanking his wife, a staunch McGovern supporter for “not rubbing it in and saying ‘I told you so.”[15]

[1] “Shriver Hits Nixon Fiscal ‘Team’ Policy,” Chicago Tribune, September 27, 1972.

[2] Joan Hoff, Nixon Reconsidered (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 308; J. Bruce Whelihan, White House Attack Group Memorandum Colson Meeting Thursday, September 27, 1972, box 15, Ronald L. Ziegler Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[3] Art Amolsch, CREEP, Memorandum: Shriver’s Appearance in Galveston, Texas, September 26, 1972, Box 15, Ronald L. Ziegler Papers, Box 15, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[4] Joan Hoff, Nixon Reconsidered (Basic Books, 1994), 308; J. Bruce Whelihan, White House Attack Group Memorandum Colson Meeting Thursday, September 27, 1972, box 15, Ron Ziegler Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Bruce Whelihan, White House Attack Group Memorandum Colson Meeting Thursday, September 22, 1972, Box 15, Ronald L. Ziegler Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[5] J. Bruce Whelihan, White House Attack Group Memorandum Colson Meeting Thursday, September 28, 1972; “McGovern and Shriver or I’d Rather Be Funny – Than President,” report, 1972, Box 15, Ronald L. Ziegler Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[6] David Shaw, “Off Field, They Tackle Books, Pianos, Politics,” Los Angeles Times, November 23, 1973

[7] Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, Fan-in-Chief: Richard Nixon and American Sports, 1969-1974 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2019), 23.

[8] Sarantakes, Fan-in-Chief, 25.

[9] John Osborne, Raymond Price interview notes, December 15, 1972, Box 22, John Osborne Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[10] Jesse Berrett, phone interview with author, July 16, 2021.

[11] Jesse Berrett, phone interview with author, July 16, 2021.

[12] Jesse Berrett, Pigskin Nation: How the NFL Remade American Politics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018), 5, 110.

[13] Berrett, Pigskin Nation, 112.

[14] Berrett, Pigskin Nation, 206.

[15] David Shaw, “Off Field, They Tackle Books, Pianos, Politics,” Los Angeles Times, November 23, 1973.