Opinion: ‘Sock it to me!’ Richard Nixon’s notes on improving his media image

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As everyone knows, even before he became president back in 1969 Richard Nixon was a warm, congenial, self-confident fellow who radiated personality and warmth for others, especially on this new political medium called television way back when.

OK. Not.

The 37th president resigned in shame in 1974 after the Watergate scandal. And by modern media ‘hey-how-ya-doin’ standards, Nixon is better-known as a TV dud. What hasn’t been widely known is how hard he worked to improve his stolid self.

Now, thanks to some personal papers of the late Paul Keyes, up for auction in New Hampshire next week, we get a peek inside the self-improvement efforts of the nation’s second Quaker president. (Quick, who was the first? Scroll to the bottom** for the answer.)

Keyes, who died in 2004, was a well-known TV producer and comedy writer of the 1950-60s.


Keyes met Nixon during the 1960 campaign against John F. Kennedy when the then-vice president appeared on ‘The Jack Paar Show.’

They became friends and soon after, Keyes began writing some Nixon jokes, which can seem like an oxymoron.

It was Keyes, for instance, who convinced Nixon to make a cameo appearance years later on the wildly popular ‘Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,’ which specialized then in creating iconic comedy phrases such as ‘Here come da judge’ and ‘Sock it to me.’

Nixon’s unexpected self-mocking performance (see video below) was widely-credited with softening his image and helping him narrowly defeat Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 election.

Among the 81 Keyes documents available for bidding at RR Auction is a 1967 memo prepared to advise Nixon on how better to communicate to the public.

On the memo (click on photo to enlarge) can be seen Nixon’s underlinings and handwritten notes to himself about appearing insincere, brittle, lawyerly and often speaking more warmly to live audiences than to a camera.

Other Keyes documents can be viewed here and here.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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** The first U.S. president who was a Quaker was No. 31, Herbert Hoover, 1929-33.