Last week’s obituary pages featured the passing of Frank Shakespeare. He died last Wednesday at the age of 97.
“Frank Shakespeare, TV Executive Behind a New Nixon, Dies at 97,” read the headline in The New York Times.
The Washington Post took a similar approach, calling Shakespeare “Nixon’s TV guru who redefined political ads.”
To be sure, Shakespeare played a major part in helping the nation’s 37th president recast, soften, and personalize his image. As a candidate, Richard Nixon could be stiff. In fact, he was once filmed out on the campaign trail knocking on his mother’s door and shaking her hand. During the 1960 presidential campaign, which he lost to John F. Kennedy, many pundits point to the televised debate as the turning point. While Senator Kennedy appeared warm and approachable, then Vice President Nixon came across as cold and calculating.
By 1968, Nixon was running again – but this time with the help of the television executives Frank Shakespeare and Roger Ailes – who would go on to launch Fox News. Shakespeare and Ailes helped Nixon producing compelling commercials, as well as put him in friendly townhall settings. They adjusted lighting and backdrops. Unlike in previous campaigns, stagecraft was not an afterthought.
It worked. Mr. Nixon won.
But that wasn’t the last act nor the essence of Shakespeare’s professional mission. A man of devout Christian faith who believed deeply in the power of freedom, he accepted the role of director of the United States Information Agency after Mr. Nixon was elected. In a now long forgotten opinion piece in The New York Times, the television executive foresaw the potential and promise of a new media. He may not have invented the internet or social media – but he saw it coming. He wrote:
The communication expansion has already made it very difficult for any government to prevent its citizens from knowing the facts that go into the making of foreign policy and consequently from being involved in its formulation. Powerful transmitters and satellites now carry messages directly into the ears of people overseas via inexpensive and universally available radio receivers. And the time is not too distant when it may be possible to transmit visual messages into the living rooms of peoples everywhere.
I believe that one result of these continuing developments will be the gradual overshadowing of government propaganda by our commercial media. When people everywhere can see, read, and hear everything that happens—at the time it happens—there will be little incentive to absorb officially distributed material, except in closed societies.
In other words, he saw the stranglehold of traditional media loosening. He concluded his prescient essay by noting:
We are still far away from that ideal. But I am hopeful that with the massive development of communications we shall be able to live in a world where free access to the minds of people everywhere will enable us to achieve our goals through competition in thoughts and ideas rather than in armaments and power pressures.
As it was, Mr. Shakespeare would be appointed ambassador to the Vatican during President Reagan’s second term. Insiders credit him with helping shape and strengthen President Reagan’s close working and personal relationship with Pope John Paul II. It would be that iron bond that would further weaken the Soviet empire and eventually lead to the collapse of communism.
Frank Shakespeare would go on to become chairman of the Heritage Foundation. Upon learning of Frank’s death last week, Ed Feulner, the storied organizer’s founder, said:
“Frank Shakespeare served as an inspiration to people all over the world for his pursuit of freedom, and we are all better off today because of his leadership. While serving in government, he was guided by principles that aligned with the vision of President Ronald Reagan, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II to restore freedom to those living under the repressive Soviet Union. He had a front-row seat to the USSR’s downfall and played an important role to bring about the end of the Cold War.”
Requiescat in pace.