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Trump's Ellipse rally appearance is straight out of Richard Nixon's playbook

The "Honor America Day" rally was the 1970 version of owning the libs.
Image: Two helicopters fly over the crowd of Trump supporters on the National Mall in Washington DC
Supporters of President Donald Trump at the Jericho March and Prayer Rally on the National Mall on December 12, 2020 in Washington DC as the President flew over the crowd in his helicopterMark Peterson / Redux

As part of their refusal to accept the election results, President Donald Trump's supporters are gathering in Washington on Wednesday. A highlight of the chaotic event will be the "Stop the Steal" rally staged at the Ellipse, the 52-acre park just south of the White House, where Trump has said he'll speak to the masses. But this won't be the first time that the backers of an embattled chief executive rallied there. A half-century ago, the Ellipse quite literally became contested terrain in a furious fight over the Vietnam War.

In the spring of 1970, antiwar protests escalated after the stunning revelation that President Richard Nixon had widened the war to include incursions into Cambodia. Strikes spread across 350 campuses that May, with an estimated quarter of all college students in America taking part. Some protests turned ugly, with 30 ROTC buildings burned or bombed. National Guard units were deployed to restore order in 16 states, but their intervention — which famously led to the deaths of a half-dozen students at Kent State and Jackson State universities — only made things worse.

Ultimately, over 75 colleges and universities decided to shut down for the rest of the academic year. Rather than curb the protests, the closures only helped channel demonstrators to Washington, where they sought congressional support for the antiwar cause. (In some cases, the migration of colleges to the capital was almost complete; virtually every person from Haverford College in Pennsylvania went to Washington — 575 of 640 students, 40 of 70 faculty members and 10 of 12 administrators.)

On May 9, 1970, nearly 100,000 antiwar protestors gathered on the Ellipse for a massive rally.

The White House tried to seal the president off from the protest, creating a "moatlike ring of 59 city buses, parked bumper to bumper along Executive Avenue." But in the early morning before the rally, the president snuck out of the executive residence, with his personal valet and some "petrified" Secret Service agents in tow, to engage the activists face to face at the Lincoln Memorial. The results were surreal. The president told the students it was "all right" that they had come "to demonstrate and shout your slogans on the Ellipse," as long as they kept it peaceful. He awkwardly tried to make small talk but soon beat a retreat. As the presidential limo pulled away, a student ran alongside, flashing a middle finger. "Right in the same window, right in the bearded young face, Nixon put up his own fist and extended his middle finger, too," reporter Tom Wicker remembered. "They understood each other."

The rally itself was meant as a giant middle finger to Nixon. By midmorning, the Ellipse's lawns were filled by what a news report characterized as a massive crowd of "bare-chested boys and bra-less girls" who had come to challenge the chief executive. Speakers like Jane Fonda and Coretta Scott King denounced his expansion of the war; the crowd chanted antiwar slogans and obscenities about the president.

The rally itself was meant as a giant middle finger to Nixon.

As afternoon temperatures reached the 90s, though, the rally began to disperse. Seven hundred people took part in a procession that took coffins labeled "America" and "Viet Dead" to the gates of Arlington National Cemetery, while smaller groups scattered around the city to fight with police or a small contingent of swastika-wearing Nazis. Most, however, simply dispersed.

The Ellipse event lingered in Nixon's mind, with his aides frantically searching for a way to counteract the rally. A few weeks later, the evangelist Billy Graham and the comedian Bob Hope revealed the administration's answer — "Honor America Day," an amazing spectacle arrayed across the capital's major monuments on the Fourth of July.

The day began with a morning religious service led by Graham at the Lincoln Memorial and ended with an entertainment extravaganza emceed by Hope at the Washington Monument. But the centerpiece was a midday movement of the so-called Silent Majority to reclaim the Ellipse.

Graham's morning religious service ended with an explosion of fireworks. Organizers arranged for 56 separate "aerial salutes" to all the states and territories, followed by a massive explosion that sent tiny American flags attached to parachutes floating gently down to the crowd. Service members and Boy Scouts led the way down Constitution Avenue, marching with the American flag and the flags of states and territories.

Organizers arranged for 56 separate "aerial salutes" to all the states and territories, followed by a massive explosion that sent tiny American flags attached to parachutes floating gently down to the crowd.

Hippies stood on the sidelines chanting "One, two, three, four! We don't want your f---ing war!" but the color guard focused on reaching the Ellipse. "There," Newsday noted, "on the very spot where students staged their bitter protest" two months before, Honor America Day participants raised a giant American flag. They then set their small flags "into the letters U.S.A. which have been carved 42 by 24 feet into the green sod." Relay racers who had set out from Independence Hall, Colonial Williamsburg and Valley Forge the day before soon arrived, planting their flags on the Ellipse, as well.

As military bands performed from a stage throughout the afternoon, more and more members of the Silent Majority filed past, adding their individual flags to a growing "sea of red, white and blue," Their reclamation of the Ellipse from the radicals was complete.

The competing protests on the Ellipse in the Nixon era have, of course, continued into our own time. In October, for instance, the park was the site of prominent demonstrations from both sides of the political spectrum. On the first weekend of the month, 20,000 empty chairs were placed on the lawn to commemorate the 200,000 people in the U.S. who had, at that point, died from the coronavirus; the next weekend, pro-Trump crowds gathered on the same spot before heading to the South Lawn to hear the president.

This time, the president will go to the Ellipse himself. But the controversy over this president — and his predecessors, too — has come to the Ellipse many times over. The "Stop the Steal" rally is merely the latest effort to claim this symbolic space. It won't be the last.