The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority, Patrick J. Buchanan.
The Crown Forum, 2014
Nixon obsessives have been waiting a long time for this book. Pat Buchanan’s insider account of Richard Nixon’s rise from zero to hero, out of the so-called Wilderness Years of 1962 to 1968, is told from a unique vantage point. On the one hand, Buchanan was part of Nixon’s inner-circle — more family than campaign staff. On the other hand, he was never found guilty of wrongdoing in Watergate — which gives him the untainted, uncensored perspective of a man with nothing to hide. (It was once joked that he was the only former Nixon staffer who didn’t need permission from his parole officer to appear on television.) So Buchanan on Nixon’s road to the White House promises a real historical scoop.
His title, The Greatest Comeback, is not hyperbolic. In the mid- 1960s, former vice president Richard M. Nixon looked like a dead duck. Beaten by a handful of votes in the 1960 presidential election, he tried to regain a political foothold by entering California’s 1962 gubernatorial contest. Not only did Nixon lose, but he managed to pluck defeat from the jaws of defeat by telling the press that they wouldn’t have him to kick around any more — an act of petulance that led many to write him off for good. Yet just six years later, he had wormed his way back into the White House. Pat tells us how.
Buchanan met Nixon in December 1965, when Buchanan was still a lowly editorial writer, and Pat straight away asked if he could be on his team should he consider another run for the presidency. Nixon said: “You’re not as conservative as Bill Buckley, are you?” — a question that betrayed Tricky Dick’s lack of ideology. The fact that Buchanan probably was even more conservative than William F. Buckley, controversial editor of the National Review, was mitigated by his Catholicism: Buchanan describes Nixon’s team-building as if it was an early example of positive discrimination, containing a mix of liberals, conservatives, Catholics, Jews and Protestants. Nixon always wanted to be surrounded by the brightest and the best, in a fine ethnic and political balance that meant he was never exposed to just one point of view.
Buchanan was certainly bright. His ability to write intelligent yet punchy prose for his new boss proved indispensable to Nixon as he tried to reach out to both the Republican right and Democrats troubled by their country’s descent into social anarchy. Pat was one of those “Ciceros of the cab drivers.” How can one resist a writer who crowbars this story into the narrative of the 1966 congressional elections?
Under the pressure, one advance man broke down, walked off, and simply disappeared. I was told he was found shacked up in a Las Vegas hotel with a lady he did not know and whose company he could not afford.
Nixon and Buchanan grew to like each other. Pat’s affection for Nixon becomes obvious in his description of those aspects of his boss’s personality that are not popularly known. He did not have time for novels. He didn’t drink a great deal but when he did he succumbed easily to the boisterous drunkenness of an over-tired man. He admired Charles de Gaulle and found the accent of the upper-class British Tories impenetrable. He wept like a child when his mother died. He revelled in saucy gossip about other politicians. He commanded and expected respect, but would tolerate dissent if it were honest. On that last point, one anecdote stands out as particularly vivid. When Buchanan heard that Nixon was going to support liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller in his re-election for governor of New York, Pat stormed into Nixon’s bathroom as he was stepping into the shower and said, “You’re not going to endorse that sonofabitch are you?” Nixon, presumably somewhat nude, had every right to sack Buchanan on the spot. Instead, he just laughed and said “Don’t worry, we’ll get something for it.”
Nixon’s politics were hard to clearly discern. He railed against “liberal crap” but also told Buchanan that he was tired of dealing with conservative “nuts.” Pat writes: “The Nixon I knew had many conservative views and values, but was no ideologue.” Having grown up in modest poverty, he “did not see government as the enemy” — and Buchanan goes to great lengths to stress his support for civil rights.
Nixon was essentially a good public servant of moderate views whose political identity was shaped by expediency. When he had decided to run for the 1968 Republican nomination, he described the task ahead of him thus: “The trouble with far right conservatives ... is that they really don’t give a damn about people and the voters see that. Yet any Republican candidate can’t stray too far from the right-wingers because they can dominate a primary and are even important in a close general election.” This piece of insight was incredibly fresh in 1968 and is still relevant to Republican politics today: the Republican right might alienate centrist voters but it’s become impossible to win without them.
So how did Nixon go from dead duck in 1962 to a phoenix arisen from the ashes in 1968? Buchanan’s answers challenge a couple of myths. First, Nixon’s nomination in 1968 was more likely than it seemed — even if it did take a lot of hard work. The 1962 California defeat embarrassed him but didn’t change the fact that Nixon was a respected global statesman whose status was only rivalled by the president himself. The excitement and energy within the Republican Party might have been more obvious on the right and the press may have fawned over the Republican left, but Nixon dominated the mainstream of his party. There is good reason why from 1953 to 1974 there were only eight years in which this man did not sit in the White House, for the arch anti-communist dominated early Cold War American politics. And his foreign policy credentials left him perfectly situated to offer leadership on the most important issue of 1968: Vietnam.
Second, Nixon played the electorate with greater nuance than is often appreciated. Rick Perlstein’s 2008 book Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America popularised the idea that he was a shameless race-baiter, but Buchanan argues that Nixon actually responded to the racial politics of the era in a responsible and balanced way. He stood for law and order, yes, but he was also proud of his civil rights record and he attacked the Johnson White House for failing to denounce statewide Democrats running on racist platforms. In the 1968 presidential election, it was Alabama Democrat George C Wallace, rebranded as an independent, who monopolised the racist vote. As Matt Lassiter argued in The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South Nixon’s constituency was not the rednecks, but rather white middle class suburbanites who disliked the growth of the federal government and feared black militancy but who regarded racism as fundamentally un-American.
That said, sometimes Buchanan’s loyalty to Nixon clouds his judgment. He insists, for instance, that there was no Southern strategy: that Nixon never sought to appeal to that region’s particular brand of racial conservatism. Yet Buchanan recalls with pride Nixon’s sympathy with advice to “go hunting where the ducks are” in Dixie and quotes Nixon heralding the “coming of age of the GOP in the South.” Implicit in that “coming of age” was a subtle shift in the Republican Party’s stance away from a commitment to black civil rights supported by the federal government and towards resisting federal intrusion into state affairs, thus tolerating aspects of white prejudice. Yes, President Nixon did quietly back the desegregation of all-white schools. But the idea that he never hunted among the ducks loitering in the swamp of racial sentiment is unconvincing.
Ultimately, a number of the qualities that Buchanan identifies in Nixon would prove to be his downfall. The doublespeak, duplicity, philosophical fair-weatherism, arrogance, paranoia, and determination to win at almost any cost would all contribute to the “cancer on the presidency” that was Watergate. Buchanan closes his book arguing that if Nixon had stepped down after one term, in 1973, then he’d be remembered as “one of the great or near-great presidents.” But Nixon was not a quitter. He imagined himself to be an American de Gaulle — a leader who, by embodying the will of the nation, reached beyond partisan politics. But the difference between de Gaulle and Tricky Dick was that de Gaulle was loved. Nixon was admired but hardly anyone felt sentimental towards him, which is partly why he found himself with so few friends at the end.
One of the few was Buchanan, and that’s why his book is important. Nixon has been so maligned and libelled in popular culture that it takes the writing of an admirer to redress the balance. From the pages of this witty, thoroughly researched and undeniably subjective book emerges a Nixon who triumphed through smarts and perseverance. A very American hero, indeed.