Reading the various accolades directed lately at Pat Buchanan, including a New York Times column declaring the author of A Republic, Not an Empire nothing less than “the most influential public intellectual in America,” who will deny him a claim of vindication? Long ago, elite opinion had written him off as irrelevant, never mind that here was the only Washington pundit ever to set his name on a ballot and earn a single vote in national politics. In his best run he earned 3 million, and we now know he was on to something with far greater possibilities than one big night in New Hampshire. Sam Tanenhaus, the biographer of National Review’s founder, writing recently in Esquire, gives the man his due: “Buchanan begat Trumpism as his former ally William F. Buckley Jr. begat Reaganism.”
For his own part, since declaring in a November column that the old Republican order is “a dynasty . . . as dead as the Romanovs,” Buchanan has left it for others to collect laurels. Perhaps a scribe who has been around long enough to recall working for Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew when they were riding high knows better than to revel too much in the victories of the moment. Every majority — even “the great Silent Majority,” a phrase we owe to Buchanan — can be undone. Stunning reversals have been known to follow stunning political triumphs. An illustration for the ages unfolded in the early 1970s, when the mandate of a 49-state reelection triumph vanished into nothing. Buchanan was right in the middle of all that, too, and shares the story in his new, late-arriving memoir, Nixon’s White House Wars: The Battles That Made and Broke a President and Divided America Forever — the fifth White House remembrance by a Nixon speechwriter, and a rival to the first one, William Safire’s classic Before the Fall (1975), as the best.
Nixon’s White House Wars picks up where Buchanan left off three years ago in The Greatest Comeback, his engrossing account of signing up with Nixon in early 1966, when Ike’s VP looked like yesterday’s man, and serving on his staff in Manhattan until the day he became president-elect. Older readers will enjoy the retreat back into an era of simpler dividing lines in Republican affairs: Though a “two-time loser” after the 1962 California governor’s race, Nixon in 1964 “had been a portrait in loyalty when others abandoned Goldwater.” Having campaigned for the nominee in “that Pickett’s Charge of the American Right,” while rivals Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney kept their distance, he had earned support from conservatives, including Barry Goldwater himself, that would make a crucial difference in 1968. Plus, as only Buchanan would put it, those establishment guys didn’t have the stuff to survive “the Iroquois gauntlet that is a presidential campaign.”
Though not yet 30 during the ’68 campaign, the speechwriter had a friendship with Nixon that permitted frank advice, appealing usually to the candidate’s less calculating side. They had first met one day in the mid 1950s, when the future foe of Country Club Republicanism caddied for the vice president at a course near Washington, a story hilariously told in Buchanan’s 1988 autobiography, Right from the Beginning. A decade later, finding Pat as an editorial writer at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Nixon was no doubt taken by the combination of sharp, well-stocked mind and unprivileged background, and clearly liked his company. (“Buchanan,” he would later say, “you’re the only extremist I know with a sense of humor.”) With memos all through the general-election campaign, and rhetoric for both Nixon and Governor Agnew bearing his distinctive mark, Buchanan made sure the ticket kept its populist edge. Examining a race won by a margin of 0.7 percent of the popular vote against Hubert Humphrey, and with a few southern states that George Wallace nearly got or else might easily have handed to Humphrey, you could make the case that, without young Buchanan’s influence, Nixon would have gone down again.
And yet, he tells us, “the ten weeks from election to inauguration were the most dispiriting of my years with Nixon.” Given what the final weeks were like, that’s saying something, but veterans of victorious presidential campaigns will appreciate the particular torments of transition intrigue and of awaiting word, as Buchanan did, on one’s fate in a new administration. He was asked at one point to “hold off” on joining the White House staff and instead write a book about the campaign, probably someone’s attempt to get rid of him.
It was also the familiar story of an incoming Republican administration too anxious about offending liberal sensitivities: The assistant for domestic policy was Pat Moynihan, the Democrat who would go on to unseat Senator Jim Buckley, and on January 20, 1969, “there was not an ideological conservative among Nixon’s West Wing assistants or cabinet officers.” Buchanan received the lesser title of special assistant and an office in the speechwriting shop at the far end of the Old Executive Office Building, manning what NR publisher William Rusher called “the conservative desk” at the Nixon White House. “By the time the Nixon administration had set sail, the Right had been routed in the struggle for position and power and relegated to the galleys.” (Among the lasting consequences of that loss, Buchanan reminds us: Of the seven Court votes that gave America Roe v. Wade, “three — Blackmun, Burger, and Lewis Powell — were Nixon justices.”)
What saved him then, not for the last time, was sheer talent and force of mind. “Crucially, I had been given by the good Lord a gift, developed in three years of editorial writing and three years of working intimately with Nixon. I could write swiftly, tersely, wittily, and well memos that Nixon loved to read, on matters he cared about most: politics, policy, and personalities.” At the president’s direction, and despite a senior-staff mania for control and access, these memos would go unfiltered to the Oval Office, often returning with enthusiastic notes from “RN” jotted in the margins. They became “our primary means of conversation,” and by August 1974 there were a thousand memos, none of which we could mistake for the work of anyone other than Buchanan.
Nixon’s White House Wars picks up where Buchanan left off three years ago in The Greatest Comeback, his engrossing account of signing up with Nixon in early 1966.
Composed in a time of war, riots, and such general uneasiness that at one point soldiers from the 82nd Airborne were brought in to defend the White House complex if need be, the memos return again and again to one theme: “Build the majority we failed to win.” Nixon and Wallace together had received 57 percent of the vote, “a rejection of LBJ and Great Society liberalism,” and soon Democrats would nominate George McGovern, “the pet of the national liberal establishment.” Therefore, Buchanan counseled Nixon in 1970, “it should be our focus to constantly speak to, to assure, to win, to aid, to promote the President’s natural constituency . . . the working men and women of this country, the common man. . . . When in trouble, that is where we should turn, not try to find common ground with our adversaries.” As for outreach to minority constituencies and other likely Democratic voters in the reelection effort, he advised in 1972, it was a nice thought, but “the name of the game is the white working class.”
In the news one day in 1970 was a rough encounter by college-age anti-war demonstrations, who had desecrated the flag, with some New York City construction workers. “The most insane suggestion I have heard about here,” advised Buchanan, “ . . . was to the effect that we should somehow go prosecute the hard hats to win favor with the kiddies.” Why not send in Vice President Agnew with a straight-on defense of policies trying to end the war Nixon’s predecessors had left him? Such a message “would have hit every blue-collar worker in the country and these are our people now — if we want them — and frankly they are better patriots and more pro-Nixon than the little knot of Riponers we have sought to cultivate since we came into office.”
In all of the memos, quoted extensively throughout the book, what comes across is an extremely industrious presidential aide entirely free of any angles or personal agendas of his own; no posturing for the record, only heartfelt, invariably sound, and occasionally brilliant political advice. My personal favorite is a memo complaining to Nixon about a list of prospective candidates for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, drawn up mostly by counselor Leonard Garment, a New York liberal partial to jazz music. The medal is intended for distinguished Americans in recognition of contributions to national life and culture, and, surveying Garment’s recommendations, Buchanan detected too many “jazz musicians, artists, writers, dancers, academics, labor leaders, and progressive businessmen.” Why not instead, he urged the president, “pass over the Margot Fonteyn’s and Rudolf Nureyev’s . . . and lay one on Roy Acuff, founding father of country and western music, a Nixon supporter with a special niche in the hall of heroes at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee.”
Then there is “Agnew’s Hour,” a chapter recalling those glorious few weeks in the fall of 1969 when Ted Agnew was the biggest draw in American politics, turning what Buchanan calls “the siege gun” on the arrogance and elitism of the print media and network news, in a plan Buchanan had conceived. After a New Orleans address in which Agnew described the liberal press as an “effete corps of impudent snobs,” Buchanan, author of that phrase, reported to the president that it “had roughly the effect of dynamiting an outhouse next to a Sunday school picnic.” More was in order, Nixon agreed. What followed were two speeches in Iowa and Alabama, drafted by Buchanan (with light edits from Agnew and refinements from the president, silently touching up drafts “like a rim man on a copy desk”) and unequaled to this day, by any national office holder, in their mix of wit, perfect tone, unanswerable argument, and commanding delivery. “For me,” he writes, “these were the best of times,” and those speeches “among the best I wrote,” with lasting impact — though a still more impressive achievement was to keep Garment, Moynihan, and others from ruining the Des Moines and Montgomery drafts or killing them altogether.
It was a time when the second highest officer in the land — in subsequent remarks, after two Senate Democrats had lamented that “the best of our young people” were fleeing the draft to Canada — could actually say:
Let Senator Fulbright and Senator Harris go prospecting for their future party leaders in the deserters’ dens of Canada and Sweden; we Republicans shall look elsewhere. Indeed, as for those deserters, malcontents, radicals, . . . SDS, PLP, Weatherman I and Weatherman II, . . . yippies, hippies, Yahoos, Black Panthers, lions and tigers alike — I would swap the whole damn zoo for a single platoon of the kind of Americans I saw in Vietnam.
Agnew was “a man with guts and humor,” an opinion shared by all who knew him well. Facing his doom in the fall of 1973, he would learn the truth of a Nixon saying: “Count your friends when you’re down.” That story and the Watergate stretches of the book, including the few months of Buchanan’s service under President Gerald Ford, are still depressing and galling to read all these years later. How much happier the outcome had Nixon disregarded Garment (who later regretted his own counsel) and instead followed advice from both Buchanan and John Connally to burn every tape not yet subpoenaed, brave the firestorm, and be done with it. That sounds rash, until we recall a tragedy that hardly even comes up in Watergate histories, the catastrophe abroad that Nixon and Henry Kissinger, as the mob closed in, sought to prevent for as long as they could. “Nixon’s enemies,” Buchanan writes, “who would vote to strip him of the authority and power to come to the aid of Saigon, and Hanoi and its allies, would see to it that the peace he and [President] Johnson had so long sought would last but two years.” A few million people in South Vietnam and Cambodia were left to a horrific fate, the truly monumental scandal of that era. Yet we’re still supposed to tremble at the mention of the “Saturday Night Massacre” and toast the names of martyrs who dined out on their Watergate fame for decades afterward.
In Washington, as Buchanan’s speechwriting colleague Ray Price observed, the Nixon enemies lists “were called the new Social Register.” Buchanan wrote to Nixon at the time, in a reference to the Washington Post publisher and the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers: “One of the great tragedies of Watergate is that it has enabled the likes of [Katharine] Graham and Daniel Ellsberg to pose as victimized moral heroes of the age. This indeed is a painful purgatory for our sins.” When special prosecutor Archibald Cox was relieved of his duties and the preening attorney general, Elliot Richardson, resigned, Buchanan recalls, “NBC’s John Chancellor said ‘It may be the most serious constitutional crisis in [U.S.] history,’ passing over the secession of eleven states and the Civil War.” Cox, Richardson, Ellsberg, Graham, Ben Bradlee, Bernstein and Woodward, Mark Felt, Sam Dash, Lowell Weicker — the whole cast of insufferable and self-satisfied people comes back to mind. The book’s epigraph, a line from The Great Gatsby, offers fitting judgment on Nixon and on them: “‘They’re a rotten crowd,’ I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth more than the whole damn bunch put together.’”
It was the author of Nixon’s White House Wars who, for one day at least, put the sorry lot of them to rout in a storied appearance before the Senate Watergate committee, inspiring Bill Buckley to praise his “singular poise” and “enormous forensic ingenuity.” We have seen those and other fine qualities many times since, in a venturous career that includes service to President Reagan as well, in a half century of speeches, columns, and books by a master wordsmith, and in cheerful and great-hearted devotion to his country’s cause. Memo to President Donald Trump and his team: Remember, when it comes time to bestow those Medals of Freedom, to lay one on Patrick J. Buchanan, with distinction. No one except Trump himself did more to give us the Trump years. And if the aim is to fill those years with achievement and steer clear of trouble, there’s not a man in America with more wisdom to offer.
Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in the June 12, 2017 issue of National Review. It is reprinted in emended form here.
— Matthew Scully is a former literary editor of National Review. He served as a special assistant and senior speechwriter to President George W. Bush.