Donald Critchlow has written a book called “Republican Character” at a time when the phrase sounds almost loaded. A year into Donald Trump’s presidency, the topic of his perceived character defects and what voters ought to make of them has been endlessly canvassed. Happily, Critchlow, a professor at Arizona State University, is a political historian, not a pundit, and his slim volume is not an entry in that debate (though it is far from irrelevant to it). It is a compact and illuminating history of four Republicans who pursued the presidency in the latter half of the 20th century: Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan.
Structurally and thematically, the book is loosely modeled on Plutarch’s Lives, though the author dryly disclaims pretensions to anything like Plutarch’s literary achievement. Biographical sketches of Nixon and Rockefeller, and Goldwater and Reagan, are juxtaposed with chapters comparing and contrasting the two men in each pair in order to extract the lessons of their political careers. The result is neither a strictly chronological narrative of events nor a detailed and all-encompassing biography, but instead a series of overlapping character studies and insights gleaned from them.
Critchlow’s approach is straightforward, measured, and unapologetically didactic. His project is twofold: He wants to show, through the intertwined biographies of these four men, that character is critically important to political success (or failure), and relatedly that ideology is not as central to the exercise of political power as is often assumed nowadays. By character, which he pairs with temperament, he means not so much personal moral rectitude or exemplary conduct as prudence, judgment, and the ability to chart a course between principle and pragmatism. Ultimately, these qualities matter more in politics than ideological commitments do — at least, they have in the past and ought to in a functioning democracy. Critchlow thinks Americans are in danger of forgetting the role that ordinary horse-trading and compromise, alongside ideology, have traditionally played in national politics.
His account also serves as a corrective to much of the history that is written about modern American conservatism, which tends to tell a tale of Manichaean struggle, in which Goldwater conservatism eventually vanquished Rockefeller liberalism in the triumph of the Reagan revolution. As Critchlow points out, “the conservative ascendancy in the Republican party was neither direct nor linear,” and the standard narrative ignores the shifting alliances and ideological malleability of the principal players in the story.
It is something of a foregone conclusion that only one of these four men had the requisite character to govern successfully as president. But why did the others come up short? The answers have much to do with fortune and events outside their control, but Critchlow’s contribution is in revealing how each man’s character shaped the course of these events and, ultimately, his own fate.
Richard Nixon is something like the opposite of a byword for a man of good character, yet Critchlow’s treatment of him makes clear that he was, at least initially, hardly the thoroughly unprincipled opportunist that his opponents made him out to be. Nixon’s rise and fall is presented in a nuanced fashion as the gradual evolution of an optimistic young idealist into a disillusioned and cynical operator. He started out as a young man who had made good on the strength of his intelligence and effort, having gone from a modest Quaker boyhood in small-town California to a full scholarship at Duke Law School. After serving as a naval officer in World War II in the Pacific, he was recruited in 1946 to challenge the sitting congressman in his home district in California. He started out as a relative long shot, but he outworked his opponent, a New Deal Democrat, and prevailed in what turned out to be a Republican year. In Critchlow’s telling, Nixon entered Congress sincerely wanting to work for a better world. By the time he announced his bid for the presidency in 1960, however, he was “a changed man.”
A crucial turning point was his pursuit of the Alger Hiss case before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which catapulted him to national prominence and a Senate seat, but at the cost of wounding personal attacks from the Left and the liberal press that permanently scarred him. Another factor was the sense of personal and party betrayal he felt at the hands of Eisenhower. As Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952, Nixon faced accusations of having had an illegitimate secret slush fund while a senator, and he was dismayed when Ike and other Republicans did not come to his defense and instead suggested to him that he should step down from the ticket. (After Nixon delivered his famous “Checkers” speech justifying himself, Eisenhower was persuaded to keep him on.) He felt again ill requited for his service when Eisenhower in 1956 suggested that he ought to take himself off the ticket.
His defeat in the 1960 election, and then two years later in a run for California governor, convinced him that winning in politics had little to do with taking principled stands on issues (he thought that his coming out against the Birchers had cost him the latter election). By the time Watergate rolled around, it revealed a severely impaired and self-destructive character.
Rockefeller’s flaws, by contrast, remained relatively constant throughout his life: arrogance, self-righteousness, immense and insatiable appetites, and an unwillingness to accept defeat when doing so would have been to his benefit. Some of this was attributable to his being born to almost unimaginable power, privilege, and wealth. He felt that the presidency ought to be his by right. Conservatives of course reviled his big-government liberalism, but Critchlow suggests that his bigger problem with voters was that they perceived him as lacking principles and party loyalty. To top it off, he was an adulterer and a home-breaker at a time when the public’s disapproval of such things in a candidate was still fairly strong.
Rockefeller sought the presidency throughout the 1960s, only to be rebuffed three times. In 1960, he stubbornly refused Nixon’s offer of the vice presidency, an offer that, had he accepted it, could have made him more palatable to a wider swath of Republicans. Critchlow dates the death of Rockefeller’s chances of ever obtaining his party’s nomination to the 1964 Republican convention. There, after having attacked Barry Goldwater as a right-wing nut job throughout the primaries, Rockefeller openly antagonized the presumptive nominee’s supporters. “He brought to the convention,” writes Critchlow, “the righteousness of a Baptist, the self-assuredness of a successful governor, the arrogance of a man of wealth, and the foolishness of a Don Quixote.” His quest remained quixotic till the end.
Barry Goldwater’s failings were largely of a different sort, though he also had a quick temper and reacted with righteous anger to attacks. Time and again, he demonstrated a propensity to “shoot from the hip,” particularly in the 1964 general-election campaign, when his advisers were attempting to moderate his image and keep him on message. Critchlow notes that, for all Goldwater’s deserved reputation as a principled conservative, for him party usually trumped ideology: He endorsed Nixon in 1960, and then again supported Nixon in 1968 and Ford in 1976 against challenges from Ronald Reagan, because he thought they were more electable.
In its later stage, the Goldwater–Reagan relationship reflected the fissures beneath the surface of the Reagan coalition. Goldwater was not a social conservative — his wife had been a charter member of Planned Parenthood in Phoenix and he had never had much use for organized religion. The rise of the religious Right appalled him. His support in retirement for gay-rights legislation and his opposition to pro-life measures galled many conservatives and were taken as evidence that he had changed. Critchlow, though, sees these views as consistent with what Goldwater had always been, “an individualist from the West,” now unconstrained by party loyalty or the need to win elections.
Critchlow’s portrait of the often strained alliance between Goldwater and Reagan brings into stark relief the qualities that enabled Reagan to succeed. Temperamentally, the two present an easy contrast. Reagan was famously affable and sunny, the great communicator and negotiator, where Goldwater was sharply blunt, impulsive, and unyielding. Critchlow lauds Reagan as a principled pragmatist and catalogues the instances in which he showed ideological flexibility and the ability to compromise in response to political realities. As governor of California, he signed a liberal abortion law and a tax hike but was able to achieve welfare reform in his second term by working with Democrats. None of his accomplishments as president, of which conservatives are rightly proud, were ideologically pure, either.
Critchlow is aware that his central claim, that suitable character and temperament — to say nothing of virtue and honor — matter for successful governance, and that voters judge politicians on whether they appear to possess them, risks sounding quaint in today’s political environment. He acknowledges that declining trust in institutions, a growing feeling that politics is a futile and corrupt enterprise, and radically differing visions of the common good all contribute to the kind of polarization that leads voters to make judgments about character primarily through an ideological lens. Still, he maintains that many people voted for Donald Trump in the belief that he would exhibit principled and pragmatic leadership as president. Whether they misjudged him is a question for another history. In the meantime, there’s much to profit from in this one.