The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority, by Patrick J. Buchanan (Crown Forum, 400 pp., $28)
In December 1965, a 27-year-old journalist with slick black hair and pudgy cheeks, a Columbia Journalism School grad who had spent three years churning out conservative editorials for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and was now bored, looking for the Next Big Thing, saw it heading his way and pounced. Richard Nixon was coming to Belleville, Ill., to address local Republicans. Muscling his way through the private reception that followed, the young man reminded Nixon he had caddied for him at Burning Tree, ten years earlier, then announced: “If you’re going to run in ’68, I’d like to come aboard early.”
Nixon’s characteristically canny instinct to hire Patrick J. Buchanan — as an issues analyst, speechwriter, traveling companion, sounding board, and sotto voce emissary to the right wing — gave rise to a close working relationship that was to last nearly a decade, until a Marine helicopter ascended from the White House lawn on August 9, 1974.
At the time Buchanan approached him, Nixon must have been touched to find any hand outstretched. The mid 1960s were RN’s “wilderness years,” when the former vice president was still smarting from his razor-thin defeat at the hands of John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election and his more thorough thrashing in the California gubernatorial election of 1962. The latter had produced RN’s wounded cry of self-immolation: “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore. . . . This is my last press conference.”
By 1965, the onetime wunderkind of American politics was himself bored, half-heartedly practicing law in New York, shunned by the Empire State’s liberal GOP establishment yet wondering whether the landslide defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964 had created the opening for a return to presidential politics. The extraordinary success story that ensued is told with Pat Buchanan’s trademarks — astute political analysis, mischievous wit, and unerring instinct for the jugular — in this lively new memoir.
To re-create the major events, media coverage, and intra-party jockeying of five decades ago — the era of Reagan, Rockefeller, and Romney (George) — Buchanan draws on six filing cabinets he filled during his first three years at RN’s side. Untouched since then, the Buchanan papers are enriched by 1,000 memos to and from the boss, many annotated in the same prim scrawl that was later to appear in the margins of the Presidential News Summary that Buchanan would prepare in the Nixon White House. Unless Richard V. Allen or Alan Greenspan — two staff analysts who joined RN later, supervising foreign and domestic policy, respectively — is holding out on us, Buchanan’s trove probably represents the largest collection of papers from Nixon’s wilderness years and the ’68 campaign still in private hands.
The story of Nixon’s comeback has been told many times in the sprawling, though still nascent, literature surrounding our 37th president. Buchanan’s unique access to RN in this period and their rich correspondence deliver a wealth of intimate detail available nowhere else, making The Greatest Comeback indispensable reading for all students of Nixon, the presidency, the Cold War, and the upheavals of the 1960s.
The portrait that emerges is of a Nixon little remembered today, alas: a man insistent on recruiting the best talent and hearing a diversity of views, forever sending gracious notes to rivals vanquished or embarrassed, comforting subordinates under strain, making sure the right people got credit, hailing taxis for Little People, escorting blacks and Jews into segregated clubs, weeping uncontrollably when Dwight Eisenhower, a tormentor crueler than any in the Eastern Establishment or Washington press corps, passed away. In a national-security adviser, Nixon told Buchanan, “I don’t want someone I have to teach. I want someone who can teach me.”
While readers are treated to a healthy dose of score-settling — William Safire and Nelson Rockefeller, two liberal Republicans, fare poorly here, the latter lacerated as the decade’s most shameless opportunist — Buchanan also uses deep-level polling numbers and other data to examine, as a political scientist would, the shifting dynamics of the ’68 contest. Through RN’s notes and asides, we get his take on the year’s epochal upheavals: the Tet Offensive, the insurgency of Eugene McCarthy, the abdication of Lyndon Johnson, the craven eleventh-hour candidacies of Rockefeller and Robert F. Kennedy, and the killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and RFK.
Where the book is of greatest value is in its combative reassertion of RN’s importance to the ascendancy of postwar conservatism. During Nixon’s first term — the zenith of Radical Chic — the Left, inflamed by the administration’s muscular approach to law-and-order and Vietnam, vilified him as a right-wing fascist and war criminal. Despite the hostility of the mass media, Nixon rallied America’s “silent majority,” administered euthanasia to FDR’s New Deal coalition and remade it in his preferred image, and won reelection in one of the great landslides of American history: 60.7 percent of the vote, 49 states.
A bold reordering of the world beyond America’s borders — China, SALT, the ending of American combat operations in Vietnam, the Cold War realignment of the Mideast — mirrored Nixon’s success in the remaking of domestic politics. As Buchanan notes, Nixon’s first term alone would have ranked him among the greatest presidents. Scandal undid him in his second term; but without him, the GOP triumphs of 1980, ’84, and ’88 could not have happened.
In later decades, however, after the disgrace of Watergate and the Soviet Union’s collapse, conservatives silently resolved never to speak of Nixon or 1972 again, preferring instead a mythology of Ronald Reagan as a wholly organic phenomenon, sua sponte in his success, beholden to no one and nothing but apple-pie charisma and James Baker’s campaign savvy (with passing nods, here and there, to Bill Buckley and Barry Goldwater).
Now, as argued by a conservative of Buchanan’s credentials — he was also Reagan’s White House communications director — the centrality of Nixon in the rise of the Right, his occasional deviations from orthodoxy notwithstanding, is finally inarguable. In meticulous detail, Buchanan recreates the intra-party tussles of ’68, the only time the GOP was forced to choose between Nixon and Reagan — and went with the seasoned politician so widely disparaged at the time as a “loser.” “Nixon was no ideologue, no true believer,” Buchanan writes. “Ideologically, he was himself an eclectic.”
He had instincts one could call conservative, but reflexive reactions that were liberal. . . . Nixon could be a social and cultural conservative in that revolutionary decade, and a foreign-policy hawk. But he risked defeat if he were perceived as a threat to Social Security or Medicare.
“No president after Coolidge,” Buchanan notes aptly, “had been an operational conservative. None rolled back the Great Society. None sought to repeal the New Deal. Not even Reagan, who made the effort but failed to carry out his commitment to shut down [Jimmy] Carter’s departments of education and energy.” This internal schism, between rhetoric and reality on Big Government, Buchanan identifies as “the great divide of the party from the days of Goldwater through the Nixon and Reagan eras, Bush I and Bush II, to the Tea Party.”
It would be the inexorable growth of the Leviathan state under Republican and Democratic presidents alike that would lead to the fiscal crisis that struck the U.S. in the 21st century. . . . By 1968 Americans, whatever they told themselves and others, had come to accept Big Government as a permanent feature of public life. Selling TVA [the Tennessee Valley Authority] and making Social Security voluntary were dead ideas before Nixon headed for New Hampshire.
“And one thing Nixon deeply resented,” Buchanan also correctly notes, “was [that] throughout his career, he was held to more exacting standards than his rivals and adversaries.” The double standards have continued after RN’s death.
The Greatest Comeback is an important account of the ’68 campaign, one that should improve Buchanan’s standing in the RN orbit, moving him beyond the minor role too often accorded him. Unfortunately, the text is often tediously repetitive (“Chicago was a disaster for Humphrey,” we are told five pages before hearing “Chicago had been a disaster for the Democrats,” and not far from where the same polling datum recurs three times in ten pages). It is also frequently self-serving, embodying Tony Snow’s observation that if the archetypal Washington memoir existed, its title would be “If Only They Had Listened to Me.”
One result of this bias is an emphasis on peripheral events where Buchanan’s personal archive is prolific, such as Nixon’s world travels in 1967, when Buchanan accompanied him. Of one critical episode — the back channel Nixon allegedly established to the South Vietnamese during the Paris peace talks, purportedly to prevent Hubert Humphrey from unleashing an “October surprise” — Buchanan has little to say; his brisk dismissal of the allegation, toward book’s end, displays some cogent argumentation but betrays the author’s exclusion from the relevant councils at the time and his ignorance of the voluminous evidentiary record of the affair.
Finally, an individual who was integral, even indispensable, to the story of RN’s ’68 comeback is largely absent from these pages, a spectral figure glimpsed only fleetingly in a few passing references: John N. Mitchell, Nixon’s friend, law partner, and campaign manager. The omission should be of concern to all readers, not just Mitchell’s biographer (whose book, a deeply researched contribution to the literature of the ’68 campaign, is likewise absent from Buchanan’s bibliography).
After all, Nixon’s own memoir stated flatly of Mitchell: “I counted him my most trusted friend and adviser.”
I believed that I owed my election as President in 1968 largely to his strength as a counselor and his skill as a manager. I had referred to him as one of the few indispensable men, and that was how I felt about him.
Can anyone imagine Ted Sorensen, in remembering JFK, reducing Bobby to a cameo? Yet of the complicated Nixon–Mitchell relationship, so central to RN’s rise and ruin, Buchanan tells us: nothing.
Why? Why, indeed, did Buchanan baffle his aging peers by refusing, three times over several years, to be interviewed for the Mitchell biography? The answer now appears clear, betraying some impulse toward Christian mercy for a figure still revered in Nixonland. For the few substantive references to Mitchell in The Greatest Comeback are all negative: He screwed up the speakers’ program at the convention; he ran too cautious a general-election campaign; he once yelled at Buchanan.
By eschewing thoughtful discussion of such an important figure, it seems Buchanan chose — hemorrhaging a bit of credibility — to observe the etiquette that if one has nothing nice to say, one should say (next to) nothing at all. For Pat Buchanan, that proudly serrated figure, it is nothing less than a Nixon-goes-to-China moment.
– Mr. Rosen is the chief Washington correspondent for Fox News and the author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate.