Winston Churchill once said of politics that it’s ‘almost as exciting as war and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics — many times.’ Perhaps no one personified this dictum better than Richard Milhous Nixon.
From his election to Congress in 1946 to his resignation from the presidency in 1974, Nixon had been written off time and again. After each setback, though, ‘Tricky Dicky’ was incredibly formidable on the rebound. Even after Watergate, the disgraced former president transformed himself into a bestselling author and something of an international elder statesman. But it was Nixon’s remarkable recovery from two devastating defeats in the early 1960s that represents, according to Patrick Buchanan, ‘the greatest comeback in political history’.
In 1960 Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president narrowly lost the presidential election to John F. Kennedy. In 1962 he ran for governor of California, and lost again. His post-election press conference remains part of the Nixon legend. ‘You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more,’ he told reporters, ‘because gentlemen, this is my last press conference.’ Time magazine, the keeper of liberal received wisdom, declared the end of Nixon’s political career. But the kiss of death amounted to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He recovered, reunited a shattered and fractured GOP and won the White House at a time of widespread social unrest at home and war abroad.
How did Nixon do it? Buchanan, a high-profile conservative polemicist who served as a Nixon aide from 1966 to 1974, points to his subject’s fighting spirit and devout party loyalty that was all too evident during his so-called wilderness years.
From 1963, when he moved to Wall Street to practise law, to 1968, when he ran for president again, private citizen Nixon remained in the public arena. He wrote articles for magazines and newspapers, including a prescient piece in Foreign Affairs on why Washington should end Red China’s angry isolation. He travelled around the world, including gruelling tours of four continents in 1967 where the former VP would meet leading political figures. (Imagine today’s inward-looking and aspiring presidential candidates doing that!)
Nixon, moreover, became a peripatetic campaigner for his party across the nation. He once told a reporter: ‘When I’m campaigning, I live like a Spartan.’ Buchanan, who was in his mid to late twenties at the time, recalls how the 55-year-old Nixon was an ‘athlete in training’ during the 1966 congressional campaign:
Some days he would do three or four appearances, a breakfast in one congressional district, a luncheon speech in the next, a press conference and dinner speech or rally in the third stop, then fly at night to the state where he was to appear the next morning.
All this with only a few sips of beer!
Using more than 1,000 of his own personal memos to Nixon, marked with his scribbled replies, Buchanan tells the story of how this never-say-die politician sought to reconcile the warring factions of the Republican party. He courted the right-wingers at William F. Buckley’s National Review even as he endorsed the liberal Nelson Rockefeller for governor of New York. At the same time, he fashioned a ‘southern strategy’ which helped the GOP recoup losses in the 1966 mid-term elections and pave the way to the White House.
Here Buchanan challenges the conventional view that Nixon made race a polarising issue to drive white southern Democrats towards the party of Lincoln. He reminds us that Nixon, like many Republicans, supported the civil rights acts of the 1960s. When Nixon campaigned for more than 100 candidates in 35 states in 1966, he slammed segregationist candidates.
All true, but the ‘southern strategy’ of soft-pedalling vocal support for the civil rights movement while ramping up the ‘law and order’ rhetoric also allowed the Republicans to smash FDR’s New Deal coalition and create a political realignment for generations.
Still, whatever one thinks of Buchanan’s ‘whitewashing’ of history, as his critics allege, it’s worth bearing in mind that as president from 1969 to 1974, Nixon was no bigot. He created affirmative action to help break the power of racist trade unions. He expanded the use of racial preferences to provide opportunities for minorities in federal contracting. And he did more to desegregate southern schools than any president in history.
For Buchanan, though, the real story here is what amounts to the Arnold J. Toynbee theory of ‘departure and return’: the idea that legendary leaders must endure time in the political wilderness before returning to power. Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and Robert Menzies epitomised that trait. So, too, did their friend Nixon, as Buchanan makes clear in this admiring and admirable account.