I’ve spent the day reading Pat Buchanan’s The Great Comeback—his history cum memoir of Richard Nixon’s capture of the 1968 Republican nomination, and then the presidency. Buchanan was a key part of this. Hired as a 27-year-old who had spent three years writing newspaper editorials for the St. Louis Globe Democrat, Buchanan joined Nixon’s staff in 1966. He traveled with the candidate, handled much of his correspondence, wrote or drafted articles in his name, and wrote Nixon countless strategy memos, which came back with Nixon’s handwritten comments. This trove of historical documents was kept by Buchanan in several filing cabinets in his home, and after literally decades of entreaties by his agent Fredrica Friedman, Buchanan produced this book. It’s probably my favorite of Buchanan’s books, rich in Republican Party and journalistic gossip, full of insight into Nixon, and at the same time deeply personal.
At 27, a time when many young people then or now are in school or trying to figure out what they might really want to do , Buchanan had already compiled a formidable resume as right-wing newspaper editorialist; then in a deftly executed maneuver of ambition and nerve, arranged to meet Nixon and suggest himself for a get-on-the-bus-early campaign role. (He had actually met the former vice president a decade earlier, as a caddy at Burning Tree—a fact which he conveyed to Nixon in that first professional meeting. )
Buchanan was valuable to Nixon in great part as a representative of the New Right, that part of the GOP which had nominated Goldwater two years earlier. He and Nixon saw eye to eye that the next Republican candidate would have to represent the right, but probably not be of it. There was then at least the potential of Ronald Reagan looming, and a subtext of the book is the worry that the charismatic Reagan would somehow get untracked, and a deadlocked convention would be stampeded into going for the movie star governor. Nixon, by contrast, had no political sex appeal: he was deeply intelligent, hard working, fascinated by the issues and personalities of politics. (He seemed bored by the practice of law, and in one unguarded moment told Buchanan that if he had to practice law for the rest of his life he would be “mentally dead in two years and physically dead in four.”)
But one major hurdle to overcome was the sense that Nixon, after the 1960 campaign and his failed 1962 California gubernatorial bid, was a loser who could never win a national election. Liberals hated him for his early campaigns in California, and the left (where they weren’t the same thing) hated him for being right about Alger Hiss. But the right also (correctly) sensed that Nixon was not one of them. Buchanan quotes one Nixon memo where the candidate noted that he disagreed with liberal aides (who were urging him to get to the left of LBJ on various issues.) But he also said (to one of his more liberal aides) that “the trouble with the far right conservatives is that they don’t give a damn about people and the voters sense that.” Buchanan comments that this, too, was “authentic” Nixon. He notes that,
Nixon had grown up in poverty, lost two of his four brothers, one to meningitis, the other to tuberculosis, and likely did not look on the New Deal as taking us ‘down the road to socialism’ but as an effort to help folks like his family.
Part of Buchanan’s job was to smooth out the rough spots between this complicated man and the National Review-reading, Goldwater-admiring, Young Americans for Freedom-belonging Republican right. He did this effectively enough, causing Bill Rusher once to ask him whether he was more the right’s emissary to the Nixon camp, or Nixon’s to the right. The answer: the latter, always.
Romney and Rockefeller were more glamorous Republicans, generally more favored by the East Coast media, and they regularly scored higher in midterm presidential polls. But Nixon outworked them, in a Stakhanovite schedule of campaigning for Republicans in the midterm elections, picking up IOU’s from congressmen and state committeemen all over the country. Eventually Romney and Rocky’s weaknesses displayed themselves. If you were ever of the age to once have wondered how it was that Nixon managed to become the Republican nominee in an era when there were few primary elections, Buchanan’s book is the best possible guide.
Buchanan also recalls an era of ideological flux within the parties, which seems worthy of a kind of nostalgia. One is reminded (in part by Buchanan’s persuasive argument that the Democrats were in most ways the more racist party of that era) that ideological politics in both parties were fluid. Bobby Kennedy worked with Joe McCarthy, whom John F. Kennedy refused to condemn. There were powerful voices in the Republican Party and on Nixon’s staff urging Nixon to outflank the Democrats from the left. He didn’t follow the advice, but it was a fairly serious option for a long time.
The book also evokes the Cold War—which was perceived by almost everyone important in politics as the fundamental moral question of the era. Every foreign event was perceived through its prism. Buchanan was on a foreign trip with Nixon in the Mideast during the ‘67 war, and arrived in Israel right in its aftermath. There they met (and were impressed by) American diplomats who thought Israel’s stunning victory had given it a generation of peace and an opportunity to establish a permanent peace, provided they didn’t try to keep the territory. This of course was a missed opportunity. Nixon met with de Gaulle, who treated him as a statesmen, and with the Greek colonels. “There’s a real fascist” Nixon told Buchanan, after that one.
There are several sub-themes in this book which could be analyzed—foreign policy, race relations, the curious fact that people under pressure seemed to be able to get as much work done in a day before the advent of personal computers as after them, which conforms to my memory as well. But most of all it is a wonderful window into the inner reaches of an historic campaign in a complicated era. Political junkies of all stripes will be delighted that Buchanan saved the memos and put them to use along with his fine memory for nuance and detail.