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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The New Nixonians

As the 2024 campaign and the national security scene heat up, the ongoing rehabilitation of the 37th president comes into play in the GOP civil war.

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Credit: Jack E. Kightlinger

To inaugurate proceedings at the Nixon National Security Summit on Thursday in Washington, Fox’s Jacqui Heinrich shared striking writing from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton. 

In a recently declassified letter, the 37th president counseled the 42nd: “I have reluctantly concluded that his situation has rapidly deteriorated since the elections in December, and that the days of his unquestioned leadership of Russia are numbered,” remarking on the then-President of Russia Boris Yeltsin. “[Yeltsin’s] drinking bouts are longer and his periods of depression are more frequent. Most troublesome, he can no longer deliver on his commitments to you and other Western leaders in an increasingly anti-American environment in the Duma and in the country.”

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Comments on the doomed Yeltsin era can almost seem inane, close to thirty years on, at least amid the largest land war in Europe and in the shadow of Putin, the most fearsome Russian ruler since Stalin. A fait accompli makes for poor copy. Of course, Yeltsin was a shambolic wreck fated to failure (never mind the talent that enabled his ascent), and obviously the vulgarian Russian bear would only ever respect and understand animal force (disregard perhaps the most talented diplomatic force on the globe, and arguably the world’s finest literature). 

But one man who understood the truth, that fate is fluid, was Richard Nixon. He spent his sunset years rebuilding a reputation in tatters, crafting himself as a member of the “our son-of-a-bitch” school of foreign policy with the understanding his truest jury would be people he never met. As the last president to enjoy a drink to something like a fault, and whose own darkness seemingly never permitted him to fully trust his fellow man (even as they kept electing him), Nixon’s warning to Clinton about Yeltsin’s personal descent and the limits of democracy’s appeal came during the greatest bear market in history for such a view, the alleged end of history. 

Nixon is gone, but much less alone now. 

Indeed, something about the man, our Shakespearean president, is fitting for this moment, as the country careens toward its most chaotic presidential election since 1860 and ponders “a world which now seems terrifyingly near to a spiral into a world war,” as TAC’s founding editor Scott McConnell put it last week. 

As the 2024 campaign and the national security scene heat up, the ongoing rehabilitation of the 37th president comes into play in the GOP civil war as well. Teasing his new film, the preeminent conservative activist Christopher Rufo said, “I tell a new story about a man, reviled in his time, who left behind a blueprint for counter-revolution—the last hope for restoring the American republic.” 

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At the very least, something’s in the water. 

Seeking to capitalize is none other than the Richard Nixon Foundation itself. Based out of Yorba Linda, California, but marinating this week in Washington, it is led by Jim Byron, who, in his early thirties, has really only ever worked for the organization. It is chaired by Robert C. O’Brien, the last Republican president’s national security advisor. O’Brien passed on a Utah Senate run earlier this autumn, but, with Americans held sword-on-neck in Gaza, he is back in the news as the former president’s chief hostage negotiator. That O’Brien could reprise his former position in a second Trump Administration or even be on the ticket—a Mormon national security-oriented upgrade to Mike Pence who could help in Arizona and Nevada—are facts also never far from the discussion around him. 

Notably, the Nixon Foundation is more Trump-curious than its friendly, Californian rival: the Reagan Foundation. Like its namesake, the Nixon Foundation has one foot in the establishment, and one foot in the populist id. It’s a difficult, perhaps even impossible balance. And yet. 

For instance, generally a hawk’s hawk, Florida’s Congressman Mike Waltz said at the event that the current American line on Ukraine is “not sustainable” and that hard conversations need to recommence with the Europeans. This is the legislator who once endorsed years and years more in Afghanistan to a dyspeptic CPAC audience response. Waltz is a former Special Forces officer, and whatever else, one with probably a large future. If he’s saying this, Ukraine skepticism is no longer ghettoized to the conservative avant-garde. 

Congressman Ro Khanna, a Golden State Democrat and former student of John Mearsheimer, and former Trump Defense official Elbridge Colby, also scouted for a big future role in a successor Administration, led a panel skeptical of the war in Eurasia. Colby is also a member of O’Brien’s American Global Strategies group, where he represents the realist edge of O’Brien’s big tent that at times has been more overtly committed to the Ukraine hardline. 

In many ways, it was striking who the defense of the Kiev’s government’s preferences fell to: the Democratic establishment. Jane Harman, the former L.A. Congresswoman and former president of the Wilson Center, remarked “Do I support more support for Ukraine? Yes.” More for Israel? Yes. More U.S. border funding? She opined that it is not a “zero sum game” while hailing the rosier times of budget surplus. She urged the gathered to “contemplate that.” 

Without missing a beat, former Congresswoman Harman said: “What did we miss in the nineties? Just about everything. We missed the rise of China. We missed the rise of terrorism. And we missed” Russian anxieties about the expansion of NATO. 

“They were totally offended,” she added. 

Harman closed by positively mentioning uber-internationalist Wendell Willkie, the 1940 GOP presidential nominee who failed to stop Franklin Roosevelt’s unprecedented third term and the solidification of the New Deal. Democratic reverence for Republicans who scantily disagree with them would seem to be an old tradition. 

To round it out for the hardliners, former NSA head and United States Cyber Command Michael S. Rogers blasted “incrementalism” on Ukraine, implying he believes true support for Ukraine has never been tried. The merger of America’s brass with the Democratic establishment (and its distance from the Republican rank-and-file) is, of course, perhaps the most important story in politics as America contemplates not just one war, but three. 

Mike Pompeo, the former Secretary of State, attended the dinner the night before but passed on the main event itself. Pompeo was the surprise guest-of-honor at Governor Glenn Youngkin’s “Red Vest Retreat” in Virginia Beach, where the gathered discussed how the Commonwealth’s governor is absolutely not running for president. Notably, the state of Pompeo's relationship with Donald Trump is a bonafide unknown. Would Pompeo be snubbed entirely from a second Trump team? Why did Pompeo pass on a 2024 race? (That now looks smart—ask Ron DeSantis.) Is Pompeo angling to be Youngkin’s VP or Defense Secretary?   

It should be said: O’Brien has not quite endorsed Trump. O’Brien jokes, given his service on Scott Walker’s Hindenburg-style effort, that if he endorsed him, that would actually cause Trump to lose. More seriously, O’Brien spoke of a side of Trump not flashed for the cameras. The 45th president is an “incredibly cordial man,” O’Brien claims, who exhibited tremendous “sympathy” for his fellow world leaders during the Covid crisis, frequently phoning to check on their health. 

Most relevant: O’Brien closed his remarks by discussing a “GOP approach” to foreign policy and national security, one that he said is quite different from the Democrats, but one (he implied) in which a thread can be weaved from Nixon, to Reagan, to Trump. 

For skeptics, there’s the rub. O’Brien also served in an administration not mentioned (to this writer’s knowledge) at the event: that of George W. Bush. And some that would see a far more restrained foreign policy of the United States do fear wolves in sheeps’ clothing. Or as Jacob Heilbrunn, the editor of the National Interest and author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, commented to me after the event: “Can the regime change doctrine be rehabbed or is it just California dreamin’?”

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