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When Conservatives Tried to Throw Out Richard Nixon

Well before Watergate broke, John Ashbrook waged a primary campaign that the Right took very seriously.

During the Republican primaries of 1972, conservatives revolted against what they perceived as the left-leaning presidency of Richard Nixon. Their candidate, John Ashbrook, was a man motivated by principle, not personal aggrandizement, one determined to put traditional values, fiscal responsibility, and anti-communism back into the national conversation.

The son of former congressman William A. Ashbrook, Republican of Ohio, the 33-year-old John M. Ashbrook won election to his father’s old seat in 1960. A graduate of Harvard University and the Ohio State University College of Law, Ashbrook had previously published a small newspaper founded by his father, The Johnstown Independent, and served two terms in the Ohio House of Representatives.

Ashbrook was a prominent conservative activist and a rising star in the Republican Party. He had been the national chairman of the Young Republicans from 1957 to 1959. His involvement with the growing conservative “movement” only increased when he was elected to the Congress. In 1961, he joined the efforts of F. Clifton White and William Rusher, whom he knew from the Young Republicans, to draft Barry Goldwater for the 1964 presidential election.

While in the House, Ashbrook became known for fighting battles from which other conservative legislators had retreated. He served on the leftist-dominated Committee on Education and Labor; he eventually became that committee’s ranking Republican member. He even joined the maligned House Un-American Activities Committee before it was dissolved in 1975. Liberty Lobby, a hard right advocacy group founded by Willis Carto, awarded Ashbrook their “Statesman of the Republic Award.” (This was before Carto became infamous for his Holocaust denial.)

Earlier than other conservatives, Ashbrook supported former vice president Richard M. Nixon’s bid for the presidency in 1968. At that year’s national convention, he was one of only two Ohio Republican delegates to back Nixon, rather than California Governor Ronald Reagan or “favorite son” Ohio Governor James Rhodes. Nixon had campaigned publicly for Goldwater in 1964, and conservative supporters like Patrick J. Buchanan saw him as an ally, though not a member, of the GOP’s swelling conservative faction. “Movement conservatives,” sallying forth from National Review, endorsed Nixon and contributed to his eventual victory over Hubert Humphrey.

Within the first two months after Nixon’s inauguration, conservative discontentment with the direction of his administration grew. Appointments of conservatives to executive staff or advisory roles were few and far between. Buchanan, special assistant to the president and one of Nixon’s top speechwriters, was an exception. As he writes in his memoir Nixon’s White House Wars, he was worried from the start of Nixon’s first term about increasing right-wing dissatisfaction and the risk of an ideological schism within the GOP.

When Buchanan brought his concerns to Nixon, the president simply wrote off those conservatives. In an internal memo about Ashbrook, he stated, “We can’t hold him; the cost is too high.”

Over the next two years, Nixon would dash conservative hopes. He came out publicly against coercive desegregation, but his opposition ended far short of using executive action to end it. His domestic policy advisors, first Daniel Patrick Moynihan and then John Ehrlichman, favored welfarism and redistributive measures like the Guaranteed Annual Income. He ignored the federal government’s budget constraints and ran huge deficits. He used rudimentary, destructive measures like wage and price controls in an attempt to forestall stagnation and inflation.

The Nixon administration’s foreign policy was amenable to movement conservatives at first. Nixon resisted defeat in Vietnam and struck back at the liberal media establishment that he viewed as having undercut U.S. efforts there. His controversial Cambodian incursion succeeded in cutting off segments of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and reduced the rate of U.S. casualties in South Vietnam for the rest of the war. But under the guidance of Henry Kissinger, he initiated détente with the Soviets and, most crucially, abandoned the Republic of China, based in Taiwan, to seek accord with the communist mainlanders. All of this rubbed conservatives the wrong way.

But it was Nixon’s announcement on July 15, 1971 that he would go to Peking within the next year that ultimately dynamited the rift already forming between him and the Republican Right. Subsequently William F. Buckley, Jr. called a meeting of conservative heavyweights at his Manhattan townhouse. This assembly, later dubbed “the Manhattan Twelve,” included such notables as Rusher, James Burnham, and Frank Meyer, and also political staffers from the American Conservative Union and Young Americans for Freedom. They issued a manifesto declaring a “suspension of support” for Nixon in the 1972 presidential election and entertained the possibility of a conservative primary challenger.

By December 1971, this coterie had settled on their choice: Ohio Congressman John M. Ashbrook. His conservative credentials were beyond reproach, and he had a reputation as a principled, honorable Republican. Some members of the Manhattan Twelve went to Ashbrook’s congressional office to plead with him to run for the Republican nomination. On December 9, the Manchester Union Leader ran a front page editorial by conservative editor and publisher William Loeb calling on Ashbrook to enter the race. Rusher presented Ashbrook with a personal campaign contribution of $1,000 to encourage him further.

The White House was well aware of the Manhattan Twelve’s collusion with Ashbrook. According to Rusher’s memoirs, staffers made frantic attempts to bring their conservative contacts back into the fold. Vice President Agnew, much more of a conservative than Nixon, met with Buckley and Rusher on December 15. First, he promised them that Nixon was moving to the Right and would substantially increase the defense budget, and then he expressed his concern that an Ashbrook candidacy would undermine his position on Nixon’s re-election ticket. Buckley and Rusher (correctly) assumed that a conservative primary challenge would have the opposite effect.

Already, the unifying conservative insurgency had inspired Nixon to be mindful of his base. On December 9, he vetoed the radical Child Development Act of 1971, which would have furthered the federal government’s efforts to supplant traditional parenting with nationalized childcare centers. Ashbrook had been a vocal opponent of the bill. In late December, Buchanan communicated to his conservative friends outside the White House some concessions—including keeping Agnew on the ticket—that Nixon promised to make if Ashbrook did not run. Nixon fulfilled these promises, even after Ashbrook revealed his intention to undertake what he called a “‘small Paul Revere ride’ through New Hampshire.”

On December 29, Ashbrook announced in Washington that he was running for president. He discussed his earlier support for Nixon, based on the widespread perception that Nixon would uphold certain conservative policy positions. In the view of Ashbrook and his many conservative allies, Nixon had reneged on these promises and worse—the president had turned to the Left. Ashbrook’s simple campaign slogan, “No Left Turns,” signaled the repudiation of Nixon’s compromise with the liberals of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Ashbrook was a pragmatist. His goals for New Hampshire, where he campaigned most heavily, were modest. Just 10 percent in the primary election would be sufficient to seize the attention of the Nixon campaign. He knew he could not beat Nixon, but he could make the paranoid president fearful and inspire him to return to the views that had put him in office. Ashbrook felt that the Republican Party was neglecting an opportunity by failing to capitalize on the social conservatism of the “silent majority,” to which Nixon had appealed. He knew that the GOP could and would only become a majority party once it had pushed back appropriately against the social radicalism of the opposition. Privately, Buchanan told Nixon the same.

Ashbrook faced bleak odds, waging a lonely, barebones campaign in New Hampshire with little support from other national Republican officeholders. He suffered from poor name recognition, despite the vigorous endorsement of the Union Leader, the most popular newspaper in the state. Still, Buckley and Rusher put in campaign appearances for him, and Young Americans for Freedom bused in enthusiastic student supporters from across the Northeast. Ashbrook persisted and managed to campaign until the primary on March 7, 1972.

The results in New Hampshire were not encouraging for any of the Republican candidates. Nixon won, but with his lowest vote share of any of the 1972 Republican primaries at just over 67 percent. Liberal Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey of California came in second with 19.8 percent of the vote. Ashbrook received barely 9.7 percent. McCloskey, who had spent significant time and money trying to win the state outright, withdrew from the primaries to devote himself to his House re-election campaign. Despite his own underwhelming performance, Ashbrook decided to stay in the race.

Setbacks worsened as his efforts to get ballot access in the Indiana primaries failed. Yet he continued to poll in the high single digits in Florida and California. California, both in terms of vote share (9.8 percent) and total number of votes (around 224,000), was his best performance; there he benefitted from the resounding endorsement of the United Republicans of California and campaign appearances by conservative leaders like Phyllis Schlafly. Regardless, Ashbrook was not making the impact he desired, and diverting his time and resources from winning re-election to the House. On June 7, 1972, he announced his withdrawal from the Republican primaries and declared his commitment to make certain that “the principles that made our party great” were a part of the Republican platform that would be adopted that summer.

By August, Ashbrook had, “with great reluctance,” endorsed Nixon and promised to support Agnew’s campaign in 1976. In that sense, his candidacy at least partly engendered one, albeit short-lived, electoral triumph for American conservatism: the uncontested re-nomination of Agnew for the vice presidency, which had been in doubt within the Nixon White House.

Deliberately, Nixon had appointed former Texas governor “Big John” Connally, gravely wounded in the Kennedy assassination, as secretary of treasury to make him papabile, a viable candidate to replace Agnew on the ’72 ticket and succeed himself in ’76. The GOP’s liberal wing, meanwhile, aghast at Agnew’s incisive and inflammatory attacks on the media and cultural degeneracy, was hoping that New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller would supplant Agnew. The revolt of Ashbrook and the conservative intellectuals demonstrated to Nixon and the Committee to Re-Elect the President that conservatives in the GOP’s base would not tolerate a lurch away from Agnew, an emergent cultural conservative hero, who ultimately stayed on the ticket.

In the general election of 1972, Nixon won with the largest landslide in a contested presidential election in U.S. history. His left-wing Democratic opponent, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, became infamous as the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion,” and Nixon’s winning strategy centered on the complicity of McGovern in the social and moral decay of 1970s America. As in 1968, Ashbrook’s reasons for supporting Nixon would have been very clear. After receiving such a mandate as he did in 1972, Nixon shied away from bold policy aims, conservative or otherwise, as he became so entangled in the Watergate scandal that he could not govern effectively.

When Watergate broke, Ashbrook became one of the first House Republicans to call for Nixon’s impeachment. He served in Congress until he died suddenly from a gastric hemorrhage at the age of 53, shortly after he’d announced his campaign against Ohio’s incumbent Democratic Senator Howard Metzenbaum.

President Ronald Reagan said this of Ashbrook:

John Ashbrook was a man of courage and principle. He served his constituents and his country with dedication and devotion, always working towards the betterment of his fellow man. His patriotism and deep belief in the greatness of America never wavered and his articulate and passionate calls for a return to old-fashioned American values earned him the respect of all who knew him.

For Ashbrook, a primary challenge against an incumbent president he had previously supported was not a path to fame and fortune, but “good old-fashioned democratic” disagreement. He stood for his principles, not against Nixon’s personality, as previous opponents had. American conservatism and the Republican Party were better off because of it.

Daniel M. Bring is a student at Dartmouth College. He writes about American politics, history, and culture.



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