[This review was published in the Winter 2014 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 541-548.]
The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority
Patrick J. Buchanan
Crown Forum, 2014
Pat Buchanan was a young Columbia University journalism graduate when he became an aide to Richard Nixon in 1966. What is being referred to in the book’s title as Nixon’s “comeback” is, of course, Nixon’s winning election to the presidency of the United States in 1968 after having lost to John F. Kennedy in 1960 and then to Pat Brown for governor of California in 1962. “This book is an effort of the aide closest to Nixon in his now-legendary comeback to explain how he maneuvered through the conflicts and chaos… and became President.” Buchanan served as Nixon’s aide for nine years, and hopes next (“the Lord willing”) to write an insider’s account of Nixon’s years as President. The Greatest Comeback tells the story through the 1968 election.
A first-hand report of major events is informative for the story it tells. It has significance beyond that, however, since it is in effect an historical document. The Greatest Comeback will serve as a source-book for historians for as long as Richard Nixon’s career is studied. There are, of course, many books that count as historical sources, among them the memoirs of the countless participants in such events; but each is unique in giving its own perspective and insights. Buchanan’s present book is one of them, providing an authoritative and intimate view from within the public life of one of America’s leading men (and more intriguing personalities) of the twentieth century.
This book is essentially an observer’s recounting of a chronology of events. That places it within a different genre than his previous eleven books. Those books have been issue-oriented, centered on many of the central questions of American foreign and domestic policy. All of Buchanan’s books are excellent – intelligent and profound –, and none is ponderous; but The Greatest Comeback has the advantage of being a personal and very human account, and thus is probably the most appealing to the general reader.
Though not intended as a vehicle for an in-depth analysis of any given event in the history of those times, the current book has much that is interesting about a broad spectrum of events and personalities. For example, Nixon was in 1966 extremely critical of the Johnson administration’s strategy in the Vietnam War, which he saw as leading inexorably to defeat: “UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg had said we would accept a coalition government with the Viet Cong,” Buchanan writes. “Johnson had told Hanoi at Manila that we will get out if you will get out, and we will begin to leave as the violence subsides. This told Hanoi that America was bleeding and weary, that Ho Chi Minh could dictate the pace of the war….” Buchanan tells us that even at that time Nixon foresaw the outcome that eventuated in 1975 when “Congress cut off U.S. military aid to South Vietnam and imposed a ban on bombing”: “Hanoi invaded t4he South with a dozen divisions, overran Saigon, and inflicted on the United States the worst defeat in its history.” Buchanan observes that “America need not have lost the Vietnam War.”
He tells how in the 1968 presidential campaign Nixon took a strongly pro-Israel stance and in doing so “shifted Republican policy for the next half century.” During the Suez crisis in 1956, President Eisenhower had told the British, French and Israelis to get out of Suez and told “Israel’s David Ben-Gurion to get out of Sinai.” In contrast, Nixon’s policies as President were such that they later caused Golda Meir to call Nixon “the best friend Israel ever had.” It is in this context that Buchanan discusses the charge that Nixon was anti-Semitic, a charge based in part on “crude comments on the Nixon tapes revealed years later.” Buchanan says he saw no action of that sort by Nixon “in these years before he took office,” and speaks of Nixon’s later support, as President, for Israel and the leading role several Jews played in his administration. At the same time, there was a certain tension: Jews at all times voted overwhelmingly Democratic, and “there was undeniably a sense on Nixon’s part that many in the American Jewish community were unfriendly, even viscerally hostile.”
Buchanan joined Nixon on travel to Africa. This provides the occasion for fascinating passages about names and events that are still familiar to us today. Buchanan talks about Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie; Tom Mboya in Kenya; Moise Tshombe in his struggle for Katanga’s secession from the Congo; Patrice Lumumba (“the charismatic radical and deposed premier” [of the Democratic Republic of the Congo]; Joseph Mobutu, who came to rule the Congo for three decades – and many more. We are told of “the Biafra secession, whose birth we witnessed,” and of how its unsuccessful attempt to leave Nigeria “lasted for three years and consumed a million lives.” We recall that American media at the time were filled with pictures of the emaciated figures of “the starving Biafrans.” (History repeats; this reviewer’s mother, born in 1907, many times recalled a similar image, from another time, of “the starving Armenians.”)
The mid- to late-1960s were, as we know, a time of great tumult in the United States. Buchanan’s narrative accordingly provides a brief but excellent history of those years. We are reminded, say, of how “Caribbean-born Stokely Carmichael succeeded John Lewis as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,” which Carmichael “converted to ‘Black Power,’ expelling all whites.” Buchanan quotes Carmichael’s statement that shows the extent of the radicalism America was facing: “When you talk of black power, you talk of building a movement that will smash everything Western Civilization has created.” Carmichael, we are told, “was succeeded by H. Rap Brown, now serving a life sentence for murdering a Georgia sheriff’s deputy.” When Brown “ignited a riot in Cambridge, Maryland,” the rioters chanted “Burn, baby, burn!” An interesting offshoot of all this was Nixon’s choice of Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as his vice presidential running-mate. Agnew had been very much on the Rockefeller, anti-Goldwater “liberal” side of the Republican Party and a strong supporter of anti-discrimination legislation regarding housing, but “Agnew had been radicalized the previous summer by” the Cambridge riot. “Agnew’s reading of the riot act to the civil rights leaders who had gone silent in the face of wholesale violence… was a major factor in Nixon’s choice of him for vice president.”
The other wing of 1960s American radicalism was “red” rather than “black.” The Red Decade of the 1930s saw a revival in the form of the New Left, led in significant part by the children of 1930s radicals. This causes Buchanan to recount the history of the Berkeley “Free Speech Movement” led by Mario Savio; and of the “worst campus riot of the 1960s” at Columbia University in New York City, led by Mark Rudd. As a Republican observer, Buchanan gives a first-hand account of the Grant Park demonstrations at the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. As we recall, the Grant Park episode culminated in the confrontation between Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s police and the howling mass of “protesters.” The broader meaning of those events was, Buchanan says, that “the Democratic Party was disintegrating” and “liberalism was being rejected as a failed ideology.” Many years later, we see that the word “liberal” is denounced by the American Right and is abandoned by the Left, which instead calls itself “progressive.” It is easy to forget that it was the radicals of the 1960s and ’70s who most vehemently excoriated “liberals” and caused erstwhile “liberals” to flee from the term.
There is, of course, much else of this sort in The Greatest Comeback, but we will leave it to the book’s readers to discover that. Another important dimension of the book is what it tells us about Richard Nixon. Buchanan is the person most ideally situated to describe the sort of man Nixon was. It is easy today to think back to Nixon’s resignation from the presidency after the Watergate scandal and let that override all else. Buchanan, however, brings affection and great respect to his picture of a man with whom he was long associated. That provides a counterweight to the over-simplified image we hold.
Nixon grew up with “liberal” proclivities. His mother was a devout Quaker and pacifist, his father pro-union. His childhood heroes were William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. The family’s poverty didn’t prevent him from going to college, at which, according to Buchanan, Nixon “had been ‘a liberal,’ but ‘not a flaming liberal.’ In law school his heroes were Justices Brandeis, Cardozo, and Charles Evans Hughes” He emerged as “an Eisenhower Republican of moderate views and middle class values” who was “no Robert Taft conservative.” Ideologically, he was “an eclectic… no true believer.” This led to quite a pliable politics, as appeared in his “Pact of Fifth Avenue” with arch-rival Nelson Rockefeller in 1960. Both during the comeback years and his presidency, Nixon wanted himself surrounded by people with a variety of conflicting views. Seeing that “pragmatism” was the current vogue but that the public preferred “an image of principle,” he wrote in a memo to Buchanan that “we may have to do what is pragmatic but we have to talk in terms of principle.”
One would not think such a man would have been hated by the American Left, but he was. As a congressman, Nixon led the uncovering of Alger Hiss, named by Whittaker Chambers as a Soviet agent. Those who are conversant with the intellectual history of the three decades between 1917 and 1947 are aware that the great bulk of the American literary-artistic-academic-media intelligentsia were during those years enthusiastic supporters of the Soviet Union, whether a given intellectual formally joined the Communist Party or not. Although for several reasons this faith in the Communist “experiment” was eventually shattered, important residuals remained. One was the revival of radicalism with the rise of the New Left in the late 1950s. The other is most pertinent to understanding the visceral hostility to Nixon, though: the persistence of a militant anti-anti-Communism. One suspects that the underlying psychology was that any attack on Communism struck fear as coming too close to the reality of what the intelligentsia had embraced. In this context, the uncovering of Alger Hiss was a mortal sin. Added to this sin was Nixon’s having won a landslide victory over the “ultraliberal” Helen Gahagan Douglas in a savage race for the U.S. Senate from California in 1950. As a separate matter, it is worth noting that because anti-Communism was the central unifying feature of the American Right during the Cold War, Nixon’s strong anti-Communism made him appealing to “conservatives,” despite the ideological eclecticism that kept him from being, as Ronald Reagan came to be, their undiluted champion.
Nixon was eclectic, but not shallow. Buchanan describes him as “a man of broad knowledge, high intellectual capacity, [and] consummate political skill.” He was especially “a serious scholar of foreign policy.” While out of office, Nixon practiced law, but it isn’t surprising that “Nixon was bored to death with corporate law,” being instead “consumed with issues and ideas.” This caused him always to have been “very involved in the writing of his own speeches,” relying only in part on the contributions of Buchanan and other aides. A dimension we may not realize is that Nixon was “a deeply emotional man.”
Buchanan is often asked whether Nixon drank. The answer is no… and yes. “Nixon drank little or nothing on the road… [He was] up early, ate little… napped in the afternoon.” But “Nixon took more than a sip when the week’s work was done.” This feature, seemingly inconsequential, is worth mentioning as we convey Buchanan’s portrayal of him.
If there were major flaws in Nixon’s character, they don’t appear from what Buchanan tells us. Nixon was labelled “tricky Dicky” by his opponents, but only rather playful duplicities appear in the narrative here. Nixon took pleasure, say, in overstating something about an opponent, with the idea of getting a second round of publicity when he corrected it later with only-a-slightly-less-damaging revelation. There was a time he promised a woman he would make a speech she was requesting, only to turn around and tell Buchanan “now, get me out of it.” These hardly amount to rough-and-tumble politics, but we do find some window into the less-than-pure context of real-life politics when Buchanan tells us of an occasion in which the Nixon entourage felt it necessary to have a room checked for listening devices before a meeting; and in 1968, the Republicans in DuPage County, Illinois, held back Republican votes “so [Chicago’s Democratic Mayor] Daley would not know how many votes he needed to make up for his candidate.”
Nixon’s resignation after the Watergate scandal will no doubt be a major subject of the next book. We get some idea about it, however, from what is mentioned in The Greatest Comeback. Buchanan says that after “loyalists at the Committee to Reelect the President had foolishly authorized a break-in to bug phones at the Democratic National Committee,” Nixon’s fault lay “in not being a butcher,” delaying and dissembling indecisively rather than firing those involved. This caused “what would have been a political embarrassment to metastasize into a scandal.” Rather than being defensive about it, Buchanan describes the hue-and-cry that forced Nixon’s ouster as “the first successful coup d’etat in U.S. history,” knocking out a president who had won reelection overwhelmingly less than two years before. He says “Nixon was not without fault. I told him in San Clemente, ‘We gave them a sword and they ran it right through us.’” In a column in August 2014, Buchanan says the coup d’etat was “a product of the malice and collusion of liberal elites.” He cites the double standards that are so much a part of American public life: “The same elites who howled for his impeachment had covered up Mafia molls in JFK’s White House, and the wiretapping and surveillance of Dr. Martin Luther King that began in the Justice Department of Robert Kennedy.”
Patrick J. Buchanan is a person who deserves attention in his own right. In our reviews in this Journal, we know him for the depth of his political, social thinking. In those writings, he flies in the face of today’s conventional wisdom so much that it is clear that he has long-since chosen to be a scholar, speaking sometimes unpalatable truths, rather than a politician. There was a time, however, when his life revolved around politics. The Greatest Comeback provides a look into at least part of that. Always a committed “conservative,” Buchanan says that when he joined Nixon’s team in 1966 “what I had in mind was to bring the conservative movement… into alliance with the Nixonian center of the GOP” [i.e., the Republican Party].
Thus, Buchanan was far more a “true believer” than Nixon, with strong convictions that made him no mere shill for Nixon. With this in mind, it seems incongruous that Buchanan was able to take a leading role amicably over a span of nine years in a context where there were so many voices pressing for ideas discordant with his own. Indeed, many of the positions Nixon took, before and during his presidency, were at odds with what we understand Buchanan to have thought best. We might expect that Buchanan’s next book will, with his characteristic thoughtfulness, critique those. We should point out, of course, that the book tells of a good many instances when Nixon adopted Buchanan’s thinking. The explanation for why Buchanan was able to occupy the role he did in so eclectic a context probably lies in a personal, not a doctrinal, motivation: he had “a desire,” he writes, “to be where history was being made.”
The book’s subtitle speaks of Nixon’s having created a new American majority. Buchanan writes of it in these terms: “Remaking the GOP into the party of anti-elitists and outsiders, of forgotten Americans and Middle Americans, was what some of us had long had in mind.” With the hindsight allowed us in 2014, however, we can see that the new coalition was to be only a temporary fix. The Immigration Act of 1965 that over time opened America’s borders to tens of millions of non-European immigrants was already in place, doing its work to produce a new and very different population.
The Greatest Comeback is of medium length, never dense, engrossingly informative and easily readable. For those who have not read Buchanan’s other books, this one will be a good place to start. Such earlier books as The Death of the West and A Republic, Not an Empire beckon.
Dwight D. Murphey