Pat Buchanan’s latest book, The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose From Defeat to Create the New Majority (Crown, 400 pages, $28), chronicles the political resurrection of Richard Nixon after he suffered defeats in the presidential election of 1960 and California gubernatorial election of 1962. It’s a fantastic read, giving an insider’s look at the Nixon’s character and the nation’s politics during the turbulent mid-to-late 1960s.
I was lucky enough to sit down with Mr. Buchanan and ask him about the book, Richard Nixon, and the making of a president.
Ryan Girdusky: How did Richard Nixon, despite losing in 1960, put together a coalition for his 1968 comeback? And who was the New Majority?
Pat Buchanan: It was the political marriage of the Goldwater conservatives, Middle Americans, the Nixonian center of the party, different county chairmen, and regular Republicans. Them and the Goldwater movement were the first components we put together to block out Romney and Rockefeller.
The key thing that happened between 1960 and 1968, in 1960 Nixon had gone up to Rockefeller’s apartment, but by ’68 the center of gravity had shifted and the Goldwater movement had the power to nominate but not elect. If you had Nixon and Goldwater together you could dominate the nomination, but then to elect you had to get Democrats because Republicans were outnumbered almost two-to-one.
My approach was the Northern Catholics, who were moving [politically] because the Democrats no longer had Kennedy on the top of the ticket. And then you had the Southern Protestants, but our problem was Wallace took a lot of their votes—he won seven states. Some of them left Wallace and they were going right across us and going to Humphrey.”
RG: Now how did you push to win the union vote? Because Nixon won a majority of them in ’72.
PB: Well, in ’72 is when we completed the New Majority. In ’72 Wallace ran in the Democratic primaries that year so he wasn’t running in the general, which was fine with us. One thing Nixon did that was very gracious was when Wallace was shot, Nixon was the first person to visit him in the hospital.
So it didn’t come together in ’68 and we almost lost because Northern Catholics, many of them were in unions and went back to Humphrey. He was well-liked and liberal, but not the extreme left wing. But afterwards Nixon went for the Northern ethnic Catholics who rejected the counterculture.
RG: Yeah, I understand that. My grandfather, a union Italian Catholic Democrat, said the first Republican he ever voted for was Nixon.
PB: Well, let me tell you this: Nixon once said, ‘The Italians’ time is coming.’ We were hoping for an Italian Supreme Court justice—that’s why when I was working in Reagan’s White House and I’d been pushing for it, when the word came to us that Reagan was going to appoint a new Supreme Court justice and it was this man named Antonin Scalia, I yelled ‘Yes!’
RG: That Scalia guy seems to have worked out in the end.
PB: He did work out considering how many didn’t work out. That was one of our failures: we had four appointments. Of course Rehnquist was one of the great jurist of the twentieth century and he was a good guy too.
RG: You detail in your book how Eisenhower was considering dropping Nixon from the ticket. Did that create distrust or did Nixon dislike Eisenhower?
PB: Nixon revered Eisenhower… but everyone who was close to Nixon at the time of the fund scandal thought that he was very wounded by the whole ordeal.
RG: The loss of the House and the Senate during the Eisenhower years and during the Goldwater election—did seeing those losses help inspire Nixon to rebuild the party??
PB: I think after Goldwater’s loss, Goldwater was very grateful to Nixon for all the work he did for him and knew it wasn’t for selfish reasons. And despite losing he was still admired as a hero and martyr for conservatives. Clearly, Nixon could see the development in the South; he went to that South Carolina event in ’66 and the idea that the Catholics were moving was something I convinced him of. I wrote him this huge memo about how the Catholics fell off by ten points without Jack Kennedy on the ticket in the midterm, and they were natural Republicans.
Nixon knew they were with us morally and culturally, and Nixon/Agnew became the rejection of the counterculture of the 1960s. One of the big events that cemented it was Nixon’s ’69 Silent Majority speech and then Agnew taking on the networks. That was my baby and it worked.
RG: But when Nixon became president in ’68, becoming the first president since Zachary Taylor to have both Houses of Congress against him, did he have any leeway with the Congress? Did he have the same executive push as Lyndon Johnson?
PB: Oh, no. When Reagan became president he had the Senate and enough Blue Dogs to move legislation. What Nixon had was a Congress that was so hostile to him—one time Nixon asked Congress to vote for an anti-ballistic missile system so he could negotiate with the Soviets who were building ballistic missiles around Moscow. So he went to the Senate and asked them for this vote and all he could get was a tie. They alerted the vice president that he would have to vote, so Nixon looked at Agnew and said, ‘You know how to vote on this one?’ And Agnew said, ‘Mr. President, let’s talk about that family assistance program you’re in favor of.’
RG: You joined Nixon in 1965. When did Nixon start campaigning for Republicans in the midterms?
PB: In that fall of ’66. Nixon had his six-week campaign for Republicans in the House. He said Republicans would win forty seats and they won forty-seven.
RG: Now despite all the press that said Nixon was finished after 1962, did any of them give him credit for the victories in 1966?
PB: Some did, yeah. Some papers looked at who he endorsed and saw that an enormous number of them won. He didn’t make that cover of Time magazine that had the six Republicans of the future. Nixon didn’t make that cover.
RG: Is the lesson of Nixon relevant?
PB: I often think the lesson of Nixon is relevant today, and the trouble is America is a changed country. There is still Nixon’s Silent Majority, but their numbers have shrunken. You see that in response to this illegal immigrant invasion. Those people are still there but their numbers have diminished. A lot of the younger folks have grown up in the revolution of the ’60s. They’ve absorbed and internalized the sexual revolution and the ’60s ideas of acid, amnesty, and abortion. They’re in favor of pot, amnesty, and half the country is in favor of same-sex marriage and abortion. That’s tremendous change in the country.
RG: But that same approach Nixon took of looking at crime and social decay and the need for social cohesion, could a Republican look for an issue like that which unites a majority of the country?
PB: Well, you know, look at Prop 8 in California. Seventy percent of black folks voted in favor of Prop 8 to ban same-sex marriage, and then McCain got 5 percent of them.
RG: So could the lesson of Nixon be relevant?
PB: If you energize cultural traditionalists and social conservatives, you could energize them, but their numbers aren’t there anymore.