After losing the presidential election in 1960 and the California governor’s race in 1962, Nixon famously told reporters: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Soon after, he set up a law practice in New York, where he largely stayed out of the spotlight.
A few years later, Patrick J. Buchanan, a young editorial writer in St. Louis, told Nixon at a local Republican gathering that he wanted to work on what he felt certain would be Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. When Buchanan joined Richard Nixon in early 1966, he wasn’t so much joining Nixon’s staff as he was Nixon’s staff.
Nixon’s improbable rise from the has-been heap to the White House is the subject of Buchanan’s new memoir, "The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose From Defeat to Create the New Majority." Buchanan talked to Salon about the Republican Party’s turnaround in the late 1960s, Hillary Clinton’s presidential prospects in 2016, and what Eric Cantor’s recent primary loss means for immigration policy.
When you started working for Nixon in 1966, you were not as lined up with him ideologically as you might have been. Were you conscious of that, or were you looking more for a winner than an ideological match?
I was a very strong conservative in journalism school and at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and a very strong Goldwater supporter [in 1964]. I was glad he won the nomination. I was elated when he won the California primary over Rockefeller. My feeling at that time was that Goldwater was our candidate. Nixon had lost twice and I liked Nixon — always had, I had caddied for him. But I just thought that was over, so I was for Goldwater.
When Goldwater lost, I looked at the field and said I'd like to get involved in politics. There were only two credible candidates: I didn't think Rockefeller could get nominated, and the most credible candidate and the one who had been out there strongest fighting for Goldwater and the one who I agreed with most on foreign policy was Richard Nixon.
Were we in 100 percent agreement? No, not at all. I was known as the conservative in the Nixon camp.
Was Barry Goldwater too conservative to get elected president in 1964, or do you think there were other reasons why he lost that election?
I think there are several. First, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the rise of Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was not like Kennedy and was sort of an ideal opponent for Barry Goldwater. I don't think Barry Goldwater, incidentally, would have beaten John F. Kennedy, but I don't think it would have been that tremendous loss that occurred. With Kennedy's assassination, the country didn't really want to change presidents three times in one year. Second, Johnson was bombing North Vietnam in 1964, taking a very hard line, and taking a very hard line on law and order. Goldwater was not as dramatic a contrast. Third, the senator made a lot of mistakes. Fourth, the Republican Party was split and torn apart in that '64 convention at the Cow Palace [in San Francisco].
I think all of those reasons contributed, and I do agree with this: The country was not ready for Barry Goldwater conservatism in 1964.
Did you think a winning Republican in '68 would either have to be less conservative or a conservative wolf in sheep's clothing?
[Laughs.] What I felt was we couldn't nominate and elect a man as visibly conservative as Barry Goldwater, and we had to go with the next best thing, which was Richard Nixon. I thought Nixon undeniably was more experienced and able and competent a campaigner and executive than Sen. Goldwater, and I thought looking at 1968, if you looked at the entire field, Richard Nixon was far and away the most conservative of the candidates.
I never really thought about 1968 as a less conservative field than '64.
In 1968, Ronald Reagan was enormously attractive. He was attractive even before he was elected because of that 1964 speech [at the Republican Convention]. And then he won California [as governor in 1966] by a million votes, and a lot of conservatives I knew would have moved to him. I was far more fearful of a Reagan challenge than the Romney-Rockefeller wing of the party.
When you joined Nixon in 1966, did you think he would probably run for president?
When I went and talked to him, I said, “If you're going to run for president in '68, I would like to get aboard early.” That's in December of 1965. And he said, “Before any decisions are made about '68, we're going to have to rebuild the base of this party in 1966 or the nomination isn't going to be worth anything.” He only hired me for one year to work on his columns, handle his mail in his office, and the duties — as you find out in the book — expanded dramatically.
He had a tremendously successful year in 1966, and I think he was primarily responsible, if any individual was, for the tremendous showing of the Republican Party, and he put everything out there on the line. It's one thing I admired about Nixon. Whatever you say about him, he was a fighter and he was a loyalist and he went out for every Republican running in 1966 except for members of the John Birch Society.
Your book has a bibliography, and you quote a number of great books. I feel like we don't see this approach enough in political memoir.
I talked to Jules Witcover the other night. He wrote "The Resurrection of Richard Nixon." I had contributed to that in interviews with him over the '66 to '69 period and afterwards. I got a lot out of his book and other books, and I figure you ought to credit the people who have refreshed your memory.
Have you heard or read much of the most recent batch of Nixon tapes?
If you know the history of it, you know that I recommended that Nixon destroy the tapes. After [Alexander] Butterfield testified that there were tapes, I wrote a memo to Nixon saying you have to maintain the tapes that [John] Dean described and you have to maintain the foreign policy tapes that are critical, but as for the rest, I would destroy them.
Historian Douglas Brinkley has said that the main reason Nixon made the tapes was for his foreign policy legacy. Do you see it that way?
I think that's one thing. But let me tell you one other that has not been reported very much or hardly at all. When we started the administration, [William] Safire, [Ray] Price and Buchanan — the senior speechwriters — were assigned to various meetings to come in as a reporter would. Mine was congressional leadership. What we were instructed to do was write down anecdotes and stories and decisions just as a reporter would. We would write all those down; some of mine were 10 pages single-spaced. I just smoked through the typewriter, had them retyped, and then I'd edit them. And I would send them across to [H.R.] Haldeman for the files.
My assumption was that they were for two purposes: one, if there was a dispute over what somebody said, they could go to those files, and two, that [Nixon] would have the record when it came time to write his memoirs. At some point, we were called and told to stop covering the meetings.
Because they were then being taped?
That is my conclusion, that at that point the tapes were put in, and they were voice-activated so everything said was being recorded.
Former presidents typically go through several seasons of historical assessment — memoirs by White House aides, then National Archives records, then seeing how their policies turn out. What do you think the arc of the history of the Nixon administration has been? Obviously, it started at a low point.
That's a very interesting question. When I was very young, my father was interested in politics. He was hard-line anti-FDR and anti-Truman, and I remember when Truman departed, he was below Nixon in approval. His presidency was considered a disaster, he had lost both houses of Congress in '52 and the presidency to Eisenhower. He was considered in his second term very much a failed president.
Truman has been resurrected to where many historians say he's in the top 10 and a near-great president. Ronald Reagan because of what followed with the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economy had been booming under Reagan, so he has really risen to the point where — of course, conservatives put him among the greats, but even liberals are not objecting to near-great.
What about Nixon?
With Nixon, there's only two things people think about: China and Watergate. My period working with him was almost nine years, and Watergate did not occur until almost the seventh year of that. I think there's going to be a dramatic reassessment of Nixon. In his first term, I think it's fair to call him a near-great president.
There was the historic opening to China, the greatest arms control agreement since the Washington Naval Agreement of 1921-22 with the Russians, the first president to go behind the Iron Curtain to countries there. In October '73, he saved Israel in the Yom Kippur War, and he brought Egypt out of the Soviet orbit and into the Western orbit. He ended the War in Vietnam, as he promised to do, with all provincial capitals in Saigon's hands. He brought the POWs home. He ended the draft. He enacted the 18-year-old vote. He created the EPA, whichwhen it started was a good agency with conservatives agreeing with much of what it was doing. He created the Cancer Institute. He created OSHA. He was the president who was there when we put men on the moon.
I saw in a review of my book by the Economist magazine, which said that if Nixon had not run for a second term, he would be a hugely successful president. I remember Hugh Sidey wrote in 1972, which was before Watergate broke, that Nixon had presided over the cooling of America after the horrendous decade since Kennedy was assassinated and the riots and the disorder and assassinations, and the social/cultural/moral revolution, the upheaval on campuses, and a violent, divisive war. And I think that was right. But then came Watergate, and I think that blots out in the public mind — because of the focus on it — almost everything that happened in the first term but China.
Are you planning to write a second book about the Nixon years?
I sat down to write and started going through my files. There were all these interesting things that had happened and that nobody knew about and nobody has written about. And I thought this was a book in and of itself: how Nixon came back and what he accomplished after his own crushing defeats in '60 and '62 and the [Republican] Party's crushing defeat in '64. When everybody is talking about the Republican Party going off the cliff and being dead for a generation, and he pulled it all back together.
He pulled the Rockefeller-Scranton-Romney wing back in under the tent, brought in the Goldwater wing and the Reagan wing, put it all together and sought to split off the Southern Protestants and Northern Catholics [from the Democrats]. While he succeed with that in '68, he did succeed by '72. It's an incredible achievement.
You could be accused of cherry-picking the good part of the Nixon story, but I don't hear you saying that's why you stopped where you did.
It's the 40th anniversary [of Nixon's resignation]. People have asked me to go on TV to talk about the pardon and other things. I did it as sort of a natural breakpoint. It is a separate, unique story after two crushing defeats and giving up politics and moving to New York and then the crushing defeat of the Republican Party [in 1964] to the point where the Republicans were outnumbered more than 2-to-1 in the House, more than 2-to-1 in the Senate, more than 2-to-1 among the governorships, and 2-to-1 in the state legislatures. Nixon pulled the pieces together to bring himself to the presidency of the United States in that turbulent decade. That is a story itself.
MSNBC ended a long relationship with you in 2012. Have you been invited on MSNBC to talk about the book?
I have not been invited by MNSBC yet, but we have some things scheduled on CNN and Fox and Fox Business.
Do you feel like you're getting a rough treatment?
I don't know. I'm sure that our people will be talking to them, and there are some shows that I think might be interested, although they have a different point of view clearly than Fox and others, especially about Nixon.
If you were building a Republican challenger from scratch to take on Hillary Clinton in 2016, what would that person look like?
I thought she ran a great campaign [in 2008]. I don't think her record as secretary of state or the Obama record is something she can run on. I think she’s had a very bad book tour; it's not a scintillating book, it’s not done her much good, and all the comments about the money and how poor they were have approached the ridiculous and been damaging.
However, I think as of today she would probably win the nomination, and as of today I think she would win the presidential election. Do I see a single candidate who has many of the things I would like to see in a Republican presidential candidate who could really rally the country and win the election? No, I don't.
What kind of GOP candidate could beat her?
I would say a populist conservative who is going to bring jobs back home to the United States, who is going to seal and secure the border, who is not going to grant amnesty, and who is going to get the United States out of all these wars and all these commitments to protect everybody on earth against any and all attacks. It would be a very dramatic break of the policies of both national parties.
I believe a lot of the ideas I ran on [for president] in the '90s like nonintervention in foreign wars that are none of our business, securing the borders, which I argued for 25 years ago, and stopping the export of U.S. manufacturing jobs to China and Asia. All these things are now current and much stronger than they were then. I think you need a fighting, populist, conservative campaign aimed at the working and middle class where you tell some of the Fortune 500 folks that you guys are going to have to spend a little time in the back row.
By most accounts, Hillary Clinton was an aggressive proponent of military intervention as secretary of state.
Look, if she wants to go fight wars around the world I would say, “No, we're not going to do that anymore.” We did it under Bush and look what happened.
Does Rand Paul look as much like an ideal challenger as anyone?
I think his reluctance to send troops to intervene in places like Syria and Ukraine and Georgia and where else the John McCain-Lindsey Graham coalition wants to send them -- I think he's right on the mark there.
Eric Cantor's loss in light of some data points in the weeks since appears to be a fluke. Is that your assessment?
No, I don’t think so. My assessment is that Eric Cantor got hurt badly by the perception that he was for amnesty on the immigration issue. The Tea Party may have lost in Mississippi [in the Senate race], but the impact of these races is on policy in the House; immigration is off the table. I think that’s [David] Brat’s success.
"Amnesty" is a loaded word. Shouldn't we have an immigration policy that deals with the people who are here in a way that reflects the fact that they are here?
The first thing you do is secure the border. You enforce e-verify with businesses who are breaking the law as much as any illegal immigrant is breaking the law. When that is done, then you take a look at these other matters. Until that is done, I would have no amnesty. People say they are living in the shadows. They broke into the country; they're living outside the law. That's what they chose to do.
You haven't slowed down. Are you happy to continue working and writing and doing what you're doing for the indefinite future?
[Laughs heartily.] I don't know how long the indefinite future is going to be! I enjoy writing. I enjoy communicating in interviews and on TV. I'm not seeking a permanent TV slot where I have to go in every day. Doing what I'm doing right now, doing this book tour -- I enjoy these things. I always have.