The Greatest Comeback, by Patrick J. Buchanan


Paradigm Shift Week: Part I

1968: Annus Horribilis

In the annals of American history, 1968 stands apart as a particularly bad year.  Assassinations, race riots, campus unrest, and as a dramatic climax, Richard Nixon is elected to the presidency.  Although the United States was not alone in tumultuous activities, this year marks a watershed in demography, political attitudes, and cultural mores.  Richard Nixon became president with the culmination of several interdependent factors.  Patrick J. Buchanan charts this cultural shift in his new campaign memoir, The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority.

At once a campaign memoir, an insider’s perspective on modern political campaigning, and a cri de ceour for America’s moral decline, Greatest Comeback is both fascinating and frustrating.  Despite its derivative pedigree (books in the Current Affairs section last about as long as a Windows OS update), the book offers yet another perspective on that lurid chapter of American history: the Nixon presidency.

Veering Right

Nixon achieved the presidency through a combination of hard work, canny staffing, and understanding the zeitgeist.  He created a tightly organized machine he could control and he understood the things he couldn’t control.  Nixon campaigned and lost (twice) and then campaigned and won (twice).  During that time, the United States shifted its demographic center of gravity from New York state to California.  He also campaigned during a marked ideological shift.  The shift was neither sudden nor immediately apparent.  In 1964, Barry Goldwater (“Mr. Conservative”) got trounced by Lyndon Johnson.  That year remains a pinnacle for Democratic dominance in politics and culture, matched only by FDR’s re-election in 1936.  Democrats held an overwhelming majority in Congress and statehouses.
Funny how things change in four years.

Unlike the arch-villain portrayed in pop culture, Nixon saw himself as a “progressive conservative.”  Like Lyndon Johnson, he came from a background of poverty.  His father owned a grocery store and his mother was a Quaker schoolteacher.  He never possessed the oceans of capital and the connections it buys like the well-heeled political dynasties (Roosevelts, Rockefellers, Kennedys, Bushes, Tafts, and Romneys).  America does love a good political dynasty though.  Makes it easier in the confines of a voting booth when one can switch off the critical faculties and vote for a name brand.

Buchanan sketches a portrait of Nixon far different than the figure shrouded in Shakespearean anguish during the Watergate scandal.  He takes a certain pleasure stating how Nixon wasn’t “one of us” with “us” meaning life-long movement conservatives.

Getting the Band Back Together

Pat Buchanan illuminates the struggles within the Republican Party following the Goldwater defeat in 1964.  One should not confuse the GOP of 1964 with the GOP of 2014.  While both are riven with internal power struggles, multiple factions, and the search for a viable presidential candidate, reading a modern GOP onto the 1964 GOP would be a critical mistake.

The challenge of writing history is to imagine the past without the intrusion of the present.  And political history (and journalism) is especially susceptible to this interpretive framework.  The year 1964 was historical pivot point when political allegiances shifted.  The adoption of the Civil Rights plank at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 led to a walk-out by the Southern delegation.  This is key, because it put the South in play in 1966 and 1968.
Buchanan states:

What the Left never understood, or would never accept, is that Nixon brought the South into the Republican column not because he shared their views on segregation or civil rights.  He did not.  What he shared was the South’s contempt for a liberal press and hypocritical Democratic Party that had coexisted happily with Dixiecrats for a century but got religion when conservative Republicans began to steal the South away from them.
The Goldwater-Nixon party in which I enlisted was not a segregationist party but a conservative party.  Virtually every segregationist in the eleven states of the old Confederacy, and every Klansman from 1865 to 1965, belonged to the party of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman.

Even today, die-hard Democrats don’t like it when one brings up the word “Dixiecrats.”  Some switched party (Strom Thurmond), some did not (Harry Byrd, Zell Miller), and some went off-rez (George Wallace).  While Buchanan sees this from an ideological and political vote-getting perspective (since that was his job), one needs to take another step back and see this from the perspective of regionalist politics.  While the South had been a partner in the Democratic Party for a century, going back further reveals that Southern power led to compromise after compromise that eventually spilled over into the Civil War.  Washington, D.C., the city of Buchanan’s childhood, only exists because the Northern non-slave-owning delegates compromised on a location for the national capital with Southern slave-owning delegates.  Regions had been fighting and compromising even before our nation was conceived.

The importance of the South will come back later in Nixon’s 1968 presidential run.  Put in perspective, the 1968 campaign would prove as pivotal as the 1860 campaign of Lincoln, Douglas, and Breckinridge.

But Nixon’s campaign for the presidency begins not with triumph but with defeat.  After eight years as Vice President in the Eisenhower administration, he ran for president against JFK and lost by a hair’s breadth.  Buchanan hoists the flag of “voter fraud,” although reading Robert Caro’s latest installment of his LBJ biography can corroborate such accusations.  Following this close defeat, Nixon ran for governor of California against Pat Brown in 1962 and also ended up losing.  He sat out the election of 1964, witnessing the Republican Party slide into a more dogmatic extremism of Barry Goldwater.

Then Nixon decided to run for President in 1968.  He had plenty of nay-sayers and those who caricatured him as a loser.  Despite 1968 being a presidential election year, he began his campaign in earnest … in 1966.  To follow the war metaphor, Nixon had to win several skirmishes before engaging in the epic set-piece battle of the presidential campaign.

This is what makes The Greatest Comeback a fascinating book and a useful historical tool for the layman.  But like a lot of political history, it can seem at times superficial and tedious.  Pat Buchanan came to work for the campaign in early 1966.  This history is one involving the drafting of strategy memos, writing opinion pieces for newspapers, and responding to such.  It is campaign work from the ground level.

Part of what made Nixon successful was the staff he assembled.  Buchanan was an early addition.  Haldeman and Erlichman would be later additions in 1968, reprising their roles from 1960.  Nixon’s team comprised of “a distant early warning system, his own DEW line.  Ellsworth was a liberal Republican, Price was an establishment Republican, Garment was a liberal Jewish Democrat, and I was Catholic and conservative.”  Buchanan goes on to say, “In his campaign and White House, Nixon created a radar system that picked up and sent back signals from all points on the political compass, but ideologically, he was himself an eclectic.”

During his campaigning from 1966 to 1968, Nixon had to contend with the various factions within the Republican Party.  Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, represented the threat from the Liberal wing; while Ronald Reagan, governor of California, represented the threat from the Conservative wing.  Like a bell curve, Rockefeller and Reagan existed on the fringes of the GOP.  Outside the GOP, Nixon had to contend with the John Birch Society, an  extremist movement characterized by its racism and anti-communism.  In the media, Nixon had to avoid alienating movement conservatives like William F. Buckley from the National Review and avoid angering “The Dark Prince”, DC political columnist Robert Novak.

Yet history has a way of complicating even the canniest political operator.  Even in 1968, Nixon was a master of the game and a respected elder statesman.  Like Kennedy, he was a veteran and got elected into the 80th Congress of 1946.  And also like Kennedy, he was a passionate anti-communist and supporter of Senator Joe McCarthy.  In the year of 1968, history would throw the Nixon campaign several curve balls.

Tales from the Conservative Mythos

The Greatest Comeback is a book written by Pat Buchanan, who is a professional button-pusher.  He was raised in DC, newspaperman from St. Louis, Missouri, and is a lifetime conservative and Catholic.  This gives the book its unique perspective, but also underlies its inherent and occasionally obvious biases.  Henry Kissinger in his voluminous memoirs kept using terms like “liberal mythology” and “McGovernite peaceniks.”  This book suffers from a case of “conservative mythology.”  Although to be fair, the Sixties is a time used by the Left to mythologize their claims.  The Left uses the decade as shorthand for Civil Rights triumphs and good music.  The Right uses it as shorthand for America’s moral decline, misguided foreign policy, and New Deal/New Frontier/Great Society freebies.  The thing is neither side is completely wrong.  But when one is nostril-deep in a political argument, nuance gets drowned out, and intellectual debate gets turned into talking heads shouting slogans at each other.  It’s like a ventriloquist dummy gang fight, but not nearly as interesting.

“Fuzzy math!  Fuzzy math!  Fuzzy math!”
“Lock box.”

In his telling of the 1968 campaign, Buchanan comes across as a Victorian priss and an intellectually dishonest historian.  Then again, Ambrose Bierce defined a history as “An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.”  Although another definition fits Buchanan better: “Lickspittle, n. A useful functionary, not infrequently found editing a newspaper.”

In recent years, Buchanan has made a new for himself as a bargain basement off-brand Oswald Spengler.  A list of his polemical works reads like the inventory of a hysteric:

The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Culture and Civilization (2001)

Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency (2004)

State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America (2006)

Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World (2008)

Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025? (2011)

The hyperbolic apocalyptic titles and the loose use of terms like suicide, invasion, hijack, and “death of the West” sure do make for bestseller fodder.  Unfortunately, to paraphrase Malcolm Reynolds, captain of the Serenity, “Well, my days of not taking you seriously are certainly comin’ to a middle.”

Proposed title for Mr. Buchanan’s next book, We’re All Going to Die: Blame the Liberals.  Future review: “An urbane and nuanced addition that lifts up America’s political discourse,” said nobody ever.

Buchanan is gifted at pushing people’s buttons, as evidenced by the titles of his previous works.  How trustworthy are button-pushers to write a fair and balanced work of historical reportage?

One major argument he puts forth is that there were no riots during the Great Depression and Second World War.  Or as he writes it, “Americans, black and white, had gone through tougher times in the Depression and people had not resorted to rioting, fire-bombing, and looting.”  The first part of the sentence is true, the second is pure conservative mythology.  Food riots broke out in February 1931, in July 1932 there was the Bonus Army demonstration and crackdown, and four notable race riots in 1943 alone (Detroit, Beaumont, Harlem, and Los Angeles).

This shoddy research by Buchanan feeds into the conservative mythology that the Greatest Generation were more well-behaved and industrious than the hippies and Leftists in the “permissive and indulgent” Sixties.
During this decade many things offended Buchanan’s Victorian sensibilities, including the film Bonnie and Clyde, the book In Cold Blood, and the art film Flaming Creatures.

He is correct on the Left’s and academia’s culpability in precipitating the race riots.  Civil disobedience is a slippery slope, especially when it lacks control and strategy.  Buchanan sees how the Civil Rights movement devolved from one of peaceful protest to violent rioting.  Gone were the days of sit-ins and teach-ins.  But here we encounter the paradox of democracy.  For democracy to work, it has to be based on laws, not on the edicts of a self-anointed dictator.  The challenge is how to face unjust laws?  Buchanan yowls about the permissiveness of the Warren Court and it handing out more rights to criminals and ham-stringing law enforcement.  Yet without these assurances and safeguards, the United States is no better than a cheap tin horn tyranny.

The Sixties race riots grew out of frustration and resentment.  The challenge was containing the anarchy of the streets without falling back into the “Gestapo tactics” seen on the streets of Chicago.  The Sixties were as much a moral rebellion as the Twenties with the Lost Generation, a sloughing off of suffocating Victorian morality and a war that served no strategic purpose.  North Vietnam was a communist dictatorship, although the anti-communist Right (and Left) were too enamored with containment to see the nationalist sentiment.  On the other hand, South Vietnam was run by a thuggish nepotistic president (Ngo Dien Diem), only to be overthrown by a military junta.  Then South Vietnam became plagued by political instability as coup followed coup in a confusing merry-go-round of military leadership.

History would throw the dice and Nixon made a big bet.

George Wallace, the Siege of Chicago, and the 1968 Election

The year 1968 began with the Tet Offensive, turning the claims of LBJ into a punchline.  The Tet Offensive was a Pyrrhic military victory, but a major PR victory for North Vietnam. During the campaign year, Nixon now faced new challenges.  George Wallace challenged Nixon from the Right, creating a lock on the Deep South.  Then the Democratic Party imploded.

The implosion came about from a splintering Democratic Party.  The pro-war (Hubert Humphrey) and anti-war (Eugene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy) were at each others throats.  Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, the nation erupted into another round of rioting.  Like the PR disaster of the Tet Offensive, the race riots left inner cities in smoldering ruins and the outskirts of DC in flames.  Amidst the chaos at home and the failures in Vietnam, LBJ withdrew from running for re-election.  It came like a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Texan so deeply committed to eradicating poverty and setting up a social safety net.  But LBJ was no saintly martyr.  He was duplicitous, deceitful, secretive, and bullying.  He mismanaged the Vietnam War and tried to cover his trail.

After the King assassination, RFK was assassinated in California.  The Democrat’s presumptive heir was gone and another Kennedy assassination again scarred the American popular imagination.  The Democratic National Convention in Chicago was a chaotic fight inside while outside the police and protesters fought each other.  The DNC nominated Hubert Humphrey, a committed civil rights crusader but rather bland on the charisma front.  The New Left had overplayed its hand on the streets and paid for it dearly.

The challenge now was for Nixon to hold together a “center-right” coalition of working-class ethnics, border states, and the Silent Majority.  This saw a re-definition of “whiteness”: forged in multi-ethnic units in the Second World War; the Great Society, Civil Rights movement, and muscular federal govt. enforcing Warren Court rulings created a sense of persecution and resentment among Whites.  The alleged persecution and resentment creates mentality where Whites see African-Americans as “the enemy.”  This mentality still exists, despite dunderheaded announcements that the United States is now “post-racial.”

Nixon would ride this resentment straight to the White House.  And there Buchanan’s narrative ends.  But one shouldn’t confuse First Term Nixon with Second Term Nixon (as well First and Second Term Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama).  Buchanan asserts the Watergate break-ins were orchestrated by “Nixon loyalists,” but concedes Nixon was unskilled at engineering a cover-up.  His resignation turns Nixon into a heroic martyr for the Right.
In the end elections about giving people dreams of a better future, not in boring statistics.  If you can’t sell that, people won’t buy it.  One has to look no further than Carter’s “malaise speech” and Walter Mondale’s utter lack of personal charisma.  In the 2000 presidential debates Vice President Al Gore came across as condescending schoolmarm while Governor George W. Bush exuded an aw-shucks “likability.”  (Gore’s wife, Tipper, was the censorious shrew who created the justifiably hated PMRC, while Governor Bush came across as a bit thick, sleazily sanctimonious, and execution-happy.  Why would anyone throw their vote away on either one of those patrician buffoons is beyond my comprehension.)

As Buchanan states in the title, Nixon’s victory paved the way for creating The New Majority.  Despite resigning in disgrace, in 1980 Reagan would create conservative counter-revolution.  While the post-Watergate Congressional elections brought in a hefty majority, the American electorate chose Reagan after the dour Carter presidency, one characterized by a joyless asceticism and the Iran hostage crisis.  Reagan would be the first president since Eisenhower to last eight years in office.  Except for the blip of Carter, the Reagan Counter-revolution lasted twelve years with the Nixon and Ford years acting as a kind of prelude.  Nixon’s rise to power came at a time when the Democrats had held near-total control of the White House, Supreme Court, and Congress.  In Buchanan’s telling, he sees Eisenhower as a bland moderate place-holder, not a “true conservative.”

The US still endures as a “center-right” nation, but still deeply divided, especially on social issues and foreign policy.  For all the sturm and drang of the lunatic Right, Obama is nothing more than a Reaganite centrist.  The claims of Obama’s messianic status by loyalist Democrats circa 2006 has not come to pass.

Ideology is Boring

The challenge for any reader will be seeing beyond confines of political ideology.  Those with consistent political ideologies are easy targets.  Those who never change their ideas after events, experience, etc. are either fanatical, lazy, or fooling themselves.  An ideologue will look to solutions that fit his or her ideological stance.  A pragmatist will look for solutions that work.  What makes presidents like FDR and Reagan stand out is their ability to recognize solutions beyond the ideological strait-jackets worn by their coterie of advisers.  FDR threw a bunch of programs at the Great Depression.  Some worked.  Some didn’t.  The greatest strength and greatest weakness of a democracy is its flexibility.  Reagan entered office as a conservative Cold Warrior but left office by espousing such notions like nuclear disarmament.  Even with all the votes counted and special interests sated, the talking points memorized and the Luntzisms deployed, one never knows what the Presidency will be like.  The future is unwritten and historical change is unpredictable.  Who could have foreseen the Berlin Wall collapsing or the Arab Spring?

On the domestic front, no major party is entitled to your vote and you are not obligated to give it to them.  How come, in a nation and culture that prizes its countless options in entertainment, food stuffs, and just about any other commodity, we are happy and docile when it comes to having only two choices when it comes to politics?  Are we too scared or too unimaginative to think of any other choices?  And when people say, “Don’t throw your vote away!”  What are they really saying?  For all their rhetoric and bombast, are they nothing more than spineless cowards afraid to see beyond the status quo?    Saying “both parties suck” is not the same as saying “both parties are the same.”  Both parties can suck, but in different ways.  Anyone with a beating heart and modicum of moral outrage understand this, even if they won’t voice it.

Fear-mongering is the currency of the desperate.  Useful idiots from both major parties do it constantly.  Shut them down.  Call them on it.  Pat Buchanan and Noam Chomsky have made their careers on fear-mongering.  Both Buchanan and Chomsky are highly intelligent and committed individuals.  They are also tireless ideologues with legions of loyal fans.  While one may sound more “truthful” than the other, it doesn’t matter to me.  Enduring the tales of Right Wing Apocalypse or Left Wing Apocalypse just gets tiresome after a while.  Then again, when did moderation and a nuanced perspective ever sell any books in the Current Affairs section?  Obama is a dictator who will steal your guns and Bibles.  The Religious Right will turn the United States into a repressive theocracy at any moment.  While government over-reach is a relevant topic and the church-and-state separation highly important, wouldn’t it be nice to read something that didn’t look it was written by someone at the Weekly World News?

And finally, we have the political fringes.  For all of Occupy Wall Street’s street theater, they have never occupied a single seat of government at any level.  Unless you want to get a seat in local government and begin the hard work of crafting legislation to actually change things, everything Occupy does is completely useless.  It is the feeble posturing of trust fund narcissists.  The Tea Party, despite being a bunch of bad spellers, fascist wannabes, and pious hypocrites, have seized control of the GOP and forced the party even farther to the Right.  It is the rebirth of the John Birch Society with some George Lincoln Rockwell thrown in.  But, sure, yeah, Occupy, throw some more Chomsky quotes on your Facebook wall while you sit at the coffee shop.  That’ll totally solve things.
But back to the election of 1968 and Nixon’s triumph.  In a tight race, what is “throwing away your vote”?  Giving it to either of the two major parties or gambling on a third choice?  Who has more power in that situation?  Change is good.  America is in desperate need for quite a bit of it.  But without power, change cannot happen.  People are wont to say “All politics is local.”  Usually in response to some critic lamenting our two party system.  True … ish.  All politics is local, but all politics is power.  Wielding it, understanding how it works, readings its ebbs and flows.  LBJ understood this … up to a point.  Nixon understood this … up to a point.  The American voter doesn’t understand this at all.  Slogans, outrage, limited choices.  Rinse, lather, repeat.

The Greatest Comeback is a valuable read because it exposes the machinations, dumb luck, and smart choices made by the Nixon campaign in 1968.  One can’t understand power unless one knows how power works.  Buchanan’s book is an invaluable primer on the topic.

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