Nixon’s man was a precursor to Trump
Pat Buchanan — political adviser, conservative commentator, party insurgent, presidential candidate and perennial gadfly — was Donald Trump before Trump.
Buchanan, 78, ran on an “America First” platform in two bids to become the Republican Party nominee for president in 1992 and 1996, and a third Reform Party bid in 2000. Much of his populist rhetoric on strong borders, free trade scepticism and unease about foreign wars became the issues on which Trump took over the Republican Party from within, then triumphed at the election last November.
These issues percolate through Buchanan’s latest book describing his years as a speechwriter in Richard Nixon’s White House from 1969 to 1974. As he chronicles how Nixon grappled with civil rights, abortion, the opening to China, and a liberal media, Buchanan infuses his own staunchly conservative world view.
In 1962, Buchanan began writing editorials for the St Louis Globe-Democrat. Nixon, the former vice-president (1953-61) who had lost the presidential election to John F. Kennedy in 1960 and the California gubernatorial election to Pat Brown in 1962, was attending a reception in Illinois in late 1965. Buchanan cornered Nixon and suggested that if he was thinking about running for president again, he should “get aboard early”. Nixon, impressed, invited Buchanan to his New York office for a talk and then hired him on the spot. Buchanan’s previous book, The Greatest Comeback (2014), describes how he drafted letters, articles, speeches and wrote strategy memos for Nixon.
But a Nixon comeback was deemed all but impossible. Time magazine concluded that Nixon was finished after losing the California governor’s race: “Barring a miracle, his political career ended last week.” But Nixon could not practice law for the rest of his life. “I would be mentally dead in two years and physically dead in four,” he told Buchanan.
By the time Nixon became president, Buchanan was no longer his closest adviser. Chief-of-staff HR “Bob” Haldeman became Nixon’s confidant. The West Wing became riddled with turf wars between advisers and Nixon was often isolated from frank advice. Buchanan believes Nixon was poorly served by his staff and this contributed to his downfall.
The Nixon presidency has been well served by memoirs. In addition to Haldeman’s diaries there are terrific books by former national security adviser Henry Kissinger, domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman, counsel John Dean, hatchet man Chuck Colson and speechwriters William Safire and Ray Price. Buchanan is one of the last of the Nixon men.
Buchanan provides an arresting narrative of the Nixon presidency. It is detailed and often illuminating, especially on internal Republican Party matters. Buchanan is not shy in describing his own role in the “great silent majority” speech, the “battles” fought against “radical liberals” and the “liberal media”, and helping to craft “the new majority” voting coalition.
He praises Nixon’s handling of the Vietnam war, support for Israel during the Yom Kippur war and negotiating the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT I) and anti-ballistic missile arms treaties. The voting age was lowered to 18, public schools in the south were desegregated, the Environmental Protection Agency was established, the National Cancer Institute was set up and four justices were elevated to the Supreme Court.
What makes Nixon’s White House Wars particularly interesting is the hundreds of memos Buchanan wrote to Nixon that he weaves into the narrative. His 1971 memo titled “neither fish nor fowl” seeking to invest the Nixon presidency with values and vision should be required reading for any latter-day political strategist.
The Watergate scandal did not entangle Buchanan. In 1973, he advised Nixon to be part of the “clean-up crew rather than the cover-up crew”. And later, as the scandal deepened, Buchanan advised Nixon to destroy his secret tape recordings and fire the special prosecutor. Not doing so “cost him his presidency”.
Buchanan remains loyal to Nixon despite disagreeing with his political strategy — or lack thereof — at times and his policies towards China and the Soviet Union. Buchanan saw Nixon as a centrist who left too much of Lyndon Johnson’s “great society” in place. He acknowledges that Nixon may not have always been truthful, drank to excess as Watergate metastasised and was “close to cracking” when dealing with anti-war demonstrators.
Buchanan went on to serve Gerald Ford (1974) and, later, Ronald Reagan as communications director (1985-87). He found Ford too consensus-driven and too reluctant to be a political combatant. Reagan, the most ideological, was the president he hoped Nixon would be.
Nixon, unlike Buchanan, has little in common with Trump. For all of Buchanan’s deeply conservative views on guns, gays and God, it is hard not to like him or at least respect him. His advice, as the memos attest, shows a shrewd understanding of politics. “Buchanan, you’re the only extremist I know with a sense of humour,” Nixon told him in 1992. Nixon was a brilliant politician who achieved extraordinary things. He was re-elected with a landslide in 1972. But he was a strange man preoccupied by enemies real and imagined, and tragically destroyed his own presidency. If only he had taken Buchanan’s advice and burned the tapes things may have been different.
is a senior writer with The Australian. His latest book is Paul Keating: The Big-Picture Leader.
Richard Nixon with Elvis Presley at the White House in 1970; inset, Pat Buchanan at the Watergate hearings, 1973