Nixon’s man was a pre­cur­sor to Trump

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Troy Bram­ston

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

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