The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority (Crown Publishing) by Patrick Buchanan
This review is difficult to write. I reject Pat Buchanan’s public views on Jews, Israel and immigrants. Nevertheless, he has produced an excellent book on our most interesting President.
The Greatest Comeback is the story of Nixon’s second bid for the White House, beginning roughly in 1964 through victory in 1968. Buchanan, barely 30 years old, was the campaign’s first researcher and writer. As the campaign staff grew, he remained one of Nixon’s closest advisers, pressing Nixon to turn to the right, out of Buchanan’s own convictions but also his accurate read of the American electorate.
In those days, the Republican Party was an ideological big tent. There were still liberals in the Republican Party, committed to civil rights, government intervention in the economy, and social restructuring. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was the symbol of this shrinking but still potent Eastern Liberal Establishment. There were the Old Guard, who were against everything. Barry Goldwater was their hero. There was the New Right, a younger generation of conservative activists groomed by William F. Buckley of the National Review. In the middle was Richard Nixon, to the right of Rockefeller but committed to activist government.
To win the nomination, Nixon had to push aside the liberals centered around Rockefeller and the conservatives grouping around California Governor Ronald Reagan.
The book is as much about Buchanan as it is about Nixon. Buchanan reveals his political acumen by quoting his campaign memoranda. Nixon assembled strategists from all over the Republican spectrum. Buchanan discusses with fairness the views of these advisors.
Pat Buchanan in 1968
Well written, and smooth to read, The Greatest Comeback is a valuable contribution to the history of the mid-1960’s and adds balance to the usually negative treatment of Nixon.
Two points stand out.
During the campaign for the nomination, one of the advisors pointed out that Nixon had a Goldwater problem. Nixon needed conservative support. However, the general public identified conservatism with Barry Goldwater. In the 1964 campaign, the Democrats painted Goldwater as planning to dismantle all kinds of government programs from Social Security to agriculture. Goldwater was crushed.
Buchanan distinguishes between an operative conservative who wants to dismantle the government and a social conservative. Nixon presented himself as a social conservative. In the 1960’s as today, everyone is against socialism, except for their own socialism.
After winning the nomination, Nixon had two opponents—the Democrat Hubert Humphrey and the segregationist former Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, running on his own ticket. Never did Nixon get more than 43 per cent of the vote in the polls. Wallace was drawing Northern working class Catholics away from Humphrey. In the last month of the campaign, these traditional Democrats were returning to Humphrey.
Buchanan correctly advised Nixon to run hard on the issue of law and order. In the middle 1960’s, American society was coming apart. There were the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, riots in the cities, revolts on college campuses and anti-war demonstrations. Instead of confronting the law- breakers, liberal policy makers and Democratic politicians responded with more government spending.
Buchanan, and ultimately the Nixon campaign, recognized that the public wanted peace at home. In the closing weeks of the campaign Nixon emphasized law and order. He was able to draw enough voters from Wallace to limit Wallace’s victory to five deep South states and edge out Humphrey by the narrowest of margins.
It is tragic that after leaving the Reagan administration, Buchanan embarked on a slow descent into the political netherworld. Buchanan could have been the brilliant conservative intellectual whom this country needs.