Why Nixon won

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.  



The Admiral and the Ambassador

The Admiral and the Ambassador by Scott Martelle (Chicago Review Press) is a delicious read.  It tells the story of efforts of Ambassador Horace Porter (1837-1921) to retrieve the body of Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones (1747-1792) from a forgotten Paris grave.


Martelle skillfully weaves a series of seemingly unrelated historical vignettes into an entertaining tale.   Martelle describes his exploits as a sailor, navigator, captain and privateer.  He tells the early history of the United States Navy. Martelle portrays John Paul Jones as a superhero from the 1950’s comic books in his account of the capture of the Serapis by Jones’ Bonhomme Richard. 


The Action Between His Majesties Ship Serapis, Commanded by Capt Pearson & The Bonhomme Richard Commanded by Paul Jones, Sept. 23, 1779” by William Elliott, US Naval Academy Museum Collection.

Never again does Jones repeat such success.  After the Revolution, Jones lived in Europe and hired himself out to foreign powers.  Martelle describes Jones’ last years in Paris, alone and in declining health.  Finally, Marlette tells a macabre tale of Jones’ death and funeral—the first of arguably four funerals.

As the book moves into the nineteenth century, Martelle discusses early biographies of Jones, the nature of publishing, and efforts of the Jones family to collect on money Jones earned by capturing British ships and attempts to locate the body.

Horace Porter now enters the picture, as we learn of his exploits in the Civil War—he becomes a Brigadier General—and a confident of U.S. Grant both during the war and the Grant Presidency.   Porter embarks on a career as business executive, civic leader and political mover and shaker, culminating in his appointment by President William McKinley as ambassador to France.

Along the way, Martelle describes the history of Paris during the French Revolution, the destruction of cemeteries, how remains ooze from forgotten graves, and the lack of sanitation of mid-nineteenth century Paris.  Martelle tells the story of the Spanish-American War, Admiral George Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay, the rise of anarchist terror, and the shooting and slow death of President McKinley.

We learn of Porter’s lifestyle as Ambassador to France, and the detective story he directs to unearth Jones’ lead casket, buried below commercial buildings built over an abandoned cemetery.  The description of the excavation and the identification of the corpse is macabre and worthy of a horror movie.

Finally, we learn of the transport of the body to the United States, the reconstruction of the United States Naval Academy, the final burial of Jones in a crypt below the Naval Academy’s chapel.


Scott Martelle

The Admiral and the Ambassador is a combination of a great detective story, vignettes in American history and tales from the macabre.  It is an excellent book.