Nixon’s White House Wars: The Battles That Made and Broke a President and Divided America Forever
by Patrick J. Buchanan.
Crown Forum, 2017.
Hardcover, 436 pages, $30.
To read Pat Buchanan’s memoir of his tour of duty during President Richard Nixon’s White House wars is to gain solid insight into the state of the Republican party then—and now. There is also plenty to be learned about related matters, not the least of which include Richard Nixon himself, the men around the president, and why this president valued one of these men in particular.
By his own accounting, Buchanan could write memos “swiftly, tersely, wittily and well” on subjects that Nixon loved to devour, namely the three p’s of “politics, policy, and personalities.” As for the last, here is Buchanan on Gene McCarthy in 1968: “an arrogant mystic with a messianic streak.” It’s no wonder that Nixon loved having him on hand. Fine, there is a little horn-tooting going on in these pages. But why not? Far more often than not, when Buchanan toots, it’s worth reading.
Of course, Buchanan was not the only man around Nixon whom Nixon valued. That would not have been a problem for Nixon or Buchanan had there been a consistently conservative point of view among the president’s advisers. But such was never the case. Part of the problem was the paucity of seasoned conservative thinkers and doers in those still early days of the conservative movement. And part of the problem was Nixon himself.
None of this is meant to suggest that Buchanan regarded himself as the indispensable man in the Nixon White House. But his was an important voice, a voice that Nixon was generally wise to listen to when he did, and a voice that Nixon should have listened to more often than he did.
The Nixon-Buchanan relationship actually had a brief beginning in the mid-1950s when the young Washingtonian caddied for the vice-president at the Burning Tree golf club. Their acquaintance resumed a decade or so later when a still youngish editorial writer for the St. Louis Post Dispatch joined the Nixon team as he began to plot his successful run for the presidency in 1968. Once in the White House, Buchanan remained with Nixonuntil his presidency came to an end.
By his own admission Buchanan wanted to become Nixon’s Ted Sorenson. To some extent, he achieved that status. But if John Kennedy’s voice and Ted Sorenson’s voice were essentially one and the same, the same cannot be said of Nixon and Buchanan. Nixon was never the conservative that Buchanan was. In many crucial respects, Nixon was never a conservative, period. He certainly never became the great conservative president that Buchanan thought he could have been.
Very early on, Buchanan had hoped that Nixon would move—or at least could be persuaded to move—in Buchanan’s preferred political direction. But almost just as early on, Buchanan surrendered those hopes: the ten weeks between Nixon’s election and inauguration were the “most dispiriting” of his entire tour of duty with Nixon.
What happened? In one sense, nothing. In other senses, much happened. The nothing can be explained very simply: Nixon remained Nixon. Never a conservative, he was not about to become one. Herblock’s shaves aside, in this regard there would be no “new Nixon” come January 1969.
Nixon, of course, was no liberal and did not become one. He certainly wasn’t a liberal of the Humphrey or McGovern stripes. So what was he? Perhaps Nixon aide John Ehrlichman had the best answer to this question. As Buchanan relates it, Arthur Burns went to Ehrlichman to protest Nixon’s endorsement of a guaranteed annual income that was being sold as the Family Assistance Plan (FAP). As Burns saw it, the whole idea was antithetical to Nixon’s basic philosophy. Ehrlichman was nonplused: “Don’t you realize that the president doesn’t have a philosophy?”
The FAP was the brainchild of the other witty Irishman who had a piece of Nixon’s ear. That would be one Daniel Patrick Moynihan, or, to borrow from Buchanan, the “terrified liberal academic” whose advice Nixon too often heeded, thereby “forfeiting” his opportunity to be that great conservative president Buchanan wanted him to be. To Nixon, conservatives were always “they,” as in what do “they” think or what do “they” want? He wanted Buchanan on hand to answer such questions. Nixon wanted to be “with them,” but not “of them.”
Nixon may not have had a philosophy, but he did have a strategy. The heart of it was an unwritten deal with the Democrats: He would do nothing to roll back the Great Society; in turn, he would be given a free hand to conduct foreign policy. Like most such deals, it was only partially kept. Nixon left the Great Society initiatives alone and intact, but the Democrats did not leave him alone to conduct foreign policy as he saw fit.
Buchanan was not pleased with either the deal or its results. Disappointed with Nixon’s refusal to so much as hint at dismantling Great Society programs, Buchanan was stunned by Nixon’s support for spending additional money on them, as well as creating more of them. Even more disappointing was Nixon’s 1971 decision to resort to wage and price controls.
Given all of this and more, Buchanan was mystified by the establishment‘s hostility toward Nixon. In truth, its members despised him. Mystified at the time, Buchanan remains perplexed today. Was it a lingering reaction to Congressman Nixon’s role in unmasking Alger Hiss two decades earlier? Possibly. In fact, Buchanan recalls ABC’s Howard K. Smith’s invitation to Alger Hiss to “spit on Nixon’s grave” after losing his race for governor of California in 1962. Once upon a time, the networks really were fair to Republicans? Not quite.
Despite Nixon’s less-than-stellar conservative credentials, Buchanan remained loyal to him. More than that, there was much about Nixon the politician and Nixon the leader that Buchanan respected and appreciated. True, Buchanan came close to resigning after being “disgusted and ashamed” with the Shanghai Communique that concluded Nixon’s opening to China. But he stayed on nonetheless.
Buchanan thought that the decision to conduct a secret investigation of Daniel Ellsberg following the publication of the Pentagon Papers was “ridiculous.” It would have been far better to fight it out in the open rather than lose a public relations battle because the administration refused to fight. Buchanan also believes Nixon’s handling of the Watergate crisis was a disaster. To this day, Buchanan cannot explain what motivated the initial break-in. Nor can he account for Nixon’s decision to use a voice-activated taping system. Once the existence of the tapes was revealed, Buchanan offered advice that Nixon rejected: destroy the tapes, fire Archibald Cox, and launch a very public counteroffensive.
There is a good deal of criticism of Nixon in these pages, yet this is anything but an anti-Nixon book. Amid the disappointments and regrets is genuine affection for Nixon the man and Nixon the fighter. Nixon may not have fought all ofthe battles that Pat Buchanan wanted him to fight. But fight he did on a number of fronts. The same must be said of another political figure of note, a Republican political figure whose last name begins with A. No, not John Ashbrook, who challenged Nixon from the right in 1972.
This other politician is one who does figure prominently—and favorably—in Buchanan’s story: Vice President Spiro Agnew, for whom Buchanan wrote some very memorable speeches. Once again, Buchanan’s experiences are quite at odds with the usual portrayal of Agnew. Far from a mean-spirited, plodding political hack, the Ted Agnew here is a good-hearted, spirited fighter. Buchanan does not overlook Agnew’s flaws, but he does see beyond them to Agnew’s grasp of Buchanan’s vision of a new Republican party.
That grasp came more naturally to Agnew than it did to Nixon. Not wanting to be upstaged by Agnew, Nixon was also reluctant to embrace Buchanan’s recommendation that the GOP should, nay, must become the working man’s party.
In many respects, both Agnew and Buchanan were the natural politicians that Nixon was not. But in the end—and well before the end of his presidency—Nixon would come to see the political sense of the Buchanan approach, thereby paving the way for the hordes of Reagan Democrats of the 1980s, not to mention the Trump supporters of today.
Buchanan thought that Nixon was preoccupied, even “obsessed,” with the school-busing issue to the exclusion of generating an appeal to Catholics who were increasingly at odds with the Democratic Party. To Buchanan, four issues were prominent: anti-communism, aid to parochial schools, the right to life, and social conservatism generally. On all four fronts traditional Catholics found themselves in various stages of divorce from an increasingly McGovernized Democratic party.
Nixon’s smashing victory over that party in 1972 was the culmination of many of Buchanan’s efforts, efforts that too many of the men around Nixon had sought to thwart. Numbered among them were not just Moynihan, but Ehrlichman and Leonard Garment, as well as fellow speechwriters Ray Price and William Safire.
Their blind eye notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” were there for the taking nearly a half century ago. Buchanan knew it, Agnew grasped it, and Nixon finally came to terms with it. Deplorables they were not. Instead, this was the “silent majority” of the Nixon era. Today it is still largely silent, if reliably Republican. The only problem is that it now constitutes a less-than-reliable majority.
What has happened in the interim speaks volumes about many things, not the least of which include the increasing secularization of American society, the changing demographics within the country, the transformation of our major cities into Democratic enclaves, and the ongoing power of the major media to indict and distort the message that the likes of Buchanan preached then—and continue to preach today.
John C. “Chuck” Chalberg writes from Minnesota. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.