Friday, February 29, 2008

Buckley, Nixon, and Mao - 1972

(Column written for - and )

In February of 1972 three airplanes, two were charter flights, the third was Air Force One, made their way from the United States to China en route to a rendevous with what historian Margaret McMillan has referred to as “the week that changed the world.”

The two charters were a bit ahead of the presidential plane, and they carried everything necessary to insure that the folks back home in America would be able to fully participate by proxy in an epoch event. Its cargo included cameras, technicians – and super stars. On one plane sat Walter Cronkite, Eric Severeid, and a host of news anchors and bureau chiefs – the main stream media of the day – 80 journalists in all.

And right there with them was a singular conservative anti-communist along for the ride – William F. Buckley.

At the time, Mr. Buckley, was the virtual sole equivalent of today’s vast network of talk-radio hosts, conservative columnists, and right leaning pundits. He was THE voice of a movement. And, though he was surely glad to be on board the plane – he was far from on board with the politics of it all.

Richard Nixon, a man who had built his career and reputation on anti-communism, was going to break bread and new ground with the biggest Communist of them all – Mao Tse-tung.

The passing of Mr. Buckley this week at his Connecticut home at the age of 82, has been observed with the appropriate outpouring of eulogies and retrospectives. Often referred to as “The Patron Saint” of American conservatives, he was a consistent voice, whether in the wilderness or on center stage.

During the 1972 trip to China he was near center stage, but the voice was very much that of a wilderness cry.

Bill Buckley and Dick Nixon had a stormy and strained relationship punctuated by occasional periods of awkward fellowship. They had first met in 1957, when Nixon was Vice-President and as Buckley’s fledgling periodical, National Review, was developing cultural and political traction. By all accounts they were mutually impressed. Buckley had admiration for Nixon largely due to his defense of Whitaker Chambers against Alger Hiss. Nixon was drawn to the intellectual gifts of Buckley. This did not, however, translate itself into support for Nixon’s 1960 presidential candidacy. The Vice President was not conservative enough.

As that decade progressed, however, and the 1968 election approached, Mr. Buckley had, for the time being, suspended his hope for a viable die-hard conservative candidacy (he had passionately backed Goldwater in 1964), and instead he resigned himself to settling for a not-so-conservative candidate, if said contender might be sufficiently open to conservative ideas and influence. Following a meeting at Nixon’s Manhattan apartment in January of 1967, Buckley was well on his way to supporting Nixon for President. His support was more than beneficial that year – it was crucial. One way he helped was to use his television program, Firing Line, to score debating points (in a non-debate campaign year) on third-party contender, George Wallace, during an animated interview a shortly before the election.

By 1972, however, William F. Buckley had become decidedly unhappy with President Nixon. Though there were many issues troubling him, the announcement on July 15, 1971 that the President was planning to travel to China early the next year was when these concerns reached critical mass. China was evil; so was the Soviet Union. The developing d├ętente was anathema to real conservatives. Period.

In spite of this, he had been invited to join the trip largely through the influence of Nixon aide Pat Buchanan, who himself had serious reservations about the whole initiative. Apparently the idea was to somehow bring Bill Buckley, and by extension the conservative movement, into the China card fold.

It didn’t work. Buckley didn’t budge. In fact, quite the contrary – he was emboldened in his anti-communism. Writing at the time about Nixon’s hyper-generous toasts to Mao and company, the very scene of which clearly distressing him, he said:

“It is unreasonable to suppose that anywhere in history have a few dozen men congregated who have been responsible for greater human mayhem than the hosts at this banquet and their spiritual colleagues, instruments all of Mao Tse-tung. The effect was as if Sir Hartley Shawcross had suddenly risen from the prosecutor’s stand at Nuremberg and descended to embrace Goering and Goebbels and Doenitz and Hess, begging them to join with him in the making of a better world.”

Then in response to the Shanghai Communique – the formal statement issued at the end of the trip pledging progress toward the ultimate normalization of relations between the two nations – Buckley opined: “We have lost – irretrievable – any remaining sense of moral mission in the world.”

Following the China trip, William F. Buckley flirted briefly with supporting the quixotic presidential bid of very conservative Ohio Congressman John Ashbrook. But the emergence of George McGovern’s liberal candidacy for the Democrats managed to keep the conservative intellectual giant in the Nixon fold for 1972.

And this week so many old Nixon hands are fondly and appropriately remembering the contrarian conservative as a giant. He didn’t always play ball, but he was a vital and interesting part of the history being made back then.

Mr. Buckley was a man who called them as he saw them. Yet, he seemed to be able to combine a flair for fierce and combative words and deeds with warm personal charm and authenticity – the kind that resonated with others who didn’t always share his views. Possibly his ultimate legacy will be larger than his ideas and will include his manner and method, as well.

Franklin Roosevelt was said to have had “a second rate intellect, but a first rate temperament.” William F. Buckley had equal measure, exceedingly high, of both to serve as bookends for his larger-than-life persona. That’s why he was so well respected and his voice will cry from the wilderness for quite some time following his peaceful passing this week. - DRS

Thursday, February 21, 2008

What Would Nixon Do in 2008

(this column written for

What Would Nixon Do in 2008?
By David R. Stokes

As Republicans fall in line, some reluctantly, behind the McCain candidacy, it isn’t the first time passionate GOP partisans have had to decide whether or not to settle or sit one out. Conservatives in the GOP might do well to take a look at history and ask what previous party standard bearers would do if they were around today.

Richard M. Nixon’s career was mixture of the high mountains and deep valleys he spoke about during his East Room farewell in August of 1974. But, there is no doubt that he was a powerful force in American politics for nearly a quarter of a century during a time of internal change and external challenge for America.

Whatever ultimate judgments people from across the political spectrum might have about Mr. Nixon, no one can dispute that he knew a thing or two about elections and political campaigns. He was on a national ticket five times (1952, 1956, 1960, 1968, and 1972) and successful four of those times. No one on the American political scene today approaches that record. Only Franklin D. Roosevelt matched it.

In my opinion, some of Richard Nixon’s most impressive achievements were in the way he handled things when he was out of power. He had a particular knack for dealing with adversity that served him well - seeing as he also had a tendency to invite conflict into his life and career. That the ability to navigate the deep waters of wilderness, rejection, and even exile, was intrinsic to his self-image is indicated by his best-selling book written in1962. That autobiographical work was entitled simply: “Six Crises.”

It is, however, from another moment in his career – one well after he wrote about six of his earlier political battles – that we find an example of party fidelity and political wisdom that speaks powerfully to current dynamics in the Republican Party.

This moment is not from 1960 or 1968, but rather from the year when the wheels fell off for Republicans – 1964.

Largely remembered as the year of the electoral massacre of Barry Goldwater by Lyndon Johnson, there is an interesting subplot to the story, one directed and dominated by the man who would four years later be elected as the 37th President of the United States.

Shortly after Richard Nixon’s rambling and anger-driven “last press conference” on the night of his defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial race – when he uttered the infamous phrase “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” – ABC News aired a program with the catchy title “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon.” This brazen broadcast was hosted by Howard K. Smith and included, among guests driving nails into the former Vice President’s political coffin, an old Nixon nemesis – Alger Hiss. His was a convicted perjurer and was thought by many to have been a Soviet spy (an allegation proven to be true after the end of the Cold War). The uproarious response to this television program led to the eventual cancellation of Smith’s new show, and revealed significant and enduring latent sympathy for Nixon on the part of many Americans.

Nixon, however, seemed resigned to the fact that his electoral life was most likely over. He moved his family from California to New York, and immersed himself in what would become a very successful law practice. He would speak out on issues from time to time, but it wasn’t likely that he’d run for office again – at least that was the conventional wisdom. Nixon was poised to be an ironically young (at 50 years of age) elder party statesman.

Meanwhile, Barry Goldwater was well on his way to capturing the 1964 GOP nomination. He had supported the more moderate Nixon in 1960 while telling conservative Republicans that it was time for them to “grow up” – challenging them to become better organized. And grow up they did.

In the immediate wake of the Kennedy assassination in November of 1963 there was some initial speculation that the 1964 election might favor another Nixon candidacy, but the former Vice President observed how quickly and effectively President Johnson positioned himself in his new office, and correctly saw him as virtually unbeatable. It’s true that he had some difficulty totally putting the idea of a run against Johnson out of his mind. He flirted here and there with it – but ultimately resigned himself to the inevitability of Goldwater.

And this is where Richard Nixon demonstrated his political savvy and skill in a way that should be remembered by Republicans in 2008.

It was clear that the two other big Republican guns in 1964, Governors Nelson Rockefeller of New York and George Romney of Michigan, had little interest in supporting Barry Goldwater. Nixon, however, knew that anyone who really wanted to have a serious future shot at a presidential nomination could not afford to be a bystander, no matter how bad the results November might turn out to be.

Arriving in San Francisco that year for the Republican Convention, Mr. Nixon made his position perfectly clear: “I for one Republican don’t intend to sit out, or take a walk” – an obvious signal to Goldwater supporters and detractors. And, while Rockefeller was shouted down as he addressed the crowd that week, Nixon was received warmly.

In fact, historian Stephen Ambrose suggested that Richard Nixon’s speech at the 1964 Republican National Convention was the opening speech of his 1968 candidacy.

The future president told his party: “Before this convention we were Goldwater Republicans, Rockefeller Republicans, Scranton Republicans, Lodge Republicans, but now that this convention has met and made its decision, we are Republicans, period, working for Barry Goldwater…And to those few, if there are some, who say that they are going to sit it out or take a walk, or even go on a boat ride, I have an answer in the words of Barry Goldwater in 1960 – ‘Let’s grow up, Republicans, let’s got to work – and we shall win in November!”

Of course, not all Republicans went to work that year (most notably Rockefeller and Romney – a fact not forgotten by conservatives four years later) – but Nixon did. Immediately following the convention, he orchestrated a meeting between former President Eisenhower and Goldwater, gaining a valuable endorsement from Ike.

Then in the fall, Nixon took a leave of absence from his law practice and spent five intense weeks traveling to thirty-six states and delivering more than one hundred and fifty speeches on behalf of the national GOP ticket and state and local candidates. In doing so, he established (and, in some cases reestablished) relationships he would turn to for help when achieving stunning victories (credited by most to Nixon’s efforts) two years later in the 1966 mid-term elections. This paved the way for his ultimate triumph, the Republican nomination and general election victory in 1968.

Goldwater and Nixon were never close friends, and disagreed on many matters of politics and policy – but they understood the importance of discipline and loyalty in a two-party system. In 1960 the conservative worked for the moderate. In 1964, the moderate worked for the conservative. They saw it as the right and smart thing to do.

On January 22, 1965, just two days after Lyndon Johnson was sworn in for his new term, Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon attended a meeting of the Republican National Committee. During his remarks, the man who had been beaten by Lyndon Johnson turned to Richard Nixon and expressed his gratitude for making an extraordinary effort on behalf of his candidacy telling him: “Dick I will never forget it.” He then told him that he would happily return the favor in the future adding - “if there ever comes a time, I am going to do all I can.”

The time came in 1968 and the rest, as they say, is history.