When Richard Nixon won the White House in 1968 it was Pat Buchanan – the modern day conservative columnist and commentator- who was by his side, at the time as a young aide. Now Buchanan is detailing that experience in a new book, “The Greatest Comeback,” which charts how Nixon rebounded from double disses – losing the White House to John F. Kennedy in 1960 and the California governor’s mansion to Democrat Pat Brown in 1962.
Buchanan, going back through the old correspondence, found that Ronald Reagan, who was elected governor of California at the time, may have played an important role.
“I sort of pieced together the fact that there was indeed a deal between Reagan and Nixon,” Buchanan told Whispers. “To let Nixon go first and run in the primaries, and if Nixon succeeded dramatically and really walked through New Hampshire and Wisconsin, Reagan would stay out.”
More clearly put, both men were eyeing the White House in 1968. They also wanted to see a Republican elected. But neither wanted to see one of the “liberal Republicans,” as Buchanan labels them, ascend to the top of the ticket, meaning Michigan Gov. George Romney (Mitt Romney’s dad) and Nelson Rockefeller, the New York governor who is portrayed in the book as being a constant thorn in Nixon’s side. If Nixon was badly bloodied in these early primaries, Reagan was free to jump in, Buchanan explained.
“There clearly seemed to be a Nixon-Reagan entente here, directed against the Rockefeller-Romney alliance,” Buchanan wrote. Two days after winning the Wisconsin primary, Nixon reached out to Reagan thanking him for “using [his] influence to discourage some of [his] more enthusiastic supporters who understandably wanted to launch a major campaign in [Reagan’s] behalf.” Reagan wrote back saying he was happy Nixon understood the “touchy position” the California governor was in because of the overzealous supporters in his state.
Buchanan was tickled to discover these exchanges.
“I had forgotten a number of things that are in there,” he said of his personal archive. “I come off a little more usefully aggressive than I thought I was,” he said laughing, explaining that he intended to pen a memoir, not necessarily break new historical ground.
Buchanan joined Nixon’s staff way before another White House run was planned, in December 1965, on a one-year contract to respond to the backlog of mail the failed presidential candidate had received.
“It was a golden opportunity to be right there at the creation,” Buchanan said. And thus, he’s literally next to the candidate the entire tumultuous year of 1968, which saw the double assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the launch of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the rise of George Wallace, the Democratic governor of Alabama and pro-segregationist, who ran for president as an independent.
Besides these serious bits of history, there’s more colorful scenes too, especially when the media was involved. In one, Nixon tries to kick a New York Times reporter off the campaign plane and Buchanan has to broker a deal so the journalist, who had misquoted the candidate, can stay on. In another, Hunter S. Thompson, the famed “gonzo” journalist, is smoking and flicking his lighter next to Nixon’s plane, which is refueling. “The possibility existed that Hunter that night could have blown himself, Nixon, and the rest of us into the next world,” recounted Buchanan.
As for Reagan, he’s portrayed as the nice guy who stood to the side and as a potential vice presidential candidate. But, in the end, he didn’t make the cut. Nixon chose Spiro Agnew, the governor of Maryland, instead.
“I realized that the choice of Reagan as running mate would risk a redivided Republican Party, which we had come so close to uniting,” Buchanan explained.
And Reagan would ultimately get his chance, carrying 44 states and winning the White House, 12 years later in 1980.