As President George W. Bush conducted the final press conference of his tenure in the White House today, he was relaxed and reflective. He is clearly looking forward to riding off into the Texas sunset to enjoy life as a member of the former-presidents-club.
He covered a lot of ground today in a little less than an hour – stopping short of giving significant overt advice to his successor. He did, however, have some counsel for the Republican Party – and he reached back into political history for an example.
He mentioned 1964 and the Goldwater electoral debacle and how the party came back in 1966. He failed, though, for whatever reason (likely just an extemporaneous oversight) to give credit where credit was due.
The architect of the dynamic recovery of the GOP during the turbulent 1960s – particularly the crucial year of 1966 – was Richard Nixon, a man who at the time was already the embodiment of the peaks and valleys of politics.
Ironically, one of the great political stories of the last half of the 20th century, a story mentioned today during President Bush’s last press conference, began in another epic meeting between the press and a weary politician. But no one could possibly foresee at the time that they were witnessing the beginning of a great comeback for the Republicans and Nixon himself.
Shortly after Mr. 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.
Hiss 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 show, and revealed significant and enduring latent sympathy for Nixon on the part of many Americans.
Nixon, at least for a time, 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.
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 Nelson Rockefeller and George 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.
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.”
But before anyone could focus on 1968, the midterm elections of 1966 loomed large as an opportunity to gain ground. From his law office at 20 Broad Street in New York, Nixon formed the beginnings of a team that would eventually take him to the White House.
Richard Nixon crisscrossed the country campaigning for local candidates, along the way building a network (what we’d today, a database) of relationships and political IOU’s. He even managed to provoke an outburst of presidential temper from Lyndon Johnson just days before the election, giving Nixon the chance to get time on TV to respond with grace.
And Richard Nixon emerged from the 1966 campaign as the clear leader of the party. Others would have brief moments in the Republican political sun en route to 1968, but Nixon had the hearts of the party faithful.
This was a happy time for Richard Nixon. The pain of past defeats – in 1960 and 1962 – was gone, and the future looked bright because it was. In many ways, the 1966 campaign may have been the high point for Richard Nixon as a political tactician – though his name was not on any ballot.
The 1966 recovery that Mr. Bush spoke about today was Richard Nixon’s recovery and it made his victory in 1968 possible.
On that election night in November of 1966, after the returns were in and all indications pointed to a Republican sweep, Nixon took a group to Manhattan’s El Morocco nightclub for spaghetti (an unusual selection from the menu) and friends noted that they had never seen him happier. In between bites of pasta and meatballs, people came by the table to shake Nixon’s hand. One observer suggested: “it was that sort of an after-the-football-game atmosphere.”
That night Richard Nixon experienced the beginnings of a political resurrection.
Maybe the Republicans should take a good look back at those days. The definitive account of that campaign is found in a now-out-of-print book, but one that should be on the GOP must-read list – The Resurrection of Richard Nixon by Jules Witcover.