As I listened to the well earned and much deserved tributes paid this past weekend to the life and legacy of Ronald Reagan on his centennial, and thought about RN’s coming 100th birthday in 2013, I recalled this anecdote from Reagan’s memoir:
In 1962, while campaigning for Nixon during his unsuccessful attempt to unseat California’s Democratic governor…I made it official: I spoke to a Republican fund-raising event near my home in Pacific Palisades and a woman in the audience stood up in the middle of my speech and asked me: “Have you registered as a Republican yet?”
Well, no, I haven’t yet,” I said, “but I intend to.”
“I’m a registrar,” she said, and walked down the center aisle through the audience and placed a registration form in front of me. I signed it and became a Republican, then said to the audience, “Now, where was I?”
I smiled at the memory that Ronald Reagan became a Republican while campaigning for Richard Nixon. While they had met one another several times in previous years, 1962 was the beginning of what would develop into a long relationship that served both men well during the course of their political careers.
Opponents for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, political allies during RN’s presidency, confidants during Reagan’s, and finally members of the most exclusive group in the world – former presidents of the United States – Nixon and Reagan’s political trajectories were closely linked at important points in their own political careers.
The year 1966 was a pivotal political year for both Nixon and Reagan. Nixon, whom most had written off after his narrow loss to JFK in 1960 and his defeat for governor of California in 1962, proved in 1966 that the reports of his political demise had been greatly exaggerated. That same year, Reagan, leveraging the favorable national exposure he received in 1964 as a highly effective spokesman for the Republican Party, was first elected governor of California.
In 1966, Nixon campaigned energetically and effectively for Republican candidates across the nation. His efforts on behalf of the GOP – and a pivotal nationwide television address he made two days before the election on behalf of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee – closely linked him to the enormous gains the GOP made in that off-year election. Nixon later wrote that his effort during that campaign, “[r]enewed my credentials as a national spokesman and a fighting campaigner. It also served to identify me with the Republican victory.”
Reagan’s debut on the national political stage in 1964 with a televised speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater raised his political profile to an entirely new level. Republicans in California successfully urged Reagan to run for governor. Despite efforts to dismiss him as a political lightweight (a mistake his political opponents would consistently make), on Election Day 1966, Reagan trounced the incumbent, Pat Brown, by nearly a million votes, carrying all but two counties statewide. His huge victory immediately placed him on many pundits’ lists as a GOP presidential candidate in 1968.
Indeed, in 1968 Nixon and Reagan were both candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, although Reagan‘s effort was not a serious one (as he relates himself in the scant 2 ½ pages he devotes to the subject in his 1990 memoir, Ronald Reagan: An American Life). Nixon, of course, prevailed in 1968. And Reagan would run twice more before finally winning the White House in 1980.
Despite Reagan’s late effort to deny him the nomination in 1968, Nixon harbored no bitterness either during his successful campaign or during his presidency. Indeed, Nixon and Reagan were natural political allies during RN’s White House years. As governor of California, Reagan represented America’s largest state and one of the world’s largest economies. Their political support for one another was valued by – and valuable to – each of them.
President Nixon helped Reagan build his own foreign policy credentials by sending him on four international goodwill missions. Reagan also credits Nixon with making possible the implementation of Reagan’s welfare reform efforts in California by personally intervening with the federal bureaucracy to give those efforts the green light.
For his part, Nixon valued Reagan’s steadfast support for both his domestic and foreign policy agendas. In his memoirs, Nixon notes his appreciation of Reagan’s support for his controversial decision in December 1972 to resume military action against military targets in North Vietnam to bring the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table to conclude the agreement that ended the war. Reagan was also on Nixon’s short list for vice president following Spiro Agnew’s resignation in October 1973.
During Reagan’s presidency, he often solicited RN’s advice on a wide array of issues. Reagan’s diaries record his consultations with RN on topics ranging from arms talks with the Soviets (“Dick had a h – -l [sic] of a good idea on the arms negotiations”) to eating in China (“We heeded Dick Nixon’s advice & didn’t ask what things were – we just swallowed them”). Reagan also had a practice of calling RN on January 9 to wish him a happy birthday.
Over the course of their political lives, RN and RR could be viewed as friendly rivals – sometimes in direct competition, more often allied on the same side, but always competing, as all people who seek to achieve great things in the same arena always do (think Mantle and Maris in the summer of 1961, each striving to top Babe Ruth’s single season home run record).
Today, Nixon and Reagan could be seen as friendly rivals for the judgment of history, especially as credit is apportioned for the end of the Cold War. I believe that each president – the policies they pursued and the thinking that informed them – was indispensible to bringing about the conclusion of that long, challenging period in American history. There is ample credit enough for both of them
When Ronald Reagan asked the rhetorical question, “Now, where was I?” after signing that voter registration card almost 50 years ago, few imagined (except, perhaps, themselves) where either he or Richard Nixon would go in the years ahead or how their lives would be measured.
As I reflect on Reagan’s centennial – and think about RN’s in 2013 – one possible evaluation of both men might be found in RN’s own musing on Reagan, as reported by Monica Crowley in her book, Nixon Off the Record. “Reagan was the right president at the right time. He did what he thought was best. As we all did… He was a very good leader at a time of great events.” I think Ronald Reagan might well have said that those same words could apply to Richard Nixon.