Like the portraits of Donald J. Trump and George W. Bush that hang in the living room of American consciousness, commonly accepted depictions of Richard Milhous Nixon are usually more a caricature than an authentic portrayal. Americans who lived through the Nixon era tend to view the 37th president as a clownish, Archie Bunker reactionary, waving the goofy “V” victory pose or nervously perspiring in front of a hostile TV camera. Later generations have been treated to mockery in Nixon movies, on TV and via kitschy retro campaign buttons and t-shirts.
One of the most iconic (and ridiculous) portraits of Nixon can be found in Oliver Stone’s 1995 movie of the same name. Stone’s Nixon, played by Anthony Hopkins, is an outlandish, paranoid buffoon, whose clownish facial movements and ridiculous gesticulations were so patently outrageous that even leftist film critics expressed disgust. Generation X and the Millennials were treated to Nixon’s appearance on The Simpsons in which the president met secretly with count Dracula and other shadowy members of the Springfield Republican Party.
But it is not only the left who view Nixon as a comic book villain; among conservatives, the very word “Nixon” is at best the punch line of a joke and at worst kryptonite, especially to a Republican candidate. Virtually every contemporary Republican candidate to run for our nation’s highest office since the end of the Reagan era has attempted to mold himself as the new Gipper, ready to usher in the prosperity, confidence and strength of the affluent 1980s. If Nixon is the greatest loser and embarrassing anachronism, the handsome, charming and articulate Reagan was everything Nixon was not. Worse than any crime he may or may not have committed during the Watergate scandal, Nixon committed the cardinal American sin of being uncool, and America has hated him for it. It has taken the work of a Nixon confidant whose very name is even more toxic than Nixon’s in contemporary political discourse to shed light on the real Nixon: Patrick J. Buchanan.
Like Nixon, Buchanan is mostly known through caricature. Derided as a conspiracy theorist, racist, anti-Semite and, perhaps worst of all, traditionalist Catholic, Buchanan has on one level at least made his living as a professional bomb thrower. His 2001 book, The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrants Invasions Imperil Our Culture and Civilization, exposed the lingering anxiety of Westerners who increasingly have felt like a minority in their own countries as immigration from developing nations overwhelmed them. Then in Where the Right Went Wrong (2007) and A Republic, not An Empire (2013) among other works, Buchanan set his sights on the neoconservative movement, trouncing the interlopers who had created a new liberalized and imperialistic conservativism.
On the other hand, there is the serious, more measured Buchanan who chronicles the life and death of American Catholic communities in his passionate autobiography of his early life, Right from the Beginning. There is also the Buchanan the Cold Warrior who worked for both the Nixon and Reagan administrations, championing the cause of authentic Christian freedom against unjust and murderous tyranny. It is these sides of Buchanan as well as this Nixon whom we see in The Greatest Comeback (New York: Crown Forum, 2014).
The Nixon of The Greatest Comeback is more than anything a dogged fighter and a shrewd politician, who, under extreme duress and an underdog for most of his life, never gave up. Having to fight off Eisenhower’s attempt to dump Nixon as vice president in 1956 (it was only on his deathbed that Ike gave his 11th hours support to Nixon 1968 campaign), Nixon was able to not only endure but accomplish several comebacks from multiple defeats. An indefatigable campaigner, Nixon established a Republican collation that led to his wins in 1968 and 1972 and started a conservative movement that would dominate American politics into the 21st century. But more than just the skilled politician, in The Greatest Comeback, we see a sincere, honest portrait of a noble American.
Rather than being the Archie Bunker racist characterized by the Left, Nixon, the son of a Quaker mother viewed himself as a liberal and was one of the architects of affirmative action. While Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” is often narrated by leftists as Nixon showing his racist tail feathers to draw supporters from George Wallace, Buchanan makes it evident that Nixon drew supporters from Wallace precisely because Nixon was not racist and presented himself as the level-headed liberal in contrast to the rabble rousing Wallace and his trigger-happy vice presidential candidate, General Curtis Lemay. Buchanan admits that it was the “long hot summers” of urban rioting from 1964 to 1968 that propelled Nixon into the White House, but Buchanan rightly points out that American voters chose Nixon, the candidate of law and order not Wallace, the alleged candidate of race baiting. A personal friend of the soul singer James Brown, Nixon was a law and order candidate who attempted to appeal to the conservative instincts in the black community.
The Greatest Comeback is Buchanan’s most professionally written work. The prose is tight and his tone is full of scholarly rumination more than the “pitch fork brigade” language for which he is known. There are times when the grumpy old man comes out to make emotionally charged asides about the mutation of the civil rights movement into Black Nationalism, quoting some of the harsher statements of Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X. However, these asides are rare, and we see an attempt by Buchanan to adjust not only Nixon’s but his own image in the public mind, and he is largely successful.
One of the most interesting sections of The Greatest Comeback is Nixon’s 1966 and 1967 visits to Israel. Called the best friend Israel ever had by Golda Meir, Nixon was the first Republican president to support Israel and created a precedent that has been repeated by every Republican president since. Perhaps even more interestingly, Buchanan reveals that he himself once admired Israel. Rather than seeing Israel as the anti-Arab bully, Buchanan’s Nixon and Nixon’s Buchanan both supported Israel as the underdog and friend of the United States against the Soviet Union and Middle Eastern despots. Both Nixon and Buchanan identified with the older generation of Israelis like the eye patched-adorned Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin, stalwart soldiers who fought with their back against the wall but still made sincere overtures toward peace with the Arab world.
The trips to Israel are not the only revelations Buchanan makes of Nixon and himself. While during the 2000s, Buchanan lambasted George W. Bush and the neocons for their Wilsonian foreign policy, Nixon himself was a devotee of Wilson and viewed himself as the quintessential liberal. While Buchanan takes shots at Wilson’s liberal imperialism, the author points out that Nixon, who once gave Buchanan a collection of Wilson’s speeches, was immensely attracted to Wilson’s notion of a “just and lasting peace” and identified with Wilson’s self-sacrificial idealism, for which Buchanan also expresses some admiration. It is these glimpses into another side to both Nixon and Buchanan that make The Greatest Comeback standout amidst other Nixon scholarship and the junkyard of Nixon kitsch in pop culture.
In his syndicated columns and increasingly rarer and rarer television appearances, Patrick Buchanan continues to sound the death knell of West Civilization. In the political arena, Donald Trump has taken the Buchanan mantel, and with an even more aggressive and slicker presentation of the American straight-from-the-gut patriotism, has proved to be an extremely successful politician. Feeling an extreme desperation that even the cultural changes of 1968 did not produce, the silent majority and its children and grandchildren are no longer silent and no longer a majority. Treating an ironically both very similar and very different time in the nation’s history, The Greatest Comeback may end up being Buchanan’s best work. In a political climate in which it is difficult to distinguish the villains on the campaign trail from those on the all too popular superhero movies that monopolize the box office, The Greatest Comeback presents an authentic portrait of a president who was a sincere gentleman and one of the most skilled professional politicians to win the presidency. The Greatest Comeback is a look back at a man and a campaign that seemed marked by excess and extremism, but, in fact, was not. There is no question that both the Republican and Democratic parties can produce a candidate that galvanizes the same level of hatred and contempt as Nixon did; time will tell if either party will be able to produce a candidate as brilliant, strong, and skilled as Richard Milhous Nixon.