A conservative since I can remember, I had been a backer of Barry Goldwater from the day Richard Nixon conceded in 1960. Arriving at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat from Columbia Journalism School in June 1962, I had maneuvered myself onto the editorial page by August. The Globe-Democrat had backed Goldwater for the nomination, but when he went down to defeat, I wrote a 2,000-word essay: “What Is the Future for Conservatism?”
“Was the Goldwater candidacy the high-water mark of a conservative tide which will now ebb back into the footnotes of history?” I asked. After detailing the mistakes of the candidate and campaign, perhaps too harshly, I answered, “No, no matter that the scribes of the left are now publishing their meticulously prepared elegies over conservatism, the movement was not repudiated and is by no means dead. It was Mr. Goldwater who was repudiated and may well be politically dead.” At the essay’s end, I ventured a prediction that has stood the test of time.
[T]he new conservatism antedated Goldwater, made him a national figure to rival Presidents, and will post-date him. For that conservatism depends primarily for its momentum upon one fact: The abject failure of the ideology of Western liberalism to either halt or reverse the advance of totalitarian Communism. As there is no sign today liberalism has learned how to check that advance, there is no sign the conservative movement will wither and die. It has lost a battle, not the war.
In early December 1965, I learned that Nixon would be speaking at a Republican gathering in Belleville, Illinois, across the river from St. Louis, filling in for an ailing Everett Dirksen. And Globe- Democrat cartoonist Don Hesse, a good friend, would be hosting the reception following. I wanted to meet Nixon to see if I might get aboard his 1968 campaign early, a campaign I saw as inevitable. I was certain he was going to run, that his only serious rival was Romney, and that an alignment of the conservative movement with the Nixon Republicans could ensure his nomination.
After three years of writing editorials, I was losing my enthusiasm. Although I was perhaps in line to be editorial editor before my thirtieth birthday, the prospect of a life in St. Louis, writing editorials, no longer held the attraction it once did. “It is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes. I believed that then, and I had a card to play with Nixon.
Ten years before, I had been sitting on the caddie log at the all-male Burning Tree Club where Eisenhower golfed, when the plaid golf bag of the vice president was brought out, and the pro stared over at me and my friend Pete Cook, the only white caddies. The veteran caddies had taken out their afternoon bags. So it was that I spent four hours with Vice President Nixon. My memories of that day sixty years ago endure. In his early forties, Nixon, of medium height and build, was not a natural athlete. His swing was stiff and jerky. His drives were grounders, pop flies, an occasional single. I spent time avoiding the poison ivy finding his ball. But something else was obvious. Nixon was happy out there with the guys at that all-male club. He was enjoying himself hugely. Seeing a familiar figure across a fairway, Nixon shouted, “Hey, Stu, what are you doing out here? There’s a vote up on the Hill!.” “Tell ’em to shove it up their pratt!” hollered back Senator Stu Symington of Missouri.
Nixon laughed heartily and played on.
In Hesse’s kitchen, I brought up with Nixon our previous encounter, mentioned the plaid bag and the names of the pro at Burning Tree, Max Elbin, and the assistant pro, Don Sailer, to convince Nixon I was not making this up. “If you’re going to run in ’68,” I said, “I’d like to get aboard early.”
Unimpressed by my title of assistant editorial editor, Nixon wanted to know what I wrote. As there were only two writers on the editorial page at the Globe-Democrat, other than the editor, I told him I wrote on all issues, foreign and domestic, three or four editorials a day. As for my getting aboard early, Nixon said, 1968 would hinge on how the party did in recouping its losses in 1964, and that was where his energies would be directed, on the campaign a year off, in 1966.
The next morning, on the long drive from Belleville to the St. Louis airport, Nixon had questioned Hesse intently about me. My hopes dimmed when I heard nothing for days. Then came a call from New York. Could I, said the familiar voice, fly to New York to talk further? I told the former vice president he should probably ask my publisher. Richard H. Amberg was soon in my office, stunned he had just received a call from Richard Nixon asking permission for me to come visit him. Of course you can go, he said.
That meeting with Nixon after I had waited for hours in the office of his secretary, Rose Mary Woods, made an impression. I had just turned twenty-seven. Nixon was fifty-three, younger than Rockefeller, Romney, or Reagan, though he had been a national figure since I was ten. None of his rivals had a career that remotely matched his. He moved from subject to subject swiftly and pressed me on everything from the war to the conservative movement to civil rights. He was an exhausting interviewer. When Rose interrupted to say Delaware senator John Williams was on the line, I got up to step out of his office. Nixon waved for me to stay and went on to advise Williams on strategy for the tax legislation in Congress.
After three hours, Nixon returned to the issue that seemed most on his mind, ideology:
“You’re not as conservative as Bill Buckley, are you?” he pressed.
I had written a Globe-Democrat endorsement of Buckley for mayor of New York, but felt a noncommittal answer might be best: “I have great respect for Bill Buckley.” At meeting’s end, Nixon said he wanted to hire me for one year. The pay would be $13,500, a rate of $12,000 for the first six months and $15,000 the last six. This was half again the $9,000 I was making at the Globe-Democrat, where I had reached the top five-year Guild scale in three. My assignments would be to handle his growing volume of mail, help produce a monthly column he had agreed to write for the North American Newspaper Alliance, and assist him in the off-year elections in 1966.
I accepted, but told him he should call the publisher. Nixon did. I was aboard.
By Christmas I was headed for New York. From January 1966 until that August morning in 1974 when Marine One lifted off the White House lawn for Andrews, to carry Nixon to his last trip aboard Air Force One as President, I was with him.
Reprinted from the book The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose From Defeat to Create the New Majority by Patrick J. Buchanan. Copyright 2014 by Patrick J. Buchanan. Published by Crown Forum, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.
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