I had the opportunity to see Richard Nixon up close. I was the youngest senior staff member of his 1972 election campaign. I spent hours talking politics with "the old man" as veteran Nixon hands called him. As a political director in Ronald Reagan's 1980 and 1984 campaigns I carried Nixon's messages on strategy and tactics to the Reagan high command. I did his political chores in Washington in his post-presidential years. I learned politics at Nixon's knee.
Richard Nixon was a man of contradictions. He was both very great and very flawed -- as we all are. He could open the vista of an end to the Cold War and world peace through his initiatives with the Chinese yet cover up the pettiest of crimes. He could reach a real arms control with the Soviets yet send gumshoes to Chappaquiddick to look for dirt on Teddy Kennedy. He could be thoughtful and kind as well as mean-spirited and petty.
By shearing Chinese off from their Soviet comrades he made the Russians pursue the Cold War alone -- allowing Reagan to break them economically, ending the cold war and enslavement of Eastern Europe.
He appointed a task-force of George Schultz, Pat Moynihan, Len Garment and John Mitchell to desegregate the 86 percent of the public schools still racially divided when he took office and they did. He gave us federal revenue sharing, made federal construction projects open only to unions that were not segregated, founded the EPA and ended the JFK/LBJ war in Vietnam. He also tragically gave us wage and price controls and took America off the gold standard.
I admire Nixon not for his ideology for he had none. His ardent anti-communism and nailing of Alger Hiss as a Soviet Spy (now proven by KGB records) gave him life-long support among many conservatives but Nixon was not a conservative, although he knew exactly how to talk like one. Nor was he, despite his advocacy of the Family Assistance Plan and universal health care, a liberal. He was a pragmatist. He was interested in ideas. He was up for "the big play," a born risk-taker who bet his life-savings on a 1946 race for Congress who was sworn in as vice president at 40. He believed in bold risk.
I believe Nixon bounced back from his sweaty performance in the first of four debates to close fast, make up lost ground and win the 1960 election. Historians agree that Nixon won the last three debates -- the last of which had a TV audience larger than the first. As I have written, Nixon was robbed by Democratic skullduggery in Illinois but even worse fraud in LBJ's Texas. There is now substantial evidence that Nixon actually won the popular vote. They say Nixon was paranoid. If I potentially had the presidency stolen from me by a combination of Joseph P. Kennedy and the mob, I would be paranoid, too.
Spending eight years traveling the globe as vice president gave him a encyclopedic knowledge of world leaders and foreign affairs. This expertise would allow him the greatest political comeback in American history, coming back Lazarus-like from the dead to become the 37th President by selling himself (with the deft hand of Roger Ailes) as the "New Nixon." To a country mired in Vietnam, his foreign policy expertise seemed ideal. Even after depths of Watergate his keen geo-politcal understanding of the world allowed him to produce six best-sellers and give sage advice to President William Jefferson Clinton on the Soviets and Chinese and how to play them.
Traveling for eight years of campaigning for GOP candidates and parties for the"non-political," Dwight Eisenhower gave him a base among party regulars and grassroots party workers that would sustain him throughout his political career. His hairbreadth loss to John Kennedy didn't diminish his stature in their eyes. His tireless stumping for their candidates won him their chits. To party regulars, his campaigning for Goldwater when others refused gave him their loyalty. Nixon was a presidential or vice-presidential ticket candidate on five national tickets.
Recognizing the new power of the Goldwaterites, Nixon stumped harder for the ticket than Barry himself, gaining the gratitude of party conservatives and a commitment from Goldwater himself, a commitment Nixon would use to block Ronald Reagan's first bid for President. Nixon went on to stump for candidates in the 1966 Congressional races and positioned himself as acceptable to all wings of the party if not their first choice. He then methodically won a string of primary victories in 1968 to erase the "loser" image. Nixon beat back a co-ordinated effort by the camps of Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller to deny him a first ballot victory largely because of Nixon's meticulous efforts to nail down party conservatives like John Tower, Barry Goldwater and most importantly Strom Thurmond.
That Nixon was a viable candidate, never mind the front-runner in 1968, is in itself a testimony to Nixon's ambition, hard work, timing and discipline. Some party leaders blamed Nixon for a botched campaign in 1960 in which he wanted and taken no advice from party sachem. Some party conservatives thought he hadn't hit Kennedy hard enough and lost by a whisker. Nixon then undertook that doomed bid for the California Governorship, a job he did not want, only to fall-out with the then ascendant California John Birch Society and get beat by Governor Pat Brown. He held a morning-after press conference in which he announced he was getting out of politics, attacked the bias of the press and said, "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore". Only six years later, he was putting his hand on the Bible being sworn as president.
Nixon's 1968 campaign was the first in modern history to totally harness the power of the television, the very power that had defeated him in the 1960 televised debates. In Nixon's case his entire (largely negative) public image was erased and the "new" Nixon was introduced. The "new" Nixon was more relaxed, more introspective, more self-deprecating and more seasoned. Nixon's public performance on the stump reflected the Nixon of his TV programming and TV commercials. Gone was the partisan slasher of the 1950, replaced by Nixon the statesman, the unitive man "better prepared for the presidency than any man this century.'
Nixon's ambition was fired by his humble origins and his deep resentment of the privileged and snubs by the "Establishment." My admiration then for RN is due to his grit, his durability, his physical and political discipline, his resilience and his indestructibility. "You are only defeated when you quit," he would say. Richard Nixon never quit.