NIXON’S WHITE HOUSE WARS: THE BATTLES THAT MADE AND BROKE A PRESIDENT AND DIVIDED AMERICA FOREVER
By Patrick J. Buchanan
Crown Forum, $30, 436 pages
Only a masochist would say that it was fun working in the Nixon White House. I know because I was there from June 1972 until the bitter end. But it was, to put it mildly, an interesting place to be. In “Nixon’s White House Wars,” his latest book of political memoirs, Pat Buchanan writes with passion, precision and poignancy about a presidency — and a president — unique in our history.
As one who witnessed many of the things Mr. Buchanan writes about, I can also vouch for his narrative. My office in the Old Executive Office Building was literally next door to Pat’s, separated only by a thin wall. This was made clear to me a few days after I moved in. I was hanging a painting on the wall — probably the only nude canvas of Nell Gwynne ever to grace the premises — when Pat tapped on my door and politely asked if I’d mind postponing the hammering until after hours: The noise was making it hard for him to carry on a conversation on the other side of the wall.
That was as close as we ever came to a confrontation; Both of us were part of the conservative faction in the Nixon White House and saw eye-to-eye on most things. The same was not always true of Richard Nixon. “The Nixon of January 1969,” Pat writes, “was the Wilsonian idealist and utopian who believed with Quaker and Christian pacifists that one day men will ‘beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.’ … Nixon’s dream was to bring America and the world together, and enter history as the Peacemaker President.” “The remarkable thing about Richard Nixon,” Pat concludes, “is that he truly believed this. … More remarkable is that he thought he might succeed.”
To which one might add another remarkable fact. While he may have been pursuing an impossible dream, Richard Nixon, flawed as he was, did leave the world a more peaceful, stable place than he found it and laid the groundwork — interrupted only by the four, failure-scarred years of the Carter presidency — for a major conservative revival and the emergence of the Republican Party as a viable center-right alternative to a Democratic Party gone rogue radical.
It was voters like the blue-collar members of Mr. Nixon’s “Silent Majority” that delivered him a landslide victory in 1972 who would be at the core of the “Reagan Democrats” and who won one for the Gipper in 1980 and again, in happy contradiction of George Orwell, in 1984. Mr. Reagan was able to provide conservatism with a human face and an eloquent voice. But it was Richard Nixon who, without entirely embracing conservatism himself, created the political engine that drove the conservative movement to electoral victory. Similarly, his adept diplomacy and firm foreign policy resolve took the first steps to a peaceful, positive end of the Cold War.
There was another important legacy of the Nixon years, which I experienced firsthand as director of presidential speechwriting for Ronald Reagan during his first term: “Though many of his closest aides had been caught up in Watergate and gone to prison, Nixon had put together the most talented White House staff in history.” The list rolls on and on: party chairmen, senators, governors, future presidential contenders and actual presidents and veeps, major economists, writers, diplomats and statesmen who helped guide the Reagan years. “Nixon had an eye for talent and wanted the best, whether they had been for him or not.”
I would be lying if I said that “Nixon’s White House Wars” was a pleasure to read. As one who lived through the period, the experience was like a survivor reading a gripping account of the Titanic disaster. Still, I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world. And I’m grateful to Pat Buchanan for capturing it with so much heart, clarity and conviction. Much of the mood is captured in a passage by, of all people, the late John Osborne, a crusty but honest liberal journalist of the period writing in the wake of Richard Nixon’s resignation in disgrace. Pat quotes it at the end of his book.
It describes a moment shortly after noon on Jan. 20, 1969 when Mr. Osborne observed Pat and “Shelley Scarney, a lovely blonde girl whom he later married, walk up the White House driveway to the West Wing … and pause outside the portico, looking upward. The pride, the hope, the anticipation in their faces were and remain unforgettable. It’s the sort of memory, atop all that’s happened, that … brings me close to tears at times.”
• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.
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