Today’s moderate Republicans should take a cue from Nixon

David Stokes | Pastor, Author, Columnist

Do Republicans need to grow up — again?

Shortly after Richard Nixon’s “last press conference” on the night of his defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial race — when he uttered the infamous phrase, “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” — ABC News aired a program with the catchy title, The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon. This brazen broadcast was hosted by Howard K. Smith and included, among guests driving nails into the former vice president’s political coffin, an old Nixon nemesis — Alger Hiss, a convicted perjurer who had been a Soviet spy. The uproarious response to this exercise in television demagoguery led to the eventual cancellation of Smith’s new show. It also revealed Americans’ significant latent sympathy for Nixon.

Nixon himself, however, seemed resigned to the fact that his political career was most likely over. He moved his family from California to New York and immersed himself in what would become a very successful law practice. He would speak out on issues from time to time, but it wasn’t likely that he’d run for office again. At least that was the conventional wisdom. The former vice president of the United States was poised to be an ironically young (at 50 years of age) elder party statesman.

Meanwhile, Barry Goldwater was well on his way to capturing the 1964 GOP nomination. He had supported the more moderate Nixon in 1960. He didn’t always agree with Nixon, but he understood that supporting his party’s standard-bearer was crucial to expecting any future support. Goldwater also told conservative Republicans that it was time for them to “grow up” — admonishing them to become better organized.

And grow up they did.

In the immediate wake of the Kennedy assassination in November of 1963, there was some initial speculation that the 1964 election might favor another Nixon candidacy, but the former vice president observed how quickly and effectively President Lyndon Johnson positioned himself in his new office and correctly perceived him to be virtually unbeatable. In fact, the Republican debacle of 47 years ago must be seen, at least in part, through the prism of the nation dealing with the trauma of what had happened that fateful day in Dallas.

It’s true that Nixon flirted here and there with a run for the nomination in 1964, but he ultimately resigned himself to the inevitability of Goldwater. And this is where Richard Nixon demonstrated the kind of political savvy and skill that should be remembered by all Republicans in advance of 2012.

It was clear that the other big Republican guns in 1964 — Nelson Rockefeller of New York, Bill Scranton of Pennsylvania, and George Romney of Michigan (all moderate governors) — had little interest in supporting Barry Goldwater. Nixon, however, knew that anyone who really wanted to have a serious future shot at a presidential nomination could not afford to be a bystander, no matter how bad the results in November might turn out to be.

Richard Nixon was not as conservative as Goldwater, but as a more moderate Republican, he knew that faithfulness and diligence in such moments was crucial. Arriving in San Francisco that year for the Republican National Convention, Mr. Nixon made his position perfectly clear: “I, for one Republican, don’t intend to sit out, or take a walk” — an obvious signal to Goldwater supporters and detractors. And while Rockefeller was shouted down as he addressed the crowd that week, Nixon was received warmly. In fact, historian Stephen Ambrose has suggested that Richard Nixon’s speech at the 1964 Republican National Convention was the opening speech of his 1968 candidacy. The future president told his party:

Before this convention we were Goldwater Republicans, Rockefeller Republicans, Scranton Republicans, Lodge Republicans, but now that this convention has met and made its decision, we are Republicans, period, working for Barry Goldwater…And to those few, if there are some, who say that they are going to sit it out or take a walk, or even go on a boat ride, I have an answer in the words of Barry Goldwater in 1960 — ‘Let’s grow up, Republicans, let’s go to work — and we shall win in November!’

Of course, not all Republicans went to work that year, most notably Rockefeller and Romney — a fact not forgotten by conservatives four years later — but Nixon did.

Immediately following the convention, Nixon orchestrated a meeting between former President Dwight Eisenhower and Goldwater at Ike’s Gettysburg, Pennsylvania farm, gaining a valuable endorsement. Then in the fall, Nixon took a leave of absence from his lucrative law practice and spent five intense weeks traveling to 36 states and delivering more than 150 speeches on behalf of the national GOP ticket and state and local candidates. All this helped pave the way for Nixon’s nomination and general election victory in 1968.

Goldwater and Nixon were never close friends, and disagreed on many matters of politics and policy — but they, the conservative and the moderate, understood the importance of discipline and loyalty in a two-party system. In 1960, the conservative worked for the moderate. In 1964, the moderate worked for the conservative. They saw it as the right and smart thing to do. And on January 22, 1965, just two days after Lyndon Johnson was sworn in for his new term, Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon attended a meeting of the Republican National Committee. During his remarks, the man who had been humiliated by Lyndon Johnson turned to Richard Nixon and expressed his gratitude for making an extraordinary effort on behalf of his candidacy, telling him: “Dick, I will never forget it.” He then told him that he would happily return the favor in the future, adding: “If there ever comes a time, I am going to do all I can.” That time came in 1968 — and Barry Goldwater delivered for Dick Nixon.

If moderate Republicans find themselves tempted to act out in 2012 like Rockefeller and Romney did back then, they should take a good look back at 1964. Then they should look at 1980. Ronald Reagan’s success, as the clear political heir of the Goldwater movement of the early 1960s, came about, at least in part, because he managed to persuade moderates to jump on his bandwagon. And they did in droves.

The alternative would have been a second term for Jimmy Carter, a scenario nearly as unsettling as the thought of another term for Mr. Obama.

David R. Stokes is a pastor, author, columnist, and broadcaster. His book The Shooting Salvationist, a true crime, narrative nonfiction work set in the 1920s, will be released (Random House) on July 12th.

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