The disgraced former president, born 100 years ago Wednesday, was a perpetual comeback artist who's still not done being reinvented.
This is what Richard Nixon knew: how quickly the fortunes of men and parties can change.
It was 1964, and the GOP was down for the count -- on the wrong end of the LBJ landslide, a two-to-one minority in the House and Senate, controlling just 17 governorships. "The Republican Party was a house divided, a house in ruins," Pat Buchanan recalled Wednesday. "It was an open question whether it would survive."
Beetle-browed and tousle-haired, Buchanan, the Nixon speechwriter-turned-Republican apostate, was among a modest crowd of aging Nixonland alums who gathered at Washington's Mayflower Hotel on Wednesday, 100 years from the day Nixon was born in a modest clapboard house in Yorba Linda, California. Today, there is a "What Would Nixon Do?" mug for sale at the Nixon Library gift shop. It sells briskly, if not as well as the print of Nixon with Elvis; in this, the GOP's latest dark night of the soul, what Nixon, the ultimate survivor, would do is a topic much on the minds of these hardy, not to say delusional few.
As others bickered after the '64 disaster, Nixon took up the fight, campaigning for his party in 35 states and 40 congressional districts. As 1968 dawned, he outlasted George Romney and Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller in the primaries; he watched as Johnson announced he would not seek reelection and the Democratic Party came apart at the seams. And by November, four short years after his party's obituaries had been so copiously written, Nixon had completed, Buchanan said, "the greatest comeback in political history."
Nixon's time in the sun would be short-lived and contentious, marked by his corrosive hatreds and bottomless paranoia. His resignation and disgrace would ring in a new period of crisis for the GOP. But once, Richard Nixon was the man who saved the Republican Party.
Wednesday night's gala featured a giant cake in the shape of his childhood home, its chimneys, shingles, and latticed windows meticulously shaped in frosting. It was a house Nixon's father built, said Buchanan, and "the Republican Party of the last third of the 20th Century was the house that Nixon built."
These days, many of the Nixon apologists have oddly sought to recast the former president as a liberal -- the man who created the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Cancer Institute, the man who proposed universal health care and desegregated the Southern schools. The liberal comedian Stephen Colbert, who has a Nixon poster in his office, once noted, "His issues were education, drugs, women, minorities, youth involvement, ending the draft, and improving the environment. John Kerry couldn't have run on this! What would I give for a Nixon?"
But as Nixon's onetime aide Roger Stone wrote this week, to call Nixon either a liberal or a conservative is to miss the point; he was "a pragmatist" -- a man who wanted to win, who "never quit" in the face of defeat. One of the most stunning aspects of the magnificent recent movie Frost/Nixon is its reminder that the former president agreed to the 1977 series of interviews with a British journalist in part because he thought they could kick off yet another political comeback. (Instead, they proved damning.) The press packet for Wednesday's dinner included reprints of a May 1986 Newsweek cover story: "HE'S BACK," the cover line announces. Inside, there's this photo caption: "Richard Nixon, April 1986: 'People see me and they think, "He's risen from the dead."'"
There will always be a Nixon rehabilitation under way, even today, nearly two decades after his death. The GOP moneyman Fred Malek, who once compiled a list of Jews for President Nixon to purge from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, has so far raised $4.5 million toward a $30 million goal for the latest Nixon legacy project. I asked him what Nixon would say to today's demoralized Republican Party. "I think he would say, find areas of inclusion rather than exclusion, stop the infighting, stop the ridiculous divisiveness," Malek said. "We need a leader with the moral authority to say these things."
Nixon's grandson Christopher Nixon Cox, a shiny-haired Princeton alum and failed New York congressional candidate, was accompanied at Wednesday's gala by his wife of a year, the grocery heiress Andrea Catsimatidis, whose red dress could euphemistically be said to have a plunging neckline. His grandfather's legacy, Cox told me excitedly, was one of "peace and justice."
"Everyone knows the peace part," Cox said, rattling off facts at high speed -- the North Vietnamese, the Soviets, the Chinese. But it was the idea of justice, he maintained, that today's GOP would do well to embody: Title IX, affirmative action, worker-safety standards -- all a part of Nixon's legacy. "Look at what he stood for. It came out of his Quaker roots," Cox said. "The Republican Party today needs to reestablish the big tent and define justice from a conservative perspective."
Nixon's younger brother Ed, now 82, who shares his older sibling's unmistakable hairline, eyes, and nose, told me it does no good to always be preaching to the choir. "You've got to turn around and face the congregation if you want to figure out why they don't know how to think!" he said.
If the Nixon gala was suffused with highly selective nostalgia, the denial did not extend to the modern GOP. "It's broken," a portly, bald man named Ray Caldiero told me. "It's in a shambles." When I asked how he knew Nixon, Caldiero said he was a staffer for the Committee to Re-Elect the President. "I was the last witness in the Watergate trial," he offered brightly. "I had to testify against all of my friends."
As the pre-dinner mingling ended and the guests filed into the ballroom, a well-preserved woman could be heard saying to her date, "Oh, honey, there's Henry Kissinger. Let's go say hi." Kissinger -- former Secretary of State, Nobel laureate, accused war criminal -- was serious where Buchanan had been comic, recounting Nixon's successes on the world stage. "I thought I'd never live to see the day where Pat Buchanan would say the things about the Nixon foreign policy that I have just heard," Kissinger remarked in his still-prominent accent, his forehead spotted with age beneath his thick shock of steel-gray hair.
Amid the gauzy reminiscences, the word "Watergate" was spoken just once -- by Buchanan, who ended his remarks with perhaps the aptest tribute to the former president he served: a bitter jab at the press. As the centennial approached, Buchanan said, reporters -- "the offspring of the old jackal pack" -- have asked him to talk about the scandal. In response, Buchanan quoted Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby: "They were a rotten crowd, sir. You're worth the whole damn bunch put together."
The ballroom sprang to its feet and burst into applause as Buchanan looked up from the lectern. "Nixon," he declared, "now more than ever!"