What Would Nixon Say to Today's Republican Party?

The disgraced former president, born 100 years ago Wednesday, was a perpetual comeback artist who's still not done being reinvented.

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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."'"

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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