Remembering Nixon's Catholic Coup: An Interview with Pat Buchanan
Patrick J. Buchanan is a political commentator, author, syndicated columnist, politician, and broadcaster. He was a senior advisor to U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. He accompanied President Nixon to China in 1972. Later he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1992 and 1996. In 2000, he was the Reform Party’s presidential candidate.
Mr. Buchanan is a regular on The McLaughlin Group and Fox News. He co-founded The American Conservative magazine and has been published in Human Events, National Review, The Nation, and Rolling Stone. He was an original co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire” and was a political commentator for MSNBC until February 2012.
Mr. Buchanan is a practicing Catholic who attends Old St. Mary’s Church in Washington DC, where he graduated from Gonzaga College High School. He holds a B.A. from Georgetown University and an M.A. from Columbia University. On July 29, I interviewed Mr. Buchanan by telephone about his new book, “The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority.” The following interview has been edited for content and length.
Why a new book on Richard Nixon?
This book comes out of my experience of working for Richard Nixon for eight-and-a-half consecutive years, from January 1966 to August 1974. My research began as a single book. But as I got into it, I recovered all of my old memoranda and that seemed to suggest that there was a book in and of itself about Nixon’s historic comeback before he became president of the United States. I had many recollections, many stories and many memos, and there were many incidents at the core of the 1960s. So I thought none of this could be done in a single book and I decided to write a second book about it. My first publisher wanted everything in one book, so I took this material to another publisher and they were delighted with the book that emerged.
Who is your audience?
The audience, I think, is certainly the people who recall those years and whoever wants an understanding of the politics and the people of that time. How did one of the most controversial figures of the post-Cold War era maneuver through the 1960s, one of the most turbulent decades in our nation’s history? It’s a human story and it’s a personal story of how this man came back from tremendous defeats and humiliations to pick himself up, leading a broken and shattered party back to the presidency of the United States, and from there to build a coalition that dominated presidential politics almost as long as FDR’s coalition. It’s a tremendous story. I mean, it's a story that even the old Nixon haters will enjoy because they would like to understand better how he did it.
In the book you mention that Nixon rallied the Catholic vote, traditionally a Democratic bloc, into the GOP coalition. Why did American Catholics in the post-Kennedy era go for Nixon?
What happened was that the Catholic community, which had voted 78 percent for Jack Kennedy and I believe 75 percent for Lyndon Johnson, in 1966 after Johnson’s great victory voted only 65 percent for the Democratic Party. They began to move to the Republican Party for reasons of morality and patriotism. The Democratic Party, particularly the dominant liberal intellectual wing, was becoming increasingly anti-war and almost anti-patriotic in the minds of many American Catholics. It was calling for cutting and running in Vietnam, almost calling for a victory for the Viet Cong. You know, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is going to win.” And on the moral end, cultural and social issues, it was also beginning to move away from the Democratic Party of FDR and Truman—which was in many respects compatible with the social conservatism of my father’s generation. They began moving away on issues of morality like sexual morality, drugs, divorce and even abortion. So Catholics started moving away from them.
Another reason, of course, was the riots in the cities. The northern Catholics and ethnics, along with the southern Protestants, all saw the Great Society had been passed and enacted under Johnson. All these programs were supposed to benefit the poor, the working class and African-Americans. They saw that these programs had not brought peace to the cities, but the very opposite. So they sort of saw the country coming apart. Nixon, even though he had been the scourge of Truman and Kennedy—and of the liberals in the early 1940s and 1950s—suddenly emerged with Spiro Agnew as a symbol of stability. Voters saw Nixon-Agnew as a measure of stability and of a return to traditional values, and as something that was resisting the revolution. That movement began in 1968, but actually the Catholics left Humphrey and went back to Wallace before they came to us, and Humphrey was the one who gained 15 points that October and also brought in all of the undecided voters. Humphrey was 15 points behind in the polls on October 4, but he was dead even as of Election Day.
Was there a central issue that helped rally Catholic voters to Nixon?
Eventually, Nixon ran a very centrist presidency, not a Goldwater conservative presidency. He did not tear apart the social programs or the social safety net that a lot of Catholics favored. At the same time, he stood for peace with honor in Vietnam, against the demonstrators and the rioters—and against the liberal media. And I think many Catholics of that generation—conservative, traditionalist Catholic union folks—were much closer to Richard Nixon than they were to the elites demonstrating on the campuses or the rioters. They were concerned about the crime rate and all of these things factored into it. The amazing thing is to look at the figures. Nixon won 22 percent of the Catholic vote against Jack Kennedy in 1960, he won 33 percent in 1968 and he would have won more that year if Wallace hadn’t been in the race. I don’t think it would have been much more, but I think if Wallace had been out of the race we would have won the race going away. But in 1972, he won 55 percent of the Catholic vote against George McGovern, who Tom Eagleton called the candidate of amnesty and abortion. So cultural, moral and social issues brought postwar Catholics into the Nixon new majority.
Because of Watergate, many Americans have come to caricature Richard Nixon as a criminal, but you worked with him personally in the White House at that time. What’s your assessment?
That’s simply false. There’s no question about it, when this stupid break-in occurred at the Watergate, that the five who were caught and one or two others—Liddy and Hunt—went high up into the Committee to Re-Elect the President. But they had nothing to do with the White House. We didn’t know this thing had happened or had been going on, except maybe John Dean, and so Nixon didn’t know about it. But what happened was that the Watergate people who were involved in it, the people who were complicit and responsible, came running to old friends in the White House and said “save us!” So they concocted the idea that the president’s top aides were conspiring to save the higher-ups and let other people take responsibility. They let people say things, and they said things or didn’t say things, that rendered them complicit in what was considered a conspiracy. But the original offense was indeed a third-rate burglary.
Along with then-Father John McLaughlin, S.J., you were one of a few Catholics who worked in the Nixon White House. Did President Nixon, a Quaker, ever ask your advice on Catholic issues?
Well, I volunteered it to him, as I say in my book. I told him in one memo that all of his emphasis on the Jewish vote and African-American vote wasn’t going anywhere because they were solidly in the Democratic bloc. They’re enormously loyal to the Democratic Party. Secondly, Catholics outnumber the Jewish vote seven to one, and they outnumber the African-American vote two to one. They’re far larger and more numerous and they’re in the process of moving away from the Democratic Party. Nixon often would talk about how the Italian-American vote was beginning to move. We had wanted to appoint an Italian-American and a southerner to the U.S. Supreme Court, partly with the idea of recognizing these folks and saying “you’re not outside the country club of America as far as we’re concerned.” So Nixon recognized this opportunity and I was pushing it even before he got into the White House. In one of my memos, I pointed out that the northern Catholics and the southern Protestants were our new majority that would help us realize victory.
Your book does include a lot of personal anecdotes about your relationship with the president. Did your Catholic faith have any other influence on your work for President Nixon?
I think the Catholic faith is consistent with the kind of conservatism I believe in. You know, I’m a traditionalist, I’m a Latin mass Catholic and I hold to traditional views of responsibility. I’m not a libertarian in the sense that I think all these social programs should be abolished in any sense. I’m familiar with Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno and all of those things that influenced me in Catholic school. I went through the nuns and the Jesuits. I mean, I had eight years of nuns and never had any other sort of teacher in my grammar school, and eight years of Jesuits in high school and college. These were pre-Vatican II orders and you could not escape that influence. It’s a part of who you are.
From a Catholic perspective, which of President Nixon’s policies do you believe was most significant?
It wouldn’t be so much his programs as the fact that I think Nixon genuinely believed he could bring peace for a generation. I think he had a utopian sense there, somewhat like Woodrow Wilson whom he admired. I think he wanted to end the war with honor, to get the Americans out of Vietnam. He wanted to preserve the freedom of South Vietnam. Initially he did. In 1973, all of the American troops and POWs were home, and the war seemed to be winding down and peace was at hand. It wasn’t until two years later, after Nixon was gone, that the North Vietnamese mounted their attack that overran Saigon. I think the whole idea of peace, of an end to the Vietnam War and of trying to ameliorate the Cold War with the Soviet Union were very large issues that were as important as any particular program that gave tax credits for parochial school kids—which I advocated for a long time and which we never seemed to be able to push through.
Prayer in public schools and other institutions has been a political issue in recent decades. What sort of prayer experiences did you have when you worked in the White House?
They had occasional prayer meetings and breakfasts of various members of the White House staff, and I attended several of them, but I can’t say there was a great deal in the White House when I was there. As you mentioned, I was one of the few Catholics there, and the president did come to my wedding at my grammar school church. Attorney General and Mrs. John Mitchell, I think Chuck Colson too and probably some of the others were there. So we brought them all into church once!
In your opinion, what were President Nixon’s greatest accomplishments?
Let me just mention a few. He ended the war in Vietnam, brought the troops home and brought the POWs home. He negotiated the greatest arms control agreement with the Soviet Union since the Washington Naval Agreement of 1921-22. He opened up China and ended decades of bristling hostility with the People’s Republic of China, bring them into the “League of Nations” if you will. He rescued Israel during the Yom Kippur War with an air lift. He brought Egypt out of the Soviet bloc and into the Western camp. He ended the draft, he de-segregated the south, he’s responsible for the 18-year old voting age that he signed into law, he created the EPA, he created the Cancer Institute, he created OSHA for better or worse. He created the greatest political coalition since FDR. And he did most of these things in his first term, except for the Yom Kippur War, which would have been more than enough to make him one of the ten greatest presidents had it not been for Watergate—and all folks remember now are Watergate and China.
What were President Nixon’s biggest mistakes?
His greatest mistake is that he didn’t burn the tapes as I told him to! But seriously, his biggest mistake was obviously in mishandling the Watergate break-in and not realizing that it was an infection that could kill him politically. That was certainly a mistake. It may not sit well with the American community, but he also told me later that he should have bombed North Vietnam three years earlier, back in ’69 rather than in ’72. That might have ended the war earlier and saved more American lives. I think that weighed upon him. There might have been a more permanent peace that could have averted what happened to the boat people in Saigon and to the Cambodians who went through the Cambodian holocaust of the Khmer Rouge. Those are hard things to have on your conscience.
What was it like for you to accompany Nixon to China?
Surreal! There I was, the foremost anti-communist conservative in Nixon’s camp, and I’m over there writing toasts to a communist mass murderer like Mao Zedong. It was quite an experience and I’ll have to write about it in my next book, but I was very unhappy. I think we went overboard in our efforts to show cordiality and friendship to those people. They were not a good crowd.
What do you hope people will take from your life and writings?
Whatever they can! You know, I do feel like some of the ideas I had in the 1990s about staying out of these foreign wars and not submerging ourselves in a globalization that would mean the end of American manufacturing are still important. Also, securing America’s borders because of what I saw down there 25 years ago. Frankly, I think holding the line in the cultural war for the soul of America is also still important. I don’t think we’ve done any of these things and I don’t think we benefit from not having done so.
Do you have any final thoughts on the Nixon book?
It’s a very good read with lots of funny stories in it as well! Nixon was an incredible figure and an enormously interesting man.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.
Thanks everyone for reading. I hope a few of these interviews are helpful in some way. Let's continue to pray for our church and for our world.
Sean Salai, SJ