Pat Buchanan’s latest book Nixon’s White House Wars is a brilliant and insightful chronicle of the failed Nixon presidency from an insider who had been with Richard Nixon since the beginning. Buchanan signed on as Richard Nixon’s sole staff aide in January 1966 and stuck it out until Nixon’s forced resignation on August 9, 1974.
One might have expected that Buchanan would pull his punches in his discussion of the Nixon presidency since he was so personally close to the President. (It has been said that Buchanan is like the son Richard Nixon never had.) But, Buchanan takes us on a journey from the early days of the 1968 presidential campaign through the resounding re-election victory over George McGovern in 1972 to the dark days of Watergate and Nixon’s forced resignation from the presidency in 1974. Buchanan describes it all vividly; and, more importantly, what he says rings true.
I knew part of the story as I served as associate director of the White House Fellowship program and a White House staff assistant from 1970 to 1971, after returning from military service in Vietnam. In the summer of 1971, I even had accepted a promotion in the administration which would have thrust me into the middle of the internal security response to the increasingly violent New Left. But, by that time I had become more and more uncomfortable with the judgment of key administration decision-makers and I had become disenchanted with the President himself. So, well before Watergate, I decided to pack my bags and return home to Dallas to pursue a long-neglected law degree.
I mention all of this because I wrote very critically of the Nixon administration in my book The Thirty Years War: The Politics of the 60’s Generation, and have long maintained an active interest in the inner workings of the Nixon presidency.
One conservative who identified a major flaw in President Nixon was Richard Whalen who, writing in Catch the Falling Flag, describes Nixon in this way: “I was irked by his chronic failure to stand unequivocally.” Some forty-five years later Pat Buchanan recounts instance after instance of Richard Nixon equivocating on key issues.
What I found particularly revealing in the Buchanan book was his description of the events that led up to Watergate and the fall of the Nixon presidency. What a fascinating story. Future historians, in search of a complete account of how Watergate got its start will have to consult Buchanan’s book. It is all there.
What started the Nixon Administration down the slippery slope that ultimately led to the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover up? As Buchanan notes, it all started with the New York Times publication of “what would come to be called the Pentagon Papers, classified documents of the Defense Department about America’s entry into the Vietnam War during the Kennedy and Johnson administration.” Buchanan goes on to say, “The papers had nothing to do with us. I did not bother to read them.” The leaker was Daniel Ellsberg, “a former defense analyst and student of Henry’s [Henry Kissinger].”
Buchanan describes Nixon’s initial reaction to the publication of the Pentagon Papers as “subdued.” But, Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s NSC advisor (and Ellsberg’s former teacher), threw a fit. White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman described Henry Kissinger’s reaction:
“[Henry] went completely into orbit … It was a case of wild over reaction … He talked passionate nonsense about how we were in a revolutionary situation …how the security of the United States was at risk … and how the New York Times must be stopped whatever it took. It was Henry in his worst tantrum ever … absolutely beyond belief …
In The Ends of Power, in 1978, Haldeman had laid the blame on Kissinger for having goaded the President when Nixon’s initial response to publication of the papers had been ‘muted’:
Kissinger told the President he didn’t understand how dangerous the release of the [papers] was. “It shows you’re a weakling, Mr. President.” Henry really knew how to get to Nixon. “The fact that some idiot can publish all of the diplomatic secrets of this country on his own is damaging to your image, as far as the Soviets are concerned, and it can destroy our ability to conduct foreign policy. If the other powers feel that we can’t control internal leaks, they will never agree to secret negotiations.”
Instead of letting the FBI handle the investigation, the White House decided to launch its own investigation of the leaks at Henry Kissinger’s urging (and against Pat Buchanan’s advice). Guess who they wanted to head up the investigation: Pat Buchanan. “The individual the President wanted to oversee the investigation and head the White House unit that would come to be called ‘the Plumbers’ – as its mission was to find and plug leaks was me.” Buchanan declined the assignment: “my feeling was, let the law take its course, let the FBI handle this.”
John Ehrlichman, who was domestic policy chief at the time and a close ally of H.R. Haldeman, was now in charge of “the Ellsberg account,” and he persisted in trying to get Buchanan involved in the “get Ellsberg scheme.” Buchanan responded with a memo to the effect that the dividends of going after Ellsberg weren’t worth the potential damage that might ensue. How right Buchanan was. It brought down a President. Ironically Henry Kissinger, who got the ball rolling on “Project Ellsberg,” went on to fame and fortune, Richard Nixon had to resign the presidency in disgrace.
There are so many vignettes about the inner workings of the Nixon White House in Buchanan’s book that it is fair to say that no future historian can write an objective study of the Nixon presidency without reference to Pat Buchanan’s epic.
Pat Buchanan recounts how he almost resigned over the Nixon/Kissinger opening to China and abandonment of Taiwan: “Believing we had thrown a friend and ally over the side to fraternize with enemies of all we believed in, with some of the greatest mass murderers in human history, I made up my mind on the plane [back from China] to resign.” But he was talked out of it by Bob Haldeman and Nixon’s personal secretary, Rose Woods.
I see certain parallels in the Nixon presidency in the early stages of the Trump administration. Both men lack a philosophical grounding in conservatism that Ronald Reagan had. Both Nixon and Trump were personally insecure in their own peculiar ways, and seem to lack an inner self-confidence. Nixon’s White House was mostly run by technocrats and establishment liberals with Pat Buchanan being a notable exception. Trump’s White House has been taken largely over by the technocrats and globalists, whom Trump campaigned against when running for the presidency. Pat Buchanan was the “house conservative,” but his advice was often ignored. Steve Bannon was the strategic genius behind the Trump campaign, but he lasted only a short while in the Trump White House. Just as the Watergate break-in plagued Richard Nixon throughout his second term, the Robert Mueller-led investigation of the so-called Russian interference in the presidential election continues to hang over Trump’s head.
Donald Trump could do himself a favor and make time to read Buchanan’s book. He might learn something from “the battles that made and broke a President and divided America forever,” before he suffers a similar fate.
Tom Pauken was Associate Director of the White House Fellowship Program and a White House staff assistant during the Nixon administration. He later served on President Reagan’s White House staff and Director of the Action agency from 1981-85. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the Conservative-Online-Journalism Center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.