Nixon's the One 
An interview with Pat Buchanan
By Jayson Whitehead and Amy Nickell

From Gadfly August 1998


Pat Buchanan joined Richard Nixon's staff in 1966 and began a nine-year stint as Nixon's right hand man. When we first asked him about the year 1968, he offered the simple statement: "Well, we won." The television commentator, former presidential candidate and altogether conservative force then sat down with us to give his brash but always compelling perspective on Nixon and the year that restored the Republican party's place in the political system.

As '68 was developing and all the turmoil was happening around the country, especially in the Democratic party, what was the Nixon plan?

PB: Our political game plan was to win primaries. We challenged anyone and everyone to meet Nixon in the Republican primaries, and we went through the primaries winning them. [Nelson] Rockefeller and [Ronald] Reagan challenged us in Oregon, but we beat them both.

Still, we were affected by events. [At the end of the March,] I was waiting at La Guardia Airport when Nixon's jet came in, and I ran to the plane and said, "Johnson's dropped out of the race." Four days later, Martin Luther King was assassinated and the fires started. [A couple months later,] I saw Bobby Kennedy in Oregon. We had announced our victory in the primary, and I waited around for Bobby Kennedy to come in and declare his defeat—it was the first time a Kennedy had ever been beaten. I was as close to him as I am to you now when he made his concession to Gene McCarthy. One week later, I called Richard Nixon at 3 in the morning and said Kennedy had been shot. I had just seen it on television. [Then, in August,] I was at the Conrad Hilton opposite Grant Park in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. I was Nixon's agent there and reporting back to him by telephone what was going on. Mainly it was, "Sir, you're not going to believe this." You know that story from War and Peace of that doctor walking across the battle field and everything's happening but nothing happened to him and he went right through to victory? Except I will say that in October, our campaign faded badly. Hubert Humphrey came on very strong. It was a dead heat at the end, and I was very nervous. I thought we were going to lose.

How did occurrences like the student riots or the assassination of Kennedy affect the campaign?

With the riots and student disorders and the convention in Chicago, we made a simple point: If [the Democrats] can't unite their party, how can they unite the country? It was a very effective tactic. After the riots in Chicago, one of Nixon's very first stops was a motorcade right through the streets of Chicago where he got a tremendously warm reception and the contrast was dramatic.

What did you think of everything that was happening with the youth generation at that time?

I was down there in Grant Park the night before everything went on and some of [the demonstrators] were as obnoxious as they could be. They were insulting me. They thought I was the FBI because I had a coat and tie on. They were insulting the cops. I watched the scene the next day from the 19th floor with Norman Mailer and Jose Torres. Torres was appalled at the cops, but I was less appalled that [the demonstrators] were getting beaten up and clubbed around in the park. The cops were chasing them around. Still, it wasn't anything I had seen in the 1950s.

The violence didn't surprise you?

It didn't surprise me. I wrote the speech Spiro Agnew gave in Des Moines in 1969 where he talked about how the media basically smeared the city and the police of Chicago. Mayor Richard J. Daley said it was the greatest speech he'd ever heard. Look, there's no doubt the police shouldn't have been running around in the park, but there's also no doubt that they couldn't ignore the obscenities and all the filthy names and stuff [the demonstrators] were throwing at them night after night. The police were young guys, too—about the same generation.

Did the environment of 1968 foster idealism in the country's youth?

Well, I don't know if what went on in Grant Park was idealism. I thought it was hooliganism. They were a bunch of overprivileged kids behaving obnoxiously, and they got beat up. These things tend to happen. In what sense were they idealistic? The idealists were the kids that did their duty and went to Vietnam.

But weren't some of these demonstrators campaigning for peace and trying to end war?

How? By marching around? There was a war going on. Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy put 500,000 guys out there fighting, and Bill Clinton was over in Europe demonstrating against his own country and against the armed forces who were fighting and dying. I think that's more self-indulgent than idealistic.

How are the consequences of that period manifested today?

That was the gutting out of the civil rights movement when you had the riots. A lot of the good will was gone after that, after the riots and violence. It did help to create the great political coalition of Richard Nixon that we put together in 1972. In '68, the country was split three ways: George Wallace, Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. In '72, we got 61% of the vote. So, clearly the American people were completely alienated from the radical left, from urban violence, from using civil disobedience to achieve your goals, from anti-war protesters who didn't stay within the law, from the rising crime rate. It was the creation of the great silent majority which moved on to become the Reagan coalition. It basically gave us 20 out of 24 years of the presidency after that.