25 Oct When National Review Finally Had Enough of Richard Nixon: A Chorus of Disapproval:
As conservative intellectual publications like National Review and The Weekly Standard continue to voice their disapproval against the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, political junkies of all ages can’t help but recall the last time pundits on the Right tried to use their influence to make another GOP front runner change his tune. In 1971, leading voices of the conservative movement decided to suspend their support for then President Richard Nixon over his refusal to take a more hawkish stance towards the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China.
Nixon had always distrusted intellectuals on the Right and in the third week of June 1971, those suspicions were confirmed. During a recorded conversation in the Oval Office the president’s Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman presented a report from White House speechwriter Patrick J. Buchanan showing that twelve influential conservatives, including National Review’s Editor In Chief William F. Buckley, Jr., had decided to “suspend their support for the administration in protest of its foreign policies.” Nixon, who had always had a complicated relationship with his conservative supporters, became noticeably frustrated. “What in the name of God do they think we’re doing?” the president asked Haldeman. While Nixon had never embraced the intellectuals on the Right, he had throughout his presidency used publications like NR and others as an “early warning system” in order to measure the temperament of conservative interests.
Nixon’s ambivalence about his conservative constituency had caused him to authorize Buchanan, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, and others in the administration to remain in consistent contact with Buckley, and other members of the Right who Nixon believed represented a political demographic vital to the administration’s success. “You better tell Henry he’s got to get on the Bill Buckley thing right away,” the president told Haldeman angrily. “Henry has got to get up off his ass and talk to him – I’ve told him several times and what has he done about it?” The president knew and appreciated the close relationship Kissinger had with the conservative commentator. It had served the administration well, particularly if an article appeared in National Review that Nixon found disconcerting. But the president had clearly not anticipated the announcement that Buckley and his colleagues had pooled their resources in an effort to protest the administration’s activities. The president instructed Haldeman to tell his national security advisor to have a conversation with Buckley as soon as possible. “You put it right to him, now,” Nixon told Haldeman, “We don’t want a responsible guy like Buckley moving in that direction.”
While Nixon could be dismissive of conservative publications and organizations like Human Events and Young Americans for Freedom, the president viewed Buckley as a substantive, thoughtful individual and one who Nixon believed was critical if he was to have success with the growing conservative base of the Republican Party. Throughout his tenure in the White House, Nixon actively cultivated his relationship with Buckley by asking him for political advice and inviting him to events at the executive mansion. Buckley, in turn, used his platform as the face of the conservative movement to defend the president on policies such as Vietnam, while many of his colleagues on the Right continued to be wary of Nixon’s faithfulness to conservative principles. “When I look around the world today and ask myself what it is that I truly care about in international affairs that Nixon has let me down on, I don’t come up with anything,” Buckley said in an interview with Playboy in May of 1970.
But the conservative commentators favorable opinion of Nixon rapidly changed when, in the middle of July of 1971, the president announced that he had decided to travel to Peking the following year with the objective of opening relations with the People’s Republic of China. The shock among conservatives over Nixon’s decision to recognize the PRC was symbolic of the growing dissatisfaction of those on the Right with the administration’s policy of détente, which also included its ongoing arms negotiations with the Soviet Union. In the minds of people like Buckley, NR’s James Burnham, and other conservative commentators, détente and its complex formula of power and interests represented a clear ideological betrayal of the anti-communist crusade. The magazine’s belief that democracy was in a global conflict with a totalitarian enemy out to dominate the world had now lost its ideological clarity. Conservatives believed that the Nixon-Kissinger philosophy of “realpolitik,” was responsible for what former National Review Washington correspondent George Will called “the de-moralization of the Cold War.” Nixon’s cultivation of the communist world along with continued troubles in Vietnam were just two more examples, in the opinion of those on the Right, of the weakness that permeated America’s foreign policy. Many conservatives believed that those in the White House needed to understand that the current policy initiatives were not what conservatives had signed up for when they had agreed to support Nixon in 1968. It was that ambivalence that led to the creation of what became known as “The Manhattan Twelve.”
The first meeting of the group composed of prominent activists as well as members of the conservative media took place in July of 1971 at Buckley’s apartment on the Upper East Side of New York. The members that had chosen to join Buckley included NR’s publisher William A. Rusher and editors James Burnham and Frank Meyer. Other publications and organizations that were represented included members of the newspaper Human Events, The Conservative Book Club, activists from Young Americans for Freedom, and the American Conservative Union. All the attendees were livid with Nixon. They believed the president and his Machiavellian national security advisor had dismissed their advice and taken their support for granted. The group wanted the president to be aware that the administration was in danger of alienating a key political demographic. The major question the group had come to debate was what form that response should take and how strong it should be. A number of those assembled wanted conservatives to cut their relations with Nixon entirely, while others called for a more moderate position.
After extensive debate, Burnham convinced the group that the phrase “suspension of support” would be the most appropriate, an idea Buckley concurred with. As historian Sarah Katherine Mergel argues, the objective of the term “suspension,” suggested the impression that if Nixon chose to follow the advice of his conservative critics regarding changes in certain matters on policy then there was the possibility that the rift between the two might be repaired. Buckley and Burnham were also concerned that if the group did indeed choose to completely break with the administration, the president could become so bitter that he might move further to the Left. While many Nixon critics like activist
M. Stanton Evans would have favored a stronger response against the president, the fact that Buckley was able to convince a number of his colleagues to agree to suspend support was a clear indication of the influence he had within the conservative community. “The only thing that really gave us credibility was Buckley,” Evans said in an interview with author John Judis, “Who else had anybody heard of?”
The declaration was released on July 28th and was discussed in detail in the New York Times. While the announcement said little about domestic initiatives, it was foreign policy and matters of national security that took center stage. Buckley and his colleagues were most critical of Nixon’s inability to stem the tide of communist encroachment around the world and his seeming refusal to come to terms with America’s deteriorating national defense. While the twelve signers were direct in their criticism of the administration they also stated that at the moment they were not prepared to go so far as to support an alternative candidate for the GOP nomination.
Two days after the announcement Nixon was still upset over the criticism, declaring that those on the Right were completely oblivious of how to deal with Moscow and Peking. “These conservatives don’t know how the communist mind works,” the president told Kissinger and Haldeman, “They don’t see all the ins and outs of the goddamned thing. It’s unbelievable. I have spoken to them many times and they don’t have the slightest idea. That’s why they have never understood me, because I am way beyond their comprehension,” the president said as he attempted to come up with ways of placating Buckley and his colleagues while not putting his plans for détente in jeopardy.
Pat Buchanan identified with the president’s frustration. As one who spent his days scrutinizing what those on the Right were thinking, Buchanan had been concerned about conservative rumblings over administration policy since the beginning of 1971. The longtime speechwriter had argued that the president needed to get out in front of the problem and meet with those opinion and policy makers before a mutiny within the conservative base could occur. Buchanan believed that while the Right’s protest was certainly disagreeable it was still possible to keep Buckley and his colleagues within the administration’s camp. They had, after all, supported the president in 1968. If Nixon and key members of the administration sat down and addressed what Buchanan believed were substantive disagreements, the White House could avoid alienating supporters who they needed in 1972.
While there is no evidence that the president listened to Buchanan’s advise, Nixon encouraged Kissinger to visit with key members of NR’s staff, including James Burnham, to try to emphasize that the administration did have their interests at heart. Kissinger suggested the idea of having the foreign affairs columnist come to lunch at the State Department, believing that Burnham would find the invitation very flattering. Nixon also suggested a meeting between his national security advisor and NR’s eccentric book reviewer Frank Meyer. Kissinger was happy with the idea telling the president that while the columnist was “a little wacky, he was a very bright fellow.” But even as Nixon tried to come up with strategies for keeping the journals of conservative opinion in his corner, he also believed that those who wrote for them didn’t understand the compromises that needed to be made in order to achieve significant accomplishments in the realm of policy. “Why the Christ can’t they say something good about what we have done here and there,” Nixon wondered.
Kissinger agreed–while he viewed those who wrote for journals like Human Events as “ignorant provincials,” the former Harvard professor knew that Nixon had a high regard for Buckley and believed him to be the true leader of those on the Right. Over the next few days Kissinger followed Nixon’s instructions as he tried to placate the conservative establishment in an attempt to put them at ease over the president’s policy initiatives. He met with Buckley in the middle of August and did a moderately successful job at convincing the conservative commentator that he was pushing against a highly liberal State Department responsible for the administration’s pragmatic strategy toward the communist world.
However, Buckley also expressed his disapproval of the president’s unwillingness to not only include conservatives in key positions, but Nixon’s apparent refusal to take significant steps at reviving America’s increasingly weak military. Kissinger, who also tried to convince other members of the Manhattan Twelve that he understood and was willing to address their concerns, found that the group remained staunch in their opposition to the president. “He was very duplicitous,” M. Stanton Evans said about the National Security Advisor. “Kissinger would say ‘I am with you conservatives but I have to deal with liberals and I have to deal with Congress.’ Bill [Buckley] would believe this, but I was disturbed by it,” the late columnist recalled in a 2012 interview with the author.
Frustrated with the White House over the lack of progress regarding their concerns, a number of members of the Manhattan Twelve, including the American Conservative Union’s Jeffrey Bell, met on September 17 to draw up a more specific list of demands in the areas of both domestic and foreign policy that they hoped the administration would agree to. These conditions included topics like a constitutional amendment to ban busing, stronger crime legislation, and a number of other subjects like the administration’s pursuit of détente. Many of these men had worked to elect Nixon four years earlier, and while they may have been unhappy with the course of the administration’s policies, if Nixon had continued to cultivate them as he had when he was considering running for president in 1968, a conflict may have been avoided. However, Bell and his colleagues came to realize that Nixon had no interest in trying to stem the tide of conservative angst when two weeks later The White House announced that Kissinger would soon be visiting Peking. Nixon reinforced those comments when he informed the American people that he would be traveling to the Soviet Union in May of 1972 to negotiate and sign the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) with premier Leonid Brezhnev.
These two foreign policy decisions to expand America’s relationship with the leaders of international communism prompted those on the Right to conclude that a stronger warning needed to be sent to the president. While Nixon and Kissinger prepared their plans in the area of foreign policy, Buckley, Evans, and Rusher began discussing what other kind of political message could be sent to the administration. The situation crystalized a bit more in the middle of October when the group began investigating the feasibility of a conservative candidate to oppose the president in the primaries in 1972. However, finding a respected member of the Right to pursue what would clearly be an unsuccessful campaign against a sitting president would not be easy. Prominent members of the GOP like Senators Barry Goldwater, Strom Thurmond, and Governor Ronald Reagan all continued to support Nixon. Despite his anger at the administration, Manhattan Twelve member Frank Meyer argued against the idea of a primary challenge to the president. In a letter to his colleagues in the third week of October, the NR columnist contended that finding a candidate and then raising the amount of money required for them to be successful made the idea extremely unrealistic.
Despite Meyer and others objections, Rusher and Human Events’ Thomas S. Winter decided to discuss the idea with Ohio Congressman John Ashbrook. A graduate of Harvard and former newspaper publisher, Ashbrook had been a member of the House of Representatives since 1960. His vehement opposition to détente and institutions like the United Nations had made him a popular figure among members of the conservative movement. Many believed the idea of an Ashbrook candidacy would generate great concern in the offices of the West Wing.
On December 15, the White House’s growing apprehensions over Ashbrook prompted Nixon to have Vice President Spiro Agnew arrange a breakfast meeting at New York’s Waldorf Astoria with Buckley and Rusher to discuss the situation. In detailed notes taken by Rusher, Agnew argued that the candidacy by Ashbrook was unnecessary because the administration, in the words of the vice president, was “trending to the right” and that the “liberals at the White House are losing their clout.” While he didn’t express how either was occurring, Agnew made a number of policy promises that the administration would adhere to should Ashbrook drop his candidacy. In the conversation, the vice president mentioned issues like an expansion of the defense budget, and the eventual replacement of domestic policy advisor John Erlichman. Buckley and Rusher were not satisfied. “It would be necessary for Mr. Nixon to make much more persuasive and effective concessions to the right than have recently been forthcoming, if fatal trouble is to be avoided,” Rusher wrote in his description of the conversation.
Following the meeting, Agnew continued to try to convince Buckley from supporting Ashbrook’s primary challenge. “Obviously, nothing is to be accomplished by separating conservatives from the Republican Party,” the vice president wrote shortly after the meeting. “While I have great respect for Bill Rusher’s ability and integrity, I hope he can be dissuaded from the course of action he has indicated he was about to pursue.” There is no question that Buckley was as annoyed with the administration’s direction as Rusher was. However, while the conservative publisher was passionate about the idea of an Ashbrook candidacy, Buckley was not so sure. During the initial consideration of an opposition candidate, Buckley had mirrored Agnew’s argument that a poor showing by a conservative opponent against Nixon might cause the Right to lose any leverage they may have had with the White House. While he eventually agreed to the idea, NR’s Editor In Chief continued to have reservations. Buckley, unlike Rusher, was someone who was very concerned with public perception. As one who relished being at the center of attention, Buckley may have been concerned that severing relations with the administration might lead to banishment from the White House or cause undue damage to his magazine or television program. While he liked Ashbrook personally, Buckley may have wondered if a challenge against Nixon would do more harm than good.
Following Ashbrook’s announcement at the end of December, 1971, Rusher’s biographer David Frisk states that the publisher was unhappy with Buckley’s position and told his friend that his enthusiasm about the congressman’s challenge was important as the New Hampshire primary drew closer. “Your name…strikes favorable chords in the minds and hearts of about a third of Republicans and Independents up there,” Rusher wrote to Buckley at the end of January 1972. Rusher further argued, that if Buckley continued to be critical of Ashbrook it would be interpreted by conservatives as “a gratuitous stab in the back and generally a major contribution to the growing fissure in the movement.” While Buckley continued to be apprehensive of the Ohio republican’s candidacy, he did record a number of radio promotions as well as give a somewhat half-hearted endorsement of Ashbrook at a press conference a week before voting began in the granite state.
Despite the support of NR, other activists, and members of the conservative press, Ashbrook’s campaign met with little success. Following a dreadful result in New Hampshire in which he barely received just over fiver percent of the vote, Ashbrook, whose mantra had been “no left turns,” dropped out of the race following poor showings in primary’s in Florida and California. Nixon would go on to successfully win the nomination and then re-election against South Dakota’s Senator George McGovern. While the efforts of the Manhattan Twelve may have pushed the president to the Right on some issues, Buckley and his colleagues could do nothing to stop the public from holding the opinion of Nixon as a supreme diplomat following his successful ventures to China and the Soviet Union. The administration’s foreign policy success combined with the ideologically out of step McGovern campaign were two of the key factors that carried him to victory for a second presidential term in 1972.
The inability of conservative intellectuals to convince voters to display their disapproval against President Nixon forty five years ago showed the limits of their ability to influence the politics of the moment. While organs like National Review and Commentary can certainly be credited with sounding the alarm over the growing power of the Soviet Union, an issue that eventually led to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, these publications were originally designed to influence complex matters of policy not day-to-day politics. While the conservative press has expanded to include magazines like the neo-conservative Weekly Standard the power of these journals to influence public opinion has remained limited. That example was seen this past January when conservative pundits once again coalesced under the banner of National Review in an attempt to squash the Trump candidacy once and for all. But just like 1972 when the journals of conservative opinion sent a shot across the bow of the Nixon White House the result was not a bang but a whimper.