Richard Nixon’s legacy will be forever tarnished by the Watergate scandal that led him to become the first and only U.S. president to resign from office. But Nixon was also a political mastermind whose impact continues to resound in both domestic and world politics.
John R. Price served on the domestic policy side of the first Nixon administration, eventually becoming Special Assistant to the President for Urban Affairs. He has written about his experience in a compelling new memoir and history, The Last Liberal Republican: An Insider’s Perspective on Nixon’s Surprising Social Policy. In this interview, Price talks about his background as one of the founding members of the Ripon Society (a moderate Republican activist group in the 1960s), his efforts on behalf of progressive Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits, and his work in the Nixon administration for the eminent Harvard sociologist (and later U.S. Senator) Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Price describes his efforts with Moynihan and Nixon to create the Family Assistance Plan, a far-reaching welfare proposal that would have implemented a negative income tax for households with working parents. He makes the case that Nixon was in many ways a liberal — indeed the last liberal Republican president — and that his social welfare program, if it had passed Congress, would have put the country on a different and better trajectory.
John R. Price: This is key, I think, to my sense of Nixon: that there was somewhere at that curious, complicated man’s core a feeling that he wanted before he left the world to have done something remarkably good and memorable.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. I’m delighted to be joined today by my friend John R. Price, who has just written a brilliant memoir and history entitled The Last Liberal Republican: An Insider’s Perspective on Nixon’s Surprising Social Policy. John spent much of the 1960s as a moderate Republican activist before joining the Nixon administration after the 1968 election.
He worked for Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Urban Affairs Council, focusing on welfare reform and the creation of the Family Assistance Plan. And after Moynihan left the administration and returned to Harvard, John succeeded him as Special Assistant to the President for Urban Affairs and Executive Secretary to the Council on Urban Affairs, reporting directly to John Ehrlichman. So welcome back, John, and congratulations on your book.
John R. Price: Thank you, Geoffrey. I appreciate your support.
Geoff Kabaservice: You’re welcome. And my saying “welcome back” was actually a bit of a Freudian slip there, because unfortunately, as you know, you and I taped an entire podcast a few weeks ago that utterly failed to record. But John, your many stellar qualities include your vast supply of patience, so I hope you don’t mind a certain sense of déjà vu in repeating our conversation.
John R. Price: Not a bit. Let’s get on with it.
Geoff Kabaservice: Great. So as I was saying, one of the many intriguing aspects of your book is that you situate the Nixon presidency in the much longer history of factional warfare within the Republican Party. And I also like that you spent the first third or so of the book relating your own somewhat Forrest Gump-ish experiences in the 1960s, where you were personally involved with seemingly every significant Republican organization and leader. And then another valuable aspect of the book is your focus on the relationship between Nixon and Moynihan and the struggle to pass the Family Assistance Plan, which was a welfare program that aimed to implement a negative income tax for households with working parents.
And your approaching Nixon from these angles really reveals a rather different Nixon from the one who appears in most histories. So although maybe I’ve supplied some of the answer to my own question for you, can you tell me what inspired you to write this book?
John R. Price: Well, partly it was the fact that 50 years had gone by, and if I were going to write it I’d better get to it. But more importantly, I think that it was in a way a justification for my own life. And at one point Nixon said to a group of us staff in his office, he said, “Pat Moynihan, if we get Family Assistance (and we will), will have done something with his life.” And I felt that Nixon was speaking almost for himself on that very point. This is key, I think, to my sense of the importance of writing the book and my sense of Nixon, that there was somewhere at that man’s, that curious, complicated man’s core a feeling that he wanted before he left the world to have done something remarkably good and memorable.
And so I write the book partly out of that sense of Nixon’s own personal quest, but also out of the fact that I had come from maybe an upbringing and certainly a college — Grinnell in Iowa — which had a very strong sense of the Social Gospel, as it was called, a hundred and more years ago. So it was a whole mix of reasons, both personal (as a sense of an amateur historian) and as desiring to give a glimpse of Nixon, as you just said, most people never had the opportunity to see.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, I think you’ve succeeded wonderfully in this book. Maybe we can begin by you telling me something about your family background and early interest in Republican politics.
John R. Price: Thank you. My family was basically nonpartisan. I say that despite the fact that both my mother and father regularly pulled the Republican lever, but they weren’t feverish about it. There wasn’t rancor. There wasn’t a huge sense of great gulfs in American politics. My mother was from a dairy farm in Iowa, southern Iowa — Holstein cows — and my grandfather and my grandmother were a Republican and Democrat respectively. So when they went to vote on Election Day, they canceled each other out and then went home to a very satisfying, quiet, calm mid-day meal.
My father was out of the coal mining camps in West Virginia, having actually begun working in the mines at age twelve, and finally, later, more or less finished high school and then talked his way into college, of which he was the first family member ever to attend. But his politics were basically one of stability and practicality. He was not an ideologue in any way. And he greatly, greatly found disorder abhorrent, and the coal mining camps, at the time he was a young man and teaching school, were pretty wild with union organization and Pinkertons being brought in to put them down violently. Violence on both sides. So my folks were Republicans, but basically centrist and moderate in their temperament.
Geoff Kabaservice: And how did you get into your interest in Republican politics?
John R. Price: Well, the first intimation of it came when I was nine years old, when Governor Tom Dewey — someone to whom we will refer probably more than once in this conversation, Governor Tom Dewey of New York — was running for the second time for the presidency as the Republican standard-bearer in 1948. So I, at the tender age of nine, was dispatched or volunteered (I have no idea) to carry campaign posters and a hammer and tacks up and down my one-block-long street, affixing Tom Dewey’s picture and slogans to telephone poles and lightposts. That was the beginning.
And then I, four years later, saw Eisenhower in an open-car motorcade through my hometown on Long Island, New York. My dad and I watched it. And then as I got on and through high school, I began to be very interested in social studies and such, and at college in the late ‘60s I wound up being very interested in policy. And by that time, someone named Nelson Rockefeller had come on the scene and completely seduced me, as he did thousands of other centrist, somewhat more moderate and potentially liberal folks of my age.
Geoff Kabaservice: And of course you would end up going to work for Rockefeller twice, as it happens.
John R. Price: Yes. And that was still a long time in the future at that point. But he had been sort of a comet in the sky in 1958, which was about halfway through my college years. And he became the sort of emerging figure of the more moderate wing of the party — or at least he thought he was, because Richard Nixon was still the vice president and was about to beat Nelson Rockefeller for the 1960 nomination, which he duly and handily did.
But nonetheless, Rockefeller emerged as a powerful northern Republican governor, of which there were many — more than a handful. And they were a very formidable force within the party. But at the same time, rising within the party and outside it was the Conservative Movement. It was a formidable force that had been suppressed during the Eisenhower presidency. The old Taft wing, the more conservative wing, which Eisenhower had beaten for his own nomination in 1952, had been sort of somnolent and under the surface, but came back with a vengeance after Nixon’s 1960 defeat. And it really set up a struggle between the conservatives and Nelson Rockefeller, in the first instance.
Geoff Kabaservice: You have written about this in your book, but generally speaking how was the Republican Party of 1960 different from the one we have today?
John R. Price: Well, it was a broad church still, very much so. And you had the Eisenhower administration drawing to an end. And as usual, especially after a couple of terms, they were running out of gas, and the members of the administration were aging and they’d shot their wads and they were back off to business or retirement or college presidencies or whatever. But you had that strong Eisenhower moderate wing. Don’t forget, Eisenhower had vastly expanded Social Security. He had made possible through the ESI, the Employer-Sponsored Insurance Program, a vast transformation of the landscape of health insurance in America, because employers began to offer it to their employees, and it really took hold.
And then you had the more conservative wing, which as I say had been sort of suppressed during much of Eisenhower but was beginning once again to feel its oats. Nixon was a centrist. Nixon was definitely the heir to Eisenhower. And frankly, in his campaign against Jack Kennedy, Nixon was probably more the centrist than even Jack Kennedy. So you had a broad church Republican Party in 1960, quite different to today.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, John, I know from past conversations that you have a story about Iowa Republican Congressman Fred Schwengel that dates to the summer of 1960, which kind of shows just on a personal level how different politics was in those days.
John R. Price: Well, it’s interesting… Schwengel was from the eastern Mississippi River side of Iowa, Quad Cities area, as it’s called. And he was a longtime Republican member there, traditional Midwestern Republican, which meant very pro-civil rights; economically he was more or less conservative — that is, fiscally prudent. But Schwengel was interested in history. He liked history. He liked facts. He later, in fact, went on to become the chairman or president of the National Capital Historical Society.
But that summer, he had a summer intern from my college, Grinnell College, and invited that young man and me over for a Sunday hamburger. And he grilled the hamburgers and hotdogs, and then he said, “If you’d be interested, come on down to our recreation room in the basement. I’ve got some recordings. If you’d be willing to hear them, I’d love to play them for you.” And what he played for us were campaign speeches of Adlai Ewing Stevenson, who had run against Dwight Eisenhower in ‘52 and again in 1956, but who was an eloquent, eloquent man.
And by that time, of course, the New Deal had itself burned out, and Stevenson had little or no chance against Eisenhower. But his rhetoric, his eloquence, his ability to turn into a fine phrase very important thoughts were really important to Schwengel himself. And he just wanted us to listen to this for entertainment and for exposure to a fine rhetorician.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s very rare I run across Republican politicians who are aficionados of the speeches of, let’s say Barack Obama, even though Obama was a rhetorician of a level of eloquence of Stevenson himself.
John R. Price: Yes, I’d agree.
Geoff Kabaservice: Interesting anecdote. So you graduated from Grinnell College, you went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and upon your return to the States you enrolled at the Harvard Law School. And you were present at the creation of the Ripon Society. For our listeners who may not know, what was the Ripon Society?
John R. Price: It was, starting in 1962, a sort of inchoate group of maybe 10 or a dozen, which grew slowly over the next year. Young men, many law students, but also grad students at Tufts and at MIT and elsewhere. And we felt vaguely Republican. We liked Eisenhower, though by that time we felt a little ashamed because of course the prevailing view of Eisenhower by the early 1960s was that he had been a tired old man who didn’t know what he was doing, and so on. That view is radically undergoing a transformation these days.
But the name Ripon was given to the group later. And the concept for the group was a transplant from across the Atlantic, from the British Conservative (or Tory) Party. And one of the key players in it, Emil Frankel, had been a Fulbright at Manchester, and he came back knowledgeable about this group called the Bow Group. The Bow Group was, like this group of ours in the Boston area, young people who really were interested in politics, but they were interested in policy and in ideas and their place in politics. And so the Bow Group became a bridge between policy and officeholders, policy and politicians.
So that was specifically the model that this young group, fledgling group, took for itself. And we experimented with names. American Bow Group… Nothing jelled until the assassination of Jack Kennedy in November of 1963. Within two months, the Ripon Society had formalized, declared a credo if you will, and embraced the name of Ripon. Ripon was the town in Wisconsin, and in the little white schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin, the Republican Party was born. So we specifically determined that we were a Republican group, we were a policy-oriented group, we were a young group. And we meant to ensure that politics did not degenerate but had a high level of concern about policy and getting things done that helped people.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s interesting that you mentioned the growing conservative movement, which was also going on at that time. And the way you specifically put it was that the Eisenhower presidency had suppressed a lot of that conservative sentiment. You know, I often think about the roots of Trumpian populism. And while I don’t want to be presentist in the way that I’m thinking about Richard Nixon, I do consider his role on the one hand being Eisenhower’s conservative hatchet man, but on the other hand participating in that repression of the specifically isolationist element of America First that came out as the McCarthyite movement with Senator Joe McCarthy. And Robert Taft was always its standard bearer. And Eisenhower really did convert the Republican Party to internationalism and seemingly the cause of moderation. But of course, that did not last.
John R. Price: Absolutely. And you made a very important point — not central to my book or my career in politics or my arguments, which were focused on domestic and social policy — but the reason Eisenhower has often said that he finally decided to run for the presidency was because he had a private secret meeting with Robert Taft, senator of Ohio and a key leader in the Republicans in the Congress, Senate — he was the Republican leader specifically in the Senate. And Eisenhower asked him point blank… He said — NATO had just been formed in 1949 — and Eisenhower said to Taft, “Look, even Harry Truman has been asking me to run for president.” He said, “I wouldn’t run if I knew that you would embrace internationalism and embrace NATO specifically.” And Taft said, “In conscience, I can’t do that.” And that led to Eisenhower saying, “All right.” He didn’t say it to Taft at the time, but he made the decision to run against Taft for the nomination and for the presidency.
Geoff Kabaservice: When the Ripon Society had come up with its name, it made a pilgrimage to that schoolhouse in Wisconsin.
John R. Price: We did indeed. But there was a specific moment in time when that was done. And it was after the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party in 1964, Barry Morris Goldwater of Arizona, had voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And he had voted with, I think, four other Republican senators. 25 or 26 other Republicans, by a ratio of almost five to one, voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act. But Goldwater had opposed it, voting with Democrats like Strom Thurmond, who that autumn crossed the aisle to say he was a Republican.
And so we felt, the folks in Ripon felt, that this was blasphemy, if you will, within the context of a party which for a hundred years had stood for civil rights, for the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, for attempts at Reconstruction, for the Eisenhower Court and the Brown vs Board of Education decision — all of these things. And so we went to Ripon and issued a “Declaration of Conscience,” saying that the party could not in conscience nominate someone — Barry Goldwater — who stood so opposed to its historic lineage and purpose.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, it’s interesting that the conservative movement congealed around Goldwater and also opposed Nelson Rockefeller. I remember a quote from William Rusher, who was the publisher of National Review magazine, where he said that “Every movement needs an enemy. And for the conservative movement, Nelson Rockefeller was it.”
John R. Price: Yeah, he had a big bullseye… He had a big bullseye on him.
Geoff Kabaservice: And Rockefeller really was the most formidable challenger to Goldwater during that 1964 presidential primary and series of contests leading up to the Republican nomination. And since you worked for Rockefeller on two occasions, like I said, I’d be curious to hear your take on him. Why is it that people nowadays should esteem Nelson Rockefeller? And was there any truth to this notion of it was possible to be both a liberal and a Republican in those days?
John R. Price: Well, Nelson Rockefeller certainly stood for that. I mean, he would call himself a moderate. I don’t think he’d call himself a liberal. He kept saying he was “electable,” because he believed — in a way, like Richard Nixon did — that elections would be won in the center, in the middle of American politics. And he had a favorite phrase… He said, “Republicans and independents and ‘discerning Democrats’ will be for me.” He was a man of immense ego but equally immense charm. He had, I think at age 31, become the family boss on the construction of Rockefeller Center — that could go to your head. The biggest construction project, probably, of the entire New Deal era. And then he helped to found the Museum of Modern Art with his mother. And then he was an assistant secretary of State under FDR, undersecretary of HEW under Eisenhower. So he had, by dint of wealth and charm and family connections, he had already had one heck of a start in public life.
He then was elected governor of New York, which was then — 60, 65 years ago — a formidable platform for a governor of either party. It was still the largest state, and the East was still predominant in media and so forth. So he had an enormous spot, if you will, from which to maneuver. And he was a man, as I say, of great ego, of great charm, of great energy. And he had a radiant charm, and he was also a builder. He liked to do things big. And so he was a spender, and he built a vast state university system, and he helped to inspire the building of the original World Trade Center and all these kinds of things. So Nelson was regarded as being a huge spender — a liberal in that sense — a big government man, and a man with an ego to match.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, I found that when I was researching Rockefeller, I came to think less highly of him than many people who had been in the Ripon Society and were around in politics at the time, precisely because he didn’t seem to be part of the Dwight Eisenhower tradition of moderate Republicanism that I was writing about and that seemed central to me. Since we’ve spoken last, I have been up to Albany, New York, and I have gone to the old capital and gazed upon what is now the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza. And as you said, he was a builder and a spender, and the plaza came in at something like twice its original planned budget at $2 billion.
John R. Price: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: And it’s this vast Brasilia-style space that’s kind of like a modernist ode to big government. It has no human scale at all. And I find it somewhat off-putting about Rockefeller that he was not a fiscal conservative.
John R. Price: Correct. And some of his best buddies were architects themselves of Olympian tastes and ambitions. And that’s partly why he was a very easy target. As we both agree, he was a big spender and didn’t have the same sense of a fiscal constraint that, say, Tom Dewey did, his predecessor as Republican governor. And so Rockefeller was easily portrayed by the conservatives as perhaps too rambunctious internationally — there still was that tinge of non-internationalism in the conservatives. And then that he was willing to spend — anything that he saw he’d throw money at.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. To be fair, Rockefellers had been key demons in the demonology of populism for a century at that point, along with East Coast bankers and railroads and Jews and immigrants and all the rest of it.
John R. Price: And the oil business. But the way in which the Rockefeller family were big spenders was a wonderful way. Because yes, the old man, the old Baptist from Cleveland who founded the dynasty, was a man whose reputation was deadly in many ways. His son created the Rockefeller Foundation and he created the blood bank, they created Colonial Williamsburg, they created the Rockefeller University which in turn generated all kinds of hybrid seeds, which allowed a revolution in agriculture and the feeding of millions of people. So the penance done by John D. Jr. was massive. And the other Rockefellers — and Nelson because he was the most visible — benefited from that somewhat now more benign reputation that the family had earned through the leadership of John D. Jr.
Geoff Kabaservice: And of course the Rockefeller family also gave tremendous support to the Historically Black Colleges and Universities of the country.
John R. Price: Absolutely. Spellman College…
Geoff Kabaservice: And Nelson Rockefeller was an ardent supporter of both civil rights and civil liberties.
John R. Price: Yes, he was. But so was Tom Dewey, with more fiscal restraint.
Geoff Kabaservice: And I think even Robert Taft, though he was very conservative and isolationist, also was a supporter of civil rights. And that’s what differentiates to me the Barry Goldwater line of conservatives — the far right, if you will — from the old conservative tradition that was more Midwestern.
John R. Price: That is exactly right. I made the point earlier in passing, but the traditional Midwestern conservatives, both in the house and the Senate… Guys like McCulloch of Ohio, who was ranking Republican of the House Judiciary Committee at the time of that Civil Rights Act, was a real leader on it. And Lyndon Johnson, when he finally converted to being in favor of civil rights, having long played footsie with the Southern segregationist Democrats, Lyndon turned to the Republicans. He told Hubert Humphrey, his vice president, that they needed to go to the… or he wasn’t yet vice president… They needed to go to Everett McKinley Dirksen, who was the minority leader from Illinois who represented exactly that strain of Midwestern, traditional, pro-civil rights Republicans.
Dirksen, when he led the floor fight on cloture to keep the Democratic Southern segregationist filibuster from succeeding, Dirksen broke cloture with Republican votes, as I say, almost five-to-one as the Democrats did about two-and-a-half-to-one in favor of the Civil Rights bill. And Everett Dirksen, as he walked off the floor after the vote, turned to Barry Goldwater, who led five Republicans to oppose it, and he flicked his thumb on his teeth at Barry Goldwater.
Geoff Kabaservice: People tend to forget this, but Richard Nixon was considered to be the strongest supporter of civil rights inside the Eisenhower administration, or among the leaders who were in the top circle at any rate. Richard Nixon obviously was hated by the left for his anti-communism…
John R. Price: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: …his red-baiting, as they saw it, in his elections and subsequently in the Congress. But he also did have that strain of support for civil rights pretty strongly within him in the ‘50s as well.
John R. Price: Yes, he did. And in fact, against the advice of many in his White House, when push came to shove within the first year that he was in the office as president, he had to respond to the Supreme Court case of Holmes vs. Alexander. This is not my special area, but it is important to note that was the case that finally — finally, after the Brown decision in 1954 — said, “Time’s up. You’ve got to do it now.” So Nixon had the hot potato. The Eisenhower Court, the Warren Court had made the decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that they had to integrate the schools. But basically the phrase… I forget exactly what it was, but it was essentially, “with deliberate speed,” I think. And that was interpreted to mean in sort of Southern style: Let’s take our time about it. And White Citizens Councils formed in opposition. So Nixon had to face it when he had to either make sure that the decision was implemented or fall on his sword. And conservatives in the White House fought strenuously against his decision to really enforce that Supreme Court decision. But he did.
Geoff Kabaservice: Your book, John, is a very interesting counterpart to the series of Nixon memoirs written by Pat Buchanan. Of course, you served alongside Buchanan in Nixon’s White House. You and a number of other Ripon Society alumni were part of an identifiable moderate-to-liberal Republican group. Buchanan, of course, was trying to bring the conservative movement into the Nixon White House. And in Buchanan’s telling, the moderates come across as intolerant and unwilling to compromise. But what I think Buchanan overlooks is that the central issue animating the Ripon Society was its support for civil rights. And when you have a candidate like Barry Goldwater, who represents the conservative movement, who is voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that’s not an issue on which compromise is possible.
John R. Price: And as I say, we took our stand immediately prior to the convention in ‘64, at which Goldwater was finally nominated. And that convention was as angry, as bilious, as almost violent as the Democratic one later in ‘68. But it was very indicative of how these passions were right there on the surface. And we felt strongly. One reason Bill Scranton decided to seek that nomination against Barry Goldwater, despite the fact he knew it was a kamikaze mission, was because he had a sense of the historic role of the Republican Party, and he came from a longtime Republican-active family in Pennsylvania. And he stood up and tried to challenge Goldwater principally on that issue.
Geoff Kabaservice: You had come to the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco’s Cow Palace as a member of Rockefeller’s staff. In the summer of 1964, you joined John Deardourff’s research operation in the Rockefeller campaign. He and Doug Bailey really formed the first campaign management outfit. And so you were there, seeing this unfold as Barry Goldwater is declaring that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” What was it like to be at that convention as a moderate Republican?
John R. Price: Well, going back a ways before that, which was the final moment of his acceptance speech… The moderates were a thin if not hardy band, and we were trying to figure out some way to stop the Goldwater nomination. The polling of Republicans in the party at large across the country indicated Goldwater was not their choice, not their first choice. Rather, what you’d had was this powerful, well thought-out guerilla movement led by William Rusher and Clifton White and others to nominate Goldwater from the ground up. And so the moderates were left at San Francisco with little to do except try to win over some of the swingables, some of the winnable among the delegates, by trying to propose platform planks which could try to peel them off from the hard right — which was really in control of the convention. And we failed abjectly.
Rockefeller himself, after a very, very vicious California primary only weeks before the convention, spoke to the convention. And he talked about one of the planks we had offered, about condemnation of extremism. And he stood up on the rostrum about 30 feet above where I was standing — I was literally right below him — and facing the new Goldwater delegation from California, which had just won when they beat Rockefeller three weeks earlier in the primary. And they were 20 feet away from me, with orange life jackets on and cowboy hats. And Rockefeller stood up there 25, 30 feet above me, crying out against extremism and saying this was not what the Republican Party was. And he then went on to talk about bomb threats to his campaign headquarters and to his person. And the delegates began to stir with anger and rage, and the Bronx cheers became louder. And finally he said, “You may not like to hear it, ladies and gentlemen, but it’s the truth.” And at that point, right in front of me, the front row of the Goldwater California delegates stood up on their chairs and spat at Rockefeller, which happened to be in my direction — and I was nearer. But it was a raw, very difficult, very angry place.
Geoff Kabaservice: Everyone in 1964 would’ve understood that a condemnation of extremism within the Republican Party really specifically referred to the role played by the John Birch Society.
John R. Price: Yes. Which was a group — initially, I think, in California — which had made an icon of some virtually unknown person who was elevated into a figure of heroism. And there were a lot of funding sources that supported it. And they really, really took after Eisenhower, accusing him of being a communist dupe. This is a man who had fought with Zhukov against the Nazis and also was the head of NATO’s alliance against the Communists. So that may have escaped them. But they did make a big point of Eisenhower being almost pro-communist in his sympathies, which was staggering. And then they, I must say, in ‘62, they took after Richard Nixon in the primary when he went back to California after his loss to Jack Kennedy and sought the governorship to try it again, probably. And he won the primary, but the loss of blood by the attacks from the Birchers and other right-wingers meant that he, in the general election, lost to the Democrat, Pat Brown.
Geoff Kabaservice: And from that episode — and probably others, at least, but certainly from that — Nixon distrusted the far right, did he not?
John R. Price: Very much. More than distrusted. He told John Whitaker, one of his longtime aides and a colleague of mine, who became a colleague of mine… He said, “You know, I think the right wing just don’t like people.” He literally said that. He said, “I don’t think they like people.” And he carried those wounds with him consistently. Pat Buchanan, whom you cited earlier, Pat has an interesting point in one of his books — and the two books are interesting. Pat Buchanan says Nixon, when he would talk with Buchanan — Buchanan being his emissary to the right wing, to the hard right — Pat Buchanan says Nixon never, ever used the word “we.” It was always “they.” He never identified himself with Buchanan as a hard conservative.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. Buchanan does point out that Nixon came of political age before the conservative movement got started in the mid-1950s. But what Buchanan puts less emphasis on is that the conservative movement got started in reaction to Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, of which Richard Nixon was the vice president.
John R. Price: Yes. That’s a fairly important point. And also I will mention that Nixon was sort of the spear-carrier, as you referred earlier to him, while vice president for Eisenhower, who sought to and whose instinct was to remain above the fray, at least visibly above the fray. And he basically dispatched Richard Nixon to try to help get rid of McCarthy, Joe McCarthy, who was a darling of the right wing at that point — erratic and irresponsible, but they loved him. But he was a real problem for Eisenhower because he went around accusing everybody up to and including General George Catlett Marshall — who’d been Army chief of staff in World War II and Secretary of State —of, again, being some sort of a communist dupe. And Eisenhower was furious at questioning the patriotism of George Marshall. And so he had Nixon try to work on helping to cut McCarthy out, and Nixon was very much a part of that. And then Tom Dewey was too. Eisenhower turned to Tom Dewey to say, “What kind of a lawyer can I get to try and bring McCarthy down?” — in the Army-McCarthy hearings. And he turned to Joseph Nye Welch, who was himself a Grinnell College grad.
Geoff Kabaservice: And I would say that the Birch Society movement was strongest in California in the early 1960s compared to any other state. And what Nixon fatally underestimated in his contest for governor was that his candidacy presented an opportunity for the Birchers and other McCarthy loyalists to have revenge.
John R. Price: Yes, no question. No question. But it was not just a personal revenge. It was partly issues. For example, one thing I came across in my work trying to put the book together was the fact that Nixon had some pro-labor sympathies. And one of the issues which was beginning to germinate among the conservatives as early as ‘60-‘61 was an anti-union movement called the Right to Work laws, which were to be passed at state levels, and which were to inhibit the ability of unions to organize in those states and to prevent union shops and so on. Well, Nixon opposed Right to Work. So there was a policy issue and not just a vengeance issue with which the right was anxious to beat him up.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. In fact, the Right to Work issue was what had caused California to fall to the Democrats in the first place in that 1958 election. And union supporters, by and large, swamped Republican candidates in ’58, and Nixon had sort of been out there trying to drum up support in his role as vice president during that election. So he would’ve seen Right to Work as a foolish political hill to die on, put it that way.
John R. Price: Yes. Good way to put it.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. And Nixon’s psychology, at the time that you first got to know him, must have been affected on some level by the 1960 election, when he would’ve had a much better case than Donald Trump to argue that the election had really been legitimately won by himself and had been taken by the Democrats through underhanded means.
John R. Price: Yes. I never had a personal conversation with him about the 1960 election. But one of my friends was a man named John A. Wells, “Jack” Wells, who was a lawyer in a New York firm and long wheelhorse of the Republican Party. He’d worked for Willkie in 1940 at Tom Dewey’s behest. He then worked for Dewey in both of his campaigns. And Nixon dispatched Jack Wells in 1960, after the election, to Chicago, to Cook County. And he then probed, as a good forensic lawyer, the election returns. And he came back to Nixon and to the Republican National Committee and said, “There is more than adequate grounds for you to contest the election and a strong likelihood, based on what I’ve seen, that you probably could overturn Cook County, which in turn would probably mean Illinois falls into your column. And then there’s Texas… But this would go a long way toward you overturning the election.”
And Nixon… Here’s the contrast that you’re driving at. Nixon said no to Jack Wells and to the Republican National Committee, which was salivating to go after it. He said no. He said, “I remember the 1876 Tilden-Hayes presidential race,” which was so close that it was not finally resolved for three or four months after the election. And Nixon said to Jack Wells, “I cannot put the country through that.” Rather a different ethos or attitude about constitutional process.
Geoff Kabaservice: Rather. So you were director of delegate intelligence for the 1968 Rockefeller for President campaign. And of course, that fell short and Nixon got the nomination. When and how did you actually go to work for him?
John R. Price: Well, I actually had worked in ’63 for a summer job doing the original research on Barry Goldwater. Then, as you mentioned, I took two weeks off of a summer associate job at a law firm to go to San Francisco. But in ’68, what happened was… It was sort of stop-start, and Nelson Rockefeller was being coy and thinking that he had a better shot at being nominated if he appeared to have the party approach him instead of his going full tilt after the nomination. So things were poking along. And some of the key financial figures in the Republican Party approached me and said, “Look, let’s ask Nelson if he would take you on as head of delegate intelligence,” meaning trying to put the dossiers together on every one of the delegates: understanding what their interests were, how they might be appealed to, what civic organizations, church, alumni groups, what banks they banked at. How could we find ways to talk to them and bring them along?
And so we started late in the game, after Rockefeller had pulled out. And Spiro Agnew, in fury — Spiro having backed him thoroughly — turned elsewhere. So we had a long uphill struggle, because it was late. And also important to remember about Rockefeller… Rockefeller was more a policy person than he was a delegate hunter. And he really believed that if you studied an issue hard enough and long enough, and if you had enough experts writing about it, and if you then digested it and had a good speechwriter helping you, that you would win elections by policy alone, really. Richard Nixon was a little different. He was the man of the thousand chicken dinners at precinct committee meetings.
So Rockefeller’s degree of avidness, avidity for delegate hunting and cultivating county chairs and so on, just wasn’t there. It just wasn’t there. So it was the combination of a late start, of Nelson having disappointed people in the past so they just wouldn’t stick their necks out again for him, and of the fact that he just didn’t focus on the delegate side, even though I and my group and the delegate hunters with whom we worked were doing our best.
Geoff Kabaservice: So how did the Nixon offer come about?
John R. Price: The Nixon offer came about through two people who were very close to Richard Nixon. One was Walter Thayer, who was a mentor of mine and the president of the New York Herald-Tribune. And I called him the secretary general of the Eastern Republican Establishment. He worked with John Hay Whitney, who had owned the Tribune until he sold it because he couldn’t afford to carry it anymore. And Thayer called me — and he’d backed Rockefeller — and he said, “I hope you’d be willing to work for Richard Nixon.” And then Charlie McWhorter, a wonderful guy who was a chairman of the national Young Republicans years earlier and knew everybody in the party — he was a bachelor whose total energy was spent on Republican Party matters — he called me likewise and said, “I hope you’ll work for Nixon,” for whom Charlie had worked when Nixon was vice-president.
And I was weighing all this because I had not started out as a Nixon supporter. So what did I do? I went to see my boss, from whom I had taken a leave of absence in Brooklyn, in Bed-Stuy. I was working on a community development corporation. And I went to see him… We had breakfast at Junior’s on Flatbush Avenue — cheesecake for breakfast. And I said to him, “John, what should I do?”
Geoff Kabaservice: This is John Doar?
John R. Price: Well, I was going to get there — that was the punchline! But John Doar was a Republican from New Richmond, Wisconsin who, when Eisenhower and Herb Brownell formed the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, had come down as a staff lawyer and then stayed on after Kennedy won. And Bob Kennedy had recognized John Doar and promoted him to assistant attorney general for civil rights.
So John Doar was my boss now at Bed-Stuy. And I said, “What do I do?” And he said, “John, you’re a Republican, aren’t you?” And I said, “I am.” And he said, “Well, don’t be squeamish about it. Look at the other side. You’ve got John Connolly, Southern Democrat governor. You’ve got Dave Dubinsky, big labor union leader. And you’ve got Dick Daley, the mayor of a corrupt Chicago.” He said, “Of course you work for Richard Nixon.” This is the John Doar who led the 44-lawyers-strong impeachment team against Richard Nixon some years later for the House Judiciary Committee — on which, among others, was Hillary Rodham. He’s the guy who pushed me into working for Richard Nixon.
Geoff Kabaservice: Tell me about your position for which you were hired in 1968 and into 1969.
John R. Price: Yes. Well, first of all and most interestingly, Nixon had gotten intrigued by a Democrat named Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Pat was partisan, a partisan Democrat, and had worked for Bobby Kennedy against Nixon until Kennedy was killed. And he then worked for Hubert Humphrey against Nixon until the election, when Nixon won. But what attracted Nixon, what intrigued him, was something Moynihan had written a year and a half earlier. He wrote it and delivered a speech at the Americans for Democratic Action. In it, Moynihan was basically saying about a time not unlike our own, “Look, we are in a situation approaching anarchy. The confidence and trust in institutions, the necessary institutions holding together a society, is dwindling, drying up.” And he said, “Liberals and conservatives have to come together to try to address people’s real needs. Otherwise, this society is going to collapse. The social contract will go and we won’t have enough respect for institutions to keep going.”
That appealed to Nixon. And it was the original basis of their connection, their almost spiritual connection. It wasn’t so much about welfare reform or about urban development or housing. It was on that basic Burkean notion — Edmund Burke, the Anglo-Irish office holder and political philosopher and ethical philosopher — of society needing this glue to hold it together. And that’s what first brought them together.
So anyway, Nixon hires Moynihan, and I was on the transition staff for Len Garment. And I wound up having lunch with Pat Moynihan and he said, “Let’s do it together. I want you to come in and be my counsel and you’ll do what I’m doing. And I want you to help me with the machinery of this to-be-created cabinet-level body for the formulation of domestic policy, urban policy” — which means, as he said, cities, which means the race problem. So that’s how it began. I was working for Pat as his counsel and supporting the machinery of the domestic cabinet, which the President chaired, basically. That was what it was.
Geoff Kabaservice: Pat Buchanan, in his book The Greatest Comeback, had an interesting appraisal of Nixon. He said, “While his judgment on people was not infallible, when it came to talent he wanted the best. And he was not put off if the best had not wanted him.” And he gives as an example not only Moynihan, who was a lifelong Democrat, but also Henry Kissinger of Harvard, who had worked for Nelson Rockefeller, and also John Connolly, who was Nixon’s secretary of the treasury, who had delivered Texas for Humphrey in 1968. Buchanan continues on: “The selection of these men testifies to the truth that Nixon was no ideologue, no true believer. He had instincts one could call conservative, but reflexive reactions that were liberal.”
John R. Price: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: And you, in your book, wrote at one point that “Nixon had to remind himself every morning that he was a Republican. He was a man of endless expedience. That made him a great politician.”
John R. Price: I think that that’s absolutely right. And expedience is what most everyone thinks of when they look at Richard Nixon in the rear-view mirror, and certainly at the time. But I think that he had within him something which had probably germinated from the time of his mother, who was a progressive Republican politically but who was a Quaker and a very observant one, and a very important figure in Nixon’s emotional life and his life generally. And I think that Pat Buchanan is absolutely right. Pat also elsewhere uses the word “eclectic.” He said Nixon was an eclectic. He would listen to every point of view. But Pat also says that he said — this is Buchanan talking: “I never could understand it. Here’s Richard Nixon, who’s absolutely brilliant, who’s had great achievements in his life, who’s a centrist with basically even liberal policies. And yet the establishment wouldn’t accept him. And he craved it. He longed for it.”
So there was part of that too. It was that he felt that the liberal policies might bring along more of the establishment and the Democrats. He said at one point, “The Democrats have to support the Family Assistance Plan. It’s logical for them.” But he understood Republican politics better than he did internal Democratic politics. But I think Nixon definitely had these instincts which were liberal. We can get more to specific policies if you wish.
Geoff Kabaservice: Tell me a little more about Nixon’s family history and how that may have influenced his views on social policies.
John R. Price: Yes. His father… I never studied the family. I’ve read the typical biographies. There’s a number of very good ones, a couple of more recent ones. And they suggest that Nixon’s father was erratic and not successful in the various things he undertook, from being a citrus farmer to running a gas station and a produce store. His mother was the central figure emotionally, I think, in Nixon’s life. As I mentioned, she was a progressive Republican in the politics of the time when Nixon was born and being raised, born in 1913. And she was also a very, very observant Quaker. The Quaker roots growing up through her family tree were very strong and very traditional in the sense of things like having been important on the Underground Railway and in the Civil Rights Movement.
Nixon himself was a member of the NAACP when he first ran for Congress in 1946. The roots and the trajectory of his mother’s belief system were there, I think. And I found a picture at the Hoover Presidential Library of him with Quaker relatives, including his grandmother, in West Branch, Iowa, Herbert Hoover’s hometown. And it just reinforced for me the fact that this was an ingredient which you cannot overlook in Nixon’s life. He didn’t wear it on his sleeve. And he was much more observant of it than was Herbert Hoover, according to archivists at the Hoover Museum, Hoover Library. So I think that was a very, very urgent part of his upbringing. It’s interesting to remember, Whittier College — to which he went because he couldn’t afford to go to Harvard where he’d been accepted — was in a Quaker town. The hotel at which he was first nominated for Congress was called the William Penn Hotel. This was a very Quaker community in which he was raised.
And I’ll go to the end of the story in a way… When I went to see Richard Nixon in exile on Elba, called San Clemente, after he had resigned from office… I was out there two years later and I wound up going in to see him. And in a very emotional moment — he was very emotionally needy — he took my hand in both of his and walked backwards with me, leading me with my hand cupped in his, across the room and sat me down, put his leg up on a hassock because he’d been threatened with a blood problem which was life-threatening and he was still being very cautious. And he turned to me and he smiled and said, “So, John,you were the house liberal then, weren’t you?” And when I told this story to his daughter, Trisha, she put her hand over mine and she said, “John, that was what was the bond between you and my father: the liberalism. And it was partly the Quaker ancestry, I’m convinced,” she said.
Geoff Kabaservice: So Nixon’s social policies, as proposed, included his guaranteed income for families with children proposal, the Family Assistance Plan that we’ve alluded to; his dramatic expansion of the food stamp and nutrition programs; and his call for a universal health insurance program, which of course, was not passed. And you wrote that the Moynihan-Nixon policies, if they had been enacted in full, “might have entirely changed the shape of domestic events over the next decades.” How so?
John R. Price: Well, I think, again, going back to that first glue that held Nixon and Moynihan together, namely confidence in institutions working. I think that though the unemployment level was not high back in ’69 when the Family Assistance Plan was proposed, despite that there were millions, millions of Americans living below the government’s stated poverty line. These people were struggling and they were in need, which was not being met. The welfare program was state- and locally-administered, so its impact was patchy. The eligibility standards varied from place to place, the benefits levels varied from state to state. And so my feeling is that had they been able to get that floor under the income — not just of working families but of everything — they would collapse the welfare system along with the working poor into a single national floor under income for families with children.
And I think what it would have done, in conjunction with a health insurance program, would have been to relieve anxiety, to have given you more of a sense of the efficacy of institutions, of the fact that the elite or the governing groups really did understand what was going on out there in Clay County, West Virginia, or in rural Oklahoma, or in upstate New York. And I think it would have — not in a dramatic or in a specific way — but I think it would have in an overall way improved the confidence Americans had in the institutions that were governing them.
Geoff Kabaservice: And something else you also mentioned is that kind of framework of economic security could have reduced the scale of economic divisions, which both play into racial antagonisms but also underlie the kind of grievances that eventually would surface in conservative populism.
John R. Price: Yes. And really, it’s the point I just made in a way, but carrying it further. And I think that the calls by the populists, Nixon could have preempted in some ways, and still done it within the construct of reason and rationality. As I said, he was a constitutionalist when it came to 1960. Nixon was very understanding of politics, was he not? And he understood how to speak to needs which people had and didn’t have satisfied. I think that if he’d gotten the programs he sought that the temperature would have turned down, that there would have been less drive for the later, more strident populism, and that the society as a whole would have been more stable. I’m just convinced of that.
But of course, that’s “What if?” That’s “What if?” And all I could really do… That was the punchline at the end of, what, 340 pages and ten years of thinking. But rather, the gritty of it, the details of it were in what he tried to do, looking at the policy alternatives, weighing the facts, weighing the arguments. It was not just a political, it was a policy discussion and decision.
Geoff Kabaservice: So you and I have talked on numerous occasions about the number of Ripon Society alumni who ended up in the Nixon Administration, people like Chris DeMuth, Lee Huebner, Bob Patricelli, Steve Kurzman… And in many ways, Ripon actually provided some of the framework, it seems, for Nixon’s August 8th, 1969 “New Federalism” address. That was a phrase that Lee Huebner had used in one of the Ripon Forum’s editorials. And similar in shape to the way Nixon developed it: using a money-based (not services-based) attack on poverty, and revenue sharing. So that also seems consonant with Moynihan’s ideas as well.
John R. Price: Oh, very much. In fact, I make the point that Moynihan, some three months before that, in a May 1969 memo he sent to Nixon, outlined virtually everything that wound up in the August 8th talk called “The New Federalism.” Moynihan talked, for example, about revenue sharing. And he said, “One thing that could do, since it’s totally flexible use by the recipient state and locality, is they could reduce the regressive sales tax so that the poor could be even more relieved in these high-tax jurisdictions.” He was seeing it always in the sense of, how do you address the questions of poverty and people struggling just to survive on inadequate income, whether it was a welfare check for Mississippi or whether it was a job at the minimum wage and you had five kids?
Geoff Kabaservice: Now, when we get to the Family Assistance Plan, you had actually planted the idea of a negative income tax in Nixon’s mind at a dinner you had with him at the Links Club in New York in January 1968. This had been a long-standing proposal from the Ripon Society.
John R. Price: Yes, it had.
Geoff Kabaservice: Although it did also have its genesis in Milton Friedman’s 1962 work Capitalism and Freedom. Can you tell me a little more about the ideas that led to the Family Assistance Plan?
John R. Price: Yes. You mentioned Republican sources… Actually, it was very bipartisan, because there had been a number of economists who’d been on Kennedy’s and Johnson’s Council of Economic Advisors who as well supported a negative income tax.
Geoff Kabaservice: James Tobin, for one.
John R. Price: And Pechman at Brookings, Joseph Pechman. So this had roots on both sides of the aisle. It also tracked or looked at a European model, which had been in place for decades, which was called the family allowance or the children’s allowance. And this was something Moynihan had been drawn to, in France and Holland and Great Britain. There were payments made to every family on account of the number of children they had or per capita payment. I tried to argue him out of it as soon as I was asked by him to do welfare with him. And I said, “Pat, this is just too expensive. If you give money to every single person, the sticker shock is going to be too much. Republicans can absolutely be written off, but even many Democrats couldn’t go along with it.”
And so finally, I tried at great length to bring Moynihan around to the negative income tax, which was an income-tested floor, the payments for which would reduce as the income grew of the recipient family with children. He was slow to come around. But finally, the ideas began percolating up through the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to Secretary Finch, a great close friend of Nixon’s, and George Schultz, who had been at the University of Chicago and was now Labor secretary, and a formidable man in public policy who just died this year at age 101, having served as secretary of State and head of the budget bureau and so forth.
So all of these came together in a proposal that Nixon finally embraced, which was the Family Assistance Plan. It was a uniform floor under the income of all families with children, and which was income-tested, meaning as your income went up, the payment declined. But it was meant to sustain families on welfare in those former low-payment (or almost no-payment) states where they’d been way below the poverty line in what they were paid. And even in the higher-payment states like New York, Wisconsin, New Jersey, what had happened was there was a little bit in the proposal that would give the big states some fiscal relief — not a lot, but some.
Geoff Kabaservice: So the negative income tax approach was different both from Moynihan’s preferred approach and also from Universal Basic Income, which is a policy that’s had a strong revival with the 2020 presidential campaign of Andrew Yang. What would you tell the present-day advocates of UBI?
John R. Price: Well, first of all, I’m not sure there’s all that much difference. I think it’s terminology, and that term covers a big circus tent area. I think I would tell them what I said to Moynihan, which is: Marshall your resources. Focus on the areas of greatest need. Focus on those who are truly poor and who are most needy. And that’s what Nixon finally did. McGovern, George McGovern from South Dakota, who ran against Nixon in 1972, paid the price for one version of that Universal Basic Income idea. Because he had what he called a “demo-grant”: $1,000 to every woman, man and child per whatever, per year or per month. And Nixon just nailed him on it — because, again, of the sticker price. It was the shock value. And so I would urge Yang and any others to be more careful in the cost issues.
As we see on this broader bill that’s now being considered, cost is really important to a few people. Republicans are for sure going to be there as well as opposing anything Biden does. But for fiscal reasons, and for effectiveness reasons, cost should be one issue. And one way to go about it is a negative income tax, income-tested approach. The other thing is — and this still is an issue, just as it was in Nixon’s time. There are other programs out there for the poor or the near-poor. Things like food stamps. Well, we looked at what do we do with food stamps? Do we cash them out? That is, do we raise the Family Assistance Plan by so much and no longer provide food stamps and say, “Okay, out of the cash you’re getting now, you will pay for the food that you were using food stamps for before”? Or what if you have an income subsidy on rent or something like that?
This was a place where we came a cropper. And I think that anything being looked at today — child tax credit and all these other services — you need to look at the total, if you will, income effect or purchasing power effect on a recipient family or individual, and make sure that you’re not creating for the poor or the near-poor a package of things which will add up to far more than a middle-income family could afford and will build huge resentment toward the recipients.
So there’s this trade-off of cost, of integration, of other related programs to address need, and of the resentment factor. Some people say, “Well, we should have it universal. That way there would be no resentment.” Well, fine. But are you going to spend $2 trillion a year on income maintenance? I don’t think so.
Geoff Kabaservice: So some historians have claimed that Nixon’s heart wasn’t really in the FAP, that he made a play for it…
John R. Price: Nonsense.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay.
John R. Price: And in fact, Gene McCarthy — a name that many of you will remember, United States senator… I bumped into Gene McCarthy at a cocktail party in London in November of ’73, which was two years after I’d left the White House and after McCarthy had led the liberals opposing Nixon’s FAP. And he said to me, “Well, of course they were duping you. The only guy there who wanted this was Pat Moynihan.” And I said, “It was actually also Richard Nixon.” And I cite for that a lot of conservative, flaring-nostril, rabidly opposed conservative opinion. And Human Events, one of the major publications of the conservative movement, was constantly editorializing and running news stories opposing the Family Assistance Plan. And finally, there were stories when Nixon finally dropped it, before the ’72 election. They were wiping their brows and saying, “Phew, glad that’s over.” There were editorials in Human Events saying, “Nixon fought for over two years — and not at all incompetently — for the Family Assistance Plan. He really believed in it.” And I rest my case. That was coming from Human Events.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. There actually were considerable conservative defections from the Nixon presidency due to his support for FAP as well as the opening to China, as well as his creation of OSHA and the EPA. One can question whether Nixon in totality was a liberal, but I think there’s no denying, as you write, that Nixon was the last liberal Republican president in the sense that he was the last Republican president to pursue an array of liberal policies.
John R. Price: I couldn’t agree more. That’s really the point of my book. What happened was that Reagan, who was the emerging hero of the conservative movement — as I put it, the Elisha who picked up the mantle of Goldwater’s Elijah — Reagan saw the Family Assistance Plan as a means by which he, Reagan, could begin to pull away the party from Nixon’s vision of a strong and active federal government on behalf of people’s needs and turn it into what it became — 50 years of what we’ve had as a Republican Party.
I was there when Nixon briefed Reagan at San Clemente on his welfare reform. It was clear to me that this was Reagan’s intention, and it was made even more clear by the memoirs of the people Reagan had working for him on welfare, in which they specifically said it was an anti-Nixon move that he did — anti-Nixon Republican as well as anti-Democratic. So Reagan saw it as a very valuable intra-party fight tool.
Geoff Kabaservice: Since you mentioned Human Events, I actually pulled up a letter from the editor of Human Events to Harry Dent, who was one of Nixon’s ambassadors to the conservatives. He wrote — this is 1969, December — “The last few weeks have been a disaster so far as the administration’s conservative image is concerned vis Finch’s actions on the Whitten Amendment” — which would have barred HEW from withholding funds to segregated school districts — “the doubling of money to the arts, the continuation of the poverty program, the furthering of trade with communist China, the drastic cuts in the military. Damn it, we can’t sell this nonsense to our readers.”
John R. Price: Oh yes. And as a result of things like that, Pat Buchanan asked many of us Ripon people to go out and shrive ourselves, to sackcloth and ashes out in front of the White House. He was really pounding away at us as an adversary saying, just this, “My God, the conservatives. Look, and you’ve got liberal Republican Ripon Society people working for you. So go out and shrive yourselves. Confess to sin.” It was going the wrong way, even after Lee Huebner had looked at votes in the Senate and House, which showed that liberal Republicans were voting with the administration far more often than were conservative Republicans.
The thing which finally put the cork back in the bottle was that Lee said to Haldeman and to the person actually handling this inquiry, this heresy inquiry… He said, “Well now look… Why don’t you ask Pat Buchanan and Tom Huston to go out and stand with us? And why don’t you tell them to call out the American Conservative Union and Human Events and the National Review on all their criticisms of Nixon?” Dead silence after that.
Geoff Kabaservice: Lee Huebner had told me that after he’d said that, he passed by Buchanan in the hallway, to which Buchanan said, “Touché!”
John R. Price: Right, exactly.
Geoff Kabaservice: So we’re getting here at the duality of Richard Nixon. It’s both the question of his good angels and his bad angels…
John R. Price: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: …but also the ways in which he saw a Republican party that was balanced between opposing conservative and even progressive instincts and how he wanted to find the center of that party.
John R. Price: Yes. And he was coming from a trajectory, as I said, of Dewey and Eisenhower in his own instincts. And he was looking at a party which was transforming. Lyndon Johnson, when he shifted gears and embraced the Civil Rights Act, said to his people, “This means that the South has been lost by the Democrats for a generation.” Well, read maybe three generations so far and counting. And Nixon understood that. Buchanan and Nixon understood that. And I don’t think that either of them was a racist. I don’t believe that. But they also saw where the politics was going, and they tried through other means like an appeal on cultural issues to the South. So Nixon was… I wouldn’t call it schizophrenic about it. He just was enough of a master politician to understand where all these moving parts were.
Geoff Kabaservice: And Nixon in 1968 had seen the considerable appeal of George Wallace to Democratic voters in northern states, not just in the segregated South.
John R. Price: That’s exactly right. Wallace carried Dixie. He got, I think it was 46 Electoral College votes, carrying virtually all of Dixie, all of what Strom Thurmond had carried in the 1948 campaign against Harry Truman and Henry Wallace. And so Nixon surely saw that. But he saw just what you’re talking about, which is that, frankly, a lot of the Bob Kennedy, Robert Kennedy voters then went to Wallace. They went to Wallace in the autumn general election. They were Northern, urban, lunch-pail, Roman Catholic industrial workers, by and large, that went that way. But they went that way for similar reasons of resentment of the elites, of being disdained or talked down to. It was the “deplorables” issue. Let’s be honest. These people were condescended to — or felt they were. And that was part of it. It wasn’t just an economic or lunch-pail issue.
Geoff Kabaservice: Since you raised this issue… You had talked about how Eisenhower had repressed the isolationist Old Right, and that it eventually came back in the form of the Barry Goldwater candidacy. Would it be fair to say that, curiously, it was Ronald Reagan who suppressed the conservative populist instincts in the Republican Party that had surfaced in Nixon’s administration and that, in a sense, came back with a vengeance in the form of Donald Trump?
John R. Price: Maybe so. Maybe Reagan, apart from charm and a certain empathy that he had, maybe Reagan was able to effect things like major tax cuts and pivot more toward the well-to-do and so on. And he managed to hide that through, as I say, charm and good looks and personal warmth and connecting with voters, so that it wasn’t so much there. His rhetoric was fine, too. He was complaining about the things that a lot of these folks also felt and complained about.
Geoff Kabaservice: Of course, when one thinks about the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency, it tends to overshadow much of what had come before. And yet, again, comparing Nixon to other former presidents, shall we say… When Barry Goldwater and other conservative leaders in the Senate came to tell him that he should go, he went. And he didn’t try to have a “stab in the back” narrative about how Republicans had had their government stolen from them by the Democrats.
John R. Price: No. Rather what he did was, over time — and not that much time — he reinvented himself and he became a statesman. And he focused on that which I think always had most attracted him and where he felt the most resonance in his real self, which was global affairs and peacemaking. Pat Buchanan, again, says, “You know, when Richard Nixon came into office in that January, he really, really believed in a Wilsonian/Judeo-Christian notion of beating swords into plowshares and swords into pruning hooks. And he believed he would be a peacemaker.” And I think that’s where he, again, found himself. He found his inner core and he went about it with formidable effect and accomplishment — and really, for many people, overcame the picture of Nixon as a (for some people) as a cringing, malevolent, dishonorable person. I think that he came back.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, John, thank you so much for talking to me. That’s a good note on which to end. I cannot recommend too highly your wonderful book, The Last Liberal Republican, about Richard Nixon and his social policies. Thank you so much for being with me, John.
John R. Price: My great pleasure, Geoffrey. Thank you too.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to The Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. If you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at email@example.com. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.