The Third Coming of Nixon


Fallen Colossus

"The reappearance of Richard M. Nixon on the forefront of the stage of national politics recalls the ancient Egyptian myth of the Phoenix. This fabulous bird was born to be periodically consumed in fire by its own act, but each time to rise again, young and vigorous, from its own ashes. Considering the virtually unanimous judgment of the soothsayers, after Nixon's defeat for Governor in 1962, that the Republican Presidential candidate of 1960 was finished as a national political leader, the fact that he is now playing a successful return engagement in this very role shows that resurrection is not necessarily a miracle reserved for theology alone."

-Arthur Krock, New York Times, 1964

"He will rest for a while now, then come back to haunt us again. His mushwit son-in-law, David Eisenhower, is urging him to run for the U.S. Senate from California in 1976, and Richard Nixon is shameless enough to do it. Or if not the Senate, he will turn up somewhere else. The only thing we can be absolutely sure of, at this point in time, is that we are going to have Richard Milhous Nixon to kick around for at least a little while longer."

-Hunter S. Thompson, October 10, 1974
Richard Nixon, in 1974, had been driven from the White House in disgrace. Thoroughly discredited, he had no public support, very little money, and few remaining staff members that had not either abandoned him or gone to jail. Haldeman, Erlichmann, Dean, Mitchell, Liddy, and Colson had all either fallen in Watergate's wake already, or would to do so in the months to come. The 1973 recession continued to grind on, inflation and unemployment rising in tandem. Nixon seemed poised to go down as among the worst Presidents in American history, with nothing but broken hopes and shattered dreams left behind him. He had poisioned the entire GOP, judging by Ford's approval rating and the Republican performance in the 1974 midterms. By all accounts, he was a broken man.

Nixon's Seventh Crisis had been his doom.

But Nixon had never been one to go down easily. In 1952, he had held on to the Vice Presidential nomination by the skin of his teeth. After losing the 1960 election to Kennedy and the 1962 Gubernatorial election to Brown, he had conceded final defeat and rode off into the sunset, only to claw his way back into politics and seize the presidency. If anyone could resuscitate their public image following Watergate, it was Nixon.

In September, he accepted a pardon from President Ford, but refused to admit any wrongdoing. He remained locked in conflict with the federal government over the possession of the fabled White House Tapes. He remained out of the public eye for some time, and spent most of his time working on his memoirs. He resurfaced in early 1977 for a series of interviews with British journalist David Frost. The interviews appeared in five parts on CBS's 60 Minutes program, and were the most watched political interview in American history. However, due to a number of factors, including Nixon's health and the ongoing dispute over possession of the tapes, Frost lacked the time and resources to properly evaluate specific minutiae of the Watergate scandal. Frost would later write in his own memoirs that if he could do the interview over again, he would have pressed Nixon harder on several areas, including the details of a conversation he had with Charles Colson that was not public knowledge prior to the interview.

Nixon remained unpopular after the Frost interviews, but they did improve his image somewhat. A Gallup poll found that 50 percent of the public believed that Nixon was still trying to cover up, while 60 percent believed he had obstructed justice and 34 percent believed he had been treated unfairly. A poll in the summer of 1977 found that 40 percent believed Nixon should have served out the remainder of his term. The continued poor economic performance under Carter retroactively improved many people's impression of Nixon's economy. In addition to his memoirs, Nixon published a book, titled Real Peace, as well as numerous editorials for various newspapers outlining his views on current events and the Whitehouse's policies. By 1978 he had emerged as a well-known, if not entirely well-liked, critic of the Carter Administration.

But Nixon's ambition could not be sated as a mere pundit. As the sun set on the 1970s, Nixon's unquenchable thirst would turn towards Democratic Senator Alan Cranston of California. Nixon's career was far from over.
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So, if I understand (having seen the movie on the interview for what it may be worth), the POD is Frost not finding the thing to catch Nixon, right?

So, if I understand (having seen the movie on the interview for what it may be worth), the POD is Frost not finding the thing to catch Nixon, right?

The POD is Frost missing certain things, and Nixon generally handling the interviews better. Specifically, the conversation with Colson that I mentioned was significant when the interview aired, but Frost wasn't able to press Nixon on it for whatever reason. Nixon, emboldened by this, takes a more aggressive PR position in the late 70s, publishes Real Peace two years earlier, and cultivates an image as an intellectual elder statesman early rather than withdrawing from the public view.
The Prodigal Son Returns
"Poor Paul Gann didn't realize how far Nixon was willing to go. He and Yorty and the rest thought Nixon's 1980 campaign was just the final death spasm of a failed politician that couldn't let go. In retrospect, it's a wonder that Gann managed to underestimate the ruthlessness of Richard Nixon after all these years. Then again, the rest of us did too.

-Houston Flournoy

"I should have buried the little bastard for good in back in '72."

-Richard Nixon on John G. Schmitz

It was late 1979 when Nixon decided he would return to electoral politics. Legend has it that it was the Iranian Hostage Crisis that caused Nixon to decide that he would seek to reclaim his old Senate seat, though others have claimed the decision had nothing to do with Iran. His announcement in 1980 that he was running was met mostly with confusion, and a not insignificant amount of anger. Nixon's opponents had thought him gone, beaten once and for all. Nixon's old allies were worried that he would drag down other candidates, as he had in 1974. For the most part, he was dismissed as a delusional old man who didn't know when to quit.

The Nixon campaign was just as disorganized and confused behind the scenes. All but the most sycophantic of Nixon's aides urged him not to run in 1980. Nobody involved in California politics would touch the campaign for fear of tainting any future endeavors. Most coverage of the Republican primary focused on Paul Gann, Sam Yorty, and John Schmitz, who were all seen as legitimate candidates.

Nixon spent most of Spring 1980 in a manic haze, sleeping for only a few hours a day and campaigning unlike he ever had before. Every favor with every politician west of the Rocky Mountains was called in. Every journalist in the state was invited to speak to Nixon. Any conceivable dirty trick that Nixon believed he could get away with was deployed. Yorty was portrayed as an unhinged populist who should not "be allowed to oversee a Post Office, let alone a Senate seat," while Gann found established Republicans abandoning him without telling him why. The reason was clear to the Gann campaign, though. Nixon remained a feared and dangerous adversary, even in the ruins of his political career. Most politicians refrained from backing Nixon, though many were compelled to take a neutral position on the race to escape Nixon's wrath.

Each day, the water around Gann's campaign got dirtier and dirtier. Nixon surrogates said he was an extremist who couldn't beat Cranston. Nixon had men follow Gann, dig through his trash, and scour every bit of history they could find on him. Each passing day saw Gann's polls slip further, and it seemed nothing Gann could do could stop them. This left Nixon's old rival John Schmitz. Schmitz was an ultra-conservative Republican who once joked that he had joined the John Birch Society to court the moderate vote in Orange County. He had represented California's 34th district in the US House until Nixon had personally recruited a more moderate Republican to primary him. Schmitz was so enraged by this that he launched a third party challenge to Nixon in the 1972 Presidential election. In May of 1980, Nixon became obsessed with Schmitz, and came to believe that he would have to utterly destroy him if he wanted to reassert his power.

Nixon operatives discovered that Schmitz had fathered an illegitimate daughter named Eugenie with longtime Republican volunteer Carla Stuckle. The news broke Schmitz's campaign, killed his wife's career as a Conservative political commentator, and eventually led to his divorce. Unsatisfied with merely beating Schmitz, Nixon staffers proceeded to spread rumors that foul play had been involved in the 1974 drowning of Schmitz's three year old son. Campaign posters featuring pro-segregation remarks made by Schmitz were put up in black neighborhoods, and the Nixon campaign even went so far as calling Schmitz an anti-Semite and a Holocaust denier as a result of his supposed connections to the Institute for Historical Review. The extremism proved to be too much for even the John Birch Society, and Schmitz would be expelled from the organization as a direct result of the campaign. Nixon himself, of course, made no such accusations, allowing surrogates to do it for him. On the campaign trail, Nixon painted himself as a moderate, reasonable Republican, the only one who could beat Cranston, and a victim of the Washington political machine who had been driven from the White House for political, rather than criminal reasons. Here was the prodigal son, his campaign claimed, who had returned to his homeland to fend off both the extremist demagogues on the right and the crypto-communists on the left.

The Republican primary elections were held June 3. John Schmitz, having been utterly destroyed and disgraced, carried a mere 5% of the vote after polling in the mid-20s before the scandal hit. The battered carcass of his political career was left as a warning to all who would dare challenge Richard Milhous Nixon. Schmitz would struggle to remain employed for the rest of his life, lost any custody of his children, and would never come near political office again. He would die of prostate cancer in 1998, alone and forgotten. Yorty did much better than Schmitz, and had taken some of his voters after the collapse of his campaign, but he still only managed a disappointing 25%. To add insult to injury, he lost his home town of Los Angeles by a wide margin. Gann came out of election day with 32% of the vote and a bruised reputation. He would never run for higher office again. Nixon won the Republican primary with 34%, shocking both sides of the aisle. Richard Nixon was back.
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And guess who one of John Schmitz's (legitimate) daughters was? Look up Seattle teacher and 13-year-old boy; that is all the clues I'll give you...
Another interesting way for Nixon to have enjoyed a third coming would have been for him to lose the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 (his second coming) and then run again in either 1972 (because Humphrey wins in 1968) or in 1976 (because the GOP wins in 1968/72, but the GOP VP from that Administration chooses not to run on his own for president in 1976).
Democrats: ohohoho,my God! it's Nixon! What, was Rockefeller busy? Come on buddy, you can't be serious. With your Approval Ratings?! You're no Bush, You're no Goldwater, and you're certainly no Reagan, you're just Nixon.

Nixon: Yeah, well you know what? Fuck Approval Ratings, Fuck Reagan, and Fuck you!

If Nixon ends up in the Senate, he would be Deputy President Pro Tempore. The position has been created for Humphrey but has been empty since his death in 1978. In the aftermath of the GOP primaries in California, would the Senate move to abolish it if it's perceived Nixon has a chance of winning it?
Zombie Campaign
"I am not prepared to comment on that at this time."
-Presidential Candidate George H. W. Bush on Richard Nixon's candidacy
"Would you be more or less likely to support Alan Cranston for US Senate if you knew he had frequently used campaign donations to pay prostitutes?"
-Push poll funded by Richard Nixon's campaign

Nixon's victory in the Republican primary shocked the nation, but most still didn't take his chances in the general election seriously. Cranston was a popular incumbent senator, and his re-election had been a foregone conclusion even when he was expected to run against Gann or Yorty. Nixon, surely, wouldn't stand a chance. While his approval ratings had improved dramatically since his resignation, the vast majority still had unfavorable views of him and his administration, even in California.

Cranston's campaign focused on Nixon's many improprieties as President, especially Watergate. This was exactly what the Nixon campaign had expected and prepared for. Nixon was very careful to frame Watergate as "politics as usual." He alleged that every elected official on the national stage had done things just as bad or worse, stressed that the break-in itself was conducted without his knowledge, and maintained that all actions taken to hide it were within the legal scope of the President's powers. At the same time, he was apologetic for what he claimed were moral, but not legal, infractions. It was a fine line to walk, but Nixon managed it excellently.

Though Nixon still had several loyal followers, he found himself low on funds and understaffed. Now that the primary was over, a number of California donors returned to him, as the only Conservative in the race. There was talk early on of an independent run from Gann or another Republican, but Gann refused and no Conservatives in the state were willing to go toe-to-toe with Nixon. The influx of cash brought on by his primary victory solved one of his problems, but there were still few experienced operatives who would work for Nixon with the pay level he was able to provide. Forced to look elsewhere, Nixon began hiring younger and more inexperienced campaign workers. One of them, a University of South Carolina graduate named Lee Atwater, who had been considering joining Republican Congressman Floyd Spence's campaign, was instead hired by Nixon, supposedly on the suggestion of Strom Thurmond. Atwater would later admit he was hypnotized by the idea of a Nixon revival. Putting Nixon back in the Senate would be a feat unmatched in American history.

Atwater immediately set about dragging Cranston through the mud. Nixon, the campaign reasoned, was incredibly unpopular, and it would be very difficult to markedly improve his favorability ratings beyond what had already been done. However, if they could pull down Cranston, Nixon would look better in comparison. Cranston's 1940s support for a global government was made a major issue of the election. In 1949, Cranston had pushed the California State Legislature to adopt a resolution encouraging Congress to ammend the Constitution to allow the US to participate in a world government. Nixon characterized this as opposing the sovereignty and statehood of the United States and likened it to a Communist scheme to destroy America. Nixon also attacked Cranston's position on unilateral disarmament, which he said was intended to hand over America to the Communists.

Cranston, through all of this, mostly attacked Nixon for Watergate. This backfired, as many saw it as tacitly admitting Nixon's allegations of anti-nationalism were true. Atwater, working under Nixon, reached a new level of political trickery. Nixon had been an early innovator of push polls during his Congressional career, and the campaign now deployed them aggressively as never before. Specific areas were targeted with shocking accuracy. Black households got calls implying Cranston was a racist. Wealthy areas were told Cranston supported extreme wealth-redistribution. Cranston was a poor public speaker, and was unable to fend off the flurry of false and slanderous information around him.

National Republicans seemed unsure of what to make of the Nixon Campaign. Some, such as Jesse Helms, James McClure, and Strom Thurmond, gave Nixon their enthusiastic support and said he should have never been forced to resign. George Bush, who was currently seeking the Presidency, avoided talking about Nixon as much as possible, and refused to support either Nixon or Cranston. Reagan, and most other Republicans, kept Nixon at arms length, carefully keeping their distance. The Democrats had the same anti-Nixon rhetoric that had been so in vogue during the Watergate Scandal. For all their political disputes, Kennedy and Carter could at least agree that Nixon should not be allowed anywhere near Capitol Hill.

As campaign season wore on and Carter's re-election position got increasingly grim, he attempted to nationalize the California Senate race. The return of Richard Nixon, he said, showed the Republican party hadn't changed at all since Watergate. Nixon was a favorite topic of the DNC, and numerous other Democratic Senate and House candidates seemed to run against Nixon rather than their opponent. The Republicans, who had hoped to leave Watergate behind, were distraught by this development. Even under a barrage from all six major Presidential candidates (Carter, Kennedy, Reagan, Bush, Anderson, and Brown), Nixon's polls continued to climb. By the end of the summer, he had gone from trailing Cranston by 50 percent to within 10 points.

By October, the Democrats were beginning to panic, and the Republicans weren't reacting much better. Nixon's candidacy was already credited with damaging Goldwater's numbers in Arizona and resuscitating McGovern's floundering reelection campaign in South Dakota. By election day, the California polls were down to the wire, with Nixon trailing by a hair. The race was anybody's guess.
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I would wager that Nixon's return would dramatically extend the life of 70's pop culture / zeitgeist. Especially if McGovern makes it back. Two old rivals facing off in the Senate.
Brilliant. Fantastic. I love it.

Galileo raises an interesting question that I hope you explore in detail (assuming Nixon does succeed in victory in California). An update on Republican colleagues' response would be thoroughly interesting. I am sure that beyond the lamenting of Nixon's unpopularity/cloud of corruption, Republicans are also a bit worried about an ex-president who will overshadow them simply by his personality and status, before even getting to how he could be used as a political weapon against them. If Nixon comes in with leadership/increased staff, who knows...

Also, am I correct in understanding Bush is the Republican nominee for president in 1980? That will create an interesting dynamic (assuming he wins) because Nixon may very well look at himself as helping build Bush's career. It will definitely be a fascinating relationship to explore.

This is really one of the best timelines we've had up in a long time, I applaud you and encourage you to keep it up!
Also, am I correct in understanding Bush is the Republican nominee for president in 1980? That will create an interesting dynamic (assuming he wins) because Nixon may very well look at himself as helping build Bush's career. It will definitely be a fascinating relationship to explore.

No, Reagan is the nominee, but that hadn't been decided yet when Nixon first won the primary, so it became an issue while Bush was still seeking the Presidency.