[Excerpted from James Rogan's new book, On to Chicago: Rediscovering Robert F. Kennedy and the Lost Campaign of 1968]
People exiting their cars in the parking lot of the Manchester, New Hampshire, Holiday Inn that snowy night felt the biting cold as they hurried inside. That was true of the five unobtrusive men who entered the motel through a side door. Four of them were young – late 20s and early 30s. The fifth man, in his mid-50s, held the block of room reservations under the name given the desk clerk: Benjamin Chapman. After finding their rooms, the younger men went down to the bar for drinks while the older man remained upstairs to polish his speech for tomorrow's event.
In that speech, delivered 50 years ago today, Feb. 1, 1968, Richard Nixon (traveling incognito as "Benjamin Chapman" the night before) began his long climb out of dual electoral defeats by announcing his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. What his longtime aide Pat Buchanan later called "the greatest comeback" had begun.
First elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1946, Congressman Nixon gained national fame for doggedly exposing Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent. Hiss, a high-ranking State Department official in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, later went to prison. The liberal establishment who defended Hiss never forgave Nixon for bringing down one of their favorites, despite Soviet archival evidence proving decades later that Hiss was a traitor. Capitalizing on this notoriety, Nixon won election to the U.S. Senate in 1950. Two years later, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower tapped him (at age 39) as his running mate. After serving eight years as Ike's vice president, he won the 1960 Republican presidential nomination and squared off against John F. Kennedy, who claimed victory that November in one of America's closest White House races. Evidence of massive voter fraud in Illinois and Texas left the legitimacy of Kennedy's win in doubt – then and now. In a remarkably unselfish display of sacrifice for the sake of national unity, and one for which the media and historians almost never give him credit, Nixon refused to contest the results. Two years later Nixon ran unsuccessfully for California governor. In a concession speech legendary for its bitter tone, Nixon announced that he was through with politics.
Leaving California for New York, Nixon practiced law, wrote articles, gave speeches and eased back into political life. In 1964, when many Republican leaders avoided campaigning with GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, Nixon stumped the country for the ticket, covering 36 states and making more than 150 appearances. Two years later, during the 1966 midterm elections, he became the party's most peripatetic campaigner, traveling 127,000 miles, visiting 40 states and delivering over 400 speeches for GOP candidates and causes. Republicans won stunning gains that November, picking up 47 House seats, three U.S. Senate seats, eight governorships and 557 state legislative seats. Around the country, countless winning and losing candidates credited Nixon for helping them in 1964 and 1966, and from this large pool would come delegates to the 1968 Republican National Convention.
As the next presidential election year approached, Nixon's popularity soared within the party establishment and with its rank-and-file members. However, these same leaders also worried about Nixon making another White House run. He had not won an election in his own right since 1950, and after suffering defeat in two back-to-back major races, they feared he couldn't go the distance in 1968. For his part, Nixon understood that a successful return to the arena required that he shed this "loser" image.
These days, when presidential candidates mobilize their White House efforts four or more years in advance, it seems almost inconceivable that a leading presidential candidate would take a six-month moratorium from all political activity in the year leading up to the campaign. It is equally unimaginable that the same aspirant would wait until six weeks before the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary before declaring his candidacy. In a doubly risky move, Nixon did both.
With this self-imposed moratorium, Nixon ceded the national stage intentionally to the then-front-runner for the nomination, Michigan Gov. George Romney. A moderate Republican, Romney enjoyed the backing of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and was a proven vote-getter with minority and blue-collar Democrats. Running as a Republican in one of the nation's most heavily Democratic states, Romney won three terms as governor and rolled up increasing majorities each time. Romney showed such broad support that President Kennedy confided to a friend shortly before his assassination that the only Republican he didn't want to face in his anticipated 1964 re-election race was Romney.
By giving Romney the stage, Nixon wagered that Romney would prove himself unready for the Oval Office. The gamble paid off. When Romney's campaign imploded after a string of candidate gaffes, Nixon claimed victory in New Hampshire, beginning his long climb out of the slump.
During the next six months, from his candidacy announcement to the Republican National Convention in August, Nixon ran the gauntlet of the other major contenders for the nomination. After dispatching Romney, he took on Rockefeller, the formidable two-term Republican governor of New York. Later still, on the eve of the convention, a new conservative rock star, California Gov. Ronald Reagan, threw his hat into the ring. During the convention, with neither Rockefeller nor Reagan securing enough votes to win outright, the former vice president faced a fourth challenge: a combined Rockefeller-Reagan "Stop Nixon" effort that sought to peel off enough moderate and conservative Nixon delegates to block his first-ballot victory. If that happened it would revive the "loser" mantra and precipitate a rush of Nixon delegates to either camp, leaving Rockefeller and Reagan as the last two men standing to battle for the nomination and, ultimately, for control of the Republican Party.
All these hurdles loomed as Nixon stepped before the microphones at the Holiday Inn that day. Beyond New Hampshire lay more primaries, the convention and a general election faceoff against the Democratic presidential nominee and a populist third-party candidate. Ahead of victory awaited the Vietnam War, a faltering economy, campus riots and urban unrest, Supreme Court vacancies, major diplomatic coups, a stunning re-election victory in 1972 and an even more stunning collapse of his presidency from the Watergate scandal. Further still, beyond the ashes of defeat and humiliation, lay regeneration, reformation and, in the end, the earned mantle of elder statesman.
The fuse igniting that incredible journey was lit in a motel room 50 years ago today. On its anniversary, we remember Richard Nixon, a man wholly gifted, wholly flawed, wholly undaunted – wholly American.