Worries about political realignment and the future of a great political party. Fears and frustrations among working people. Racial unease in the nation’s urban centers. The appearance of a charismatic outsider reviled by the political elites.
This is a tale that involves Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Wallace, Patrick Buchanan, Daniel Patrick Moynihan — and Donald Trump. It spans nearly a half century. It is the product of twin eras of great impatience with the political system. And it offers insights, perhaps lessons, and surely, challenges for our time.
Return with us now to an age whose tensions have muted over time but which were as raw, as deep, as troubling as our own, perhaps even more so — for at that time, there was an unpopular war raging in Vietnam, much of a generation in rebellion on college campuses, and centuries-old social structures under siege. Plus this: In 1969, a new president had been inaugurated and faced a Congress with both houses controlled by the opposition party, the first time that had occurred in 120 years.
Like Barack Obama, Richard Nixon was deeply distrusted, deeply disliked, deeply resented by his partisan rivals. But the 37th president had other worries, too. George Wallace, the defiant, segregationist former governor of Alabama had won five states and 45 electoral votes in the 1968 election, the last time a third-party candidate won even a single vote in the Electoral College. Donald Trump won all five of the Wallace states in primaries and caucuses this year.
Nixon, looking ahead to his reelection campaign, was profoundly worried about Wallace, especially since Nixon had been experimenting with a “Southern Strategy’’ that would in time transform the once-Solid South of Democrats into a near-impregnable Solid South for Republicans. (In the four presidential elections of this century, Republicans have won 39 states cumulatively in the Old Confederacy. Democrats have won only five, three of them in Obama’s first campaign, in 2008.)
“We always had Wallace on our minds,” Buchanan, a trusted Nixon aide, recalled recently. It was with the Alabaman perching over his shoulder that the pragmatic president and the visionary intellectual Daniel Patrick Moynihan set out to appeal not only to blacks, whose plight had special claim after the 1968 urban riots following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but also to poor whites — a vital voting group that, not incidentally, once included Nixon and Moynihan themselves.
Eight years later, Moynihan, who had moved from Hell’s Kitchen to Harvard, would join the Senate as a Democrat. But in this period, the peripatetic professor was Nixon’s ally — his indispensable theorist and strategist — in the president’s goal of replicating the achievements of Disraeli and Melbourne by speaking like a conservative combatant even as he was seeking liberal-oriented reforms. Thus, the origins of the Nixon plan to harness what the White House saw as the rebellion of the lower class.
On May 17, 1969, Moynihan and three others — including one of the authors of this essay — repaired to the shaded porch outside the Oval Office next to the Rose Garden and sat on the white wrought-iron furniture. The president and his keepers were away, and these young aides had the place to themselves. Moynihan produced four glasses and some ice shavings and poured a drink — the intellectual lubricant of all things Moynihan until his death 13 years ago.
“On social services and the ‘resentment business,’ ” Moynihan said on the porch, “all Richard Nixon now knows is that he doesn’t like it.”
Moynihan had just delivered to the president a 15-page memo setting out his strategy of providing an income-maintenance program that would address the alienation of the Wallace voters. “How is the great mass of white working people to regain a sense of positive advantage from the operation of American government, and retain a steady loyalty to the processes of American society, at a time when those above and below them in the social hierarchy seem simultaneously to be robbing the system blind and contemptuously dismissing all its rules?” Moynihan asked the president, adding: “[It] seemed to me this is just what you were talking about during the campaign. . . . These forgotten Americans finally have become angry.”
The result, after enormous internal White House debate, both philosophical and political, and even a Camp David session in which Vice President Spiro Agnew sulked and behaved petulantly, was the Nixon Family Assistance Plan, which was to replace Washington-administered welfare programs with cash payments to the poor and striving. The president was especially interested in the impact in the South, where welfare payments were the lowest and where poverty rates were the highest, even among those working full time.
The target of this plan wasn’t only the poor, including the black lower class that Moynihan hoped to turn into the black lower middle class. It was also Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California and a growing political force who had been the instrument of a brief but formidable “Stop Nixon” effort aimed at the South in the 1968 GOP presidential primaries.
Those who later became known as Reagan Democrats were the very voters Wallace and Nixon appealed to, and Nixon knew that millions of them would be beneficiaries of his radical program — blunting the possibility that Reagan might mount a primary challenge to his reelection in 1972.
Reagan was the Elisha who had picked up the mantle of the fallen Elijah (Barry Goldwater, defeated in the 1964 Lyndon Johnson landslide). In the event, Nixon invited the governor to his San Clemente retreat, where the president talked the governor through charts and took considerable pains to analyze the impact of his program in rural America and the South, stressing that the major impact would be among whites.
The Nixon plan, which included work requirements and a potential $1,600 subvention for a family of four, was passed in the House but never cleared the Senate. The children and grandchildren of those targeted by Nixon are, as the Bible ruefully counsels, still with us. Nixon drew them into the Republican Party, and Trump has reaped the whirlwind.
It remains to be seen whether Trump will win the White House. But it is not too soon to contemplate what the Manhattan billionaire might offer to the many millions of new voters he boasts he has brought into the Republican Party. He may not know it, but he is walking along a trail that the party’s biggest thinkers have been blazing for many decades.
David M. Shribman, a former Globe Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. John R. Price, a former member of the Nixon domestic-policy team, is retired chief executive of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh.