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How Nixon Went National

July 03, 1988|Ronald Brownstein

RUNNING FOR the vice presidency is not like running for any other office; the key difference is that the audience is limited to the presidential nominee and his top aides. It is an insider's game, and most politicians don't play it.

This year, for example, California Gov. George Deukmejian, who insists that he does not want the job, has done almost nothing to increase the likelihood of its landing in his lap at the convention next month in New Orleans. But in 1952, Richard M. Nixon wanted the job. His story is a case study in the mastery of obtaining it.

It was July, 1952, at a steamy Republican Convention in Chicago. Nixon was drifting off to sleep in his hotel room when a call came from Herbert Brownell, a top political adviser to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

"We picked you," said Brownell, a man not given to small talk. No more words were needed; Nixon understood. Just six years after he was first elected to Congress, just two years after he entered the Senate, Nixon was on the ticket as running mate to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the best bet for the White House the Republicans had produced in a generation. With that call, Nixon's political future was established.

Brownell's call didn't just happen. When Nixon was chosen, he was arguably only the third-most-prominent Republican in California: Three-term Gov. Earl Warren and senior Sen. William F. Knowland stood ahead of him. But Nixon had campaigned--with energy, imagination and ruthlessness--for the vice presidency, and his carefully nuanced efforts showed him "to be a political virtuoso at the national level," Stephen E. Ambrose writes in his recent book, "Nixon: The Education of a Politician 1913-1962," from which much of this account is taken.

To win the vice presidency, Nixon had to navigate through a withering Republican cross fire of presidential hopefuls. Sen. Robert A. Taft, hero of the party's conservative and isolationist old guard, stood ready to claim the nomination he had lost to Thomas E. Dewey in 1948. Moderates and internationalists were pinning their hopes on NATO commander Eisenhower. And in California, Warren, who had made a halfhearted run in 1948 before settling for the vice presidency, announced that he intended to be a more vigorous candidate in 1952.

Publicly, Nixon remained neutral until the last, crucial moment at the convention. But privately, he settled on Eisenhower as early as spring, 1951, when he met with the general during a European trip. Nixon kept a foot in the Taft camp but privately doubted that he could be elected. Nor did Nixon believe that Warren could be nominated. But he said nothing to antagonize the powerful leader of his home state party.

Throughout 1951, Nixon concentrated on building his name in the party. He had been elected to the Senate only the year before, overpowering liberal Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas in a tough and bitter campaign. During his first year in the Senate, Nixon was peripatetic; he delivered three speeches a week, presenting himself for inspection to the far-flung powers of the GOP. "There was scarcely a Republican in the country who did not owe Dick Nixon a favor," Ambrose writes, "because it was Dick who had been willing to fly out to Montana, or up to Maine, or wherever, in the middle of the winter, to fill the party's depleted campaign chest."

Once the primaries began in the winter of 1952, the race quickly came down to a choice between Taft and Eisenhower. Warren ran poorly but refused to leave the race. Proud and obstinate, he ran as a favorite son in California and hoped for a deadlock that would turn the convention to him. His continued presence in the race prevented Nixon from endorsing Eisenhower.

But Nixon's sympathies became increasingly apparent as the months went on. In May, Dewey, whose men commanded Eisenhower's effort, summoned Nixon to New York to speak to a party fund-raising dinner. Nixon, who still publicly denied any ambition for the No. 2 job, apparently passed the audition, because Dewey began to push his name as Ike's logical vice president.

Nixon's decisive break with Warren came at the convention--and helped throw the nomination to Eisenhower. With the result uncertain after the primaries, the contest had come down to a procedural question: Eisenhower and Taft supporters had each sent competing slates of delegates to the convention from several Southern states. The race was so close that in choosing which slates to seat, the GOP would be choosing its nominee.

Controlled by Taft partisans, the Republican National Committee had voted to seat the Taft delegations. But Eisenhower's forces proposed that the convention itself decide which delegations to seat; that stratagem had the advantage of preventing the disputed delegations from voting. Thus, the key votes became Warren's huge bloc of 70 California delegates.

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