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Where have you gone, Richard Nixon?

Democracy cannot survive without more Republicans sticking up for it

With his gracious concession to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race, Richard Nixon set an honorable example that many in his party are finding hard to emulate today, Shapiro writes.
With his gracious concession to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race, Richard Nixon set an honorable example that many in his party are finding hard to emulate today, Shapiro writes. (via Getty Images file photo)

When modern-day Visigoths sacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, I recalled a story that former Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner told me about Richard Nixon’s concession in 1960. 

Warner’s story came to mind again this week with the release of chilling Jan. 6 text messages sent to Mark Meadows, Donald Trump’s last chief of staff, as the mobs were roaming the Capitol searching for Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi

Warner, who died at age 94 in May, was an advance man to Nixon during his 1960 race against John F. Kennedy. And when he told me this tale over lunch in 2018, I realized that I was hearing from the last living participant in these events.

With the 1960 election still unsettled in the middle of the night, Nixon had told supporters in Los Angeles, “If the present trend continues, Sen. Kennedy will be the next president of the United States.” It was neither a concession nor a roar of defiance. 

The next morning, as Warner recalled, Nixon had become increasingly troubled listening to radio reports that world capitals were unsettled over the mystery surrounding the identity of the next president. With the Cold War raging, Nixon decided to formally end the uncertainty by conceding. 

Before he boarded his chartered plane to Washington, Nixon sent a gracious telegram to Kennedy, stating, “I know you will have the united support of all Americans as you lead this nation in the cause of peace and freedom.”

The 1960 election was arguably the closest election in the last century, aside from the deadlocked 2000 race. Kennedy’s margin in the Electoral College was based on narrow victories in two states with a checkered history of honest vote-counting — Illinois, dominated by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, and Lyndon Johnson’s Texas.

On Jan. 6, 1961, Nixon, as vice president, presided over the formal counting of the electoral votes that guaranteed his defeat. As he said on the Senate floor, “In our campaigns, no matter how hard they may be, no matter how close the election, those who lose accept the verdict and support those who win.”

I never thought I would ever type these words, but I am serious about them: Whatever happened to the honorable America personified by Richard Nixon?

Obviously, there have been other painful moments for sitting vice presidents as the electoral votes were tallied. Think of Al Gore playing the Nixon role in 2001. Or Joe Biden, as vice president, having to certify Donald Trump’s 2016 victory. 

In my more than four decades covering national politics, I never imagined that I would witness a concerted White House effort to overturn the results of a valid election. 

Without the testimony of Meadows — who has stonewalled the House Jan. 6 select committee — we don’t know how seriously to take the PowerPoint document that circulated at the White House suggesting that National Guard troops and U.S. marshals “secure” paper ballots in key states. Nor do we know why, as Liz Cheney wondered, Trump waited 187 minutes on Jan. 6 to send help to the beleaguered members of Congress. 

The most alarming aspect of Jan. 6 was not the storming of the Capitol, since sadly these days it is not hard to find 10,000 violent extremists with contempt for democracy and the rule of law. 

Instead, what should leave every patriotic American heartsick is the willful amnesia about Jan. 6 by Republicans who should and do know better. 

I am not talking about Capitol Hill fanatics like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Madison Cawthorn and Paul Gosar. No, I am pointing to veteran legislators who privately admire the courage of Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, yet remain silent out of ambition, caution and sometimes fear. 

These Republicans (plus the staffers who work for them) know that the 2020 election wasn’t stolen and quake at the fanaticism of Trump true believers. Yet, they are willful enablers in the destruction of democracy through their timorous silence. 

What we are experiencing is so insidious that it is difficult to find powerful enough language to describe the dimensions of the threat. Words like democracy and autocracy sometimes seem too disembodied. Maybe it is more apt to say that 232 years of the American experiment are on the operating table — and, sadly, there is no guarantee that the patient will survive in recognizable fashion. 

It doesn’t take much imagination to picture rival militias battling outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2025, when Vice President Kamala Harris oversees the counting of the electoral votes. Or that every contested state on the 2024 electoral map will send rival slates of electors to Washington. 

Is this really the America that we want?

A nation where political violence is a major tactic in the quest for power. A nation where there are no shared political values — just rage and hatred masquerading as poisonous partisanship. A nation where elections are never lost, only stolen. 

All that we need to save American democracy are more Republicans with the brass and sass of Liz Cheney. Democracy cannot survive if it is supported by only one political party. But there is still time (albeit not much) for prominent Republicans to break their silence and work to safeguard the 2024 elections.

Writing regularly about torture during the Iraq War, I never imagined that I could ever lionize a Cheney. But there are moments to remember that the single thing we share — a fervent belief in American democracy — is more important than all the differences between us. 

That’s why, with apologies to Simon & Garfunkel, I end the year seriously asking, “Where have you gone, Richard Nixon? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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