By David Kurlander

Intraparty fighting is roiling the Democratic and Republican parties in Washington. Progressive and centrist Democrats are squabbling over the appropriate size of the reconciliation package, while anti-Trump Republican representatives Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney continue to spar with Trump and his defenders. On “Split Party Politics,” this week’s episode of Now & Then, Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman compared the current tensions to the corrosion of the Federalist Party after the War of 1812 and the reconstitution of the party system during Democratic President Grover Cleveland’s rise. Another reckoning over party identity came during the 1972 presidential primaries, when Republicans to both the left and right of President Nixon pointedly challenged his direction. 

“In 1968, I was here, cheering along with the others,” said arch-Republican Ohio Congressman John Ashbrook in a 1972 presidential campaign ad. Ashbrook strolled through the empty auditorium of the Miami Beach Convention Center, the site of Richard Nixon’s triumphant nomination at the 1968 Republican National Convention. Ashbrook was taking on the standard bearer of his own party. “Candidate Nixon promised to halt runaway government, excessive spending, huge deficits. He promised to clean up the welfare mess. He was against bringing Red China into the UN,” Ashbrook recounted. “But on every one of these promises the Administration has failed to perform.” 

At the time of his run, Ashbrook was a 43-year-old darling of the Republican Right. The Ashbrooks were fixtures in Johnstown, Ohio, near Columbus. Ashbrook’s father Bill served 19 years in the House. The family ran the town’s newspaper, the Independent, and the local insurance agency. Ashbrook went to Harvard, where he clashed with liberal professors and eventual Kennedy advisors like Arthur Schlesinger and John Kenneth Galbraith. Elected to Congress in 1960, Ashbrook was one of the most vocal members of the Draft Goldwater Committee, which pushed right-wing Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater to take on incumbent President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. 

Shortly after Goldwater’s landslide loss to Johnson in November 1964, Ashbrook became an early member of the American Conservative Union (ACU), a New York-based advocacy group orchestrated by William F. Buckley, the founder of the conservative National Review magazine and host of the popular PBS talk show Firing Line. Ashbrook became the ACU’s Chairman in 1965. 

Through the 1960s, Ashbrook bolstered his conservative bona fides in the House.  In 1968, he called Melvin Laird,  then a House GOP leader and eventually Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, “a true whore,” after Laird expressed support for federally funding a rat control program for American cities. Ashbrook also fiercely fought organized labor in Ohio; the state AFL-CIO called Ashbrook “a Neanderthal mossback reactionary.” 

After supporting Nixon in 1968, Ashbrook quickly became discontented with what he saw as the administration’s liberal moves. He spoke out against Nixon’s welfare program, the Family Assistance Plan. He voted against raises in Social Security. And unlike the ambivalent Nixon, Ashbrook came out against using Federal funds for busing integration initiatives, even authoring the Ashbrook Amendment, a proposal to bar any education expenditures earmarked for achieving racial balance. Ashbrook also became the ranking member on the House Internal Security Committee, where he attempted to revitalize the McCarthy-era House Un-American Activities Committee to investigate revolutionary groups like the Black Panthers. 

The catalyzing event in Ashbrook’s candidacy, however, was the rapprochement with China. On July 15th, 1971, President Nixon announced that he would be visiting China the following year. Two months later, on October 25th, 1971, the United Nations voted to expel anti-communist Taiwan and accept communist China into its body. Hawkish anti-communists saw the moves as a betrayal. Ashbrook, a member of the steering committee of One Million Against the Admission of Red China, increasingly appeared a natural challenger to Nixon. 

Buckley and his allies were also increasingly wary of the President, despite Nixon’s 1969 appointment of Buckley as an unsalaried member of the State Department’s U.S. Advisory Commission on Information. On December 1st, 1971, the “Manhattan Twelve,” a Buckley-backed group of media figures from the ACU, convened at Buckley’s townhouse to discuss their strategy to counter Nixon’s perceived appeasement of Mao. They firmly decided on running a candidate to the right of the President. 

Two days later, Nixon aide Pat Buchanan wrote a memo to Nixon’s Special Counsel Chuck Colson reporting back on the “Manhattan Twelve.” “Currently, they resemble a milling herd of cattle, making considerable noise and doing little harm; but if they start moving off together in one direction — picking up every stray anti-Nixon conservative in the country — they could be difficult to stop,” Buchanan warned. Buchanan believed, however, that Buckley could still be brought back into the fold: “My guess is that since Bill is such an independent spirit, he must be a bit uncomfortable being yoked in a twenty-mule team whose direction he alone cannot possibly control.” 

Buchanan advised that Nixon hand down an aggressively conservative veto to Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale’s proposed Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, which would have created a national child care program, to neutralize the “Manhattan Twelve” and their fellow travelers. “My hope had been that something like Child Development…could be brought down here for a Presidential veto, with a tough message, which might then cause at least some of them to say, wait a minute, the returns aren’t all in.” Nixon indeed issued a scathing, Buchanan-penned veto on December 9th, arguing that the Act was marked by “fiscal irresponsibility, administrative unworkability and family‐weakening implications.” 

But Nixon’s conservative posturing came too late. William Rusher, Buckley’s right-hand man at The National Review and a “Manhattan Twelve” member, had asked Ashbrook to run in the New Hampshire Primary. 

Ashbrook formally entered the contest on December 30th, 1971. In the lead-up to his entry, Ashbrook argued that Nixon “had nearly decapitated the conservative movement.” He made his campaign logo a white left arrow in a blue field, with a red slash through it: ”No Left Turn.” “In all humility, but conscious too of the importance of the issues at stake, and proud to carry in this contest the banner of responsible conservatism, I respectfully ask for the support and the votes of the registered Republicans of New Hampshire,” Ashbrook said in his announcement speech. 

Ashbrook had company as a rogue candidate. Republican California Congressman Pete McCloskey had entered the race back in July 1971 on an anti-war platform. McCloskey was inspired to challenge Nixon after viewing firsthand the extent of the bombing in Vietnam and Laos in April 1971. “I have real opposition to the whole concept that we are going to save people from communism by bombing them into oblivion,” he explained. McCloskey had more funds and better poll numbers than Ashbrook. Despite this, Nixon’s team—and Buchanan in particular—remained preoccupied with the Buckley-backed arch-conservative. 

Just before the New Hampshire primary, in late February 1972, Nixon landed in Beijing (then Peking). Buckley was one of the 70 journalists who covered the historic trip, the first time a President had visited since the Communists took over in 1949. While in Beijing, Buckley went to a Peking Duck lunch with Buchanan to discuss Ashbrook’s candidacy. Buchanan explained that he wasn’t worried about Ashbrook in New Hampshire, but that he feared the potential impact if he stayed in the race until California. “He could stir up the right against us and the party split could cost us California in the fall,” Buchanan recalled in his 2007 Nixon’s White House Wars

Buckley initially told Buchanan he would drop his support of Ashbrook well before California. After Buckley witnessed firsthand Nixon’s toasts to Mao, however, he reneged on his promise. “The effect was as if Sir Hartley Shawcross had suddenly risen from the prosecutor’s stand at Nuremberg and descended to embrace Goering and Goebbels and Doenitz and Hess, begging them to join with him in the making of a better world,” Buckley wrote of the toasts upon his return. 

Buckley then doubled down on his support. On March 5th, 1972, two days before the New Hampshire primary, both McCloskey and Ashbrook appeared on Buckley’s Firing Line, where Buckley praised Ashbrook and told his audience, “My own sympathies lie with Mr. Ashbrook.” 

McCloskey dropped out after a 19.7% showing in New Hampshire, but Ashbrook, who only got 9.8%, soldiered on to California. Buckley even recorded an ad for Ashbrook, which ended with a particularly tweed-heavy Buckley saying, “You can say no to deficits, military weaknesses, excessive welfare, and the whole Left-wing package by voting for John Ashbrook, Republican, conservative, patriot.” Ashbrook reached the end of his road in California after another sub-10% showing. Buchanan’s fears about the potential fall catastrophe in the Golden State proved unfounded; Nixon won the state by double-digits on the way to defeating South Dakota Democratic Senator George McGovern by the largest margin in the history of the Electoral College. 

The intra-GOP wrestling match in 1972 focused on many of the same points of contention that are central to today’s debates: the appropriate posture of the U.S. in the world, the always-shifting definitions of “conservative” and “liberal,” and the omnipresence of media commentary in shaping the public narrative. As Democrats and Republicans both strive for party unity today, the influence of dissenting voices continue to alter the political playing field, for better and worse.

For more on the role of Buckley and the conservative media in transforming the Republican Party, read Nicole Hemmer’s 2016 Messengers of the Right Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.

To receive Time Machine articles in your inbox, sign up to receive the CAFE Brief newsletter sent every Friday.  

The Time Machine Archive 

 Catch up on the Time Machine’s deep dives into history, which offer context to understand our present challenges, including these recent pieces: