Nixon’s ’68 Comeback Offers Clues for Gore

Several weeks ago, former Vice President Al Gore told the Associated Press that he “had no plans to seek the Presidency in 2008.” His words were eerily reminiscent of a quote from another former Vice President, Richard Nixon, who told the same Associated Press in November of 1965 that he “had no plans to seek the Presidency in 1968.”

Many years later, in 1992, I chatted with Nixon in his Saddle River, N.J., home. He told me that “no man who narrowly misses the brass ring ever stops dreaming of another shot at it.” If Nixon was right, Mr. Gore may be positioning himself to be the one Democrat who can defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Presidential primaries.

As a Republican, I could never back Mr. Gore’s election as President. But as a Nixonite, I see some uncanny parallels in the careers of the two former Vice Presidents. In fact, if Mr. Gore looks at Nixon’s strategy in 1968, he could end up in the White House after all.

Nixon’s book Six Crises was a cathartic exercise that Nixon wrote after he lost the 1960 Presidential election—one that maintained his place on the national stage. Mr. Gore’s new documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, thrusts him back to the center of the political life.

Like Mr. Gore, Nixon lost a Presidential election in a photo finish, and many felt the Presidency was stolen from him. Later, both men withdrew gracefully when further challenge to the result was fruitless. The grace with which each withdrew and accepted defeat was considered an act of statesmanship amid partisan furor.

Both men also chose to sit out the next Presidential race, fearing they could not win—but both made important endorsements that year. Nixon made 141 campaign appearances for the Barry Goldwater–William Miller ticket (more than Goldwater himself). His strong endorsement earned Nixon a conservative base that proved vital for his nomination and election four years later.

Mr. Gore’s early endorsement of Howard Dean in the 2004 primaries earned him a new and growing anti-war constituency. Despite Dr. Dean’s collapse as a candidate and his weekly gaffes as the Democratic National Committee chairman, one fact remains clear: Mr. Gore was an early and articulate critic of the war in Iraq and supported the most anti-war candidate in 2004. He has since made notable speeches questioning the war, becoming the darling of the crowd, and is now best positioned to be the “peace” candidate in 2008.

In contrast, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, the only two other Democrats of national stature who covet the nomination, voted for the war in Iraq. Mrs. Clinton has moved to the center—particularly on national defense and terrorism—and is locked into her support for the war. And, despite trying to have it both ways in 2004, Mr. Kerry could never win the vote of the anti-war left from Ralph Nader.

To win, Mr. Gore must run on a simple proposition that puts him at direct odds with Mrs. Clinton: Within 24 hours of taking office, he would withdraw all troops from Iraq and redirect national resources to crush Al Qaeda. The election of 2008 may become like 1968, with war protests wracking the country and the President sticking to his guns.

An “Out Now” candidate of Mr. Gore’s stature and name recognition could grab the nomination as support for the war continues a long spiral downward.

In 2000, a popular comic campaign button read, “Nixon in 2000—He’s not as stiff as Gore!” Both men were viewed as uncomfortable in their own skin and as awkward TV performers. Both went into Presidential debates the heavy favorite, and both sustained stinging losses against greener opponents.

Moreover, voters view Mr. Gore as a little too glib, a little too slick, a little too calculating, a little too tricky—just like “Tricky Dick.”

Mr. Gore must again borrow from the Nixon playbook and reinvent himself. The “New Gore” is more relaxed: He’s had time to think and reflect on the great challenges facing America. In his wilderness years, he has found himself. He is more self-effacing, funnier, cooler, easier-going, yet articulate and firm. The Al Gore who appeared on Jay Leno’s show after the 2004 Presidential election is the Al Gore that voters could find attractive, just as the “New Nixon” who emerged on Jack Paar after the 1960 election was far more palatable than the pale, sweaty, shifty-eyed Nixon of the Nixon-Kennedy debates.

It wasn’t until Watergate that we saw the other side of 1968’s relaxed and affable Nixon, whose political acumen I admired. But in 1968, his persistence, drive and shrewdness—coupled with a divisive war—drove the most remarkable political comeback in American history.

Sound familiar? It should, because the stage is set for Al Gore, the winner of the popular vote in 2000, to do the same.

Roger J. Stone Jr. is a veteran of eight Republican Presidential campaigns. Nixon’s ’68 Comeback Offers Clues for Gore