New York State Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox, 69, the son-in-law of former President Richard Nixon, reminisces about his first GOP convention and reflects on how much — and how little — has changed 48 years later.
Q: For the first time in decades, we might have a contested Republican convention. Your first convention was in 1968 — when Richard Nixon, your future father-in-law, prevailed over Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller in Miami Beach.
A: I was a 21-year-old. I had been going out with Tricia [Nixon] for five years then. We had met in 1963. She had just moved here [to New York] after her father lost the California governorship. And she went to my sister’s high school and I met her at a dance. I accompanied her at the 1968 convention. I was right there, right in the middle of it.
Q: Now you’re New York’s Republican Party chairman. Are there lessons from your first experience that apply today?
A: In 1968, there was a convention [also] with three candidates.
You have a more moderate governor, re-elected enthusiastically by his state, with a small number of delegates, [who] got started late in the process, and he is touting polls saying that he is the most electable in the general election. Now which candidate am I describing? Rockefeller and Kasich.
There was a recently elected official, very conservative, and [he] is running with very conservative support, and is really sort of beginning to pick up a lot of steam. And it looks like he could, in fact, [win] in a subsequent second or third ballot. Who would that be? Ronald Reagan and Ted Cruz.
And you have a very accomplished individual who’s not in office, who has broad support based on big issues but is being sort of squeezed from the right and from the more moderate candidate. Later, [he] calls his base of support “The Silent Majority,” and who’s that? It’s Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. I had a conversation with [Trump] yesterday — that’s what he [too] calls his support.
Q: So are there lessons to be taken from then?
A: It is instructive to see the “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’’ But so much has changed. I wouldn’t use the term brokered convention. I think contested convention. That’s because it happens out in the open. And even back then, it was transparent. It’s not people in the back rooms, smoking cigars, making deals.
Q: Recent conventions have been all about the nominee, who was already chosen. Are you concerned about this one being chaotic?
A: People think there’s so much that’s planned, and organized. [But] a lot of it is very spontaneous. [In 1968] Mr. Nixon had announced his vice presidential candidate, Spiro Agnew. And Agnew did his first press gaggle. And it was on TV, and [Nixon] was watching it. I was sitting next to him and he turned to me and he said, “Eddie, what do you think of Spiro Agnew?” He was asking me — a 21-year-old!
And so, there’s one thing about Agnew that was absolutely obvious … and I said, “Well, sir, he’s got presence.” Mr. Nixon put on his jacket, he had to go down to the convention hall, and of course the press gaggle caught him. As he exited from the hotel, they asked, “Well, sir, what do think about your vice presidential nominee?” And he said, “Well, he’s got presence!’’
Think of the speech that Ronald Reagan gave when he lost the ’76 campaign. Think of the speech that George Bush gave in ’80, when he didn’t have any prospects at all.
These were some of the greatest speeches that they gave before major audiences, when all is lost as far as they were concerned.
Conventions have an impact not just on the convention itself but on the future candidacies. And I’m sure that’s going to happen at this convention also.
Q: In 1968, Nixon had the most delegates going in, and he prevailed. Was he worried he wouldn’t?
A: It was a concern. Not so much from the Rockefeller side but more from the conservative side. Because in many ways, it was still a [Barry] Goldwater convention. So Strom Thurmond, who had pledged his support to Mr. Nixon, was a leader of the Southern delegates. Ronald Reagan gave great speeches. So Strom Thurmond decided, “Maybe, all the Southern delegates should be taken out into the ocean to enjoy fishing.”
And he found a boat and off they went and they were fishing rather than listening to Ronald Reagan deliver his speech, which could have swept them off their feet, and maybe they would have decided to go for Reagan rather than my father-in-law.
The tension continued until some of the conservative congressmen from the southern part of New Jersey cast their votes for Mr. Nixon, and that was the decisive factor. It was up in the air, until you got to New Jersey. And I think it was Wisconsin that finally put my father-in-law over the top. I’m sure we’re going to have the same kind of drama at this convention.
Q: Do you have any concerns about chaos at the convention hurting the party?
A: This is democracy at work! It’s exciting! Will Rogers said about the Democratic Party, “I don’t belong to an organized party, I’m a Democrat.’ Well maybe it’s a little bit of that now [for Republicans].
We’re not as organized as we used to be, because we are the majority [in Congress, statehouses, state legislatures, etc.] It’s harder to unify, because there are so many different voices in it. I think that’s what you see going on now. But in the end, we will unify.
Q: Are you worried about protests and possibly violence in Cleveland?
A: Just go back to ’68. Anyone who’s seen that — you ain’t seen nothing like ’68. There were protests, but they really hit the subsequent [Democratic] convention in Chicago. It was the backdrop of war; there were 300 draftees being killed a week in Vietnam.
Q: How is the party preparing for the convention in the absence of a single candidate laying out the priorities? Was that the case in 1968?
A: Platforms were very big back then. But over time, the platform has become less important. And [House] Speaker [Paul] Ryan decided, as part of his becoming speaker, that this was an opportunity. He says that this presidential election should be about policy. And he in fact is determined to lay out that agenda. An agenda, as opposed to a platform, an agenda that can pass through the House, that has a good chance of passing through the Senate … and put on the desk of a Republican president early in the administration. It can get signed and we can say, “This is what we are going to do.” I don’t think it’s ever been done before, for the Congress, and mainly the speaker of the House, to set the agenda on which the Republican candidate will run.
And because that is an agenda that is created by Congress, it’s one that in fact that could be enacted fairly quickly. It smacks a little bit more of a parliamentary system frankly, than a Madisonian system of checks and balances. [But] as opposed to what Obama did in his first year, you’re going to see it done on a bipartisan basis. It’s going to be good legislation. And it’s going to have a very positive impact on the direction of the country.
Q: I can’t recall the last time anyone paid attention to the New York primary.
A: The greatest political show on earth is now playing exclusively, almost exclusively, in New York State. And it is great!
This is our New Hampshire moment with real delegates — we’ve got 95 of them!
Q: So who are you endorsing?
A: New York State is wide open and welcoming to all of them.
Q: On the policy side, the parties have moved a lot since 1968. You were a part of Ralph Nader’s organization back then. Nixon famously started the EPA and had other domestic priorities that would seem more like Democratic policies today.
A: While I was at that convention, I was taking time off from working with Ralph Nader, investigating the Federal Trade Commission. [But] I’ve always been a Republican. Showing the inadequacies of government certainly is a conservative position. Ralph and I might have differed on a lot of other things. But [not] investigating the Federal Trade Commission and showing why it didn’t work. For a young graduate from Princeton, it was really a great experience.
[Today in politics] it’s guerrilla warfare, just like I was working for Ralph Nader. I’m grateful for all the things I learned from Ralph, working for him way back then — how, with very little resources, you can actually have a huge impact.
Under Mr. Nixon you had the Clean Water Act. You had to have the federal government involved because it crosses state boundaries. It was bipartisan legislation. He was the only president in modern times to be elected without one house of Congress being of his party. And that created difficulties for him later on.