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Fire in the mountains

"Fire in the mountains" Continued...

Issue: "Summer of '68," Aug. 9, 2008

He came as He had to Elijah. After the strong wind, the earthquake, then the fire, He came whispering with "a still small voice."

Nixon's missed opportunity

By Russ Pulliam

Had Richard Nixon listened to Billy Graham and looked for character instead of political advantage in a running mate in 1968, he would have picked Sen. Mark Hatfield as his running mate.

Instead, to balance competing political factions in the Republican Party, Nixon selected Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew.

Agnew had taken bribes as governor and they caught up with him in Nixon's second term. In 1973, Agnew was indicted and resigned, even as Nixon was under siege for the Watergate scandal.

In 1968 Nixon was making his comeback, having lost the presidential race in 1960 to John Kennedy, and then a race for governor of California in 1962. Normally such losses leave a candidate without a future. But Nixon moved to New York City and became the party's workhorse after the devastating Barry Goldwater defeat in 1964. Nixon campaigned for Republicans in their 1966 mid-term comeback year, when Hatfield also won his Senate seat. Nixon barely took the nomination in 1968 by beating out the conservative California Gov. Ronald Reagan and the liberal New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

The Republicans had strong left, right, and middle wings, and Nixon was in that middle. On his vice presidential list he had liberal options like New York City Mayor John Lindsay and Sen. Hatfield of Oregon, who opposed the war in Vietnam. On the right was Gov. Reagan. Agnew was considered a moderate, along with Massachussetts Gov. John Volpe.

It may be difficult to imagine now, but in 1968 evangelical Christians were not a political force in either party. Hatfield was the rare evangelical Christian in national leadership.

Evangelist Billy Graham did not give Nixon much political advice, but Nixon invited Graham to a vice presidential discussion meeting at the Miami convention. "It's part of history," Nixon told Graham, who was reluctant to go so deep into politics but knew Hatfield's Christian faith was needed in the White House. In the meeting, according to biographer William Martin writing in A Prophet with Honor, Graham summed up Hatfield's qualifications this way: "He's a great Christian leader. He's almost a clergyman. He's been an educator and has taken a more liberal stance on most issues than you, and I think the ticket needs that kind of balance."

Nixon took Graham's suggestion seriously but settled on Agnew almost by a process of elimination. The liberal wing objected to conservative candidates, and the conservatives objected to the liberal candidates. Yet the Nixon circle did not know Agnew very well-and paid for it.

What if Nixon had picked Hatfield? His faith in Christ and personal integrity opened doors of influence in Congress.

The Oregonian could have been a lone voice for integrity in an administration wrapped up in the crude and corrupt tactics that led to the Watergate scandal. He also would have been Nixon's successor when Nixon resigned in 1974.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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