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Greenfield Jeff Greenfield is senior analyst for CNN. He will provide weekly, Web-exclusive analysis during Election 2000.

Jeff Greenfield: The meeting

May 3, 2000
Web posted at: 3:56 p.m. EDT (1956 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It's political drama of a high order: the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, meeting face to face with his principal rival, who has made no secret of his disagreements with some of his own party's positions. The rival might make an attractive vice-presidential nominee, but says he doesn't want the job. If the nominee-to-be embraces some of his rival's controversial positions, it could cost him support among his party's base.

This may sound like a preview of the forthcoming Bush-McCain summit in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, but it's really a description of a meeting that happened nearly 40 years ago -- a meeting that changed the Republican Party, and American politics.

The presumptive nominee was Vice President Richard Nixon. The rival was New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller -- who had considered, then abandoned, plans for a presidential campaign months before. But a few weeks before the GOP convention was to start, Rockefeller began reconsidering (He would so the same thing eight years later, against the same rival, with the same results).

He launched an attack on Nixon's failure to clarify his policy positions, and on his party's stands on civil rights and defense.

Seeking to avoid any threat to his nomination, Nixon agreed to travel from Washington to New York in late July, for a secret meeting with Rockefeller. Further, he agreed to let Rockefeller reveal fact of the meeting, the fact that it was held at the Vice President's request, and -- most important -- to list a series of agreements between the two men on everything from a beefed-up defense budget to stronger civil rights stands.

In Chicago, preparing for the start of the convention, GOP conservatives were outraged. To them, Rockefeller was a symbol of the Eastern internationalist, big money establishment wing of the party. The idea that their nominee would kowtow to this symbol, and sign the so-called "Compact of Fifth Avenue," was a betrayal.

It didn't derail Nixon's nomination -- but at the convention, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater said to his followers: "grow up -- if we want to take over this party, and I think we can -- let's go to work." Four years later, Goldwater was the GOP nominee, and the Republicans became a permanent conservative party.

Moreover, the inclusion of a strong civil rights plank may well have cost Nixon the chance to carry enough Southern states to have beaten John F. Kennedy for the Presidency in 1960.

So, for sheer political significance, that McCain-Bush summit next week will have to be pretty impressive to match the Nixon-Rockefeller sit-down of 40 years ago.

 
ELECTION 2000

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Wednesday, May 3, 2000


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