Imitating Nixon: Trump's big mistake?

Story highlights

  • David Gergen: This is my 20th political convention and I cannot remember one with such a raucous, rocky start
  • Trump and campaign are mirroring Nixon's 1968 presidential run and that could be a big mistake, says Gergen

David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been a White House adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @david_gergen. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Donald Trump is rightly "furious" about the controversy enveloping his wife, Melania, after her speech on GOP opening night -- but he should be angry at a lot more than that and ought to be kicking himself the hardest.

David Gergen
This is my 20th political convention and I cannot remember one that has gotten off to such a raucous, rocky start. Apparently, the Trump staff is so lean -- and mean -- that since conventioneers started to arrive, they have been continually misplaying one of the most important moments of the campaign. And if recent reports play out about their affinity for Richard Nixon, they are careening toward more trouble.
    To be sure, as the Trump camp believes, the press is blowing some of the early mishaps out of proportion and is focusing too little on barn burning speeches like that of Rudy Giuliani on opening night. But pros understand that is the nature of the game and they know how to handle it. Welcome to the NFL!
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    The trouble started right out of the gate on Monday morning when two leading surrogates for Trump launched attacks on the Bush family, Mitt Romney, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The most jarring was the criticism that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort aimed at Kasich. It is by now axiomatic that Trump must win Ohio to win the White House, that the race here is a dead heat, and that Kasich -- the most popular political leader in the state -- may hold the keys to victory. Knocking him on day one was a blunder, and an omen of things to come.
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    That very afternoon, the Trump team compounded its problems as anti-Trump forces demanded an open, roll-call vote. When Trump's allies squelched the protesters, all hell broke loose on the convention floor. "Chaos," the press called it, casting a shadow over the entire first day. And bitter tastes lingered: delegates on the losing side claimed they had been "strong armed." One put it this way to me: "The Trump people would have won the roll call; they had plenty of votes. If they want to unify the party, why weren't they smart enough to give us something we could take home?" Why not, indeed?
    A surly mood continued into Monday night, but this time was directed in rat-a-tat attacks against Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Democratic establishment. The moment that was to recast the evening in a warm glow and to serve as its climax was the debut of Melania Trump on a national stage. Convention nominees historically stay away from personal appearances until their final night, but so important was Melania's speech that Trump flew in to introduce her.
    And she delivered! In the moments immediately after, commentators from one network to the next gushed over her poise, her portrayal of her husband as a patriot, and her embrace of her new homeland. She seemed, and remains, a woman of good values.
    By now, everyone knows the glow didn't last long, as a sharp-eyed gent took to social media to point out the remarkable parallels between her speech and that of Michelle Obama at the Democratic convention eight years ago. A new hell broke loose across all media, shredding hopes by convention planners for a great opening night. Melania Trump is hardly the first high-profile person to be accused of plagiarism, but this won't be forgotten quickly.
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    That is especially true because the Trump campaign made such a hash of things in the aftermath Tuesday morning when they denied there was anything wrong but added -- ludicrously -- that if there were anything wrong, the blame should lie with Hillary Clinton! Sure.
    That argument came right out of a Richard Nixon playbook. When in trouble, stonewall. And perhaps therein lies the root of the problems the Trump team is having: They have spent so much time studying Nixon's 1968 campaign that they are starting to copy it.
    It is hard to believe, but we now know that Trump and his team have come to believe that Richard Nixon's 1968 convention speech and campaign should serve as their model. There are indeed some parallels between then and now: Nixon was running at a time of turmoil on the streets at home and an agonizing war overseas. Middle class voters were angry. Nixon proclaimed himself to be the law-and-order candidate and as Joe McGinnis records in his classic book, "The Selling of the President," he skillfully used television to speak over the heads of a querulous press corps to what he called "a silent majority." Nixon went on to win in a tight election, a lesson the Trump team has taken to heart.
    So, it makes sense to study the Nixon years, but it is bizarre beyond words to intentionally choose his candidacy and presidency as a role model. As a young man, I worked for Nixon in the White House and believe he did far more good for the country than is generally appreciated.
    Yet, even the most loyal Nixonite would acknowledge that his insecurities and paranoia led to a long string of political and legal abuses. He could not control his inner demons and eventually did himself in. In politics, moreover, his "Southern strategy" became an invitation for segregationists, then staunch Democrats, to become Republicans. That was a Faustian bargain that ultimately tore the party away from its Lincolnian roots and haunts it still.
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    In days ahead, commentators here in Cleveland will hammer Trump over his embrace of Nixon. In a preview of what is likely coming, Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution acidly wrote Tuesday, "But why should anyone be surprised at an instance of plagiarism in a single speech? By Trump's campaign manager's own admission, they are plagiarizing the entire campaign from Richard Nixon's 1968 law and order campaign."
    There are surely people around Donald Trump who know all this. But Trump hasn't invested enough resources to build a first-rate staff around him and after all, they take orders from the top. Trump has every reason to be angry with his team over the Melania speech, but when it comes to the presidency, as Harry Truman pointed out a long time ago, the buck stops with him.