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Making ‘Mr. Nixon’ proud

For almost four decades Edward Finch Cox has lived on the periphery of politics.

Actually, the last time most Americans even took notice of Cox was in 1971 during his storybook wedding to Richard Nixon’s oldest daughter in the White House Rose Garden. In the years that followed, the tall, fair-haired Cox turned up often by the side of his shamed father-in-law with the 5 o’clock shadow. The Harvard-trained lawyer altogether served three presidents, legions of legal clients, boards of trustees and good-government panels. He was also a regular at countless GOP fundraisers — the Manhattan blue blood looking at ease in a tuxedo.

Now, at 63, Cox has finally moved from stagehand to director, in the thick of a political drama.

He is the latest chairman of the New York Republican Party and has taken it upon himself to seek redemption for the GOP in this bluest of states. Some would argue he is also seeking deliverance for the family name.

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In a period that has seen Republicans gain in most places in America, the GOP in New York has virtually nobody in Congress and no power in Albany, the state capital. The party is so weak that it could be redistricted almost out of existence if it suffers another disappointing election this fall. So party leaders from Buffalo to Bridgehampton have turned to Cox to lead them out of the wilderness — and, they hope, to raise money.

But already he has become a divisive figure. In what some saw as an act of political treason earlier this year, Cox recruited, of all breeds, a former Democrat to compete against a gubernatorial candidate the party establishment, including former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Gov. George Pataki, had already blessed.

Cox’s leadership has so enraged some political stalwarts that last week they were e-mailing around a video on YouTube that has a digitally altered Richard Nixon scolding him: “Ed, have you lost your mind? He’s a … Democrat!”

Over the years, Cox seems to have learned a thing or two about handling criticism.

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At a raucous GOP fundraiser a few weeks ago in Rockland County before Cox introduced that ex-Democrat to a ballroom that included many skeptics, he referred to a quote “by President Nixon, my father in law.… I won’t get it exactly right, but it goes something like: ‘People may hate you. But if you hate them back, you are the loser in the end.’ I thought that is a very, very wise saying.”

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Even before “Eddie,” as he came to be known around the Nixon house, met Tricia at a high school dance on the Upper East Side, he’d been exposed to politics. The grandfather he was named after, Edward Ridley Finch, was a prominent New York judge with the kind of moderate views that are so out of fashion these days in the Grand Old Party. As a child, Cox would lunch with him every Sunday at the family home at Madison Avenue and 84th Street (now an art gallery) and listen to him reminisce about Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

But it was President Nixon who clearly was Cox’s greatest influence. “With Mr. Nixon I was living in the White House,” Cox says. “I was campaigning for him extensively, going abroad.”

After graduating from Princeton University in 1968, Cox worked for Ralph Nader on a special investigation of the Federal Trade Commission. Cox was dating the president’s daughter at the time, but rather than make him an antagonist around the White House, the Nixon administration followed up on his work with Nader.

“The point is my father-in-law picked up on the consumer movement and did something about it; he picked up on the civil rights movement; he started the Environmental Protection Agency; he cared about worker safety,” Cox says.

Sixteen years after the president’s death, Cox still talks a lot about Nixon and his Republican values, with deep affection and reverence. He offers a long list of policy accomplishments by the Nixon administration that have been overshadowed by the Watergate scandal. His wife, he says, is working to make sure they are remembered.

After Nixon resigned and resettled in New Jersey, Cox, Tricia and their only child, Christopher, continued the Sunday lunch ritual. Cox would watch the television news shows with Nixon, and afterward they’d chew over the politics of the day.

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“My dad is just a really good listener,” says Christopher, himself a budding politician. “He’s the guy who let’s everybody else push forward — and then makes things work.”

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Over the last nine months, Cox has been trying to jump-start the New York GOP for what he and others believe could be the most opportune moment for a comeback in many years. He’s doubled the party staff and traveled the state.

“We are starting at the ground floor,” he says, “and we have what it takes to build a new party.”

Cox spends much of an interview in his messy Midtown Manhattan law office offering discursive, detailed answers. He’s a saver and a stacker, and his ideas pile up similarly in chronology-filled sentences.

Though Cox has volunteered on many campaigns, he hasn’t run so much as a winning school board race on his own. His attempt in 2005 to become the GOP challenger to then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton fell flat, and most of the $1.3 million he spent came out of his own pocket.

Last summer, after promising to use his connections to raise money and work full time — for $1 a year — as the voice of the party, Cox won over enough activists to become party chairman, a job few wanted. For years, the state GOP has been losing steam, with registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans 2 to 1 and new voters increasingly registering as unaffiliated with either party.

“We needed someone with gravitas and stature to run the party, and we felt Ed had both,” says Doug Colety, Westchester County GOP chairman, quickly adding, “We really needed someone who could raise cash.”

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With the party convention just weeks away, Cox has had difficulty delivering on “the ask” — getting donors to open their wallets. “People give to candidates, not parties,” he explains, “but once we have great candidates, the money will flow.”

Many were upset when his son became a candidate in New York’s 1st Congressional District on Long Island. Other Republicans were already in the race. Though Cox says as chairman he’s steering clear of that primary, he admits to offering paternal advice: When Christopher, 31, turned to him about whether to run, Cox says, he drew a line down the middle of a yellow notepad — something he’d seen done many times by Nixon, who was a famously brilliant strategist.

This time it was Cox making a list of pros and cons. “The pros were pretty good,” recalls Cox, describing a wave of voter frustration he expects will sweep Republicans into Congress the way they were in 1994. “Chris could be part of a very influential class.… That is, if he wins.”

Losing is also a potential “pro.” “You learn as much from losing when you’re 30 as you do winning,” Cox says. " Bill Clinton lost his first race for Congress. George Bush lost his.”

The only real “con” for Christopher Nixon Cox, his father says, is his last (not middle) name: “People put up a conspiracy theory that I’m behind his campaign, but it makes no sense. He has to make it on his own.”

Any involvement by Cox in the congressional race was not as troublesome to some party regulars as his decision to find a competitor for Rick Lazio, a former congressman who has spent the last decade as a Wall Street executive. Over the last year, Lazio had campaigned for the GOP nomination for governor but wasn’t exciting donors, Cox says. So Cox encouraged Democrat Steve Levy, a popular county executive from eastern Long Island, to switch parties and run.

Cox saw his man as better suited to face another famous New York brand: a Cuomo. Democratic state Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo has been positioning himself to follow his father and become governor and has accumulated a considerable war chest.

“We needed a rock-solid fiscal conservative, tough on law and order, tough on illegal immigrants, with master political skills to deliver our message,” Cox says, explaining his decision to recruit Levy. “There was a logic there.”

Critics are questioning not so much Cox’s logic, but his logistical political savvy. By bringing in an ex-Democrat, he alienated the state Conservative Party — and for almost four decades no Republican has won New York without its endorsement.

“If Ed Cox thought the leading Republican candidate didn’t have enough energy, he should have bought him some vitamin pills,” says Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long. “You don’t bring in a Democrat who’s lined up behind liberal causes and Barack Obama without losing credibility.”

Cox is sure the intra-party scuffling will only strengthen whichever candidate emerges to take on Cuomo.

He starts sounding a bit more like the neutral party referee, until he drops in how Levy has bonded with the “tea party” supporters on Long Island and how similar activists across the country are upending races.

“This is going to be a very different year in New York,” Cox says. “Local leaders, not bosses, will be calling the shots.”

He wanders off into another lengthy account of electoral history when he’s interrupted with a question about what Nixon might think of a GOP resurgence in New York.

What if Cox could put together a winning slate that takes back Albany and gains six to eight seats in New York’s congressional delegation, boosting the GOP’s effort to regain control of the House?

Would “Mr. Nixon” be proud of “Eddie”?

He is abruptly speechless. And, unexpectedly, emotions flow. He shifts in his seat and finally gathers himself to answer.

“Yes.”

geraldine.baum@latimes.com


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