Waning Cry from the Right
Trying to tap voters' anger, Patrick Buchanan has turned off as many as he's turned on. That neatly sums up his world view: 'Them or us'
As his first term ended, the catcalls on the president's right grew louder. Even after two terms as vice president, true movement conservatives did not trust him. His economic and foreign policies were liberal apostasy. The New Hampshire primary approached, and that beacon of the right, the Manchester Union Leader, joined the criticism.
It was 1971, and Richard Nixon was under siege. His opening to Red China and his imposition of wage-and-price controls were sins to William F. Buckley and the Manhattan Twelve, the prominent conservatives behind the Republican primary challenge of Ohio Rep. John Ashbrook. To woo them back, Nixon sent a conservative speech writer, barely 33 years old, to plead with Buckley. When Buckley skeptically joined Nixon's 1972 mission to China, the speech writer went, too. As the two dined in Beijing, the young aide urged his intellectual hero to stay loyal. Buckley agreed, but it mattered little. Ashbrook won barely 10 percent of New Hampshire's vote, and soon his bid fizzled.
The GOP's soul. Twenty years later, another president gazes north and worries about his right. This time, Patrick J. Buchanan isn't a loyal speechwriter manning the barricades. He's storming them, hoping at least to triple Ashbrook's total and bloody George Bush. But that is not likely to happen. Buchanan must grapple not only with the president's well-tuned political machine but with the weakness of his own message and the blunderbuss way he conveys it. His motto is "America first." But with a sour economy, New Hampshire voters are being swayed by candidates with long lists of specific remedies, not by sound bites. Still, Buchanan calls his quest a "battle for the soul of the Republican Party." So it's logical that as the primary nears, the nation is beginning to ask what politicos have long wondered: What lurks in Pat Buchanan's soul? What explains why a man who cherishes the novels of Walker Percy can calculate his own words to hurt and provoke?
Much has been made of Buchanan's anger. Less is understood about how it is arrayed. The most important clues lie in his loyalties--some fixed, some flexible. He sees himself doing for the nation what his idol, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, did by ripping "the bandages off the underlying wound in America's body politic: them or us." For Buchanan there is always a "them." Not long ago he blustered that the Israeli "defense ministry" and its "amen corner" in America were the only supporters of waging war against Saddam Hussein. But personal loyalties can supersede ideology. Buchanan's remarks are widely considered antisemitic, but at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, he lived in the international students dorm and laughed and argued over dinner before knocking back a few at the West End bar with his Jewish friend, Jon Kapstein. During the 1980s, when he railed against Nicaragua, he still embraced Miguel D'Escoto, his former J-school classmate-turned-Sandinista minister, when they met at a New York reception. D'Escoto laughs: "He said, 'Oh, Miguel, you haven't changed!' " The lack of deep personal ties between Buchanan and Bush may help explain Buchanan's candidacy. Buchanan says principle compelled him to run when Bush backed "quotas" by signing last year's civil-rights bill. Yet Buchanan stuck by Nixon, despite Nixon's role in creating affirmative action. Fidelity, born of years at Nixon's side, kept him from bolting even during Watergate's dark days.
As the world has changed, so, too, have Buchanan's loyalties. When the cold war raged, there was no greater interventionist. But with communism in ruin, he opposed the gulf war. "It is simply not natural to have thousands of troops around the world," he says. And while he winks and says "America first" as he sees some fellas carrying imported beer, Buchanan's not playing it for laughs. He wants to thwart illegal immigration from Mexico with an armed "Buchanan trench." As president, he would threaten Japan with import tariffs even if it meant higher prices. "Americans have an obligation to be more than just consumers," he says. He hails humanitarian aid to foreigners in trouble as an "American tradition," but a President Buchanan would end all foreign aid to governments. And he cheers all nationalist movements: "If the Scots want to disassociate, let 'em."
It's not surprising that Buchanan sees nationalism as healthy pride--an extended network of loyalty, really--rather than dangerous chauvinism. To him, the world is an extension of the ethnic neighborhoods of his youth in 1950s Washington, D.C. Few men in their fifties sport sweat shirts with their high school's name. But when Buchanan takes a once-around-the-block jog at the behest of a television crew on a bitter New Hampshire morning, his chest carries the name Gonzaga, the parochial school that shaped him. Buchanan's childhood has approached log cabin lore. The third of nine children, he grew up in a family on an upward trajectory. William Buchanan, an accountant, could afford a Cadillac. But as the Buchanans moved up, their Catholicism never waned. Their home life was a cross between G. Gordon Liddy's "Will" and "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?" William Buchanan would warn his children of the power of the Almighty by passing their hands over a flame and saying: "Imagine that for all eternity." Conservatism came with dinner; Pop's icons included Senator McCarthy and Spain's Francisco Franco.
Besides a brief stint at liberal Columbia, Buchanan never strayed far from the company of conservatives. After graduate school, he penned editorials for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. In 1965, Nixon hired him as a speech writer as he planned his political resurrection. Years later, after meeting with Hafez Assad, Nixon wrote in his diary that Buchanan and the Syrian dictator not only had the same high forehead but the same kind of "brain and determination and smarts." Through Nixon's final days, Buchanan was the conservative true believer. He urged Nixon to make Ronald Reagan his 1968 running mate, and he penned Spiro Agnew's media-bashing phrase "instant analysis"--something that viewers of Buchanan's TV debate shows know he now offers in abundance.
Nixon memos. Documents in the Nixon archives reveal Buchanan's them-or-us worldview. He urged Nixon to fire J. Edgar Hoover lest Nixon lose the 1972 election and leave the choice of FBI director to his successor. He feared Hoover himself would be "chewed over by the jackals of the Left." Buchanan condemned critics of the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa, where 67 blacks were gunned down by white police in 1960, in a memo to Nixon that declared: "The operative concern here is not humanitarian in character at all; it is racist and ideological. Blacks murdering blacks by the scores of thousands in Central Africa is of less concern to the U.S. liberal press, the U.N. and the African states than a few South African whites mistreating a couple of blacks in South Africa, Rhodesia, Mozambique or Angola." The memos show Buchanan's "regular guy" style as he urged that Nixon bring Elvis Presley to the White House because the King could "pop for some loot for us" if he were named to an antidrug commission. He got a laugh from Nixon once by arguing that the president's phrase "liberal asshole" was redundant. Buchanan the jokester once asked a woman staffer: "Can you give me a brief listing of all the good things we have done for the weaker sex?" Race was a familiar refrain, whether it was Buchanan's reference to Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko as "the house nigger of the Politburo" or his touting of school vouchers as "a long-needed break for working people--white--not simply the blacks."
So far, New Hampshire is not buying Buchanan's worldview. He might not get 30 percent of the vote, according to polls last week. The reason is that for all his attempts to strike hot-button issues, Buchanan's anecdotes don't cut it with voters who want answers. When he spoke at a recent forum for the elderly, Buchanan earned groans for delivering a long speech on trade but offering no specifics on health care. He got no sympathy by saying that he is sometimes so frustrated by the paperwork of health insurance forms that he has told his wife, "Just go ahead and write them a check." Still, his ability to laugh at himself is appealing. John Sununu, he says, is "entirely too sweet and sensitive" to take his place on television. And Buchanan cuts through policyspeak. At a Republican kaffeeklatsch, Buchanan earned big applause but probably few votes when he described how he'd get the Kuwaitis to buy American: sit the emir down with a choice of U.S. jets and say: "Listen, little fella, pick an airline out or call the Germans next time you're in trouble."
He is hardly a man of the people. He earns several hundred thousand dollars a year between his television shows, speaking fees, column and newsletter. He drives a Mercedes and has never set foot in Washington's subway. Yet he is very approachable--something that comes across well on television--and he knows the medium. Weeks ago, two minutes before broadcast of the nightly talk show "Crossfire," CNN staffers hustled to turn a New Hampshire Holiday Inn room into a makeshift studio. He warned his producer in TV jargon that his earpiece "sounds overmodulated." When 7:30 arrived, Buchanan became the first presidential candidate ever interviewed on his own talk show.
If voters are passing on Buchanan's message, an obscure clique of far-right intellectuals is relishing it. He is being advised by self-styled paleoconservatives and libertarians like Ron Paul, the former Texas congressman and Libertarian presidential candidate. Though Buchanan parts with them on trade, they like his attacks on government and his America-first foreign policy. For his part, Buchanan likes their antigovernment economics and loves their loyalty. "These guys were great, they really stuck up for me," he says of their defense that he is not an antisemite. The personal ties move Buchanan ideologically: "I'm closer to Cato than I am to Heritage," he says of Washington's libertarian and conservative think tanks.
Buchanan's new loyalties now lie outside the GOP mainstream at a time when his political ambition demands that he have allies. Friends speculate that he hopes to run for president in 1996 or for the Senate from Virginia. For now, he's lucid enough to know that Bush will likely prevail. "The private sector holds no terror for me," he says defiantly. At a recent photo shoot in Manchester, N.H., Buchanan stands in a once thriving mall that is now empty. The photographer wants him to don boxing gloves. The candidate declines. "Too aggressive," he says. It's a rare moment of restraint.
This story appears in the February 17, 1992 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.