The Thorn In Bush's Right Side
A conservative who speaks his mind, Pat Buchanan stands about zero chance of winning, but he is certainly giving the White House fits.
By Margaret Carlson
(Feb. 17, 1992) Politicians are candid at their peril; a gaffe occurs when one of them inadvertently says what he actually thinks. By that standard, presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan is a veritable gaffemeister, insisting that Watergate was "a bunch of Mickey Mouse misdemeanors," Congress is "Israeli-occupied territory," and Ollie North is "a hero." Buchanan's pasty face crinkles into a smile when he recalls penning phrases like "pusillanimous pussyfooters."
Buchanan, 53, has not trimmed his verbal sails since beginning his effort to oust the traitorous George Bush, whose cave-in on taxes was "the Yalta of the Republican Party." He uses Bushspeak a la Saturday Night Live's Dana Carvey to lambaste the President for breaking his tax pledge and begs Bush to debate him "at the country club of his choice." His regular stump speech extolling isolationism, protectionism and fiscal stinginess is seasoned with attacks on "boodling" Congressmen, upholstered think tanks cooking up cockeyed new programs, and softheaded Trilateralists who would bail out Chinese communist Deng Xiaoping, the "85-year-old chain-smoking communist dwarf" but let Macy's go into Chapter 11.
This may not be the stuff to win over the country, but it could be enough to reclaim the Republican right. At first, Buchanan says, he thought his America First ideas would inspire "something more than a supper club but less than a third party." By December, Bush's popularity was moving south, the economy was worsening, and Bush wasn't doing anything about it. "There were more sightings of Elvis in New Hampshire than ((of)) the President," Buchanan said. Buchanan jumped in on Dec. 10, and now, two months later, he is clocking in at 25% to 30% on most polls, assuring that he will send a message, if not a bomb, to the White House.
Buchanan was already well known as former top aide to both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and as co-host of Crossfire, regular on The Capital Gang, occupier of what came to be known as the "Yahoo chair" on The McLaughlin Group, and syndicated columnist. His monthly newsletter, PJB, sent to 30,000 true believers who pay $49 to $98 a year, made him a multimillionaire.
But now Buchanan has given up the protective cocoon of celebrity life, a world in which he traveled by Mercedes (so much for buying American) from his pillared mansion in McLean, Va., to the CNN studio where, as one staffer says, "he never actually had to come into contact with the bozos who think the way he does." He has taken up traveling by minivan, begging for donations, and bedding down at Holiday Inns. The speeches he used to give at about $10,000 a pop are being delivered free in overheated living rooms in New Hampshire.
A little suffering fits the Buchanan Weltan schauung that too much happiness in this life could reduce the chances of salvation in the next -- and that has helped him pull off his aggrieved underdog pose. From inside the Beltway, even before there was one (he was born the third of nine children in a comfortable Washington neighborhood), he has nonetheless successfully positioned himself as a scrappy outsider.
Buchanan's career is a living monument to his father, whom he eulogized in 1988 as "quite simply the best man I ever knew." The elder Buchanan passed along his devotion to Joe McCarthy, Douglas MacArthur and Francisco Franco and his belief that a sharp right to the jaw was an excellent way to make a point. "Wild Bill" made his sons hit a punching bag 400 times a week and cheered when Pat bloodied the nose of a first-grade bully. He once held young Pat's hand to a lighted match to demonstrate what eternal damnation would be like.
Buchanan's mother, who now lives in a Washington suburb, prefers to recall her son's intellectual side. "Pat was still in the playpen when he recited the Hail Mary his father had been trying to get the older boys to memorize. He was always first in his class." After eighth grade, when the fancy sons of lace-curtain Irish lawyers and lobbyists departed in tweeds and cashmere for Georgetown Prep, Buchanan proudly went off in his blue serge suit to Gonzaga, an inner-city school run by tough Jesuits, where the basketball nets were made of chain, the decor consisted of a crucifix on the wall, and grudges against those who had it too easy were encouraged. A nonconformist who dared come to school with a day's growth of beard would be collared by Father Aloy sius McGonigol and dry-shaved until his face bled.
Buchanan missed his best opportunity to escape the boundaries of religion and culture drawn by his father by opting to go only one ZIP code away to Georgetown University. He was suspended for a year after he punched two policemen who stopped him for speeding. As he romanticizes the episode, "I was ahead on points until they pulled out the nightsticks."
After working in his father's office and at a summer job delivering mail (he jokes that he fed people's Social Security checks to their dogs), he graduated third in his class from Georgetown, got a master's degree at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and landed his first job at the now defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat, writing ripsnorting editorials that bashed bleeding-heart liberals. In 1965 he went up to Nixon at a reception and reminded the "old man" that he had caddied for him at Burning Tree Country Club (where they relieved themselves in the woods) and urged Nixon to run for President -- with his help.
In 1969 Buchanan went to work in the White House, where he met Shelley Scarney. They married in 1971, and like many couples without children, they are inseparable, to the point that Buchanan barely ties his shoes without her. His scheduler, secretary and chauffeur, she trails along behind him wheeling a suitcase full of mail, setting up a mobile office wherever he happens to be. When he stopped drinking a few years ago, so did she. Loyalty -- to his father, the Latin Mass, Brylcreem and the party of Robert Taft -- is all. He socializes mostly with his family (his sister, former U.S. Treasurer Angela Buchanan, is his campaign manager). He eats out every night (cooking is one thing neither of the Buchanans does), and he calls a week in Eastern Europe with a group of conservatives such as Richard Viguerie a vacation. When he holidays at an unfashionable Delaware beach, he spends an hour in the car every day rounding up four national newspapers.
It is hard for friends and colleagues to square the private Buchanan with the public one: the Rottweiler who has turned nostalgia for the days of Ike and Elvis into attacks on anyone who is not white, male, Christian and straight. Even supporters like National Review editor William J. Buckley Jr. found it difficult to defend Buchanan after his comments about Treblinka and the alleged dual loyalties of Jews during the gulf war. Michael Kinsley, Buchanan's Crossfire co-host for two years, points out that it is a pundit's business to spew out provocative opinions like an open fire hydrant. But he insists, as do most of Buchanan's colleagues, that the candidate is not anti-Semitic: "I never heard him make a disparaging remark about Jews, never noticed any difference in the way he treats Jews."
When asked whether he's anti-Semitic, Buchanan says no, that he tries to be "good" in the Judeo-Christian sense. He is absolutely calm about the primary next week, at least in part from knowing that on the issue that matters most, neither he nor the voters will have the final word.
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