Lit Crit

Pat Buchanan: The Noble Relic

February 09, 2012

Multiple Pages
Pat Buchanan: The Noble Relic

Has Pat Buchanan been fired from MSNBC, or hasn’t he? He hasn’t been seen on the channel since October, when his last book came out. (I reviewed it for Taki’s Mag here.) MSNBC president Phil Griffin said a month ago that Pat was being kept off the air because of things Griffin found objectionable in the book: presumably things such as Pat’s having lamented “The End of White America”—one of his chapter titles. A friend who met Pat on January 27th reports that Pat denied having been fired.

The MSNBC debacle is one more attenuation in the slow fading of Pat’s public career. He still has other TV gigs, but if MSNBC does not restore him, he is unlikely to get a media contract elsewhere that gives him as much visibility. Pat will have taken another step down in his gradual departure from the public stage. The man is 73 and has health issues. More decisively, large parts of the American public—including, obviously, Mr. Griffin—see him as a relic whose views are not so much shocking as incomprehensible, as if a courtier of James the First had appeared among us in doublet, hose, and ruff arguing for the divine right of kings.

Ah, well. As Pat’s close British equivalent Enoch Powell famously observed, all political careers end in failure. Pat’s career was, in its very American way, a glorious one. The details have been laid out in a striking new biography by historian Timothy Stanley: The Crusader: The Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan.

“Pat’s career was, in its very American way, a glorious one.”

Stanley sensibly omits most of Pat’s childhood and youth, which Pat covered thoroughly in his own 1990 memoir Right from the Beginning. By page 36 of The Crusader, Pat is working for Richard Nixon. There follows a breathtaking 320-page canter through US national politics toward the end of the 20th century, culminating in Pat’s disastrous 2000 run for president under the Reform Party banner. He won 0.4 percent of the popular vote.

The highest point was Pat’s victory over Bob Dole in the 1996 New Hampshire primary. It is still thrilling to read about:

At the Buchanan office in Manchester, there was a riot. The media turned up from nowhere and tried to break in. They pushed their way up the narrow staircase, squeezing against the walls, waving boom mics….At the front was Larry King, shouting, “Where’s Pat? Where’s Pat?” Pat was world news. He made the front page in London, Tokyo, and Moscow….This was the high tide of the Middle American Revolution.

Establishment Republicans were furious. The neocons had already captured key strategic points in the party and were aggressively pushing their programs of globalization, demographic replacement, and military aggrandizement. How dare Pat speak up for economic nationalism, American citizenship, and the return of our troops from Germany, Italy, Korea, and Japan? Pat was “pseudo-populist” (Bill Kristol); he was “exclusionary” (Jack Kemp); he was a “segregationist,” guilty of “Jew-baiting” and “queer-bashing” (David Frum); he was…whatever (Bob Dole).

Four years earlier, at the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston, Pat had scored his greatest oratorical triumph. GOP moderates followed with a shameful betrayal of him. Timothy Stanley tells the story very well.

Pat had come to the convention with a respectable showing in the primaries. Nearly three million people had voted for him—23 percent of all votes cast. The GOP establishment badly wanted those votes for George H. W. Bush in the general election and were willing to pay for them.

While she was at the convention, [Pat’s sister and campaign organizer] Bay got a call from Bush’s advisors to ask if they could meet to discuss Pat.…The polls showed that Bush needed Buchanan’s endorsement. What was Pat’s price? “We want a primetime speech,” she said.

She kept saying it until the Bush people caved. The result was Pat’s “Culture War” speech, a splendid flight of oratory that electrified conservatives. Reports Stanley:

Before the convention, Clinton led Bush 52-35 percent. After the convention, Clinton led by just 45-42 percent. The President led among men by 47-41 percent. The leap came the day after Buchanan’s speech.…

Bush himself seemed to be pleased with the speech, congratulating Pat personally at a party that evening. Other elements in the party were horrified. The neocons did not yet have their thumbs pressed as firmly on the GOP’s windpipe as they would four years later, but there was a sufficient spirit of cultural appeasement in the Republican establishment to provoke a swift backlash: a hatred of ideas, a terror of strong opinions, and an awareness of the fortunes to be made by moving factory work to cheap-labor countries.

Media allies were hastily enlisted, and a parade of GOP moderates offered up prime-time condemnation of Pat’s speech. On the psephological evidence, it might have saved the administration; in the lightning-fast rewrite of history accomplished by the GOP panjandrums and their media shills, it had hurt the administration.

In just twenty-four hours, Pat went from the voice of the people to right-wing nut.

(There is an interesting parallel here with the historical rewrite of Republican Pete Wilson’s governorship in California from 1991-98. There is now an entrenched myth that Wilson’s support for initiatives against illegal immigration and multiculturalism killed his party in that state. In fact all the initiatives were popular, and “He left office in 1998 (due to term limits), with his approval rating at its highest level ever—55 percent to 37 percent among registered voters in the Sept. 1998 L.A. Times Poll.” Who controls the past, controls the future.)

I can find no serious fault with Timothy Stanley’s account of Pat’s career. The only discordances arise from the fact that even to such a sympathetic observer as Stanley, born I would guess around 1980, Pat is a traveler from another time.

Hence such oddities as:

Tragically, the conservative response to AIDS led to the stigmatization of homosexuals.

Since homosexuals were indisputably the disease’s main agents of transmission, why should they not have been stigmatized?

Regarding the profanities and epithets from Nixon’s White House tapes:

Only those who shared Nixon’s prejudices could have missed how horrible they really were.

Only those steeped in Generation X’s sissified sensibilities could have missed how commonplace Nixon’s words and opinions were in his time.

Those are not writerly delinquencies, though, only intergenerational incomprehension. The Crusader is a fine book that delivers what it promises. It is a worthy tribute to a man who, if he had attained the presidency, might have been able to slow our nation’s descent into tribalism and bankruptcy.

From the long perspective—that of historians in the year 2100 AD, perhaps—Pat will likely appear a tragic figure who fought a doomed rearguard action against malign forces. Strange, then, to find oneself finishing this book heartened, even exhilarated. Yes, all political careers end in failure; but there can be nobility in failure, and honor, and even satisfaction. Have no regrets, Pat.

 

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