The “progressive” group Color of Change seems to have succeeded in its long-running campaign to get Pat Buchanan kicked off MSNBC. It had been lobbying for the conservative commentator’s departure since last October, around the time that his book Suicide of a Superpower was released. The volume contains some ripe sections (chapter titles include “The End of White America” and “The White Party”), and Buchanan stopped appearing on MSNBC shortly after its publication. Last Saturday, MSNBC president Phil Griffin criticized Buchanan directly in an interview. On Tuesday, Griffin emailed Color of Change to inform them that the right-winger had been suspended indefinitely. The organization emailed supporters to say:
We appreciate this first step and urge MSNBC to take the important final step to ensure that their brand is no longer associated with Buchanan’s history of passing off white supremacy ideology as mainstream political commentary.
Putting aside whatever feelings one might have about Pat Buchanan’s political views, MSNBC’s behavior is distasteful. Its handling of Buchanan suggests a mix of opportunism and cowardice indicative of an organization happily marginalizing itself as a bastion of Beltway liberalism.
Some liberals have asked why MSNBC hired Buchanan in the first place. His record of controversial racial views dates back at least twenty years to when he ran for the presidency in 1992 on an anti-affirmative-action, anti-Israel platform. After two more presidential bids, he settled into writing and produced a succession of books with mind-bendingly right-wing titles. The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization was originally titled The Death of Whitey. Buchanan’s publisher insisted on the overlong clarification.
MSNBC overlooked Buchanan’s record on race because they knew he could generate ratings. Pat Buchanan is a seasoned pro. Whereas watching Glenn Beck sometimes feels like one is witnessing a midlife crisis, Buchanan is in control and knows what to say to get attention. So when he tells Rachel Maddow that Judge Sonia Sotomayor is “a political activist whose career bespeaks a lifelong resolve to discriminate against white males,” he knows exactly what he is doing. Those lines have been carefully prepared hours in advance. He has only ever given MSNBC the outrage it demands.
MSNBC picked up Buchanan because he’s an incredibly experienced commentator. He wrote speeches for Richard Nixon, was director of communications under Reagan, and helped launch the 1990s’ culture wars.
The network held onto Buchanan for so long because so many people within its organization happen to like him. Buchanan comes off like a Montana militia man on the loose, but he’s actually lived in the Beltway all his life. He made his name in TV by co-creating the Crossfire franchise, which ran from 1982 to 2005, and by being an early star of The McLaughlin Group.
In the course of writing a biography of Buchanan, I was struck by how many liberals are charmed by him and beguiled by his wit. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said:
I wouldn’t compare Pat Buchanan with Glenn Beck and all those guys we have now, because Pat actually had brains. He went right back to Nixon, was there on the trip to China, and he had gravitas.…With Pat, you’re arguing with a brilliant guy, not just a loudmouth celebrity.…He’s a funny, clever guy and it’s hard for anyone to hate him.
Rachel Maddow regularly eviscerates Buchanan on her show, but he was instrumental in advancing her television career. She was a guest on a show Buchanan hosted, and he liked her so much that he recommended her for more work. Maddow later helped Buchanan establish his brand at MSNBC. Phil Griffin told a Newsday journalist that he was impressed with how they played off each other during the Democratic primaries: “They’re 180 degrees apart but they like each other.” Maddow calls Buchanan “Uncle Pat” behind the scenes. It’s a surrogate-father role that Buchanan is used to playing. Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough told me that all his liberal interns would cringe when told they would be meeting Pat Buchanan:
They’d really squirm and say, “Isn’t he an awful person? He’s so right-wing.” But after a couple of days with him, they’d all want to adopt him as their father….He’s very funny and disarming and great with young people.
The picture one gets is of a network that took on a pundit because they knew he’d be great for ratings and then dropped him under pressure from a campaigning organization that threatened to tar MSNBC’s liberal image with bad publicity. Ordinarily, Buchanan would lobby and charm his way out of the trouble that Suicide of a Superpower brought him. But he fell badly ill over Christmas and was unable to fend for himself.
If Buchanan leaves the network, it will confirm MSNBC’s slide into special-interest liberal program-making. In its desire to become the mirror opposite of Fox—left-wing and unwatched—MSNBC risks cutting itself off from millions of viewers who disagree with its agenda. Buchanan’s brand of conservatism is not dead. Its religious chauvinism has been revived by Rick Santorum’s presidential candidacy, and its anti-government populism lives on in Ron Paul’s revolution. It isn’t fashionable or pretty, but it still makes for great TV.
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