Buchanan - We'd Rather Be Right
Kopkind, Andrew, The Nation
BUCHANAN - WE'D RATHER BE RIGHT
Pat Buchanan struck at noon. Right on the button for the cable news shows and precisely at the moment when workers in the Capitol offices here took to the streets for lunch, the feisty fascist of Sunday morning TV chat strode up to the microphones to announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Of course the crowd was mostly media, plus staff and a ringer or two from other political camps. A Yale student working for Paul Tsongas had forgotten to take off his candidate's button, but he was safe in the throng. An ACT UP demonstrator crying "Fight Back, Fight AIDS" dramatically interrupted the scripted event and was carried, literally screaming and kicking, out the back door of the state office building where Buchanan was speaking. The national press corps, much too accustomed to New Hampshire in December, to unruly demonstrations everywhere and especially to Pat Buchanan, laughed derisively. It may be the last laugh of the season.
Buchanan's entrance into a particularly flat and tedious campaign has provided a certain volume and texture. He presents a serious though probably not life-threatening challenge to President Bush, but more than that, he injects what the commentators like to characterize as an "unabashedly" ideological element into the proceedings. (That's the word du jour. Tom Brokaw called Tom Harkin an "unabashed" liberal; Tsongas, we know, is unabashedly pro-business. Is Jerry Brown now unabashedly unbashful, Douglas Wilder unabashedly black, Bob Kerrey unabashedly wounded in war and Bill Clinton unabashedly well groomed?) As an ideologue, he is able to lift the campaign from an exercise in poll reading and force the Democrats as well as Bush to think real thoughts, and perhaps even say what they mean. That can't be all bad.
In his noontime announcement on December 10, Buchanan hit all his ideological buttons. None of this value-neutral "the cold war is over" stuff you heard from the Democrats in their mid-December debate, and even from Bush as he desperately tried to prop up Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Gotterdammerung. "By the grace of God," Buchanan intoned, "America won the cold war." That happy victory, he went on, has allowed nationalisms to flourish from Croatia (a favorite of the right wing) to Ukraine to the Americas. Buchanan is in favor of self-determination for everyone with enough cloth for a flag and a trumpet to blow a national anthem. He supports Palestinian nationalism, which is something of a first for serious presidential candidates of either party from time immemorial, and he has written in favor of the dissolution of Canada into several parts, with Quebec going its bloody-minded Gallic way and the English-speaking provinces joining the United States for an Anglo-Celtic bulwark against the darker peoples. (That was before several Anglophone provinces went social democratic.) Just the other week he said on MacNeil/Lehrer that although he wasn't particularly in favor of wholesale immigration, he'd prefer a bunch of assimilable Englishmen to "a million Zulus" taking up residence in Virginia. Surely he was speaking metaphorically. For Buchanan, the Zulus start in Montreal.
"When we say we will put America first," Buchanan explained, "we mean also that our Judeo-Christian values are going to be preserved, and our Western heritage is going to be handed down to future generations, not dumped onto some landfill called multiculturalism."
Buchanan's voice was uncommonly low, his eyes lowered to the printed page of his speech, but his words were as charged as ever. "Phase out foreign aid," he demanded. Liquidate "the predatory traders of Europe or Asia." Rid Washington of "registered agents of foreign powers hired to look out for everybody and everything - except the national interest of the United States." Cleanse "our popular culture of books, movies, films" - the ones, that is, that abjure the J-C values. "Cure . . . a society suffering a chronic moral sickness." "Take back our streets from the criminals." "Take back our party." "Take back our country."
You don't need a deconstructionist to know what those words signify. The disease allegories, the white supremacist fantasies, the nativist paranoia, the cultural puritanism, the sexual repression, the seething violence: We've heard it before. Of course it has echoes from Germany and Italy in the time of the dictators, from Greece in the decade of the colonels and more recently from England, France and Germany again. But it has American roots as well, from the Know-Nothings of the mid-nineteenth century to the populist racists a century ago to Father Coughlin in the 1930s through the Liberty Lobby to David Duke. And Pat Buchanan lands at the end of that line.
What's remarkable is that Buchanan is more or less legitimate as a candidate while Duke is not. Certainly Buchanan's status as a White House attache (under Nixon and Reagan) and an affable media performer gives him a big boost in the press, while Duke's history in identifiable Nazi organizations is something of a minus. But Buchanan is able to do something else that is more important: He deliberately and methodically relates his candidacy to the conservative movement that began before Barry Goldwater, triumphed with Ronald Reagan and is now wandering in the wilderness waiting for a new messiah.
Busing down to Manchester after his Concord opener, Buchanan spoke to his supporters and random Bush-beaters in a cramped second-floor campaign office in the center of town. He hardly mentioned his program or his battle plan. Instead he recounted his history in "the Movement" over the course of some thirty-five years and anointed himself the true heir to the departed Reagan. There is power in that history, and it gives Buchanan a role more central than the one he'd ordinarily have as just another crackpot on the margins of the Republican Party. For it's true that the Movement is still out there in America, potentially powerful but at the moment leaderless and incoherent. Buchanan is as authentic a soldier in the cause as anyone else on the scene, and can fairly bid for leadership. Duke, on the other hand, is discredited as a white-sheeted sectarian with no ties to the core figures of the right over the past decades. Buchanan - just by announcing his availability - becomes the Movement's spokesman.
The Democrats this year have no one who authentically expresses the Movement of the left, which, for better or worse, has intersected with their party for more than a century. Jesse Jackson fulfilled that role last time around, and his success in introducing unabashedly ideological notes into an otherwise opportunistic campaign was a direct consequence of his function as Movement leader as well as candidate. He was able to talk about class, about race, about culture, about nationalism - Buchanan's topics too - because they were ideas inherent in his social mission. He may not have expressed them perfectly, but like Toonces, the cat who could drive a car, though poorly, the wonder was that he could do it at all before he cracked up.
Pat Buchanan must shoot his wad in New Hampshire. If he can't damage Bush here he can't do it anywhere, at least not in the time frame that matters in a presidential campaign. He has a lot going for him in this first primary state. The economy is as bad as anywhere in the country; The New York Times finally used the word "Depression" to describe conditions here just a few days after Buchanan announced.
But Bush is unpopular not only for his mismanagement of the economy. New Hampshire Republicans seem to blame him personally for abandoning them to whatever wolves have descended from the notches since the primary almost four years ago. "There's a deep unhappiness with Bush," a prominent state politician told me. "For eight years as Vice President he catered to us like no other politician in the world. If he walks into a room of Republicans anywhere in the state he will know half or three-quarters of the people."
New Hampshire returned the attention in 1988. Bush had been badly beaten by Senate minority leader Bob Dole and televangelist Pat Robertson in the Iowa caucuses. If Bush lost New Hampshire he'd effectively be finished as a candidate. In the eight days between Iowa and New Hampshire, Bush pressed New Hampshire Governor John Sununu to save his campaign. Sununu pulled out all the stops. First off, he got Bush to reiterate "the pledge" to eschew all new taxes that New Hampshire politicians are obliged, almost by law, to take to win endorsement by the powerful Manchester Union Leader, perhaps the most right-wing daily paper in the country. Dole would not so pledge. Sununu then leaned on the media, particularly the most important television station in the state, Channel 9, the ABC outlet in Manchester. In the last days, that station became a Bush booster. Sununu called in every marker owed to him by Republican apparatchiks from the Massachusetts border to beyond the mountains. And of course it worked. Republicans in New Hampshire, to this day, believe they made Bush President.
Many believe, however, that once in office Bush let them twist in the wind. Sununu is seen as a traitor. "Sununu lost interest in us," the local pol said. "He and Bush raised taxes when he promised he wouldn't. He excluded conservatives - and New Hampshire is a very conservative Republican state - from the party. He muzzled Jack Kemp and put in mink coat Republicans like Mosbacher and Brady. He's surrounded by victims of too much inbreeding."
None of this makes much sense if you think about it. Reagan had enough minks around him to put Blackglama out of business, and after eight years of Reagan rule the G.O.P. gene pool was a shallow stinking slough. But that doesn't impress the ornery Hampsters. Bush simply isn't in the Movement they find so supportive, and Buchanan looms as a way to express their anger and protest their victimization.
The trouble for Buchanan is that his wad will not be powerful enough to wilt the forces that still get some benefit from the national party. So far, although the Union Leader supports him, not one major Republican politician in the state has signed on to the Buchanan campaign. His Manchester organizer is supposed to be "the most hated Republican in the city," a onetime conservative candidate for local office said. The statewide contact person is a famous flake. Most of the people advancing for Buchanan in the week prior to his announcement were P.R. types from Washington.
Furthermore, if Bush sends Dan Quayle or, better yet, Jack Kemp to put down the insurrection in New Hampshire, Buchanan will be hard put to get high numbers in the pre-primary polls. Although the Union Leader will not be swayed from his side (it hates Kemp, possibly because of unfounded rumors once bruited by some Reaganites that involved him in a gay sexual scandal in California), a Kemp-Quayle assault will make it impossible to field a respectable conservative team to support the Buchanan campaign.
Certainly Buchanan knows that his chances of getting beyond March are slim. In fact, he does not admit to a game plan after New Hampshire. Then why is he putting himself through the torture of retail campaigning in the frozen North? He may be hoping for a main bout in 1996. But more likely he sees that there is an opening for leader of the Movement of the right, a chance to be a player in national politics on a level that no columnist or TV chatter can hope to achieve. That's not bad for him either.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Buchanan - We'd Rather Be Right. Contributors: Kopkind, Andrew - Author. Magazine title: The Nation. Volume: 254. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 6, 1992. Page number: 1+. © 1999 The Nation Company L.P. COPYRIGHT 1992 Gale Group.
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