The most controversial presidential candidate of recent memory is
Patrick J. Buchanan. Whatever labels adhere to him, those applied by
his friends are vastly different from those applied by his enemies.
Buchanan’s supporters see him as America’s last hope, the only candidate
who stands against the corporate globalists and their Washington
lackeys. Buchanan’s detractors see him as an opportunistic demagogue,
an anti-Semite who flirts with Holocaust revisionism, an opponent of
free trade whose policies would damage the world economy.
Buchanan has been involved in politics for more than 30 years. After
working as a newspaper writer, he first entered the fray as an advisor
and speech-writer for Richard Nixon. Later, he worked in the Reagan
White House. In 1992 Buchanan sought the Republican nomination and
predictably lost to George Bush. At the Republican National Convention
in 1992, Buchanan showed his party loyalty and good sportsmanship by
saying: “I want to congratulate President Bush, and remove any doubt
about where we stand: The primaries are over … and the Buchanan
brigades are enlisted — all the way to a great comeback victory in
But some Republicans felt Buchanan’s 1992 convention speech hurt
President Bush. Buchanan’s rhetoric, they said, had a nasty edge. He
made the party look bad. Buchanan was insensitive to homosexuals. He
offended the female gender by rejecting the notion of women in combat.
He showed a callous disregard for small animals by speaking of
“environmental extremists who put insects, rats and birds ahead of
families, workers and jobs.”
But the statement that was considered unforgivable — that frightened
the party’s economic optimists and utopians — was Buchanan’s assertion
that the country was seriously divided and at war with itself.
“There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of
America,” he said. “It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of
nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.”
Only a deluded or ignorant person would deny the truth of Buchanan’s
statement. But economic optimists and utopians are sometimes bothered
by statements of fact, especially when investment portfolios are at
stake. For everyone knows that religious wars and even culture wars can
explode into social chaos and violence, which usually makes for a bad
investment climate. In this context, Buchanan made matters worse by
what he said next. He mentioned a genuine eruption of blood and fire,
fresh in the public’s memory. Buchanan recounted a scene from the L.A.
riots, in which U.S. troops retook the city “block by block.” Then he
added, “So we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and
take back our country.”
His words sent a cold chill through the pale Republican optimists.
The country is divided, Buchanan rudely declared. The cities are ready
to explode. He was also saying that America was in the hands of
cultural enemies. What else could be signified by the notion of “taking
back” the country?
After 1992, the Republican elite was on guard against Buchanan. When
he entered the presidential race in 1996 and won the New Hampshire
primary, the raw and stupid power of entrenched complacency suddenly
lurched forward into battle mode. It was a sight to behold! Buchanan
was subjected to character assassination and ridicule. This not only
came from the mainstream press, as might be expected, but from big names
and famous personalities within the conservative movement — from
colleagues who had served with him under President Reagan, like William
Bennett. Even Rush Limbaugh, who previously supported Buchanan,
half-heartedly joined the chorus (and was subsequently hammered by a
lineup of disgruntled callers).
The subtle vilification in the press and the not-so-subtle
vilification from conservatives was too much. Buchanan’s campaign died
of a thousand cuts. His ideas were dismissed out of hand as
contemptible, wrongheaded, opportunistic and dangerous. The intolerance
and meanness so often attributed to him, in fact, was wielded by his
detractors — with full effect.
Buchanan remained in the party, even after the rough treatment he
received. It is hard to believe that anyone would endure such an ordeal
and return for another round of the same, but Buchanan was determined to
continue. He put together a carefully worded defense of his views in
two books. He challenged the country to think a second time.
“The Great Betrayal” is Buchanan’s book on American trade policy. It
gives an overview of the policies that made America great and successful
in the past. These policies, he points out, were protectionist. His
thesis is supported by quotations from the Founding Fathers, Abraham
Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Adam Smith and (strangely enough) Ludwig von
Mises. The other book written by Buchanan, “A Republic, Not an Empire,”
gives a brief diplomatic history of the United States, showing the
foundations of America’s past foreign policies. In this book, Buchanan
advocates a return to the foreign policy of George Washington.
Whether you agree with Buchanan or not, he engaged his critics in a
civilized way. He used historical examples, impeccable authorities, and
closely reasoned arguments to make his case. Was there a thoughtful
response to his proposals? No, but half-baked outrage bubbled up in
response to his factual retelling of World War II. Once more, talk of
anti-Semitism spattered the unfortunate candidate.
Unable to get a fair hearing in his own party, Buchanan ran out of
patience. And why not? His ideas are logical and pro-American. In
fact, Buchanan’s ideas come from the Founding Fathers. But that didn’t
stop conservative pundits, like William Kristol, from dismissing
Buchanan’s work as a “motley collection of foreign policy and trade
Buchanan quit the Republican Party and joined the Reform Party.
Former Vice President Dan Quayle, a wise and decent man, said Buchanan’s
departure was a “wake-up call.” But nobody woke up. After Buchanan
joined the Reform Party the nasty jibes continued. William Kristol, for
example, called Buchanan a “vain demagogue” and a political bunny
Buchanan has since been criticized for linking up with a black
leftist radical, Lenora Fulani, who is also an important player in the
Reform Party. And this is where the plot thickens. When you are
treated badly, cast out and berated by those you once trusted as friends
and allies, where else can you turn? An outcast ends up with other
outcasts. That is what happens. But Buchanan is not alone in the outer
darkness. He has taken Republican voters with him. Political bunny
rabbits — like other rabbits — do have a tendency to multiply.
And while Buchanan might eat lunch with Lenora Fulani, does anyone
doubt for a moment that Gov. Bush (or Sen. McCain) would hesitate to
clink glasses with the butchers of Beijing?
Outrage is often selective.
The problem with Buchanan is not that he has made a pact with a
radical feminist. The problem is found in his foreign policy ideas.
Russia and China are not to be trusted. Despite what we’ve been told,
the Cold War continues. On Monday Russia’s acting president, Vladimir
Putin, said that all countries could be Russia’s allies if they accept a
multipolar world order. “But whoever offends us,” said Putin, “will last
no longer than three days.”
From Putin’s statement we should draw a simple conclusion. Taiwan,
South Korea and Kuwait are not the only places in danger of immediate
attack. More nuclear weapons are targeted on America than any other
country. Therefore, while it is true that Europe and Japan need us, we
also need them. There is danger in military and diplomatic isolation.
Buchanan’s critics might have laid out this type of argument.
Buchanan would then have been obliged to develop his argument more
fully. But we never got to that point because unfair personal attacks
are preferred to honest debate. I don’t understand a political party —
like the Republican Party — that alienates an important group of
voters. All you have to do is politely disagree with a candidate.
There is no reason to get nasty, to use words like “bigot” or “fascist”
to describe a man who is quoting from the Founding Fathers.
The interesting thing about Buchanan, which reveals his inner faith,
is the way he acknowledges underlying difficulties that other
politicians prefer to deny. Many of the problems in this country are
masked by prosperity. What would the dynamics be if the economy began
to contract? A politician who disdains the usual lies, who talks bravely
and realistically about America’s distress, might find favor under those
Would Buchanan make a good president? Thinking up ideas is not the
same as implementing them. But ideas are necessary, and we need a real
debate — not name-calling. The personal flaws of a man, whatever they
might be, do not invalidate his ideas.
We owe it to ourselves to be open-minded.