MSNBC’s recent decision to suspend and then fire Pat Buchananfelt rather anticlimactic. Phil Griffin, the network’s president, told reporters that Buchanan was in trouble for offensive ideas expressed in his latest book, “Suicide of a Superpower.” But nothing contained therein is any different from what Buchanan has written in several other books published over the past decade or from what he said routinely on MSNBC throughout the same period.
Did the scales fall from the network’s eyes one morning, revealing Buchanan’s obsession with the ethnic composition of the United States and his belief that a neocon cabal with divided loyalties manipulates U.S. foreign policy to serve Israel? Did it just uncover his belligerent attitudes toward racial, religious and sexual minorities and his altogether more apologetic feelings toward historical enemies of America’s federal government, from the Southern Confederacy to Nazi Germany?
More likely, Griffin succumbed to pressure from outside groups interested in the suppression of political speech with which they disagree. Here, too, Buchanan’s life has been remarkably consistent: He tends to bring out the worst in people.
Still, the reader of Timothy Stanley’s biography, “The Crusader,” cannot help being impressed by the durability of Buchanan’s career. There is a dual aspect to his public life that is particularly striking. A communications legend whose innovations in punditry, for better or worse, will be mimicked long after he departs from the scene, Buchanan will forever be known for his reactionary, divisive and conspiratorial politics. Distinguishing Buchanan’s style from his substance allows one to appreciate both the man’s talents and the capacity of American democracy to resist demagoguery, scapegoating and isolation.
Buchanan was born on Nov. 2, 1938, to a large Irish Catholic family in Georgetown. His rhetorical skills are the product of his upbringing. Any dinner table seating two parents and nine children will be a site of heated debate. Arguments were often settled outdoors. The seven Buchanan boys were known throughout the neighborhood as hard-drinking wild men who enjoyed a good brawl. Pat Buchanan’s cantankerous nature was supplemented by a sharp intellect enamored of history, literature and politics. Like many teenagers, he lacked direction. Then he met Richard Nixon.
The then-vice president golfed at Burning Tree Club in suburban Maryland, where Buchanan worked one summer as a caddy. The high-schooler was once selected to accompany Nixon on the course. Buchanan was ecstatic. He and his Republican family had long admired the vice president; now they were together. At one point that day, Nixon and Buchanan stood urinating side by side onto the grass — the most memorable and representative image in Stanley’s book.
After graduating from Georgetown, earning a journalism degree at Columbia and working briefly for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Buchanan caddied for Nixon again, becoming his press aide, speechwriter and liaison to conservatives in December 1964. The connection was electric.
Nixon was never as conservative as liberals believe, but he understood the importance of protecting his right flank. Buchanan counseled him not to forget the “silent majority” of white working-class Americans who were unsettled by the revolutionary fervor of the late ’60s and early ’70s. He helped originate the strategy of using Vice President Spiro Agnew to attack the new class of liberal white professionals who wrote the nation’s newspapers and produced its television news. The payoff was Nixon’s reelection in 1972, when he won every state but Massachusetts and 61 percent of the popular vote.
Nemesis arrived in the form of the Watergate break-in and coverup. Buchanan was not implicated in Watergate, but the president’s resignation in August 1974 left him without a job. He asked Gerald Ford to name him ambassador to apartheid South Africa. Ford refused.
It was in electronic journalism that Buchanan would have the greatest influence. In 1977, he was invited to co-host a D.C. area radio show called “Confrontation.” He and a liberal counterpart spent hours verbally ripping each other apart. The program was such a hit that it spawned a local television version, which moved to CNN in 1982 and was rechristened “Crossfire.”
Together with the syndicated “McLaughlin Group,” which also premiered in 1982 and featured Buchanan as a frequent guest, “Crossfire” established a template for televised political commentary that has lasted 30 years. You can decide for yourself whether that is something to be proud of.
The two years Buchanan spent as Ronald Reagan’s communications director between 1985 and ’87 were his only other stint in government. Even as a Reagan adviser, however, he was sailing to the political frontier, where the eccentric and offbeat turn into the ugly fringe. By 1991, when George H.W. Bush warred with Saddam Hussein and global communism was no longer the threat that held various factions of conservatives together, Buchanan was totally at odds with the Republican mainstream.
He was against overseas intervention, free trade, immigration and much else. His frequent criticism of Israel and prominent American Jews prompted William F. Buckley Jr. to examine Buchanan’s record for signs of anti-Semitism. Buckley was unable to acquit him of the charge. As a commentator, Buchanan had mild words for Hitler beginning in the newspaper columns he wrote in the 1970s; he took up the “cause” of Nazi war criminals John Demjanjuk and Karl Linnas; he aggressively defended Reagan’s decision to visit the German war cemetery at Bitburg; and he blamed America’s wars with Iraq on Israel and the pundits who he said served as the Israeli Defense Ministry’s “ ‘Amen’ corner in the United States.” Such comments served as an indictment against Buchanan.
So did the company he kept. In each of his three campaigns for the presidency, two as a Republican and one as a Reform Party candidate, Buchanan’s supporters included writers such as anti-Semite Joe Sobran and miscegenation-obsessive Sam Francis, actor Mel Gibson, activists associated with the Holocaust-denying Institute for Historical Review, numerous black-helicopter spotters, and others hot on the trail of the international banking conspiracy. Such was the well from which Buchanan drew strength.
Republicans had no idea what to do about it. Buchanan could not win the GOP nomination — or even come close — but the ferocity of his oratory and the intensity of his support spooked the George H.W. Bush campaign into giving him a prime-time speaking slot at the party’s 1992 national convention. The result was Buchanan’s “religious war” speech on divisions in American culture, which may have made for great political theater but was justifiably repellent to most people.
In his bid for the 1996 presidential nomination, Buchanan collected more votes than he did in 1992 and won the New Hampshire primary, but the nominee, Robert Dole, denied him the opportunity to speak at the convention.
What one realizes after reading Stanley’s book is that the vocal minority that subscribes to Buchananism is not to be feared, but pitied. They stand so far from the center of American life that it is almost not worth worrying about them. The media may magnify their importance, but that is hardly a reason to take them seriously. When Buchanan left the GOP for good in 1999, hardly anyone noticed or cared.
This biography ends with a long, intricate discussion of Buchanan’s alliance with Lenora Fulani, a Marxist crank, and his pathetic nadir at the 2000 Reform Party convention, where he struggled for the party’s irrelevant presidential nomination with Flyin’ John Hagelin, the founder of the Natural Law Party and a proponent of transcendental meditation. The farcical debauch that followed, costing $2.5 million in taxpayer dollars, is as good an argument against public financing of campaigns as one is likely to find. In the end, Buchanan won four-tenths of 1 percent of the nationwide vote.
The Buchananite persuasion may sell enough books to keep its namesake comfortable, and it may affect conservatism on the margins; isolationism and xenophobia may be recurrent themes in American political discourse. But in the end, Buchananism is a loser, both substantively and politically. It is a testament to the healthy, free-wheeling dynamism of American democracy that Buchanan can speak his mind and then lose fairly, overwhelmingly and definitively. There was never any need for MSNBC to marginalize Buchanan. He did that to himself.
The Life and Tumultuous Times
of Pat Buchanan
By Timothy Stanley
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s. 455 pp. $27.99