CONCORD, N.H. -- In 1968, Garry Wills described him in "Nixon Agonistes" and Pat Buchanan committed it to memory, would even recite it with a big laugh: "As usual he has a black overcoat on, with the collar wrapped up around his lumpy raw face -- a 40-year-old torpedo, hands on the iron in his pockets? No, he is 29, a writer, one of Nixon's fresh batch of intellectuals."
Now, at 53, Buchanan still looks like a 29-year-old trying to be taken for 40.
The lumpy rawness that was actually Chevy Chase baby fat back then remains in the guise of middle-aged slackness. Obsessed with nostalgia for the "clarity and absolutes" of his youth in the heyday of American empire, and after 20 years of a childless marriage, he has the boy's trick of looking mature by looking tough, the happy ferocity of a man you picture lying awake in his boyhood, staging arguments in his head and winning them all, until he tried them out on the Jesuits who educated him and the father who taught all of his nine children to be fighters. He is still the seminarian the bishop never fails to ask about, the elegant roughneck who has gone from mentor to mentor (Buckley, Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan) but has yet to understand he is not apt to become one himself.
The overcoat is blue now and the collar is down, but he carries his shoulders high as he walks across the parking lot of the Capital City Diner. He has the peppy wariness of a kid who is still astonished by the world's betrayals, rather than disappointed by them. Behind the face of a hit man is an acolyte. He doesn't lead the sullen phalanx of cameramen and reporters into the diner as much as he seems to be delivering them to someone inside.
"Welcome Back to the '50s," the sign by the door says. The diner is decked out with fat-tired old bicycles, bowling balls, 45 records and an antique Rowe jukebox that bubbles like a Christmas tree ornament. An old Saturday Evening Post cover shows kids skipping rope while inside is a story called "There's Murder in the Air in Moscow!" This is a place where the yearnings and bewilderments of both Buchanan and America come together -- one of the thousands of shrines to the 1950s that have sprung up across the United States. "More Than a Diner -- A Way of Life," says the motto on the backs of the ponytailed waitresses' sweat shirts.
"You didn't attract that much attention last time," says the hostess, referring to his last visit to the diner, before his poll numbers showed he had a shot at embarrassing George Bush on primary election day. Buchanan shakes hands with coffee drinkers.
"Good to see you," he says.
He has startlingly long, thin fingers for a man whose autobiography is a chronicle of endless fistfights, and his handshake has a fragile, afterthought quality that gives an encounter an intimate feeling. People who meet him remark on how gentle and soft-spoken he is.
"Moving backward, moving backward," the TV cameramen shout when Buchanan reverses direction.
Pat Buchanan, presidential candidate, aide in two White Houses, columnist and political talk show star, is here to talk to a member of the Concord Unemployed Support Group. There wasn't much in the way of either unemployed or support groups in the 1950s, but times have changed.
He heads for a back room where a meeting has been arranged with Ginny Rosner-Smith, 39, an unemployed computer programmer in a black pantsuit. She has her 2-year-old daughter, Bonnie, with her. She is not fazed by the lights, the microphones on booms -- ABC had cameras in her living room during the president's State of the Union address. Like a lot of people in New Hampshire, she has turned being a voter into a part-time career.
"How long was your husband out of work?" Buchanan asks.
"From May '89 to January '90," she says.
Now he works in shipping and receiving at a hospital, but they don't have enough money to cover the mortgage on their $200,000 house.
Buchanan listens -- he is good at listening -- and says he understands her plight. And then he's gone, the television lights are going out all over the diner. He has to catch a plane for a fund-raiser in New York.
Reporters gather around Rosner-Smith to ask what she hoped to get from Buchanan.
"No comment," she said.
Why was she looking for help from a man who promises to cut spending, dismantle government agencies and deregulate corporations?
"I'd rather not talk about it right now," she says. Money isn't the point, help isn't the point. Anger is the point. That's why she's here. "Bush refused to admit there were problems up here, that's what made us angry."
A terrible thing is happening and attention must be paid, as the mother says in "Death of a Salesman."
Paying attention is a noble calling in American politics, particularly on the right, with all its martyred finger-pointers and establishment-baiters, people destroyed or frustrated or shunted aside not because they were wrong but because they were right, the hagiography has it. Joe McCarthy, Douglas MacArthur, Pope Pius XII, Barry Goldwater: All of them were the heroes of the Buchanan dinner table when Pat was growing up in Chevy Chase in the 1950s, back when "the country was unified under Ike and they were playing 'Cattle Queen of Montana' at the movies and the Texaco attendants rushed out to clean your car." It was a time of "clarity and absolutes," and it is gone now, he says in the memoir of his boyhood, "Right From the Beginning."
It may be the strangest book ever written by a serious presidential candidate.
Instead of the usual log-cabin mythology seasoned with the occasional coy confession, this book is a cheerful recitation of boyhood thuggery and self-righteousness -- sucker-punching a classmate, throwing snowballs at the bus full of black women who cleaned the houses of his Chevy Chase neighbors, tormenting his senile grandmother with a fake radio broadcast about a relative being arrested, joining his brother Hank to put on masks and threaten a "neighborhood busybody who had called the police to hassle us," watching Hank pull down their 5-year-old brother's pants and beat him with a belt after discovering the boy had put rocks in the gas tank of Hank's car, feeding a Social Security check to a Doberman pinscher when he worked as a mailman, scorning the lower-middle-class people of Wheaton as "a nest of trolls," and the cops of the Eastern Shore as "boneheaded" farm boys, losing a student election at Georgetown University even though brother Hank probably stuffed the ballot box, kicking two cops, piling out of a car to fistfight and then leaving his date behind when the cops came, graduating from Columbia Journalism School with the word "violence" under his yearbook picture, getting a job as an editorial writer on the right-wing St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and writing home that he can "hit as hard as I like, which is like a license to kill."
And yet the people who know him well call him kind, sweet, good-humored. And he is, with a self-deprecating smile that crinkles his face into jolly triangles, like a Halloween pumpkin.
"It was a joke," he says, in a conversation one gray afternoon in a New Hampshire motel room. He is describing the time he pegged an apple at a hooker on I Street when he was a student at Gonzaga high school. "This is the way our world was. I'm not an angry man. I'm a very happy, contented human being."
"My friend Thomas Sowell has it exactly right," he says, referring to the black conservative economist. "You know his description of the Scotch-Irish? The Scotch-Irish were brawlers."
He says this as if, by virtue of his heritage, he has a right to be a brawler. Much attention gets paid to Buchanan's Catholicism, but it only goes back to his grandmother. He insists that his temperament comes more from Protestant ancestors who emigrated from Scotland, then Northern Ireland, "quick-tempered, hard-drinking ... constantly involved in feuds among themselves or with the Indians," he quotes Sowell as saying.
Their nastiness, and Buchanan's, is a cultural entitlement, not a vice, he seems to be saying. If some people can smile and be villains, the Scotch-Irish can frown and be heroes. They are people whose defeats go back for centuries as they were driven from one hardscrabble piece of land to another, and vilified as crackers, hillbillies and rednecks with "an abiding love for the Lost Cause," as Buchanan says of his grandfather, who was raised in Mississippi.
Hence Buchanan's admiration for Robert E. Lee, Douglas MacArthur, Joe McCarthy. Hence his ability to accept as normal America's exile from the Eden of the 1950s and the defeat of so much that they stood for.
He is not only accustomed to losing, he savors it. He believes in it as a principle of history.
"The conservative movement has always advanced from its defeats," he says, with the patience acquired from growing up in a world where people didn't understand his passion, his certitude, his violence, his determination. "Goldwater, the Panama Canal treaty, these were things that set the stage for advances. I can't think of a single conservative who was sorry about the Goldwater campaign. You see it as an advance, you create your own myths, your own memories."
The point is not to win but to fight, to give as good as you get.
One morning on a radio call-in show he says: "If the country wants to go in a liberal direction, if the country wants to go in the direction of George Mitchell and Tom Foley, it doesn't bother me as long as I've made the best case I can. What I can't stand are the back-room deals. They're all in on it, the insider game, the establishment game -- this is what we're running against."
Ah, the betrayals, the plots, the dark little treasons. In the world of the Scots-Irish outsider, where loyalty is paramount, betrayal always lurks.
Joe McCarthy's enemies "had resorted to planting spies on McCarthy's staff and blackening his reputation with whispered allegations of homosexuality."
Douglas MacArthur was brought down by Harry Truman "for speaking the truth about what needed to be done to win the war against the Chinese Communists in Korea!"
Buchanan's church was betrayed from the inside at the very moment of its 1950s triumph -- Pius XII, that "serene autocrat" died and soon John XXIII would lead the church through the reforms of Vatican II, to become the "First Church of Christ, Socialist."
In 1964, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat failed to endorse Barry Goldwater, and Buchanan, who wrote editorials there after Columbia, blamed a secret deal with Lyndon Johnson.
The Vietnam War was "lost in Washington, D.C."
In Watergate, "whether Nixon was wrong was not the relevant issue. ... His friends had a duty to be there."
For a moment, it looked as if Buchanan's people -- the Scots-Irish patriot populist conservatives -- had triumphed at last with the election of Ronald Reagan, whom they saw as one of their own, but then in 1986, with the Iran-contra affair, Buchanan writes, "we saw again the same old coalition forming up to expose, humiliate, and bring low the latest of its antagonists."
And now he is dogged by charges that he sees betrayal lurking in that most ancient of Western civilization's scapegoats, the Jews. He has referred to "caustic, cutting cracks about my church and popes from both Israel and its amen corner in the United States." He has called the charges of antisemitism by New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal a "contract hit" ordered by the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League.
He tells New Hampshirites about campaign attacks on him. Bush, he says, "has brought all these people in to say these things about me, his old friend."
He laughs. Betrayal may be a sin to him, but it is the normal order of things in his world.
His worldview plays well with New Hampshirites who have watched their unemployment more than triple since the last election, who have always been suspicious of government, who have never been able to hang onto whatever moments of prosperity they've had. He has a way of smiling and frowning at the same time that persuades people he is their co-conspirator too, a look of gently amazed discovery. But there's a distance. He says "yeah" a little too much when he listens, and sometimes his lips move as if he's saying people's words for them.
He likes to say he is in Washington but not of it, and the same is true of the campaign trail. You can still hear Nixon's young intellectual when Buchanan uses language like "the principle of subsidiarity," "proximate salvation," "seriatim" or "nomenklatura."
He is still caught between hit man and seminarian, between tough guy and Chevy Chase, redneck and the establishmentarian who has worked in three White Houses. If he thought the people of Wheaton were trolls and people on the Eastern Shore were boneheads, what does he think of the folks sitting on the folding chairs in Center Ossipee?
When he enters the town hall, a man tries to give him an ax handle, the country cudgel that became political symbol when Lester Maddox, a segregationist governor of Georgia, sold ax handles as souvenirs at his restaurant.
After Buchanan's speech, the man with the ax handle stands up: "I came out of the woodshed to come here today," he says. "I wanted to tell you that these Republicans thank you for the chance to have faith."
"What's that thing you're holding there?" Buchanan asks.
"An ax handle," says the man, a retired college professor named Bob Gillis.
Is it possible that Buchanan has never seen one before?
Later, somebody asks Gillis if he thinks Buchanan is an angry man.
Gillis says: "Not half as angry as I am."