The line on Pat Buchanan has always been this: He might be slightly cracked -- for example, writing in his latest book that Hitler's invasion of France was defensive ("to secure his rear") or that Nazi Germany was no threat to the United States after 1940 -- but at least he is principled: He knows what he believes and says it without fear or equivocation.

After Buchanan's recent performance auditioning for the Reform Party presidential nomination, however, it is clear that his reputation for principle is an elaborate fraud.

For example, in a column last November headlined "The Dispossession of Christian Americans," Buchanan is agitated about figures showing that half of Harvard students are Asian or Jewish. He decries "a Harvard student body where non-Jewish whites -- 75 percent of the U.S. population -- get just 25 percent of the slots. Talk about underrepresentation! Now we know who really gets the shaft at Harvard -- white Christians."

This is, of course, cracked. (The implication that Asians and Jews have had 50 percent of the spots set aside for them to the exclusion of white ethnics is nutty.) But when he thunders that "a liberal elite is salving its social conscience by robbing America's white middle class of its birthright, and handing it over to minorities," he at least seems full of passionate intensity.

So when Gloria Borger asked him about this on "Face the Nation" -- "You wrote in that column that they -- Ivy League colleges -- should `look more like America,' as you put it, by reserving 75 percent of their slots for, quote, `non-Jewish whites' " -- we might have expected a rigorous defense.

Instead, Buchanan first tried denial. "Oh, I don't think I wrote that."

When Borger shot back, "You did write that. I'm quoting," Buchanan took a dive, protesting now that he'd been speaking "tongue in cheek."

Tongue in cheek? Buchanan wrote not one but two columns denouncing the Ivy League for "denying its first-class tickets to the upper crust of society" to "Euro-Americans." There is not a hint of irony in either piece. Moreover, the second (Jan. 1, 1999) refers explicitly to the fuss kicked up by the first (Nov. 27, 1998): "When I suggested that it might be time for Euro-Americans to demand affirmative action, the usual suspects answered with the usual invective." The second column is the time to reveal it was all in jest, no?

No. If anything, Buchanan laid it on thicker in the follow-up, righteously declaring, "This social and moral injustice needs airing."

And, by God, airing injustice is what Pat does. Right?

Right. Until he's called on it on national TV. Then he goes impish and squishy and claims that he is an ironist.

Pat Buchanan is a lot of things. But ironist he is not.

He is, for starters, a both-sides-of-the-mouth politician. His technique is to convey raw prejudice to his followers, who understand his code, then go on respectable media, smile and pretend he never meant it. His trademark is the wink. The wink is interpreted by his friends in mainstream media as "I'm fooling the mob." It is understood by the mob as "I'm fooling the pointy-heads."

An ironist he is not. But a hypocrite he is. He savages the Republican Party for being insufficiently committed to the unborn, then gets ready to defect to a party that is entirely and publicly indifferent to abortion -- and, to boot, to the other great social issues Buchanan claims are so near his bosom, such as gay rights.

Howard Phillips's Constitution Party shares not just Buchanan's foreign and economic policies but his views on abortion, religion and the rest. Why then is Buchanan courting the Reform Party? Because the Constitution Party is not up for $13 million in free federal money.

So off to dance with Ross Perot -- and to lunch with Lenora Fulani, self-described (former?) "militant black nationalist . . . Marxist and social therapist," now a power in the Reform Party. Buchanan's association with Fulani, once head of the "black-led, woman-led, multiracial and pro-gay" New Alliance Party, is beyond parody. Fulani is so far out on the loony left that she once called Michael Dukakis a "white supremacist candidate." (She ought to read Pat's columns.)

In April 1987, she went to Libya to join a rally marking the first anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Libya. That bombing was the work of Ronald Reagan, Buchanan's hero and boss. Pat was White House director of communications at the time of the attack. Fulani called it a "terrorist bombing."

And we thought that red-brown alliances were a specialty of the Russians. Who knows? Maybe Buchanan now thinks the bombing was a big mistake. Or just tongue in cheek.