I would give the Patrick J. Buchanan tremor a 2.4 on the Washington Richter scale, enough to rattle the china, but not to kill the cat. The disturbance concerns whether Buchanan, an undeviating and combative conservative who has relatively recently become an important White House aide, is leading the president into unwise and unsafe political places, doing damage rather than service to his boss. This is the week to discuss the subject, if we are ever going to, not just because it has been on people's minds in the capital, but also because fusses of this kind inevitably generate a call for silence within about 10 days. It is said at the end of 10 days that the conflict is only of interest to a small group of people in Washington, that the country isn't concerned and so it should be dropped.
I have always thought this unfortunate, as such fights are one of the few truly diverting entertainments we produce in this city, and it seems to me that a population outside Washington that will pay money to watch things like professional football and mud wrestling would be quite fascinated too. The reason I ascribe such a low Richter-scale rating to this dispute is not that I don't think such things are worth attention, but rather that this one (1)was pretty much foreordained by the Washington script and (2)is only a small part of a great deal of pushing and shoving that has been going on within the Reagan administration.
The foreordained quality of the fight about Buchanan proceeds from certain truths that have been with us for millennia, the Bible and the Iliad being among the places where you will learn of people's anxieties about counselors who exercise undue and unwholesome influence over the poor misguided leader. Reagan may be no Zeus, but his choice of advisers to listen to has inspired some of the same doubts among his constituents that Zeus's did. The assumption of the manipulable leader has been built into our culture and our literature, appearing often as a joke. The slave or servant who is smarter than his master and gets him to do all manner of crazy things appears from earliest days. Advisers from Cardinal Wolsey to Iago to Rasputin to Harry Hopkins have found their place as demons. Oddly, when a president's supporters start to carry on about the undue and malign influence of some adviser they rarely seem to be troubled by the implication -- namely that their leader is a patsy, a fool.
Our conflicts on this count generally swing back and forth between two kinds of distressed supporters. One sees a pragmatic devil, the other an ideological one. Each believes said devil is destroying a president's chance of doing what he should. The pragmatic devils are the ones who come in after a campaign and, according to those who determine to oust them, prevail upon and even mislead the president into abandoning his true self -- all those extremes and impractical things he vowed he would do, once elected. We've just been through a prolonged period of such complaint. James Baker, Michael Deaver and others around Reagan in his first term were regularly and fiercely attacked from within the Reagan constituency as having led the leader astray.
Buchanan, no compromiser or Mr. Nice Guy, is the other side. Now come the complaints that he is propelling the White House into hard-line, unaccommodating positions that will lose the president friends and do harm to government policy. The conservatives, who have raised self-pity to new levels, smell a rat. They cry out that this is just like the attack on Richard Allen, William Clark, James Watt and others of their disposition, that poor Pat is about to be destroyed by the press pack and so forth. I rather doubt he is. It seems to me that in all of this, no matter whether it is the pragmatic ones or the ideological ones who are coming under attack, what is always left out is the fact that our presidents tend to be the key players. They take on people for reasons rarely clear to the rest of us, develop admirations that some of us think bizarre, enjoy seeing their advisers tear each other's hair out and take only as much advice as they feel like. Advisers tend to become lightning rods for criticism that belongs elsewhere.
I don't want to get too mystical about it, but it does seem to me that the realm of presidential advising is governed or at least affected by considerations that just can't be reduced to the question of ideology versus pragmatism. Presidents have liked to have around and even been well served by people whose qualifications didn't show up on paper, but existed in some psychological relationship with the boss. They have also been forced to give up counselors -- Sherman Adams, Walter Jenkins, Bert Lance -- who could ot continue in office owing to scandals that engulfed them, but whose continued advice would probably have been beneficial to the presidents they left. Buchanan's style of argument and thought as revealed over the years in his journalism and his earlier White House service strike me as rather strident for the White House. But what Reagan wants and derives from his work there is whole other matter.
There has been much talk about how this is a press gang-up on Buchanan. In fact what is being seen is a new escalation of the war within the Reagan administration between the fighter pilots and the diplomats, the ones who want to confront the enemy head-on (be he Democrat, Sandinista or reporter) and those who want to get their way by dealing. Jimmy Carter's government brought open warfare within an administration to places it had not been for a long time: Brzezinski versus Vance, Califano versus Jordan -- it was explicit, undisguised, rough. The Reaganites have gone them several better. The internal fighting is even more intense and visible. Ronald Reagan may be many things, but I do not believe he can be president in this city and not know that it is going on.
I don't think Buchanan is going to "mellow." One of his distinctions is that over many years in Washington he has resisted becoming a go-along, beltway kind of guy. And I don't think Reagan is going to fire him -- fire either Buchanan or the people in his government who are savaging Buchanan. He let comparable struggles go on through his first term. They didn't seem to hurt him. I don't think he's being maneuvered or deceived. I think he doesn't mind it this way. Maybe he figures it works.