Texas Gov. George W. Bush initially planned to attack Patrick J. Buchanan for the views he presents on World War II in his new book, as several other Republican presidential contenders did, campaign sources said yesterday. But Bush backed away, apparently worried that he would alienate the conservative wing of the GOP.
That decision was a significant boost to Buchanan's strategy for dealing with the controversy surrounding his book--which is to fight his critics on every front until they back off or give up.
Four days ago, Bush had planned to denounce Buchanan, according to sources in his campaign. Arizona Sen. John McCain was the first GOP contender to attack Buchanan, even urging party leaders to force Buchanan, who is considering running for the Reform Party nomination, out of the Republican Party. The next day, Elizabeth Dole and Steve Forbes's campaign manager joined in the criticism. Bush sources said he held off because he wanted public attention focused on a major military policy speech he gave Thursday at the Citadel in South Carolina.
In "A Republic, Not an Empire," Buchanan argues that Nazi Germany was not a threat to the United States after 1940, and that President Franklin D. Roosevelt deceived Americans on the need to enter the conflict. In the book, Buchanan also wrote, "After World War II, Jewish influence over foreign policy became almost an obsession with American leaders."
Bush aides said on Thursday that the Texas governor considers such views far outside the mainstream of American politics and completely unacceptable as part of a public debate. They advised reporters to expect a strong statement in the near future.
But, on Friday, when Bush met with reporters and editors of the Associated Press, he muted his criticism of Buchanan, only saying that he disagreed with his view about the war and stressing, instead, his desire to keep the conservative commentator in the party.
Most polls suggest Buchanan as the Reform Party nominee could cost Bush at least 4 percentage points in the general election.
"It's politics. I don't want Pat Buchanan to leave the party. I think it's important, should I be the nominee, to unite the Republican Party. I'm going to need every vote I can get among Republicans to win the election," Bush told the AP.
McCain sharply criticized Bush's response. "By continuing to appease Buchanan, several of our candidates appear to have put politics ahead of our party's principles," McCain said in a statement yesterday. "Like Governor Bush, I want to see a united Republican Party. But no political campaign is worth sacrificing our principle."
Mindy Tucker, a Bush campaign spokeswoman, disputed charges that Bush had backed away from a decision to criticize Buchanan. "I can't speak to unnamed sources," she said, adding that "the governor was pretty consistent all week, saying he disagrees with Pat Buchanan on World War II."
In an interview on Friday, before publication of Bush's remarks, Buchanan described his approach to dealing with the furor over his book. The worst thing he could do, he said, would be to come forward "and say 'Woe is me, I made a mistake and I'm sorry.' Then you have lost."
Instead, Buchanan said, "You keep going out there. If you stay with it, and . . . keep going back at 'em, and back at 'em, and let them keep hitting you and go back at them, and then it sort of fades away and you are standing there smiling. They say, 'That guy won the fight.' And that is what the people see."