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CAMPAIGN ’96: THE CASE AGAINST BUCHANAN

11 minute read
Richard Lacayo

IN POLITICS, A SURE SIGN OF a serious candidacy is when the candidate finds himself at the bottom of a political pile-on. That’s how you can tell that Pat Buchanan is serious. Within a day after he unhinged the party establishment by winning the New Hampshire primary, his fellow Republicans started treating him as if he were a proposal to increase the capital-gains tax. On ABC’s PrimeTime Live, General Colin Powell said Buchanan gives out “messages of intolerance.” Sam Donaldson asked Powell whether he could vote for Buchanan for President if he were the Republican nominee. The general was crisp and clear: “No.”

In New York City, Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called Buchanan’s primary victory “frightening” and raised the question of his attitude toward Jews. But it was Bob Dole who summed up the charge against Buchanan in a few words. The morning after New Hampshire, he said the G.O.P. primary race was now a contest between “the mainstream and the extreme.” Later, under pressure from Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition, Dole promised to tone down his attacks on Buchanan as an extremist. Since then, he hasn’t toned them down by much.

From the start, Buchanan has been expecting his primary-season opponents to gang up on him. But the scale and intensity of the not-so-friendly fire have been more than he counted on. “I have lost an enormous amount of respect for some of the leaders of our party,” complained his sister and campaign chairman Bay. Swinging through South Dakota, Buchanan warned his fellow Republicans to hold their tongues. “Calm down; relax,” he pleaded. “Don’t say things you might regret later.” Earlier that day he delivered the same message on the Today show. “For heaven’s sake, stop the panicky name calling.”

Funny he should put it that way. One reason that Buchanan is so susceptible now to charges of extremism is that name calling has been his lifelong stock-in-trade. This is a man who can make Switzerland sound like Transylvania and turn GATT into another kind of four-letter word. Among TV talk-show conservatives, Buchanan emerged as the foremost belligerent power because when he talks, no niceties are observed. Race and immigration? “If we had to take a million immigrants in, say, Zulus, next year, or Englishmen, and put them in Virginia, what group would be easier to assimilate?” (1991) Women? “Simply not endowed by nature with the same measures of single-minded ambition and the will to succeed.” (1983) Gays? “Have declared war on nature.” (1983)

Likewise with his campaign stump speech, which has the devilish thrust that Dole’s so manifestly lacks. Not until you hear Buchanan go ballistic on immigration or trade can you fully grasp what the word “earshot” means. He has a different term for it: “going iambic,” marshaling his punch lines into warrior poetry. “They are honed,” he told TIME. “You work on it and you work on it and then you get the cheer line.”

Buchanan’s many friends in Washington and the media say he’s a sweetheart. To account for the occasional bloodlust in his rhetoric, some of them offer the defense of poetic license. Rhetorical overkill is a professional hazard of Washington punditry, the argument goes, especially the twist-and-shout kind that Buchanan mastered on TV. To be heard above the noise on Crossfire, he has to talk tougher than he is. Buchanan’s brother James says that’s what explains the “Zulus” remark. “He was speaking off the top of his head. He didn’t call them ‘jungle bunnies’ or something like that.”

That’s a defense that can end up sounding like “I’m not a bigot, but I play one on TV.” If Buchanan has spent a lifetime as a polemicist, however, he’s been a nationally prominent one, meaning someone whose most indigestible sentiments have still mostly stopped short of, well, extremism. But how short? The question becomes more than academic now that he is a serious presidential contender. When he derides “the worship of democracy” or calls Martin Luther King “immoral, evil and a demagogue,” is Buchanan just pushing the edge of the envelope, or is he tearing it to shreds?

Buchanan’s reputation as an unblushing hard-liner on just about everything dates back to his days as a Nixon White House aide. “He’s the reverse of most politicians, who are intensely political with trimmings of ideology,” says Nixon’s White House special consultant Leonard Garment. “He’s intensely ideological with a trimming of politics.” When Buchanan returned to the White House in 1985 as director of communications for Ronald Reagan, he was the same, only more so. “I hadn’t encountered anyone like Pat since I had to deal with the White Citizens’ Councils in my days as a Mississippi newspaper editor,” recalls Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes in his memoir Speaking Out. “That’s not to say that Pat was a racist, just that he was so blindly reactionary.” Writes former Vice President Dan Quayle in his book Standing Firm: “There’s a firm line between the political cutting edge and what is objectionable. And all too often, Pat crossed it.”

That’s the gist of the argument when it comes to Buchanan and anti-Semitism. As he pointed out last week, some of his best friends are Jewish. And Buchanan has condemned anti-Semitism, once comparing it to pornography. Yet there are times when he’s not averse to showing some cleavage, enough to lead William F. Buckley Jr., the paterfamilias of modern conservatism, to conclude four years ago that “it is impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge [of anti-Semitism].”

To put it another way, if you were a happily acknowledged anti-Semite, you might not have a record so different from Buchanan’s accumulated words and positions. As New York’s Mayor Giuliani last week complained, Buchanan was an ardent defender of Karl Linnas, the convicted Nazi war criminal, even trying to stop his 1987 deportation from New York to the Soviet Union. His tireless defense of accused Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk was partly justified. There’s substantial evidence that Demjanjuk was not the Butcher of Treblinka he was accused of being in an Israeli court. But he was indisputably a camp guard. Even so, Buchanan could not resist comparing him with Alfred Dreyfus, the French army officer who was entirely innocent of the charges of treason brought against him by an anti-Semitic French officer corps at the turn of the century. And sometimes words speak louder than actions. During the lead-up to the Gulf War, which he opposed, he called Congress “Israeli-occupied territory.” The only people seeking war, he said, were in the government of Israel and “its amen corner in the Congress.”

Then there’s the Holocaust. In a 1990 newspaper column, Buchanan didn’t hesitate to say that people who survived the Nazi death camps suffer from “group fantasies of martyrdom.” He even tried his hand at Holocaust revisionism, arguing that diesel-engine exhaust could not have killed so many Jews at Treblinka. Hitler? A mass murderer, Buchanan admits in a 1977 piece, but a man of “great courage” and “a soldier’s soldier.” If it matters to you that you don’t leave the impression that you are carrying a torch for the Fuhrer, that’s a judgment you frame in such a way as to leave no doubt about your feelings. And if it doesn’t matter to you? With all that as prelude, it may no longer be necessary for Buchanan to practice an explicit anti-Semitism. The name game is enough. Let him cite some act of economic villainy–trade deals, for instance, or the effort to push the Mexican bailout through Congress–and he’s apt to put a Jewish name at the scene of the crime. His favorites are Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, the investment-banking firm of Goldman, Sachs and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Buchanan insists he’s not sending out an anti-Semitic signal. Somehow anti-Semites are hearing it anyway. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the vaudeville-ready Russian presidential contender, was moved to send Buchanan fraternal greetings last week and to suggest that they could cooperate to deport Jews from both the U.S. and Russia. Buchanan, appalled, fired back his refusal.

Buchanan on race? In 1970 Richard Nixon was weighing the wisdom of enforcing court orders that required the desegregation of Southern public schools, by busing if necessary. A lot of people didn’t like the idea. Buchanan was one. As he told Garment, he was working on a speech for Vice President Spiro Agnew that would “tear the scab off the issue of race in this country.” In a White House memo, Buchanan argued that “the ship of integration is going down; it is not our ship; it belongs to national liberalism; and we ought not to be aboard.” He left the Ford Administration when he didn’t get a post he had been hoping for: U.S. ambassador to South Africa.

Again, the signal that Buchanan swears he isn’t sending is being heard by the people he swears he’s not signaling. Earlier this year, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke threw his support behind Buchanan, an endorsement the campaign neither acknowledged nor rejected outright. In suburban New Orleans last month the candidate had to squirm and dodge to avoid being embraced by Duke in front of the cameras. Last week Phil Gramm accused Buchanan’s campaign of scoring his Louisiana caucus victory thanks to followers of Duke. The New York Times reported a Duke connection to three of Buchanan’s Louisiana delegates, including Vincent Bruno, an adviser from Duke’s 1991 runoff for Louisiana Governor. One day later the Buchanan organization in South Carolina had to purge another Duke supporter. William Carter, a member of the state campaign steering committee, had been state chairman for Duke’s 1992 presidential bid.

Buchanan struck back fast from the campaign trail in Arizona. “We don’t want anybody in our campaign who’s associated with any organization today that is racist or has any ties to these groups,” he said. Duke said he understood that Buchanan could not be seen to embrace him too closely. “I wasn’t going to try to embarrass him,” Duke told the Times. “I’ve talked to him before. I’ve been on his show, and we’ve talked privately.”

In this context, Buchanan’s positions on immigration–the five-year moratorium on legal entries, the fence at the border with Mexico–become harder to examine as proposals because they look so suspiciously like extensions of a whites-vs.-the-world mentality.

Buchanan’s critics have also begun to hear in his speeches code-worded appeals to the armed-militia movement. Much of his agenda–the opposition to immigration, affirmative action and gun control, the hostility toward international organizations–would be music to their ears in any case. Is Buchanan strumming a few notes just for them? In his stump speeches in the Dakotas, he flourished their catch phrase, “the new world order,” and referred more than once to the Revolutionary War-era Battle of Lexington. That ought to qualify as an innocuous appeal to patriotic spirit, if Lexington hadn’t taken on a special significance around the militia campfires and Websites. A first encounter between government power and an armed American citizenry, it took place on the red-letter day of the militia calendar–April 19, the date the Branch Davidian compound burned in Waco, Texas, and two years after that, the Oklahoma City bombing.

Buchanan was also attacked last week by the presumptive representatives of the working class, to whom his anticorporate message is supposed to appeal. At the winter conclave of organized labor in Bal Harbour, Florida, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said Buchanan was talking up the grievances of working people while backing the agenda of corporate America on the minimum wage, workplace-safety issues and laws to forbid the use of replacement workers during strikes. “Buchanan is a racist, he’s anti-Semitic, he bashes women’s rights along with labor and immigrants, and he’s a believer in supply-side economics,” said Sweeney. “We are none of those things.”

“We are none of those things” is something like what Buchanan says to nearly every charge that’s thrown against him. What contradicts him, however, is much of what he’s said in the past. He also still insists he’s a Republican, though one who sounds like he’s having second thoughts.

In Arizona last week he reminded his fellow Republicans that he’s always supported the G.O.P. nominee. “But I tell you, the name calling is making it very difficult for my people and my movement to support someone who’s called me a lot of names.” That’s the problem so many other people have with him.

–Reported by Jeffrey H. Birnbaum/Manchester, Nina Burleigh with Buchanan and Mark Thompson/Washington

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