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People Top 5
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- August 29, 1988
- Vol. 30
- No. 9
From Street Corner to White House, He's the Roaring Lion of the Far Right, but Privately He's a Pussycat
Patrick Buchanan, 49—right-hand man to Presidents, syndicated conservative columnist, American success story supreme—does not know the time of day. He explains that his watch used to crash into the typewriter when he furiously banged out tough talk as Richard Nixon's speechwriter, so when he happened to lose it in 1969 he never got another. But one suspects he may actually have banished it as the messenger of bad tidings, for time itself is at the top of Buchanan's enemies list: In his opinion, it has brought not progress but degeneration and decay to America. Where once he saw the "glorious and militarily invincible Republic" of his youth, he now sees a festering swamp of drugs, crime, pornography and perversion that would send the denizens of Sodom and Gomorrah pounding for the exits.
Not for him the rapier wit of such country-club conservatives as William Buckley and George Will. He prefers sledgehammer prose, generously applied. In the world according to Buchanan, "civil rights has become a code word for reverse racism"; the ACLU fights for "the de-Christianization of the United States"; the Democratic Party is "collaborating" with Communists in Nicaragua, and "sodomites" are "the perpetrators of this [AIDS] epidemic." The author of these impolitic remarks has risen to the very pinnacle of politics, winning White House jobs in two Republican administrations. He has made himself the premier spokesman for the street-corner conservatives who rumble on the right.
Such views are hardly unique to Buchanan, and to understand them, one must look at the crucible in which they were formed—in Buchanan's case, a middle-class Catholic household in 1940s and '50s Washington, D.C. In his recent autobiography, Right from the Beginning, Buchanan advances the, to him, self-evident thesis that the way things were then is the way they should be: God in His heaven and folks in their place. Predictably, liberals have little use for his life story (Buchanan brings "to American politics the same tender reasonableness the Ayatollah brought to Iran," wrote James Fallows in the Washington Monthly), while conservatives adore it ("I read it aloud to my children," says Conservative Caucus chairman Howard Phillips).
Buchanan fondly remembers his formative years, when he was the third of nine children in a home his father, William, ran as a "benevolent dictatorship." For once, Buchanan may be using understatement. To impress upon his seven sons the meaning of damnation, pater Buchanan would hold their hands over a burning match and say, "See how that feels; now imagine that for all eternity." Discipline was enforced with a black leather belt. The father—mother Catherine was a gentler, apparently lesser, influence—also required each of his boys to hit a punching bag 400 blows, four times a week "in the prayerful hope one of his sons would be challenged to a neighborhood fight," according to Buchanan. When, in the first grade, Patrick smashed the eye-glasses and bloodied the nose of "a fat, bespectacled kid" who'd "bullied" him, Pop was "elated," he recalls.
The lesson stuck. Just this month, in a column slamming U.S. loans to "Third World deadbeats," Buchanan wrote, "The West is the rich, fat, frightened boy on the brutal playground of the world, making 'loans' to all the bullies so they won't beat him up."
What Buchanan views as manly virtue might be construed by some as generalized hostility. When he got a vacation job in college delivering mail, he used to enjoy feeding people's Social Security checks to their dogs. He recalls with evident pride the many good, clean, fun brawls he waded into as a youth, culminating in a duke-out with two Washington cops who had the temerity to pull over his car. Georgetown University, not amused, suspended him for a year.
When he returned to school, a concerned Jesuit teacher asked him, "What is the matter with you? Why are you so angry?"
"I don't know," he replied.
Asked now whether, possibly, he might have been a bit angry that his dad had whipped him with a belt, Buchanan says, "I didn't know anybody that didn't get hit with a belt." He laughs heartily, as he often does at his own repartee. "It's not something I've ever reflected on."
During his college year off, which he spent working at his dad's accounting firm, he settled on a career plan: He would go into journalism, which might "provide a legitimate outlet for my combative proclivities." (An obvious alternative was foreclosed when he flunked his draft physical because of arthritis.) After graduating from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, he embarked on his career as a political pugilist at the conservative St. Louis Globe-Democrat (now defunct), where he says he became, at 23, the youngest editorial writer on a major paper in America. When some liberal offended the publisher, he'd instruct Buchanan, "Pat, I want you to cut this bastard from rectum to belly button." It was a task the editorialist relished, and he excelled at it. But Buchanan's personal theme song in the '50s had been Fats Domino's "I'm Gonna Be a Wheel Someday," and editorial writing lacked one thing: "There were no bylines; nobody knew my name." So after three years of anonymous labor, he hatched a plan. He contrived to meet Richard Nixon at a reception in the winter of 1965. Fortified by a couple of scotches, he urged him to 1) run for President and 2) hire Patrick Buchanan as an aide. Nixon soon took him up on both suggestions, and for the next nine years Buchanan worked as, among other things, special assistant and speech writer for the "Old Man," as he called him.
In Nixon's office in 1967, Buchanan met secretarial assistant Shelley Scarney. Their compatibility went beyond politics, and they married four years later. (They have no children.) Though he is the very author of the phrase "political hardball," she says the private Patrick would never throw at your head. "He's a very happy person, easy to get along with, great sense of humor. He's not personally confrontational."
Soon after Nixon resigned over Watergate (which Buchanan still dismisses as "Mickey Mouse misdemeanors"), Buchanan left the White House to resume his journalistic career, this time as a columnist syndicated in more than 100 papers, and he hit the airwaves with his liberal co-host Tom Braden, first on the radio, then on Crossfire. But after some 10 years on the political sidelines—by which time he was making $400,000 annually—he was itching to grab his helmet and get back in the game, and he jumped at the chance to become Ronald Reagan's $75,000-a-year White House communications director in 1985. From his windowless redoubt just down the hall from the Oval Office, Buchanan battled the moderates in the Administration and bashed the liberals without. "I had forgotten that people like [Buchanan] existed," writes former Reagan Press Secretary Larry Speakes in his memoir Speaking Out. "He was so blindly reactionary...just a constant pain in the neck."
"Look, I didn't go in there just to do press releases," responds Buchanan. "I vented my opinion on every single issue from taxes [against] to right to life [for]. I wanted to have a voice and be an adviser to the President."
A more influential adviser had other ideas. According to former White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan, Nancy Reagan pushed for Buchanan's resignation in 1987. (Buchanan admits Nancy wanted him out but insists he left of his own accord.) In his book For the Record, Regan recalls her warning, "Don't you let Pat have a single thing to do with writing Ronnie's  State of the Union speech. His ideas aren't Ronald Reagan's ideas."
Buchanan remains a great admirer of Reagan, not least for his "romantic aspect. He has a world of the past and a world of myth that he can visit. It's a world of beauty the guy inhabits." And he is a dutiful, if not notably enthusiastic, supporter of George Bush. But Buchanan's own ideas run closer to those of President James K. Polk (1845-49), architect of America's war against Mexico. "He was a great, great President," says Buchanan, relaxing in his baronial McLean, Va., living room, his wet-look hair as shiny as his black wing tips. "Polk lived in an era of immense self-confidence for the United States—Manifest Destiny—the idea that the civilization we represented, which was Christian, ought to dominate the entire globe. This was the mind-set of these people, that the Mexicans were backward and the Indians were hopeless, and that it would be better for this whole continent if the United States ruled over it—and I think they were right."
Buchanan says exactly what he thinks, apparently believing, with Dante, that one of the lowest circles of hell—and he does believe in hell—is reserved for hypocrites. He is frank in stating, for instance, that democracy runs a poor second to anticommunism when it comes to the criteria by which America should choose its friends. He comfortably supports Chile's General Pinochet, has rushed to the defense of Kurt Waldheim and an assortment of accused Nazis and readily speaks up for white-ruled South Africa. "It's not the worst human rights situation in the world," he maintains, arguing that blacks are better off economically in South Africa than in the neighboring black-ruled countries. "Just like black Americans, despite all the wrongs that have been done to them, are much better off here. If you took black America as a country, it has the ninth highest per capita income in the world," he says, "and that's because it's associated with us."
Among people "associated with us," according to Buchanan, poverty is less of a problem than prosperity and the erosion of spiritual values it brings. "While one hears endlessly from Catholic pulpits today of the need to give food to the poor," he complains, "the true hunger that needs feeding is not physical at all." He denies that there are hungry Americans. "What you do have is a measure of malnutrition, people eating the wrong things. That is as much of a problem, I think, of college students as it is of poor people."
Such cheerfully stated ideas have made Buchanan anathema to many liberals, and he likes it that way. For him, political quarrels are "religious wars," and compromise is neither desirable nor possible. All politics comes down to one fundamental question, he says: "Them or us." The two sides can be defined as those who agree with Patrick Buchanan and those who are wrong.
"There's no self-doubt in Patrick," observes Braden, who has debated Buchanan for a decade. "What's the line? 'The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.' There's a certain passionate intensity about Pat. On Crossfire he's shocking, impolite, abusive. And yet he'll stop and give you a ride when it's snowing. That's the Patrick puzzle. His public persona is maddening, but he's a hell of a nice guy."
Buchanan explains his tolerance, even affection, for those who hold views he does not tolerate this way: "The Catholic Church used to teach the doctrine of invincible ignorance: Despite the fact that they try, they can't understand. They're well-intentioned, and the Lord is going to take care of them. They're just mistaken." Though Buchanan sympathizes with their problem, he has never shared it. He's been right from the beginning.
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