Pat Buchanan Railed Against the Press; Now He Tortures It with Silence

updated 06/03/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/03/1985 01:00AM

Patrick Buchanan really knows how to drive the news media up the wall. When he was a speechwriter in the Nixon White House, he did it with words. He wrote many of Spiro Agnew's anti-media diatribes, and he advocated the use of antitrust laws to punish the TV networks for their alleged "left-wing bias." Now, as director of communications in the Reagan White House, Buchanan has come up with a brilliant new method of tormenting the media: He does it by not using words. He has a standard line for reporters: "No comment—and that's off the record." They call to ask him about his role in the Bitburg controversy or about his alleged squabble with National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane over what Reagan should say in Europe, and Buchanan refuses to take their calls. The director of communications remains markedly uncommunicative. Not only that, but the White House staff also refuses to talk about Buchanan. This new method is more effective than the old one. After all, Pat Buchanan attacking the media was a big story, but Pat Buchanan remaining mum is a big headache.

For a while, back in early May, it looked as if the media had Buchanan, 46, on the ropes. NBC broke a story saying that Buchanan had allegedly written the phrase "succumbing to the pressure of the Jews" over and over on a notepad during a meeting with Jewish leaders about Bitburg. Charging anti-Semitism, critics demanded that Buchanan be fired, and at first it looked as if Pat might get the boot. Smelling fresh blood, TV crews did their usual "deathwatch"—camping out on Buchanan's front lawn. But then the whole flap fizzled. Jewish leaders corroborated Buchanan's claim that he had merely been taking notes on what other speakers had said. So the TV crews went home, and Buchanan kept his White House job.

That job makes him the President's top imagemaker. It was Buchanan who wrote the speeches in which Reagan compared the Nicaraguan rebels with "our Founding Fathers" and described Nazi soldiers as "victims." But Buchanan is more than a controversial phrase-maker. He has emerged as the second most powerful man on the White House staff, behind Chief of Staff Donald Regan. "In the pecking order Regan is No. 1 and Buchanan is 1½," says one White House insider. "Obviously he's on the same wavelength as the President."

That wavelength is a very conservative one. As a newspaper columnist and TV commentator, Buchanan was a not-so-elegant William F. Buckley. He termed doctors who perform abortions "butchers," advocated the overthrow of the Sandinistas, called arms control a myth and had some cute advice about feminists: "We ought to send those chicks back to the kitchen where they belong." Tom Braden, the liberal pundit who traded verbal roundhouses with Buchanan on TV and radio shows for eight years, sees such remarks as "marvelous prose for getting roars of appreciative laughter from the country club set." But, he adds, Buchanan "has a saving grace that prevents him from ever becoming dull—a marvelous sense of humor."

Buchanan inherited his conservative views from his father, a successful Washington accountant who was a fan of Sen. Joe McCarthy and right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler. Buchanan was a feisty youth. While studying English and philosophy at Georgetown, he punched two cops who stopped him for a traffic violation, an act that earned him a year's suspension from school. He returned to finish third in his class and win a scholarship to Columbia University's School of Journalism. The master's degree led to a job writing editorials for the conservative St. Louis Globe-Democrat. While there, in 1965, he met Richard Nixon at a cocktail party. "Sir," he said, "if you're going to run for President in 1968, I want to get aboard early." A few weeks later Buchanan was Nixon's first full-time campaign aide. When Nixon entered the White House in 1969, Buchanan came along as a speechwriter and press aide. After Watergate he stayed with his mentor long after others had fled. "You just don't desert people when they're in trouble," he said in 1974, "and you don't desert them just because they've made a mistake."

After Nixon fell, Buchanan served as a speechwriter for Gerald Ford. When Ford was defeated, he returned to private life. Ironically, the man who had attacked the media as a liberal monopoly found plenty of markets for his conservative commentary. He was earning some $400,000 a year when he was offered the $75,000 White House job in February. He quickly accepted.

Despite the 12-hour days, Buchanan loves the job. "He's far more relaxed than he was on the media treadmill," says his friend John McLaughlin, a former Nixon aide. "He can't seem to get enough of the White House meetings. He's like a pig in offal."

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