Live Tough or Die
01/27/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
TROMPING THE TOWNS AND BYWAYS of New Hampshire, beaming and earnest, Patrick Buchanan has the look of a modern-day friar searching for his flock. With his ruddy jowls and raven hair, the right-wing television and newspaper pundit turned presidential candidate is often recognized as he makes his rounds. Mostly, though, his is a symbolic quest, designed to stir passion as much as to win votes. Yet embarking on his conservative crusade has been a tonic for Buchanan, 53. "Once you make a decision to run, all the tension, concern and apprehension go out the window," he says. "Once you go, you go."
As it happens, Buchanan's presidential aspirations are not entirely quixotic. In depressed New Hampshire, which has lost almost 10 percent of its jobs since 1989, his calls for protectionist legislation and political isolationism under the slogan "America First" have real resonance. With the Republican primary scheduled for Feb. 18, a recent poll in the Concord Monitor showed him pulling in at least 30 percent of the Republican vote, leaving some of George Bush's backers concerned that the combative Buchanan could embarrass the President just enough to throw their carefully scripted coronation plans into disarray. "Pat is a great talk show host and intellectual provocateur," says New Hampshire's former U.S. Senator Gordon Humphrey, who supports Bush, "but I don't think this is the time to lead a mutiny when every Republican on the ship is in trouble." To Buchanan, however, the decision to challenge Bush was irresistible. The President, he believes, has strayed wildly from his professed conservatism on such matters as taxes. "I'm being offered a championship fight," he says. "I don't want to be 70 years old and have people say it was lying there and you ducked it."
That would never do, especially for someone like Buchanan, who was taught to regard belligerence as a virtue. His father, William, a prosperous accountant in Washington, D.C., presided over Pat and his six brothers and two sisters as a "benevolent dictator," recalls Pat. When it came to world affairs, his father, whose political heroes included Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Joe McCarthy and General Franco, espoused rabid anticommunism and isolationism.
On the home front, the elder Buchanan took a rather Darwinian view of life. Four days a week the Buchanan boys were required to work out on a punching bag under the supervision of their father; each had to throw 400 punches. When they missed a blow, Pop, as he was called, would punish the offender. "To Pop, fighting was a concomitant of man's existence. It was not something we would be able to avoid in life. Every one of his sons must thus know how to fight," recalls Buchanan in his autobiography, Right from the Beginning. His father was equally rigorous when it came to the teachings of the Catholic Church: "To impress upon us what the loss of the soul through mortal sin meant, my father would light a match, grab our hands and hold them briefly over the flame, saying: 'See how that feels? Now imagine that for all eternity.' "
The fear of damnation did not stop the young Buchanan from raising some serious hell. Starting at Blessed Sacrament grade school, right through Gonzaga high school, Georgetown University and Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, Buchanan delighted in being rowdy and still delights in telling the tales. "The truth is we loved to party and drink and fight guys we didn't know and didn't like," he says of his late teenage years. Two weeks before his 21st birthday, however, the rambunctiousness got out of hand (if it hadn't already) and almost cost Buchanan dearly. While driving through Georgetown one Saturday night in October 1959 to take a date home, Buchanan was involved in a traffic dispute with two police officers, which ended with him kicking them and in turn being beaten. A high-powered local lawyer helped get the felony charges reduced to a misdemeanor. Though forced to pay only a small fine, Pat did get booted out of Georgetown for a year and was cashiered from the Army ROTC program. He now calls the affair "one of the great dumb deeds of my life."
Once out of journalism school, Buchanan found a new father figure of sorts in Richard Nixon, for whom he'd caddied as a youngster at Burning Tree country club in Bethesda, Md. Nixon's cold war rhetoric and street fighter's attitude exerted a deep appeal. "He is the most interesting man I ever met," says Buchanan. While working as an editorial writer at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in 1965, Buchanan met Nixon again and asked him for a job. After working on Nixon's successful 1968 presidential campaign, he went to the White House as a special assistant to the President, where he made a name for himself by crafting Nixon's famous "Silent Majority" speech and supplying Spiro Agnew with such alliterative zingers as "pusillanimous pussyfooting." It was on the Nixon staff that Buchanan met secretarial assistant Shelley Scarney, now 54, whom he married in 1971.
In 1975 Buchanan began his career as a columnist, a profession in which strong views are essential. But while his positions on issues like abortion and taxes are mainstream conservative, others are highly inflammatory. His opinions often betray an authoritarian streak, as well as a good deal of racial insensitivity. Perhaps nothing has stirred a-much controversy as Buchanan's pronouncements on Jewish issues. In arguing that the United States should stay out of the Persian Gulf conflict, he implied that American Jews were in favor of going to war against Iraq because of an overriding loyalty to Israel. Citing other examples, critics accused Buchanan of anti-Semitism, which he vigorously denied. Then last month in an article in the National Review, William F. Buckley Jr., long one of Buchanan's heroes on the right, said he found it "impossible to defend" Buchanan against the charge that his remarks amounted to anti-Semitism. Apparently stung by Buckley's indictment, Buchanan will say only that the article was "unhelpful."
The irony is that even political adversaries often find Buchanan personally charming. "He's extremely affable and even gentle at some level," says Michael Kinsley, his liberal counterpart on the CNN show Crossfire. "But his ideas are extremely unaffable and sometimes offensive and not at all gentle." In contrast to his old carousing days, Buchanan has little taste for the Washington cocktail party circuit, meaning that until recently he and Shelley spent their evenings quietly reading or watching movies at their million-dollar home in McLean, Va., near CIA headquarters. Now, with his campaign underway, Buchanan spends five days a week on the hustings. For the moment, he has suspended his column, television appearances and paid speaking engagements, for which he earns roughly $500,000 a year. None except his most zealous followers believe he can unseat Bush in the primaries, though he could claim victory if he managed to push the President to the right. What few people doubt is that, for better or worse, in an age of pallid and circumspect candidates, Buchanan definitely stands apart.
LINDA KRAMER in New Hampshire