The Long March of Patrick J. Buchanan

Eric Alterman on Pat Buchanan’s long, odd, and controversial career in Washington.

Part of a Series
Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan laughs during a speech in California for more than 200 supporters in 1996. (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)
Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan laughs during a speech in California for more than 200 supporters in 1996. (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

It’s no secret that MSNBC had more than enough cause to end its relationship with Pat Buchanan as it did last week, especially with the release of his new book, Suicide of a Superpower. Nobody has a constitutional right to give his or her opinions on cable television. ThinkProgress has been particularly diligent in keeping readers informed of some of the recent lowlights of Buchanan’s career including attacks on immigrants, minorities, and liberals up to and including his flirtations with fascism and possibly even Holocaust denial—all of which apparently reached a kind of crescendo in his new book.

One can identify any number of oddities in Buchanan’s half-century career as one of America’s most prominent and most extreme conservative voices. The first of these, of course, is the fact that he is complaining about being kicked off of MSNBC. Since virtually all of the mainstream media—and even former President Bill Clinton—considers that station to be a liberal analogue to Fox, how is it that MSNBC has this extreme right-wing culture warrior to cut loose in the first place? (And what about the fact that Joe Scarborough, the guy who occupies 15 hours a week of the station’s programming and is lamenting Buchanan’s departure, is a conservative former Republican congressman?)

Other anomalies abound. If conservatives believe in one thing in America, it is “family.” But Buchanan and his wife have no children. (While there may be medical or other reasons for this, it is odd that Buchanan has, to my knowledge, never addressed them, particularly since he complains, “The West is dying. Its nations have ceased to reproduce, and their populations have stopped growing and begun to shrink.”) And if conservatives believe in one other thing, it is “free enterprise.” Yet Buchanan’s entire life has been divided between “government” and “media”—the twin bugaboos of every conservative complaint session. Finally, if conservatives exhibit one emotion in unison in America, it is anger, and yet Buchanan, who is liked by almost everyone who knows him even those who find his views abhorrent, is known as a kind of pussy cat in person—however effectively he plays a tiger on television.

I’ll confess that when I got to know Pat while researching my first book, Sound & Fury, published 20 years ago (and from which I draw for this column), I found him to be just as charming and engaging as the rest of Washington did. My research at the time revealed that while he was already one of the most famous figures in Washington journalism, he had only spent a grand total of two months as a reporter before becoming an editorial writer and beginning his distinguished career as a conservative polemicist, part-time government official, and presidential aspirant.

Buchanan comes from a deeply religious Irish Catholic family that prized loyalty and discipline above all. To impress upon Buchanan what the loss of the soul through mortal sin meant, Buchanan’s father would light a match, grab his son’s hands, and hold them briefly over the flame, saying, "See how that feels? Now imagine that for all eternity." Buchanan proudly observes that he comes from “the tradition that my great grandfathers tried to overthrow the government of the United States.”

It was in this atmosphere that Buchanan imbibed the religious dogma that he has so effectively preached in American political life. "Our political and social quarrels now partake in the savagery of religious wars because they are, at bottom, religious wars," Buchanan explained. This war, according to Buchanan, was "a conflict between what might be called the Right, which proceeds from Christian beliefs and values, and the counterculture, which proceeds out of secularist beliefs and values. Its manifestations can be seen in the move to equate homosexuality with normal heterosexual activity, tolerance of pornography, [the belief that] anything goes so long as it doesn’t hurt another individual."

To this strange mixture of intolerance and good-heartedness, of religious certitude and political savvy, of strict pre-Vatican II Catholic conservatism, add a street fighter expelled from Georgetown University for punching two D.C. policemen, and you have an enormously effective spokesman for a radical, reactionary minority.

The secret to Buchanan’s success, at least in my estimation, was his ability to conduct his holy war in a huggable fashion. On “The McLaughlin Group,” where he first came into the public eye, Buchanan played the tough Irish cop with twinkly eyes and a heart of granite. And when the cherubic Catholic crusader decided to announce his race for the presidency in December 1991, it came as no surprise to anyone who had closely observed his career in the punditocracy. He carefully considered the idea four years earlier but had deferred in favor of the more conventional politician, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-NY). By the time Buchanan reversed course, however, the displacement of "real" politicians at the center of the political dialogue was considerably further advanced. All of a sudden, in 1991 there was nothing ridiculous about the idea of the move from the small screen to the White House without having earned any interim qualifications.

Buchanan was a popular and much-admired character in President Ronald Reagan’s Washington and proved invaluable to the conservative cause in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan White Houses. In between, as well as afterward, he became a widely syndicated columnist, the co-host of CNN’s "Crossfire,” a regular on McLaughlin, and the host of Novak’s own pundit CNN roundtable, "The Capital Gang," when Novak and McLaughlin’s egos grew too large to fit in the same room.

From the 1970s through the first decade of this century, Buchanan could almost always be depended upon to take things further to the right than most people had previously imagined possible. In Nixon’s White House, Buchanan was the primary mover of the president’s race-based “Southern Strategy” designed to move those offended by voting rights for blacks into the Republican column. As Reagan’s White House director of communications, Buchanan was the only member of the president’s inner circle to speak favorably, at least in the abstract, of treason. During the Iran-Contra scandal, when the first “Buchanan for President” boomlet began, its standard-bearer gave inflammatory speeches insisting, "If Colonel North ripped off the Ayatollah and took $30 million and gave it to the contras, then God bless Colonel North."

When the AIDS virus first hit the national news, Buchanan pooh-poohed the trauma. "The poor homosexuals," he wrote, "they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting.” Buchanan regularly referred to gay men as "perpetrators" and argued that "by buggering one another," and "committing promiscuous sodomy," they "threaten doctors, dentists, health workers, hemophiliacs, and the rest of society by their refusal to curb their lascivious appetites."

It was a measure of Buchanan’s own inimitable style that both his almost-presidential campaign and his 1988 memoirs began with the same cri de coeur, "Let the bloodbath begin." And yet despite these angry, often inassimilable views, Buchanan somehow remained ensconced in the bosom of the Washington elite. An October 1991 charity roast of Buchanan featured tributes from two Republican ex-presidents, one Democratic presidential candidate, two almost-Democratic presidential candidates, the House minority whip, and leaders from every wing of both parties.

The triumph in the 1980s of Buchanan over William F. Buckley Jr. as the most influential voice of the conservative movement was a significant one. While the political philosophies expressed by the two men were quite similar, their cultural differences spoke volumes about the transformation of American politics between the late 1950s and the early 1980s, as well as the changes of the role of the punditocracy.

Buckley, the grandson of a Texas sheriff, was a self-styled aristocrat. Though he hoped to reconfigure and repopulate the important elite institutions in America, his bottom line was protecting the privileges of the privileged. The movement Buckley spearheaded was as much about skiing in Gstaad or yachting in the Caribbean as killing commies.

Buchanan’s politics, however, were steeped in the cultural resentment of the New Right. The working-class Catholic boys of Washington’s Gonzaga High School were not recruited by Yale and could not have afforded the tuition anyway. Buchanan’s conservative movement was not about teaching the liberals at Yale to repent; it was about dynamiting the place to Kingdom Come. It was an angrier, less sophisticated movement than Buckley’s but was one that had learned the lessons of mass political organizing and political intimidation from its enemies in the antiwar, feminist, and civil rights movements. It was one, moreover, whose spokesman in the punditocracy participated in politics not at its periphery, as Buckley had, but at its center, literally displacing the politicians whom Buckley had sought only to influence.

Today, it’s sad to say, we are living in Buchanan’s world, at least insofar as conservative pundits and candidates have been able to define “morality” in their narrow, backward-looking fashion that reverses all the gains of women, minorities, and the dispossessed that have been achieved since Pat’s dad first held his finger underneath that flame.

So cheer up Pat, you may have lost one gig thanks to those you deem your enemies, but you are winning a larger war for the hearts and minds of the right-wing punditocracy and much of the Washington elite—at least for now.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His newest book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, to be published in April. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.

*Update to my previous column on Charles Murray: William Hammett, who was head of the Manhattan Institute, and I have enjoyed an email correspondence regarding my column. Once I passed along my sources to Mr. Hamett, he agreed that some of his original concerns were misplaced. Still, he would like to emphasize the fact that Murray wrote Losing Ground without much in the way of conservative money backing him. The money did not come until after the book’s publication. The book’s original advance from Basic Books was $5,000, and the Bradley Foundation did not pony up any money until The Bell Curve.

On a related point, I counted 19 mentions of “Charles Murray” in The New York Times (and its website) in the past two weeks. Darn that liberal media once again.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

Explore The Series

Is America Getting More Conservative?
Richard Florida, above, argues in <i>The Atlantic</i> that our nation is becoming more conservative. But it's worth taking a closer look at his claim. (Flickr/<a href=eschipul)" data-srcset=" 629w, 629w, 629w, 500w, 250w" data-sizes="auto" />

Is America Getting More Conservative?