by Tom Piatak – Chronicles Magazine
British scholar Timothy Stanley has produced the first significant biography of Patrick J. Buchanan, describing his life from his boyhood in Washington, D.C., up to the present. Stanley’s book is written in a breezy, informal manner—Buchanan is referred to as “Pat” throughout—and it makes for quick and generally enjoyable reading. Stanley gets much right in his general narrative of Buchanan’s life, particularly his description of Buchanan’s 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns.
Despite his recognition that Buchanan has been a major figure in American politics, Stanley refuses to commit himself on the nature of Buchanan’s legacy:
He is a controversial figure, so I have avoided passing judgment. It is better simply to tell his story from beginning to end and let the reader make up his or her mind as to whether [Buchanan] is a visionary or a brute.
No one who reads Stanley’s biography, however, can reasonably conclude that Buchanan is a “brute,” since the book details nothing that can reasonably be described as brutish. A former aide, Greg Mueller, recounts that, during the 1996 campaign, Buchanan “was incredibly patient and never got angry.” Indeed, all those who know Buchanan realize that he is a gentleman, a conclusion buttressed in the book by such disparate figures as liberal columnist E.J. Dionne, Andrew Sullivan (to whom Buchanan wrote a supportive private note after Sullivan was diagnosed with AIDS), and Joe Scarborough, who told Stanley that the young interns at MSNBC would balk at working with Buchanan, until they actually met him: “They’d really squirm and say, ‘Isn’t he an awful person? He’s so right wing.’ But after a couple of days with him, they’d all want to adopt him as their father.” Scarborough’s interns were repeating the reaction of Peggy Noonan, who was worried about having to work for the hard-right Buchanan in the Reagan White House, yet ended up making him one of the heroes of What I Saw at the Revolution.
Stanley also provides facts that refute some of the attacks made on his subject. Those who charge Buchanan with antisemitism need to come to grips with the fact that, “Throughout his career, Buchanan had been a cheerleader for Israel.” Buchanan’s view of America’s relationship with Israel did not change definitively until the end of the Cold War, which caused him to reevaluate his foreign-policy views across the board. Buchanan opposed George H.W. Bush’s first foreign intervention, the invasion of Panama, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, as Stanley relates, on Crossfire Buchanan called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall, provided the Russians withdrew their troops from Eastern Europe. Stanley notes that Buchanan’s concern for Americans charged with complicity in the holocaust, such as John Demjanjuk, grew out of Buchanan’s anticommunism and the fact that the evidence being used against such Americans came from the Soviets. In a similar vein, Stanley writes that Ronald Reagan’s visit to “Bitburg had nothing to do with Buchanan; the decision to go was made before he was appointed.”
The author also deals with the Myth of Houston: the notion that Buchanan’s speech to the 1992 Republican convention blindsided the White House and destroyed George H.W. Bush’s chance for reelection. Indeed, the Bush White House coveted Buchanan’s endorsement and vetted the speech. As Greg Mueller told Stanley, “The White House saw that speech. And they loved it.” They were not alone. David Brinkley pronounced it “an astoundingly good speech,” and Sander Vanocur agreed:
Viewed in terms of classic raw rhetoric, that was the most skillful attempt to remind the party faithful of the role that ideas have played in American politics since Eugene McCarthy nominated Adlai Stevenson at the 1960 Democratic convention.
The polls validated the judgment of those veteran political journalists: Following Buchanan’s speech, Bush went from trailing Clinton by 52 to 35 percent to lagging behind him by only three percentage points (45 to 42 percent) with a lead among male voters of 47 to 41 percent. Indeed, given the state of the economy, the social and cultural issues highlighted by Buchanan were Bush’s only possible road map to victory. But after the left savaged Buchanan’s speech, Bush grew timid and went down to defeat instead. The soundness of Buchanan’s strategy was shown by Bush’s son, who used the division of America into Red States and Blue States that accompanied his 2000 election to win reelection and elect more Republicans to Congress in both 2002 and 2004, until the disastrous tendencies of his administration became impossible to ignore.
Stanley’s narrative also provides plenty of facts to support the view that Buchanan has been a “visionary.” In the Nixon White House, he played a significant role in crafting Spiro Agnew’s attack on the media, an attack that has been imitated by conservatives ever since. Buchanan wrote to Nixon that “Our future is in the Democratic working man, Southern Protestant and Northern Catholics,” and also “argued that if [Nixon] wanted to get reelected, he had to reach out to the people who voted for George Wallace.” Republican success in winning over such former Democrats has been instrumental to the GOP’s political success, and likely would have made the Republicans as dominant as the Democrats were under FDR, had the GOP not stood by and allowed the left’s Gramscian march through the institutions and the Immigration Act of 1965 to transform America.
Buchanan’s foresight has been clearest in the areas where he broke from the Republican mainstream. As Stanley notes, Buchanan was one of the first Republicans to argue that America should resume her traditional policy of nonintervention following our victory in the Cold War. After the United States lost thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars in a vain attempt to transform the Middle East into something resembling the Middle West, more and more Americans have come to agree with what Buchanan has been saying forcefully and consistently since the collapse of communism….
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