The Houston Syndrome

by Patrick J. Buchanan – May 11, 1994

The Myth of Houston — created and nourished by the Left….at long last need answering…

Reading Dan Quayle’s memoir, “Standing Firm”, which trashes many who once defended him, King Lear’s lament comes to mind “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.”

I will leave it to Brothers Baker, Bennett, Cheney, Kemp, Dole, Gramm, Sununu, Rollins, et alia, to issue their own briefs. But Dan Quayle’s embrace of the Myth of Houston–created and nourished by the Left for almost two years– at long last needs answering.

Of my speech in Houston, Mr. Quayle writes, “Nobody insisted on clearing Buchanan’s text in advance. All Pat had to promise was that in the course of the speech he would endorse the president.” Pat’s “tone quickly alienated many in the hall and many more watching at home.” “Pat just wanted to draw blood and he ended up hurting the president.”

But if Dan Quayle believes that, why did he tell CNN’s Bernard Shaw, after my speech, “I thought Pat Buchanan gave a great speech. As a matter of fact, Marilyn and I were tellng about it afterward, that was just the kind of speech we had hoped for. Pat Buchanan has the ability to frame the issues. He’s a very articulate individual, happens to be a very good friend of ours, and he’s going to be sitting in the box tonight with Marilyn. So I was there cheering enthusiastically.”

These contradictory quotes come from a man who just said of Bill Clinton, Americans “will not tolerate . . not telling the truth.”

As for the content of my speech, it was agreed to at a meeting at the Jefferson Hotel, July 29, 1992, with Bob Teeter, Jim Lake, Craig Fuller, and me. Craig asked me to do three things: Hail the Reagan record; endorse the president; take on Mr. Clinton. I agreed. The speech was handed over to Mr. Fuller and Mr. Lake in a convention trailer, noon Sunday, August 16, a day and a half before delivery. My wife, Shelley, sister Bay and aides Terry Jeffrey and Greg Mueller were with me, in the trailer, when I handed it over. Mr. Fuller and Mr. Lake read it, were thrilled, and said so, and faxed it to Bob Teeter in D.C.

Did it alienate many in that hall? If so, why did John Chancellor say immediately following, “I thought it was an excellent speech … It was an amazing speech in a hall this size. I think it shows the party coming together….I think Pat really helped them”?

Convention veterans agreed. Said David Brinkley, “It was an outstandingly good speech.” “This hit all of the themes that go to Reagan Democrats.” Added Cokie Roberts, “the question of abortion, of gay rights, of the environment seeming a little cockeyed.”

“I’ve covered 17 national conventions,” Hal Bruno of ABC told me, “I’ve never seen a better first night.”

“Viewed in terms of classic raw rhetoric,” said Sander Vanocur, the Buchanan speech “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.”

Listening with the Illinois delegation, Ted Koppel said: “They walked out of here tonight enthusiastic, they walked out of here with something that Republicans have not had for quite a few months, a sense of optimism . . . our ABC poll, taken over the past five days, shows the gap narrowing to 20 points . . . By tomorrow, that gap will have appreciably narrowed. You can count on it.”

Mr. Koppel was right.

The overnight Hotline poll showed Mr. Bush soaring from 16 points down Monday, to 6 points down Tuesday, a 10-point leap in 24 hours, best day of the ’92 campaign. Other polls showed similar surges.

The New York Times-CBS survey that had Mr. Clinton leading Mr. Bush by 18 points just days before Houston found Mr. Clinton two points ahead, 48 to 46, the night the president spoke.

We had shifted the agenda — from the economy, where 80 percent of the country thought America was “on the wrong track,” to issues of morality and culture, Mr. Clinton’s weakest suits.

Within hours, Mr. Clinton was attacking me personally, unheard of for a candidate during the opposition’s convention; and a ferocious media counterattack was under way. The Left knew instinctively: If the election turned on the social agenda, Mr. Clinton was gone.

But, stung by the ferocity, the Bushites, few of whom believed in the social issues they were raising recoiled. A dog can smell the fear on a man; and the Clinton campaign and a hostile press quickly sniffed out that fear and confusion. In concert, they r oared that the party of Houston was racist, bigoted, sexist, homophobic!

Bushites began apologizing, retreating, abandoning the agenda that could have sunk Mr. Clinton and saved their president.

The core of my address in Houston was in these paragraphs:

“The agenda Clinton & Clinton would impose on America — abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat — that’s change all right. But it is not the kind of change America wants. It is not the kind of change America needs. And it is not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation we still call God’s country…”

“There is a religious war going on in this country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical as to the kind of nation we shall one day be — as was the cold war itself. And, in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side.”

I don’t retract a word, Dan. Where was I wrong?

“Had George Bush not changed his position on abortion years before,” Mr. Quayle laments, “going from pro-choice to pro-life, he might have been able to negotiate with the right-to-life community and get it to take a more politically reasonable approach to wards compromise at the convention.”

Does Dan Quayle yet not understand that an unborn child’s right to life is not something we can negotiate away in an insider deal? It is a matter for Standing Firm. How many unborn children do we barter away, Dan, to win ourselves a better press?

Republicans did not lose in 1992 because Pat Buchanan gave a blazing speech at Houston. They lost because Ross Perot walked off with one-third of the Reagan coalition. And Mr. Perot tore those voters away because Big Government Conservatives “compromised” their principles, spent four years in an orgy of spending, raised taxes, and aborted a seven-year recovery. “The economy, stupid!” was the issue that killed the Bush presidency. The issues and rhetoric for which Dan Quayle apologizes might have saved them.