By Joe Klein – The New York Times
Patrick J. Buchanan is a merry troglodyte, a naughty provocateur. He still calls homosexuality â€œsodomy,â€ just to get the goat of a community he will only reluctantly call â€œgay.â€ He writes that he wanted to be named ambassador to South Africa by President Ford so he could support the apartheid government. He thinks public television is â€œan upholstered playpenâ€ for liberals. He considers â€œThe New York Timesâ€ an epithet. His stump appearances in his outlaw 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns were a guilty pleasure for the reporters who followed him, a hilariously clever, and prescient, exhibition of right-wing populism. â€œBuchanan,â€ Richard Nixon once told him, â€œyouâ€™re the only extremist I know with a sense of humor.â€
And it is Buchanan, not Nixon, who emerges as the central â€” and most intriguing â€” character in â€œNixonâ€™s White House Wars,â€ an entertaining memoir of that benighted presidency. Buchananâ€™s Nixon is a familiar figure: distant, awkward, smart, defensive and damaged, caring a bit too much what the Establishment â€” a word Buchanan uses frequently â€” thinks of him. The not-so-tricky president is a policy moderate; he has surrounded himself with brilliant, if mainstream, experts like Henry Kissinger and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. There is also a retinue of traditional moderate Republican aides like Ray Price and Leonard Garment, and technocrats like H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. Buchanan, the house wing nut, finds all this moderation frustrating; he began as a peripheral figure in the Nixon White House, a political gunslinger perhaps a bit too hot for the high-rent nuances of governance. Over time, however, Nixon realized that the â€œliberal establishmentâ€ was unwilling to cut him a break â€” even as he created the Environmental Protection Agency and maintained many Great Society programs â€” and a gunslinger could have his uses. Buchananâ€™s pen provided the ammunition for Vice President Spiro Agnewâ€™s attacks on the media (which seem downright civilized compared with current presidential standards). But Nixon sensed that Buchanan was onto something much bigger than vitriol, a new grand strategy for the Republican Party, a new majority anchored by the white working class, not just in the South, but also in the Northern ethnic, mostly Catholic, enclaves. This philosophy has been the driving vision of Buchananâ€™s life. It has made him one of the most consequential conservatives of the past half-century. Indeed, heâ€™s a reactionary who was also an avatar: the first Trumpist.
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Buchanan was born in Washington, D.C., in 1938, although his familyâ€™s roots are in Mississippi. He celebrates ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, but his most enduring loyalty is to the conservative Catholic Church of the 1950s â€” the church schools he attended, the Knights of Columbus, the Legion of Decency, Sodality and the Holy Name Society. His people are the white ethnic â€œunfashionable minorities,â€ as opposed to the â€œmedia minorities.â€ He was kicked out of Georgetown University for a year after a drunken fight with the Washington police: â€œI was ahead on points, until they brought out the sticks.â€ But he attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism â€” one of his few Eastern elitist credentials, which he used to become an editorial polemicist for the conservative St. Louis Globe-Democrat. He was astonished by the 1960s. Well-off draft dodgers offended him; the New York construction workers who beat up the protesters were his team. Teddy Kennedyâ€™s ability to â€œsurviveâ€ Chappaquiddick was a confirmation of Buchananâ€™s worldview. Nixon, he believed (correctly), would have been crucified if heâ€™d done something similar. He and Nixon â€œwere like working-class kids in an elite university who, caught smoking pot in the dorm, would be expelled and disgraced for life, while the legacy students would be confined to campus for the weekend.â€
It was the â€œlegacyâ€ students in the C.I.A. and on John F. Kennedyâ€™s staff who had started the war in Vietnam â€” and â€œlegacyâ€ students who opposed it; the children of Irish pipe fitters had to fight it. Despite the warâ€™s provenance, Buchanan was an unabashed hawk who believed Vietnam was necessary to stem the tide of Communism. He continued to believe this even as Nixon proved that Communism wasnâ€™t monolithic by embracing the Russians in dÃ©tente and going to China â€” Buchanan was along for the Beijing trip, appalled. Still, Buchananâ€™s assessment of the impact of the defeat in Vietnam on American society has real power to it: â€œThe American establishment that led us to victory in World War II â€¦ would never recover from Vietnam, never regain the confidence of the nation. For Vietnam was not an unwinnable war for a country that had reduced the Japanese empire to smoldering ruins in four years. â€¦ The simple truth is the American establishment lost the war in Vietnam because it lacked the will to win it.â€
This is where Buchananâ€™s philosophy begins. The country that Nixon inherited in 1969 was â€œno longer one nation and one people, but a land divided by war and race and culture and politics.â€ The Establishment was feckless, guilt-driven, hypocritical. Buchanan saw school busing to achieve racial integration as a domestic Vietnam. It was social engineering imposed by a liberal judiciary upon white ethnic communities â€” the Irish, Italians, Poles â€” who had nothing to do with slavery. Once again, the rich kids werenâ€™t drafted to ride the buses. Buchanan advised Nixon that the administrationâ€™s position should be: â€œoutlawing all segregation, but not requiring racial balance.â€ This line extends to affirmative action, which he calls â€œracial injustice.â€ These are the opening battles of Buchananâ€™s culture war. His case is primal and compelling. These issues are not merely about tribal racial prejudices; they are about class.
Buchananâ€™s political calculus is that the â€œsilent majorityâ€ is larger than the â€œfashionable minorities,â€ who include violent antiwar protesters â€” nearly five bombings a day in 1971-72! â€” racial agitators, limousine and lifestyle liberals. In fact, the only real weapon that the counterculturalists have is the elite media, which he described, in a memo to Nixon, as their true adversary: â€œThe Nixon White House and the national liberal media are as cobra and mongoose.â€ Does any of this sound familiar?
Nixon won the 1972 election in a historic landslide, using Buchananâ€™s strategy, but lost the war. Buchanan was boggled by Watergate, which he considered stupid. Why bug the Democrats when Nixonâ€™s new majority is about to win bigly? Somehow he managed to skate through the scandal, compartmentalized, kept out of the loop, but asked for cleanup advice â€” and famously told Nixon to â€œburn the tapes.â€
It is easy to be horrified by Buchananâ€™s gleeful excesses, but that is the reaction heâ€™s hoping to elicit. Humorless upper-crust liberalism is the fattest of targets. Beneath the vitriol, though, Buchanan has spent his career raising important questions that our society has never seemed willing to discuss forthrightly. What should be the limits of identity politics? In a democracy, should courts or legislatures decide basic policies like abortion, busing and campaign finance? Should we trade the higher prices that will come from protectionism for the increased stability that might come from keeping more blue-collar jobs at home? These are the issues that Buchanan has been thumping for the past 50 years, and that Donald Trump exploited in 2016. They cannot be dismissed. We are, for the moment, living in Pat Buchananâ€™s world.
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