By Tim Alberta – Politico
His first date with his future wife was spent in a New Hampshire motel room drinking Wild Turkey into the wee hours with Hunter S. Thompson. He stood several feet away from Martin Luther King Jr. during the â€œI Have a Dreamâ€ speech. He went to China with Richard M. Nixon and walked away from Watergate unscathed. He survived Iran-Contra, too, and sat alongside Ronald Reagan at the ReykjavÃk Summit. He invaded Americaâ€™s living rooms and pioneered the rhetorical combat that would power the cable news age. He defied the establishment by challenging a sitting president of his own party. He captured the fear and frustration of the right by proclaiming a great â€œculture warâ€ was at hand. And his third-party candidacy in 2000 almost certainly handed George W. Bush the presidency, thanks to thousands of Palm Beach, Florida, residents mistakenly voting for him on the â€œbutterfly ballotâ€ when they meant to back Al Gore.
If not for his outsize ambition, Pat Buchanan might be the closest thing the American right has to a real-life Forrest Gump, that patriot from ordinary stock whose life journey positioned him to witness, influence and narrate the pivotal moments that shaped our modern world and changed the course of this countryâ€™s history. He has known myriad rolesâ€”neighborhood brawler, college expellee, journalist, White House adviser, political commentator, presidential candidate three times over, author, provocateurâ€”and his existence traces the arc of what feels to some Americans like a nationâ€™s ascent and decline. He was 3 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and 6 when Harry Truman dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now 78, with thick, black glasses and a thinning face, Buchanan looks back with nostalgia at a life and career that, for all its significance, was at risk of being forgottenâ€”until Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States.
A quarter-century before Trump descended into the atrium of his Manhattan skyscraper to launch his unlikely bid for the White House, Buchanan, until then a columnist, political operative and TV commentator, stepped onto a stage in Concord, New Hampshire, to declare his own candidacy 10 weeks ahead of the stateâ€™s presidential primary. Associating the â€œglobalistâ€ President George H. W. Bush with â€œbureaucrats in Brusselsâ€ pursuing a â€œEuropean superstateâ€ that trampled on national identity, Buchanan warned his rowdy audience, â€œWe must not trade in our sovereignty for a cushioned seat at the head table of anybodyâ€™s new world order!â€ His radically different prescription, which would underpin three consecutive runs for the presidency: a â€œnew nationalismâ€ that would focus on â€œforgotten Americansâ€ left behind by bad trade deals, open-border immigration policies and foreign adventurism. His voice booming, Buchanan demanded: â€œShould the United States be required to carry indefinitely the full burden of defending rich and prosperous allies who take Americaâ€™s generosity for granted as they invade our markets?â€
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This rhetoricâ€”deployed again during his losing bid for the 1996 GOP nomination, and once more when he ran on the Reform Party ticket in 2000â€”not only provided a template for Trumpâ€™s campaign, but laid the foundation for its eventual success. Dismissed as a fringe character for rejecting Republican orthodoxy on trade and immigration and interventionism, Buchanan effectively weakened the partyâ€™s defenses, allowing a more forceful messenger with better timing to finish the insurrection he started back in 1991. All the ideas that seemed original to Trumpâ€™s campaign could, in fact, be attributed to Buchananâ€”from depicting the political class as bumbling stooges to singling out a rising superpower as an economic menace (though back then it was Japan, not China) to rallying the citizenry to â€œtake backâ€ a country whose destiny they no longer dictated. â€œPitchfork Pat,â€ as he was nicknamed, even deployed a phrase that combined Trumpâ€™s two signature slogans: â€œMake America First Again.â€
â€œPat was the pioneer of the vision that Trump ran on and won on,â€ says Greg Mueller, who served as Buchananâ€™s communications director on the 1992 and 1996 campaigns and remains a close friend. Michael Kinsley, the liberal former New Republic editor who co-hosted CNNâ€™s â€œCrossfireâ€ with Buchanan, likewise credits his old sparring partner with laying the intellectual groundwork for Trumpism: â€œItâ€™s unclear where this Trump thing goes, but Pat deserves some of the credit.â€ He pauses. â€œOr some of the blame.â€
Buchanan, for his part, feels both validated and vindicated. Long ago resigned to the reality that his policy views made him a pariah in the Republican Partyâ€”and stained him irrevocably with the ensuing accusations of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobiaâ€”he has lived to see the GOP come around to Buchananism and the country send its direct descendant to the White House.
â€œI was elated, delighted that Trump picked up on the exact issues on which I challenged Bush,â€ he tells me. â€œAnd then he goes and uses my slogan? It just doesnâ€™t get any better than this.â€ Buchanan, who has published such books as The Death of the West, State of Emergency, Day of Reckoning and Suicide of a Superpower, admits that Novemberâ€™s election result â€œgave me hopeâ€ for the first time in recent memory.
But none of this means heâ€™s suddenly bullish about Americaâ€™s future. Buchanan says he has â€œalways been a pessimist,â€ and despite Trumpâ€™s conquest, two things continue to color his dark forecast for the nation. First, Buchanan harbors deep concerns over whether Trump, with his off-topic tweeting and pointless fight-picking, has the requisite focus and discipline to execute his nationalist agendaâ€”especially over the opposition of a media-establishment complex bent on his destruction. Second, even if Trump delivers on the loftiest of his promises, Buchanan fears it will be too little, too late. Sweeping change was needed 25 years ago, he says, before thousands of factories vanished due to the North American Free Trade Agreement, before millions of illegal immigrants entered the country, before trillions of dollars were squandered on regime change and nation-building.
Heâ€™s not unlike the countless Trump voters I met across the country in 2016, many of them older folks yearning for a return to the country of their youth, a place they remember as safer, whiter, more wholesome, more Christian, more confident and less polarized. The difference is that Buchanan refuses to indulge in the illusion that a return to this utopia of yesteryear is even possible. Economically and demographically and culturally, he believes, the damage is done.
â€œWe rolled the dice with the future of this country,â€ he tells me. â€œAnd I think itâ€™s going to come up snake eyes.â€
The living room of Buchananâ€™s home in McLean, Virginia, a wealthy suburb of Washington, could be mistaken for a museum. Between this wood-paneled space and his red-carpeted basement there must be 3,000 books on the shelves, meticulously categorized by genre, author or time period, a classical backdrop to Buchananâ€™s extensive collection of historical guns (including a rare replica of Robert E. Leeâ€™s revolver) and a lifetimeâ€™s accumulation of family photographs, newspaper clippings, campaign keepsakes and miscellaneous relics.
His house is a monument to failed uprisings against the political establishment. Above the mantel rests a spectacular painting of Buchanan gazing out a bus window during a ride through scenic Iowa. Across the room, encased in wood and glass and standing some 4 feet tall, is the gilded pitchfork he received from â€œthe Buchanan Brigades,â€ a group of campaign supporters, symbolic of his populist insurgency (and, unintentionally, of his paradoxical existence as a Georgetown-educated tormentor of the Washington elite). Resting on the coffee table is the most delicate souvenir of all, a piece of pristine stained glass gifted to him by a New Hampshire voter. The size of a nightstand surface, its craftsmanship is immaculate, with a doveâ€™s red-and-white tail weaving through blue scrawl in memory of the year, 1992, and the motto of his presidential campaign: â€œAmerica First.â€
It all feels like ancient history, and Buchanan himself these days looks, well, rather ancient; the wrinkles run deep across his brow, and untamed wisps of gray hair shoot divergently from the back of his head. This aging exterior should not fool anyone. He is as mentally agile and rhetorically sharp as he was during his heyday on CNN and PBS, before the star commentator turned into a presidential candidate. As we talk for hours, Buchanan recalls those three campaignsâ€”and the rest of his half-century in public life, not to mention his childhood, adolescence and early careerâ€”with a vivid clarity and a command of detail.
Buchanan has had plenty of titles over the years, from spokesman to candidate, but his favorite is historian. He cherishes history not just for its drama but for the lessons bequeathed and the parallels he can extract: the seductive appeal of populism, the rising tide of nationalism, the similarities between the current president and the two he worked closely alongside. Above all, Buchanan loves history because, in his mind, it contains our civilizational apex; he treasures the past because he is convinced that his beloved country, these United States, will never again approach the particular kind of glory it held for a middle-class family in the postwar years.
Such assured pessimism is somewhat surprising, given that Buchananâ€™s boldest achievementâ€”and perhaps the most lasting aspect of his legacyâ€”was being Trump before Trump was Trump.
â€œThe ideas made it,â€ Buchanan tells me, letting out a belly laugh. â€œBut I didnâ€™t….
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