While Main Stream Media headlines screamed and liberals gloated, the Establishment conservative movement remained largely silent. This might appear to contradict Stanley’s contention that a biography of Pat Buchanan is a biography of the conservative movement itself. But in fact it strengthens it—the career of Pat Buchanan, advisor to Presidents, television pioneer, insurgent candidate, and best selling author, is the real story of the American Right’s rise, fall—and possible resurrection.
Stanley, a Catholic convert observing American politics from across the Pond, delivers an admirably objective analysis of the man TIME magazine smeared as “Hell Raiser" [Cover, November 6, 1995]—and a portrait of a vanished age, when boys would be boys, the Church was still the Church, and America was still recognizably American.
Stanley traces Buchanan’s worldview to his upbringing. He noting that in Buchanan’s autobiographical Right From the Beginning
You can almost smell the incense and home cooking; almost hear the school bell call the boys to prayer and the soft click-click-click of rosary beads as they run through the fingers at nighttime prayer.Buchanan’s father taught his large brood (six boys and two girls) to stand up for the Faith and themselves. After a trouble-making adolescence of raiding parties with his brothers, fighting the cops, and scaring the family of Maureen Dowd, Buchanan “gave his assent” to the truths he had been taught as a child and spent his life defending an authentic street corner conservatism of faith, tradition, and community rather than a collection of abstractions.
After a promising beginning as a journalist, Buchanan’s hiring by Richard Nixon in 1966 propelled him to the status of a political insider. Stanley emphasizes the almost father-son relationship between Nixon, whom Buchanan called “the Old Man”, and his young conservative pitbull. He notes that Pat Buchanan was seen as the conservative movement’s inside man in the Nixon Administration as “Nixonism was nonideological” except for malice towards easily identified foes. Buchanan’s mission was to craft a conservative agenda that could win and then convince the “Old Man” that it was in his advantage to champion it.
For that reason, Buchanan’s conservatism was not built on ideological propositions, but practically, on specific constituencies, especially George Wallace voters, urban Catholics, and culturally conservative workers. Together with Republicans, these former Democrats who were repelled by the 1960s New Left would form the “Silent Majority”—a phrase Pat Buchanan originally coined for Vice President Agnew.
Buchanan was also responsible for Agnew’s targeting the Main Stream Media as a political actor in its own right—one inherently hostile to conservatives and Middle Americans. This was genuinely shocking in 1969, but common practice for conservatives today.
Again, however, this was less determined from first principles than by tactical necessity, informed by Buchanan’s own experience fighting (sometimes literally) with liberal journalists at Columbia Journalism School.
Buchanan’s line of attack implicitly challenged the free market fundamentalism of much of the conservative movement. An elite liberal media hostile to American traditions presupposes that, in Stanley’s words, “capitalists and hippies were conspiring to downgrade American culture, scraping the bottom line in every sense.” But it led to Nixon’s crushing victory in 1972—a victory for what Buchanan called the “New American Majority.”
Buchanan’s personal allegiances were also the product of the tangible and concrete, rather than ideology. In some ways, paradoxically, this led to moderation. While Buchanan did his best to push Nixon to the right, the fact is Nixon created anti-white racial preferences, recognized Communist China, formed the EPA, and pushed through wage and price controls. Nonetheless, Buchanan saw defeating the “alien” forces of the McGovern campaign as worth the compromises.
As the nightmare of Watergate tore apart the Nixon White House, Pat Buchanan was the last to remain loyal, ferociously defending his chief before a hostile Congress, and only telling the “Old Man” to resign after the “smoking gun” was produced. Politics wasn’t just a battle of ideas, but a battle of personalities and concrete forces. To be involved in the arena meant to pick a side and accept all that came with it.
Buchanan was perhaps the only member of the Nixon White House who emerged with his reputation not just intact, but enhanced.
After leaving politics, Buchanan remade the media environment as a champion of the New Right. Stanley characterizes the various grassroots organizations that arose in the 1970’s as prizing “the pursuit of righteousness” over “the pursuit of total liberty”. He depicts Buchanan as the “Cicero of this New Right revolt,” gleefully ripping homosexual activists and Cold War appeasers while channeling the spirit of “an angry truck driver at the end of a long day” in South Boston. Buchanan was developing a vocabulary for ordinary Americans who sensed the New Left was destroying their country, but didn’t know (or were prohibited from knowing) the first principles required to argue against them.
Buchanan became the champion of the Right on the radio show Confrontation, which became the television show Crossfire. Stanley argues Buchanan was a critical factor in the emergence of today’s conservative “talking heads” like Ann Coulter or Tucker Carlson. Even as the MSM was designated the enemy, conservatism became oddly dependent on that same media—with the attention of the MSM determining who spoke for the Right.
Then, in 1985, Reagan brought on Buchanan as his Director of Communications, where he once again served as a kind of “inside man” for conservatives.
The Conservative Movement Inc. has now deified Reagan, but Stanley describes a divided White House, with conservatives and moderates fighting a never-ending battle for influence over a President seemingly convinced by the last person he spoke to. Nor were Beltway conservatives particularly alert to the broader forces at work. Stanley writes: “Drug addiction, promiscuity, single parenthood, racial division, immigration, and pornography were on the up… and the Republicans on the Hill seemed convinced that they could all be solved with a balanced budget.”
Again, however, Buchanan stayed loyal to the team in times of crisis. When Reagan was staggered by Iran-Contra, Buchanan outlined a confrontational strategy even as Republicans on the Hill ran for cover. Buchanan himself savagely attacked the MSM as un-American (in front of a crowd of pro-Reagan Cuban-Americans) and passionately defended Oliver North.
Largely because Buchanan—and seemingly Buchanan alone—stood up without apology for the Reagan Administration, conservative leaders like Phyllis Schlafly, Howard Phillips, Larry Pratt, Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie, and others urged him to run for President himself. In 1988, he declined. In 1992, he would accept.
However, even within those four years, Buchanan was subtly transforming from the conservative movement’s inside man to a right-wing dissident. Stanley bluntly terms this process “Pat Becomes a Paleocon, Runs for President”. He notes the “growing mood of rebellion in American politics,” obvious in the rise of openly racial politicians like David Duke, grassroots fury at the Bush tax betrayal, and the emergence of Ross Perot.
Buchanan was also becoming an outsider over foreign policy. He dissented from the Bush Administration, and the co-opted Beltway conservative Establishment, over the first Gulf War, allying with Joe Sobran and Sam Francis. As Stanley notes, only Buchanan’s career would survive.
By the 1992 campaign, Pat Buchanan was operating on dual tracks. To the MSM that simultaneously loathed and loved him, he was the television professional many of them knew personally, always ready with a (carefully prepared) quip. For example, warned in advance that he would be asked a question on gun regulation, Buchanan responded after mock consideration: “In my view, if it requires a truck to pull it, it should be banned.”
At the same time, Buchanan’s affinity with grassroots cultural conservatives, the fabled “Reagan Democrats,” drew him into forbidden territory. In the key story that Stanley tells in the book and retold at his February 17 book signing in Washington DC, Buchanan once walked up to newly-fired mill workers, awkwardly trying to work the line. One man looked him in the eye and said: “Save our jobs.”
Twenty years later, Buchanan still chokes up telling this story. Twenty years later, the Wall Street Journal and the Establishment conservative movement will not forgive him for caring about American workers.
Timothy Stanley devotes a great deal of attention to Pat Buchanan’s relationship with Sam Francis. He handles this so impartially that I have no doubt plans to destroy him are being hatched somewhere in Montgomery AL. Francis and other members of the small intellectual circle gathered around Buchanan noted that he “didn’t represent a point of view so much as a social force.” Although Buchanan facilitated conservatism’s transformation to a never-ending media narrative, he was simultaneously the greatest proof that authentic conservatism was less a body of ideas than the defense of an existing constituency and tradition, the “negation of ideology.” It’s noteworthy that the conservative intellectual who coined that phrase, Russell Kirk, supported Pat Buchanan for president, although reportedly furious that Buchanan seemed to pay more attention to Francis than himself.
Stanley makes the important point that the Bush campaign initially attempted to prevent Buchanan from having a prime time speech at the 1992 convention. Buchanan’s obtaining it was seen as a victory for the conservative movement. His famous “Culture War” speech, which Stanley quite accurately sees as the template for conservative politics over the following two decades, initially led to a huge jump in the polls for George I.
Outrageously, and predictably, Republican moderates led by Jack Kemp sabotaged their own party (and their own candidate) by denouncing it to the MSM. Not for the first time, the Republican Party turned victory into defeat: Bush lost to Bill Clinton by five percent—and Ross Perot, “whose people were really our people” in the words of one of Pat’s workers, claimed 19%. The moderates’ much-touted “big tent”, by conceding American workers to the Left and to Perot, actually shrank the Republican vote.
The Buchanan Brigades deployed even more successfully in 1996. Stanley here conveys the absurdist humor and high drama of campaign politics. Alan Keyes is good for a laugh every few pages, hysterically complaining about allegedly racist jokes to crowds of reporters, staging hunger strikes, or getting arrested. There’s also the weird ragtime piano show that was the campaign of Lamar Alexander and his “Lamar!” signs. One wishes that Twitter, with its massive opportunities for snark, had existed in 1996.
Pat was a giant amidst this cast of mediocrities. But as Stanley notes, “no humiliation the Tea Party endured in 2010 could match the things that were said about Pat Buchanan in New Hampshire, 1996.” Alleged “Conservative leaders” joined in the attack, with Grover Norquist calling him “Ronald Reagan with Dick Gephardt stapled to his head”. Failed sportswriter George Will called Buchanan’s supporters “victims and crybabies”(i. e. unemployed Americans) and Buchanan himself a Holocaust denier. Buchanan’s faithful service for Nixon and Reagan was ignored. Loyalty in “the movement” only goes one way.
But the early balloting cost him Arizona, the GOP machine consolidated against him in South Carolina, and the money simply wasn’t there. More importantly, Bob Dole and the Republican leadership co-opted Buchanan’s ideas about trade, sovereignty, and border security in the Republican Party platform—but took care to exclude him from the convention. They stayed respectable in the eyes of those who hated them. And they lost.
Stanley doesn’t go into much detail about Buchanan’s life after the 1996 campaign. He notes that Buchanan’s trade policy book The Great Betrayal was treated as a resignation from the Republican Party and received scathing reviews from Establishment Conservatives. (For Peter Brimelow’s review, see here).
Republican Party dogma hardened around a free trade, limited government fundamentalism that never actually delivered any limited government. Buchanan tried to build a Right/Left coalition on issues like free trade and globalization, even attending the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, albeit staying in a hotel room. However, as always, culture was the dividing line. The protesters in the street hated globalization—but less than they hated Buchanan's nationalism and conservative social values. There was no Right/Left coalition on trade any more than the seemingly dozens of failed Right/Left coalitions about foreign policy that emerged after the second Iraq War.
And then Buchanan’s switch the Reform Party nomination in 2000 was a disastrous failure. Interestingly, Stanley blames Bay Buchanan, who urged him to make the effort. “It is ironic,” writes Stanley, “given Pat Buchanan’s reputation among liberals as a chauvinist pig, that he made the biggest mistake of his political life because he couldn’t say no to his sister.”
Stanley says that Buchanan did not win the culture war, but “can take some satisfaction in that he helped define it for millions of people.”
He’s right in the sense that the conservative movement wins what few victories it has by appealing to an "us versus them" narrative that pits arrogant liberal elites against the conservative masses. Stanley points to the rise of Sarah Palin (who may have held a fundraiser for Buchanan in the 1990s) as evidence of Buchanan’s lasting significance. In the Tea Party, Stanley argues, one can hear the continuing echo of the Buchanan Brigades’ peasants with pitchforks.
Stanley’s description of Bush I and Dole’s campaigns make another significant point: neither enthusiastically sought out the label of “conservative” label. But today, Republican primaries are a battle over ownership of that one word. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum gleefully denounce their own past actions in order to claim the mantle. Even Ron Paul pretends to be Reagan’s heir.
Buchanan’s rhetorical triumph is complete. In stylistic terms, rather than fleeing from extremism, Republican candidates embrace it, almost courting the scorn of the liberal media. Buchanan didn’t just create the modern conservative talking head; he created the modern Republican candidate.
Unfortunately, Stanley largely ignores the issue that Buchanan should be remembered for: mass, non-traditional immigration. But the rage against Buchanan comes because the Left recognizes the same thing as Sam Francis—Buchanan spoke less for an ideology and more for the historic nation, patriotic, mostly white Americans who identified with the traditional culture and had little in common with the managerial elites who ruled them.
Buchanan is, for better or worse, seen as an advocate for “White America,” even if he doesn’t see himself in such simplistic terms. That is why they hate him and that is why they cannot tolerate him having any sort of platform.
Nor can the conservative movement that was remade, at least superficially, in his image. Even as the likes of Dick Armey parade around in cowboy hats or Rick Santorum tries to channel the Buchanan Brigades in Ohio and Michigan, no one actually connects the dots the way Buchanan did. No other conservative leader has used politics to stand up for their supporters like Buchanan—as opposed to using their supporters to stand up for their politics.
In fact, even as the movement has grown more implicitly Buchananite, it has grown more explicitly ideological and internally policing. The new generation of conservatives is stylistically combative but more moderate in policy than even a Bob Dole or Lamar! Alexander.
Conservatism swaggers and sneers across the Internet and media landscape. But it’s populated by Hollow Men with vague slogans about “limited government”, easily broken by the next Media Matters campaign.
The story of Pat Buchanan is the story of someone defending a culture he directly experienced, discovering a movement to facilitate that defense—and then realizing that the movement was out for itself and not for the constituency and the culture that supported it.
Buchanan once wrote that he understood conservatism as a youth through experience and only later “learn[ed] to conscript the intellectual arguments of the sages to reinforce the embattled arguments of the heart.”
But for America’s youth today—I speak as a member of Generation Y, born during Reagan’s first term—there is no tradition, no people, and no country to speak of, just the mute protest of your own bones that it didn’t have to be this way.
Stanley’s book ends too soon. Buchanan’s greatest role may be yet to come, as the cultural Marxist Left throws off its liberal mask and moves to ban books like Suicide of a Superpower (and websites like VDARE.com).
The real story of Pat Buchanan’s importance has yet to be written.