Buchanan and the new extremism

William Safire

December 17, 1991|By William Safire

Washington MY OLD comrade-in-arms from Nixon speechwriting days (he did "pusillanimous pussyfooters" for Agnew alliteration, while I did "nattering nabobs of negativism") is running for President.

To be more precise, Patrick J. Buchanan is using the Republican primary campaign in 1992 as the springboard for his long-range plan to wrest control of the party from hawkish neoconservatives and pragmatic moderates. Right from the start, he was a Goldwater "true believer," never happy with the necessary compromises of Nixon and Reagan.

Pat will open strong in New Hampshire, a handshakable state gripped by depression, where safely maverick Republicans will gleefully grab the chance to "send Bush a message" before returning to the fold in November.

Playing David against Goliath, unencumbered by competition from David Duke, and with the ardent support of the state's biggest newspaper, Pat might exceed Gene McCarthy's 42 percent against an incumbent president; if he does, the coiner of "instant analysis" will be declared the winner.

That will be his peak, but will earn him coverage all spring and a dramatic prime-time slot at the convention. Recalling the Reagan example against incumbent President Ford in 1976, Pat will not bolt, but will begin his campaign for takeover of the party in 1996 against Kemp, Quayle, Wilson and Gramm.

When that fails, he will transform his computer-connected network of the nativist right and isolationist left into a third party similar to the American Party of the mid-19th century. Do not underestimate a messianic pol who can write his own stuff; Buchanan -- the anti-intellectual intellectual, the most likable hater -- will be a political factor for a long time.

Does he pose a danger to the present rightward, individualist direction of America? Yes.

His elitist immigration policy makes even nutty multiculturalism look good. Looking at the world, he takes a good thing -- political self-determination, nationalist pride -- and carries it to an extreme. If America is to be first, it cannot be the result of selfishness or xenophobia but because we have the will to use our power to lead selective intervention.

Had the Buchanan Weltanschauung prevailed, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- his conquest of Kuwait setting him bestride the Arab world and in control of vast wealth -- would today be importing Soviet scientists to put the finishing touches on his nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles. George Bush may not have followed through his victory, but intervention has its uses; at least Manchester, N.H., is not now a madman's easy nuclear target.

Which brings me to a personal point. I was in that band of warhawks at which Pat loosed his cannon this year, labeling us "the amen corner" of the Israeli Defense Ministry -- as if the threat to the U.S. from Saddam was a concoction of world Jewry.

That was a charge of dual loyalty, below the political belt. Pat knew it: Catholic Americans had to endure similar charges of "Romanism" for a century until the election of JFK buried such notions of secret papal domination.

I withheld my reaction in hopes that a columnist with impeccably conservative credentials, and not Jewish, would make the call. William F. Buckley, an early Buchanan hero, has just done so in the National Review, finding the pattern of Pat's past remarks impossible to defend from a charge of anti-Semitism. That's a sound, if pained, judgment.

Another reason I laid low was to be in a position to help a friend back out of what he now must know to be a dead end. Although he misperceives contrition as weakness, he has lately been studding his statements with "Judeo-Christian values"; admitting "insensitivity" and being "a wiseacre" to Jim Lehrer on PBS, explaining that his listing of only non-Jewish names as potential Persian Gulf war casualties was more anti-British than anti-Yiddish.

Pat and I used to prepare the "black book" of anticipated questions and suggested answers to a candidate. Here's a submission for your own black book, Pat: "I can see how some wiseguy cracks of mine in the past can be taken as anti-Semitic. I did not mean to hurt or frighten any group of Americans, and to the extent I did I repudiate it right now. David Duke can have the Nazi vote. I'm here looking for the new nationalists . . ."

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