The Virtues of Pat Buchanan

TRB

January 09, 1992|By TRB

WASHINGTON — Washington.-- Patrick Buchanan will never be president for many excellent reasons and one bad one.

The bad reason is that he has spent most of his adult life as a purveyor of political opinions. Goodness knows we don't want television commentators elevated to genuine power. But a political system that punishes strongly held and vividly expressed opinions -- whatever their merits -- has defects of its own.

Even now, ''negative research'' munchkins in the Bush campaign are undoubtedly plowing through thousands of Buchanan newspaper columns and television transcripts. It's hard not to feel a bit sorry for Pat as you contemplate the embarrassment of riches available to them.

There is, to pluck just one example, his 1977 column calling Adolf Hitler ''an individual of great courage [with] an intuitive sense of the mushiness, the character flaws, the weakness masquerading morality that was in the hearts of the statesmen who stood in his path.''

Is that column an indefensible defense of the indefensible? Read in its entirety, including parts not quoted here, no. Read in the context of Mr. Buchanan's other writings, it is troubling once more. That's the usual pattern with his incendiary stuff.

But in a political campaign, the column will get neither reading. It will be boiled down to: Buchanan praised Hitler. Imagine what Roger Ailes could do with that.

Of course the take-no-prisoners campaign style is one Mr. Buchanan himself has relished since Hitler, I mean since Nixon. So perhaps it serves him right. But does it serve us right?

To be sure, as a man of opinions, Pat Buchanan is an extreme case. But even as saintly and moderate a commentator as, say, David Broder has left far too many hostages to fortune to contemplate political office.

The psychology of the commentator and of the politician are completely different. A commentator must have opinions on everything and spew them like an open fire hydrant. Pat Buchanan the journalist needs dozens of opinions a week to fulfill his professional obligations.

Furthermore, as a matter of character, a good political commentator looks for things to say that will disconcert people, confound settled views, even give offense.

A great line for a commentator is a 'gaffe' for a politician. A gaffe, as this column has noted before, is when a politician tells the truth. Not necessarily the objective truth, but the truth about what he or she really thinks.

The serious presidential candidate must hoard his opinions, if any. Each must be shaped with care, the rough edges polished '' away. The fewer old opinions lying around, the easier it is to mold new ones to current exigencies.

Mr. Buchanan's problem is not merely his paper trail of old opinions, but his commentator's reflexive tendency to say unnecessarily interesting things. Like a smoker, he knows he should quit but can't.

Interviewed recently by the London Sunday Telegraph, for example, he analyzed urban affairs with this anecdote about a visit by his wife to downtown Washington: ''The other day Shelley went down Connecticut Avenue and these guys were sitting on the corner playing bongo drums. I mean, this is the town I grew up in.''

And what about this, from the same interview? ''The U.S. should stand up for values, shared values. Why are we more shocked when a dozen people are killed in Vilnius than a massacre in Burundi? Because they are white people. That's who we are. That's where America comes from.''

Give Mr. Buchanan this: Unlike his rival, George Bush, he has principles. True, they're mostly the wrong principles. But Bush vs. Buchanan is a tempting illustration of the maxim that in some ways the wrong principles are better than no principles.

They're better, first, aesthetically. It is pleasing to see a candidate on the hustings promoting long-held beliefs with sincere passion.

You don't have to agree with Pat Buchanan to admire his straightforwardness when reporters ask him questions, or to cringe at the shrieky campaign style of George Bush when he tries to make up in pitch and volume what he lacks in conviction.

Second, the wrong principles at least create a focus for honest political debate. On issues ranging from civil rights to free trade, Mr. Bush has pursued a strategy of making clarity impossible.

Mr. Buchanan will not promise to be the ''environmental president.'' If he were the Republican nominee, America would have the opportunity to decide clearly how much environmental protection it wants.

Third, there are some issues on which we might actually be better off seeing the wrong principles enacted than to continue in principle-free drift.

Federal spending is one of these. We can argue endlessly about whether spending should be reduced or taxes increased. But either solution would be better for the country than another decade of no solution.

Unlike other candidates who can prattle disingenuously about flexible freezes and bureaucracy and waste, fraud and abuse, Mr. Buchanan is on record, repeatedly, endorsing most of the genuine ways federal spending could be cut.

Now that he's a politician, he'll be strongly tempted to fudge.

Don't do it, Pat. We have plenty of other reasons to vote against you.

TRB is a column in the New Republic written by Michael Kinsley.

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