WASHINGTON. — Sometimes I wonder how different life might have been for Patrick J. Buchanan if he'd been born black.
I wonder whether Mr. Buchanan, 53, would have been allowed to grow up in the ritzy Washington suburb that was his home in the '40s and '50s. Or would his family have been scooted off by housing covenants to the ghetto on the other side of town?
Had Pat been black, I wonder, would he have gotten 37 percent of New Hampshire's Republican primary vote against President Bush, even though he never has held any elective office before? Funny how many of the same people who thought that experience was so important for Jesse Jackson in 1988 have forgotten all about it in evaluating Mr. Buchanan, a newspaper columnist, in 1992.
Speaking of newspaper columns, a subject I know a little bit about, I seriously doubt that a bright, young, black Pat Buchanan would have gotten a job writing editorials for the old St. Louis Globe Democrat at age 23 in the early '60s, when most white-owned newspapers (and radio and TV stations) didn't even have any black reporters.
And I wonder if Mr. Buchanan would be viewed as a threat to President Bush's political future if he were a black man whose autobiography was filled with gleefully woven tales of fistfights.
That's Pat's pugilistic past. Some fights were provoked. Some were sucker punches. Those Buchanan boys love to scrap, folks used to say. I bet the reaction wouldn't have been so sanguine had those scrappin' Buchanan boys been black. Yet, even subtle differences in the way we react to youthful indiscretions can have enormous consequences for what sociologists call their ''life chances.''
The closest young Pat came to life in the slammer was his conviction on a misdemeanor and suspension from Georgetown University for a fight he provoked with two Washington police officers. I wonder what would have happened to a young black Pat who decided to tussle with two Washington police officers one night in the late '50s?
Perhaps there would have been no suspension. Perhaps there would have been no misdemeanor conviction. Perhaps there would only have been a funeral.
Then, of course, there is today's bad Pat, the Pat who dismisses gay activists as ''the Pederast Proletariat'' and feminists as ''the Butch Brigade,'' the Pat who boldly encourages immigration preferences for Europeans over countries that have a predominance of non-whites, the Pat whose bashing of Israel and of neoconservatives who happen to have Jewish surnames has been branded as anti-Semitic by his own philosophical mentor, William F. Buckley Jr.
A black Pat who fired away with such invective might be stigmatized as severely as Jesse Jackson has been since 1984 for his off-the-record remarks that referred to Jews as ''Hymies'' and New York City as ''Hymietown.''
Mr. Jackson apologized, but the media never let him forget it. Just about every news story written about Mr. Jackson finds ways to work it in. Mr. Buchanan, by comparison, scoffs ''I'm no David Duke,'' and that seems to be good enough. Maybe the key in such instances is not to apologize but to boldly brag about it.
I wouldn't be pondering the difference a little more pigment would have made in Pat's life if his rhetoric didn't invite it. As a self-described ''paleoconservative'' who views even neoconservatives as heretical, he strikes themes blacks can only find ominously familiar as he turns his campaign like Sherman turned his army toward the South, particularly toward Georgia, where he might fill a gap left on the Right's full-mooner extreme by the absence of ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, an old hand at racial appeals, on the Tuesday ballot.
''If I am elected, my friends, I will go through this administration, department by department and agency by agency, and root out the whole rotten infrastructure of reverse discrimination, root and branch,'' he intoned to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference two days after coming within 16 percentage points of tying President Bush in the New Hampshire primary.
He didn't say what he would replace it with, which implies that blacks in Mr. Buchanan's world either don't need or deserve any special help to catch up to whites after hundreds of years of non-reverse discrimination. No, in Mr. Buchanan's world, it is the victimization of white folks by civil-rights laws that is more important.
This is the old Pat renewed, old bad Pat, suppressed in New Hampshire's final days under a kinder, gentler pose. There, in a ++ state that has 55,000 fewer jobs than it did in 1988 and a black population too small to serve as a convenient scapegoat, a different Pat emerged.
The new Pat decided extended unemployment benefits weren't such a bad idea after all. The new Pat preached about the need for government to establish a ''floor of decency'' beneath which families should not be allowed to fall.
Compared to the old Pat, the new Pat sounded like a George McGovern liberal. I liked that Pat. For a few days he sounded like he knew how to appeal to voters along lines of reason instead of skin color.
8, Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.