Politics and whiskey have this much in common: A man can getdreadfully drunk on either one. An experienced drinker can handle the booze. A novice never knows when to stop. So it is with Patrick Buchanan, the most improbable candidate for president since Wendell Willkie ran against Roosevelt in 1940. But Willkie won the Republican nomination. Mr. Buchanan won't win beans.
At the moment, Pat is drunk on politics. Pickled. Tanked. Blotto. I have seen it happen over and over. In the nature of the game, a candidate is surrounded by sycophants and true believers. By night and by day, Pat hears little but applause and good wishes. ''You're going to take him, Pat!'' ''Great speech, Pat!''
All this goes to a man's head. Reality dissolves in a boozy haze. Tuesday night an exultant Mr. Buchanan was shouting to his followers that he was going ''all the way.'' He was going to win the nomination! After that, the White House! There he was, on stage, ''the next president of the United States!'' basking in adulation like a sirloin steak in a wine marinade.
To what end? If a voice of reason can cut through the sound barrier, some solid Republican should grab Mr. Buchanan by the lapels and ask him, straight out, what Pat thinks he is accomplishing. He has brilliantly accomplished what most of us thought was his real purpose: to shock George Bush into an awareness of conservative discontent.
The Buchanan message has been delivered. Loud and clear. Why does the messenger linger on?
No one in the pundit business, so far as I am aware, ever dreamed that Mr. Buchanan was serious. When the columnist Bill Buckley ran for mayor of New York some years ago, everyone saw it as a lark. (Asked if he might be declared the winner, Mr. Buckley said he would demand a recount). Mr. Buchanan is different. He is now asking to be taken seriously.
This is impossible. Pat is, or was, one of our own. He is, or was, a columnist and TV commentator. We have known him for some years in the press box. What is he doing, all suited up, down on the field?
The Buchanan vote should be seen clearly for what it is: a protest. Having delivered the ringing protest of a frustrated and angry people, Mr. Buchanan has done a constructive job. To continue now, in the face of certain defeat at the Houston convention, is to perform no useful service at all. He is further dividing an already unhappy Republican Party. Instead of healing wounds he is rubbing salt into them.
Beyond the immediate political combat, what lies ahead for Mr. Buchanan? After November, what is he? A footnote? A passing paragraph? He has burnt his bridges as columnist, commentator and lecturer. The longer he campaigns, the more he becomes identified as a purely political figure, a political force within his party.
But in the taxonomy of politics he is neither fish nor fowl; he holds no office, and none is available to him by appointment or by election. Perhaps he could run in Virginia for John Warner's Senate seat, but he has no credentials within the Old Dominion.
Quo vadis, Pat? Where are you going? When the presidential booze runs dry, only a hangover remains.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.