Conflicts of a Conservative: Does Bush or Buchanan Deserve Support?

March 08, 1992|By JON MEACHAM

Pat Buchanan came South the last two weeks, talking about quotas (he's against them) and abortion rights (them too). In forceful words with a fine wit, Mr. Buchanan seized the conservative brass ring, eating barbecue and telling crowds about his "middle-American revolution." It was smooth, impressive, funny -- and it's probably going to turn me to the Democrats.

I am a political pollster's dream: A young Southerner with conservative leanings who pays attention. I'm the kind of voter you find a lot of in the electorally rich Sun Belt, the kind that a presidential candidate must woo to win. George Bush courted me successfully in 1988, confirming an association with the Republicans that Ronald Reagan started.

But this year, there are no commanding figures like Mr. Reagan, whose winning charm seems very far away. Mr. Bush is not offering a coherent view, and Mr. Buchanan's is unattractive. So I left to confront what it really means to be conservative.

For some children of the Reagan era, Jimmy Carter is a failure and the Republicans -- embodied by Mr. Reagan, and, later, by George Bush -- won the Cold War, liberated Grenada and Kuwait and stood up to the rest of the world. That those images trip easily off my tongue should warm Michael Deaver's heart and put a spring in James Baker's step. Vietnam and Pearl Harbor don't dominate our world; we grew up thinking it was morning in America.

At the moment, however, those comfortable political stories are fraying. Mr. Bush cannot play to houses accustomed to the big, sentimental Reagan musicals. He is not a Reagan conservative, nor, it seems, a Rockefeller Republican. Frankly, I don't know what he is.

But I do know that Mr. Buchanan is Reaganism without the manners, a man of fierce reactionary principles that strike odd, disturbing notes. So, if Mr. Buchanan is the conservative and Mr. Bush nothing discernible at all, then the field is open for the first time.

Conservatism is the recognition of limitations. The world is dark and dangerous, a place of peril which will never entirely satisfy us. We can no more regain Eden than we can achieve the kingdom of God on earth, no matter how hard we try to be caring persons. Politically, that plays out in ways that Mr. Reagan defined in broad phrases: We must be strong, we must accept that welfare won't always work, we must concede the supremacy of the free market.

My generation is particularly vulnerable to the politics of packaging, for we grew up with television as the guiding force in our lives. To understand George Bush's failure to capture our imaginations, you have to understand the nature of political mythmaking. For Mr. Bush has no enveloping image, no big story that attracts adherents in the way the Gipper did. Without it, and with Mr. Buchanan scaring off those of us who thought we were going to be good, conservative Republicans for the rest of our lives, all bets are off. The Democratic candidates now have an opening to regain young voters.

A little history: For those of us in our twenties who are politically literate, Ronald Reagan is our president. For some, he was the grand old man, a grandfatherly figure who benignly presided over an empire. For others, he was a somnolent cold warrior who read his lines while tropical rain forests burned. Nevertheless, he resides at the center of the political universe, defining who we are or who we are not.

Ronald Reagan is to us what Queen Victoria was to the British a century ago. Both symbolize imperfectly understood and imperfectly defined eras. What Henry James wrote to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. on Victoria's death in 1901 could have been written (allowing for a change of gender, of course) of Mr. Reagan's departure from Washington: "But I mourn the safe and motherly old middle-class queen, who held the nation warm under the fold of her big, hideous Scotch-plaid shawl and whose duration had been so extraordinarily convenient and beneficent," James wrote. "I felt her death much more than I should have expected; she was a sustaining symbol."

Mr. Reagan's symbolic clarity, whether he was right, wrong, silly or senile, gave way to the fuzzy Bush image of compromise. Mr. Reagan meant big-screen, unabashed patriotism; no setting was too big for him to dominate. He made the nation weep at the 40th anniversary of D-Day at Normandy, somehow suspending the reality that he was in Hollywood making training films in 1944.

Mr. Bush, of course, is the real thing, a war hero. Intellectually, we know the difference -- too many disarming essays on the Reagan fiction have triumphantly pointed it out. But emotionally, and election-year politics are mostly about emotion, we only know that Mr. Bush can't project the same clarity.

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