In Politics, the Ironist Gets Only a Sideline Seat

WILLIAM PFAFF

March 09, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS. — Paris -- I feel that I know Pat Buchanan very well, having mixed with a great many like him in the 1950s and 1960s in Irish Catholic circles in New York and Washington, and in the Catholic universities. (Note, however, that Mr. Buchanan is Scots-Irish rather than Irish; a bearer of his name ought to be Presbyterian rather than Catholic. A Catholic Buchanan could only happen in America.)

There is a Celtic charm which deflects the violence, and conceals the poverty of the ideas, and a pleasing plain-speaking in total contrast with that humbug, euphemism and recoil from spade-as-spade that has characterized American political language from long before the arrival of political correctness on the American campus.

When Mr. Buchanan asks if a hundred thousand English immigrants would not fit more easily into American society than a hundred thousand Zulus, you may not like the condescension and implied racism of his terms, but you take the point, which is one that other American politicians today are too mealy-mouthed, or mealy-minded, to talk about. That is Mr. Buchanan's demagogic appeal: He says things others won't say.

It is also impossible not to feel a true, albeit low, pleasure when Mr. Buchanan does to George Bush exactly what George Bush has in the past done to others, by employing against him that form of political character assassination-by-association pioneered in the Willie Horton spots of 1988 and perfected, in Georgia last week, in Mr. Buchanan's film of a black, gay, leather-party performance, falsely alleged to have been financed by the Bush administration. It is nice to see Mr. Bush's righteous indignation.

These are passing and unworthy pleasures, however, and afterward one is left with Pat Buchanan, the nationalist bully, voodoo economist, patriotism-shouter and putative anti-Semite.

You don't have to be a Celt to possess all these deplorable qualities. The country is full of such people, and they all voted last time for George Bush. Mr. Buchanan's advantage this year is that a Celt can be a bully, scalawag and voodoo accountant, and still be funny.

I wish that the best of the Catholic Irish, like Pat Moynihan, were running against George Bush, rather than the most disreputable. But the best and most intelligent suffer the handicap (which is both Irish and Catholic) of seeing too clearly the absurdity of most that goes on in American politics, and of finding the appropriate response to be irony. Irony doesn't sell in politics -- or journalism, for that matter.

There is a detachment in such men that is a product of Catholic education, or at least of the Catholic education of the pre-1960s generations. This causes them to say that the world at best is a vale of tears, and its problems never really to be solved this side of the grave.

You do what you can, and what you must, but you take it for granted that most of the effort will be wasted and most of the good intentions will backfire -- and that you should get some laughs from it while you can.

There is some of this, though in a dour way, in the Italian Catholic Mario Cuomo's political condition of permanent indecision: What will be will be.

This was also a decisive element in the career as presidential candidate of Sen. Eugene McCarthy. A Democratic administration had, by the Vietnam War, provoked a political and social crisis in the United States. The obvious Democratic challengers to the Johnson administration's course were too pusillanimous to act. Hence Mr. McCarthy, a Celtic romantic, launched his children's crusade.

When the forces of Robert Kennedy staged their strong-arm takeover of a McCarthy crusade that unexpectedly looked like winning, the senator from Minnesota could find ironic -- if bitter -- amusement in that, too.

And nothing was then more characteristic than that he should throw down his cards and walk away. For after all, what does one expect of politics -- or of life?

It is the humorless who win the prizes in the United States, even if they afterward run the country into the ground. Those who can laugh at themselves laugh alone. I fear this is the judgment that eventually will be imposed on Paul Tsongas, who laughs at himself. The ability to do that makes the American puritan uneasy.

This is a very strange election year. On the one side is the frantic George Bush, who will do anything to be re-elected, simply for the sake of being elected, having no program beyond that, as the last four years have demonstrated.

There is Pat Buchanan, a talented college debater offering a rigidly ideological program only tangentially connected with the real world in which the United States functions or the real international economy in which it makes its living.

And there are the Democratic challengers -- the one-term senator here, the one-term governor there, unknown to any of us a year ago, earnest amateurs challenging the vast and experienced campaign infernal-machine deployed by the Republican National Committee and the White House.

H.L Mencken said in 1924 that ''Democracy is that system of government under which the people, having [then] 35,717,342 native-born adult whites to choose from, including thousands who are handsome and many who are wise, pick out a Coolidge to be head of the State.''

If only we had a Coolidge today! Modest, honest, competent Calvin Coolidge. So far have we come.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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