The American Conservative
Michael Brendan Dougherty
November 12, 2012
Patrick Buchanan working as an aide to Richard Nixon in 1969
Patrick J. Buchanan stood beside a window in Chicago’s Conrad Hilton hotel during the 1968 Democratic convention and looked over the panorama of dissent raging below. At about two in the morning, the phone rang—it was Nixon. “Buchanan, what is happening there?”
“I said, ‘Listen’,” Buchanan recalls, then pantomimes how he stuck the phone out the hotel window. “All you could hear was ‘F-you Daley! F-you Daley!’”
“That’s what’s going on,” he told Nixon, and hung up. He smiled taking it in.
Later the police, tired of the verbal abuse being hurled at them, charged into the park and at the protestors, looking for a brawl. “The cops shouldn’t have done it,” says Buchanan, remembering the savage way they beat the demonstrators. “But the country saw the pictures of cops racing into the park. And the country was with the cops.”
The continental plates of America’s politics were grinding into new positions beneath Buchanan’s feet. That shift tilted ethnic whites and eventually Southern evangelicals into the Republican coalition, awarding the party five of the next six presidential elections, including two 49-state victories. In a phrase crafted by Buchanan, Nixon called it “the great silent majority.” Buchanan prefers to call it the New Majority.
In the generalizations of political history, Buchanan—as a wordsmith and veteran of two Republican White Houses—is lumped with the broad postwar conservative movement. Since the Cold War ended and that movement degenerated into a set of interlocking cliques, he has been identified more finely as a “paleoconservative.” The man who wrote incendiary editorials on Goldwater’s behalf for the St. Louis Globe Democrat , who attends Latin Mass regularly, and who injected the term “culture war” into the heart of political discourse is certainly a conservative. But that label is incomplete.
In media, he is the pioneer pundit. Sean Hannity and scores of others from all political backgrounds learned the trade from him. His three-hour radio show with Tom Braden evolved into a television program and later spawned “Crossfire” and “The McLaughlin Group.” But few other columnists or talking heads match his depth. If a cable news program is on in the background and you hear the words “Agincourt” or “the snows of Canossa,” it is Buchanan, inevitably, speaking them.
But he is not just a media figure, either. In that time of tumult before the 1968 election, National Review publisher Bill Rusher asked Pat, “Are you Nixon’s ambassador to the conservatives, or are you our ambassador to Nixon?” He replied, “I’m Nixon’s.” As a journalist, political operative, candidate, and thinker, Buchanan is above all a man of Nixon’s New Majority—something much broader and larger than the conservative movement has ever been.
He never captained that majority as a politician himself, though he aspired to in his campaigns for the presidency. But along the way Buchanan built a surprisingly durable estate as a journalist and author, defending the New Majority’s interests and cajoling Republicans to reconnect with them. On the one hand, his columns have the same energy and fire as once characterized reactionary luminaries like Westbrook Pegler at their anti-FDR finest—all joyous tub-thumping on behalf of Middle America, giving the impression of the merry warrior. In those columns, liberals are sparring partners, foils, and fools.
On the other hand, there is an elegiac quality to many of Buchanan’s books, which now fill an entire shelf. Although the books may be pegged to the political battles of the time they were published, when Buchanan writes between hard covers the spirit of German philosopher Oswald Spengler and American anti-communist James Burnham is in the work: Western civilization is exhausted, suicidal, and dying. Liberalism, now in the forms of multiculturalism, mass immigration, deindustrialization, and the sexual revolution, is the philosophy that justifies and celebrates the end of Western civilization.
If ever that seems overwrought, consider that the American culture he knew had been utterly erased. When explaining it himself, Buchanan points to the year his father was born, 1905. “Then the Western powers, the United States, and Japan ruled the whole world. Now all the empires are gone. The great armies and navies are gone. The countries have been reduced to their basic size, their birthrates beneath what is necessary to reproduce themselves, and they are subject to invasions of various kinds from the subjects of their former empires,” he says.
For Buchanan, the cultural changes are just as dramatic and unsettling. In his biography Right From The Beginning he recalls times in the 1960s when one of his brothers dumped stacks of Playboy he was supposed to deliver around Washington, D.C. into the dumpster. Another set a rack of girlie magazines on fire in a local store. This was commended by the their family and community as “Catholic action” in society. Half a century later, porn star Jenna Jameson is widely hailed as an entrepreneur and enthusiastically endorses the Republican candidate for president.
It wasn’t always clear to Buchanan that he would become a writer. He didn’t want to be an accountant like his father, nor enter the priesthood. But his father had versed him in what Buchanan calls all the “old conservative issues,” such as how America got into the Spanish-American War and World War I. On Saturdays at his father’s accounting office, the young Pat Buchanan read the anticommunist wordsmiths of his day, Westbrook Pegler and George Sokolsky. Both held flaming pens, revolted against the New Deal, supported Joe McCarthy, and wanted Robert A. Taft over Dwight Eisenhower as leader and symbol of the Republican Party. Although Pegler would later go to such extremes that even the John Birch Society threw him out, he was once so prominent that he was considered along with F.D.R. and Stalin for Time ’s Man of the Year in 1942. These were conservatives before the conservative movement.
Their influence is still seen in the way Buchanan writes a column. Unlike the clever interludes of David Brooks or the verbal curlicues of Peggy Noonan that feel like being wrapped in a down blanket, a Buchanan column is like being doused with gasoline and threatened with a lit match. “I don’t know that it is a style,” he says on reflection, “I write and I cut, tightening and tightening and tightening it until it is pure dynamite, and then I send it out.” The “New Journalism” of the 1960s was almost insensible to him: “They were all into the perpendicular pronoun, ‘I’ and ‘me’. I don’t get into that,” he says.
Out of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Buchanan had a few offers. He took one from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat , hoping to be seen by the Chicago Tribune and other major newspapers. Very quickly he ended up as an editorial writer for the conservative paper, and Buchanan’s short-fuse, big-bang editorials were recirculated by Human Events and the Manchester Union Leader . He wrote against unions and for Barry Goldwater—but also in favor of reforming Missouri’s penitentiary system. He edited columns by new conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr., whom he admired but from a distance.
After a few years, he wanted to get closer to the action—to be in politics. Running for office made no sense, as he was a Washington, D.C. native. So he looked at how well Jack Kennedy’s aides were doing, especially Ted Sorenson, whom Kennedy had called his “blood bank intellectual.”
“You’d see these pictures of this guy leaning over behind the president,” Buchanan says. “If I can’t be the president I could be the guy leaning over there.”
The man Buchanan cared to lean over was Richard Nixon, whom Buchanan successfully impressed at a party, mentioning that he wanted to be a part of whatever Nixon did in 1968. Nixon hired him to help with correspondence and other writing, but mainly they shared ideas and analysis, with Buchanan summarizing and interpreting the news and the mood of the country or working as an advance man.
What was happening in the country was obvious to them. The New Deal coalition that had been so powerful was cracking up. Ethnic whites and Southern evangelicals balked at the Great Society of Johnson and were disturbed by the social transformations around them. While many in the elite were sympathetic to student protestors, that Silent Majority feared and detested them. “Like FDR did with the malefactors of great wealth and the Wall Street crowd, you say that these people have declared themselves hostile to us. And by 1968 they were carrying flags and chanting ‘Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh’,” Buchanan recalls. Beating the left was easy then.
After the Nixon White House melted in scandal, Buchanan became the chief theorist of Nixon’s coalition, in his books Conservative Votes, Liberal Victories and The New Majority , which talked up the possibilities of realignment. To Buchanan, Republicans could become the party of Middle America, capture the bulk of the New Deal coalition, and leave Democrats with the detritus of Woodstock. “We were squares,” says Buchanan, “and happy.”
The thesis of Conservative Votes struck a chord that rings true to Buchanan even today. “We get our folks out and organized, we tell them what is going to be done, and they vote and go home,” he says. “But the forces in the city, and the forces in [Capitol] Hill, they don’t change and they work every day at maintaining what they want in terms of policy, so it becomes impossible to prevail.” Conservative votes could grant electoral victories, but the institutions of academia, the media, and the think-tank world were against them.
Buchanan never signed up to be in the conservative klatsch. The movement frankly bored him even as he was trying to bring it into the Nixon fold. “I was never in that,” he says now, recalling all the little organizations like Young Americans for Freedom or the Liberty Society. “In the conservative movement there is all this talking and meeting. I viewed a lot of it as just a waste of time. I learn more when I’m reading.”
He liked many of National Review ’s writers, to be sure. But when Garry Wills asked him if they had any influence, he could recall none. “I was going to say Burnham, but when I read Suicide of the West I already agreed with it,” Buchanan says before quoting Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, “The heart has reasons that reason does not understand.” Years later he would tell the 1992 Republican convention that the party needed to reconnect with people who don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke, but who remain “conservatives of the heart.” He could have been referring to a less tutored version of himself.
Unlike nearly every other self-consciously conservative writer in his time, Buchanan was unimpressed with political doctrine by itself. Ideological catechisms were only useful in defending the things you already knew you loved. This might explain how easily he threw away right-wing dogmas if he felt they at all threatened his country or the interests of the New Majority. In the course of his interview with TAC , Buchanan reminded me of the things he used to think: “Of course I admired Churchill,” “I was a militant Zionist,” “I was a free-trader.”
After the Nixon years, Buchanan needed to make a living and so he returned to column writing, eventually getting picked up by the New York Daily News . By the early ’80s he was doing three hours of radio an afternoon with Braden, followed by a television show. Then came “Crossfire” and “The McLaughlin Group.” And eventually, in 1985, a return trip to the White House as Reagan’s communications director, overseeing the speechwriters and writing a few speeches himself.
As he left the Reagan White House, Buchanan released his biography Right From the Beginning , which presented the story of Northwest D.C., Blessed Sacrament parish, and Gonzaga high school in the 1940s and ’50s as something just outside of Eden. Unlike so many others, Buchanan was not a convert to his faith or a political cause. In the book his family, schools, parish, and neighborhood are the crucible that form his character, tough but well loved. They gave him an education of the heart and the head.
But at the end of the biography, Buchanan suddenly opens onto the rest of the world with a chapter, “Democracy Is Not Enough,” which insists that the form of government matters not if America loses the ethos and culture in which he grew up. He proposes ten amendments for a new constitutional convention, beginning with placing the unborn under the protection of the law and preserving the right of states to impose the death penalty; he goes on to include a federal balanced budget requirement. These were “populist amendments,” Buchanan wrote, “designed to broaden the scope of human rights and restore the power of the people to shape their own society and destiny. They would diminish the power of unelected judges and enhance that of elected officials.” He reiterates that a constitutional convention would “reveal which of the two parties is populist, and which elitist.” For Buchanan, it was time to unleash the New Majority once more.
But his 1992 run for president and subsequent campaigns in 1996 and 2000 showed that if the New Majority still exists, Buchanan was not the one to lead it—although there were flashes of the prophetic author to come. In his speech to the Republican convention in Houston, Buchanan defined the culture war: for him, the culture was something more than the social issues, such as abortion, that would be talked up in a more pious way by Pat Robertson and Marilyn Quayle—culture was rather a nexus of society, authority, and institutions. His concluding image of cultural victory was the same that he’d seen motivate the New Majority in ’68—in this case, a scene of cops defending a convalescent home from rioters in Los Angeles. In those flames, the National Guard deployed—“force, rooted in justice, backed by courage”—and took the city back block by block.
In recent years another GOP troublemaker, Ron Paul, has used his bids for the party’s presidential nomination to develop institutions to carry on his ideas and even to elect a small cadre of young members of Congress. Buchanan did not do anything quite like that after the 1992 campaign. He maintained a very small organization, but it was merely the ’96 campaign in waiting. “I went up one time [to Capitol Hill] and talked to a congressman for forty minutes about trade and what it is doing to this country. He told me ‘Pat you make a convincing case. But leadership tells me we have to vote for this.’” Buchanan recalls. “I thought, ‘I’m not wasting my time with this.’”
“Did we make an effort? I have to say no. Maybe that is a failing. It is a failing of not being an officeholder. I’m not a politician really.” Some called for Buchanan to run for the Senate in Virginia, but he had no taste for the Hill. “I don’t know if I would have even lasted. There is an intellectual sterility to all this. You go to meetings and there is all this talking and babbling. It’s not in me.”