A Presidential election is coming on us, and Patrick J. Buchanan is back in New Hampshire-a political swallow returning to his electoral Capistrano.
Pat has become a kind of white man’s Jesse Jackson. You never know whether either of these two mucklemouths mean it, or if they do it because afterwards it kicks up their lecture fees. They probably do it for both reasons, although neither of them would be around in such a largely visible form were it not for CNN-Time Warner, which keeps them afloat by paying them to wave their mouths around in front of the cameras during the down years between election forays.
This year Pat may have an additional motive for taking to the stump. He has a book out, and the campaign ought to hype sales. Whatever his reasons, the book, A Republic, Not an Empire , isn’t your ordinary blatherskiting pile of commonplace nostrums candidates are given to publishing around campaign time. This volume, although mainly historical, has got burrs and stickles in it aplenty.
Seldom will you see a book so made to order for being taken out of context and used against its author. These excerpts read as though they had been lifted from Mein Kampf , Adolf Hitler’s political testament: “During [World War I] not one Allied soldier had set foot on German soil. As late as April 1918 the Allies were on the defensive, and a German army was on the Marne within 40 miles of Paris. But after agreeing to an armistice on [Woodrow] Wilson’s terms, Germany was treated as a war criminal whose atrocities justified stripping it of all property and rights … Self-determination was granted former subjects of Germany and Austria-Hungary, but denied millions of Germans and Austrians who were marched under French, Italian, Czech and Polish rule. Divided and dismembered, Germany was put on the rack and ordered to pay … and to accept moral responsibility for having started the war.”
In dilating on the thesis that President Franklin Roosevelt baited the Japanese into attacking the United States as part of a larger stratagem to get the country into the Second World War, Mr. Buchanan writes: “F.D.R. and those who felt they knew better made only feeble attempts to lead Americans to embrace their view and accept the sacrifices of war. Instead, they smeared, persecuted and blacklisted antiwar leaders and maneuvered us into one collision after another with Germany and Japan so that war would be ‘thrust upon us.’” Mr. Buchanan is at particular pains to mention Charles A. Lindbergh as one of the martyrs to the war hawks’ dirty-politics campaign. To this day, in some circles, the Lone Eagle has not lived down his reputation as an anti-Semitic Nazi sympathizer who accepted a medal from German Field Marshal Hermann Goering.
If you read the book and therefore absorb the context in which these and other Buchananian sentences appear, his opinions are not as savagely revanchist and proto-fascist as they seem when plucked off the page and left to stand on their own. Indeed, much that he says is taken from the work of historians who, I suspect, wouldn’t sit down and have a cup of coffee with Mr. Buchanan. It doesn’t matter how well some of his opinions would be received at the high table over in the history department, so let’s skip over how right or wrong Mr. Buchanan may be and ask the important question, which is, “Why now?”
For years Mr. Buchanan has had an odor of anti-Semitism about his public self. I don’t know that he has ever been nailed on it, I don’t know that he is an anti-Semite, but the smell is on him, so you might think that the last thing he would do going into a drive to cop a Presidential nomination from some party or other would be to publish a book extolling Lindbergh and the America First Committee, which struggled to keep the United States out of World War II. Certainly, for people over a certain age, doing so can only galvanize them into apoplexy.
Why might he do such a thing? Well, in a political moment when all barks are becalmed, one means of getting under way may be to break wind. Let go with a sockdolager of such force that the emitter is propelled forward à la an air-filled balloon with a puncture in it. In this autumn of national political somnambulism, Mr. Buchanan’s followers, if he has many, are sawing wood and staring at the stock market numbers along with everybody else. There is always a sufficiency of special-purpose political groups-in this case liberal ones-who are delighted to call a press conference and fulminate, if that’s what it takes to goose contributions. For fund-raising purposes, thesis and antithesis need each other. Where would all those handgun-control organizations be without the National Rifle Association? A perfect set of upper teeth is useless without a matching set of lowers.
Mr. Buchanan cultivates a picture of himself as a barroom brawler, the kind of guy who waits for the chance to smash the neck off of his beer bottle and assume a crouch while he uses his free hand to beckon his would-be opponent to come get disfigured. Although from a decidedly middle-class background, Mr. Buchanan likes to drop the G’s of his participles and hint that he is up from the docks and loading platforms, and not too long ago at that. He’s one of those middle-class types who aspires to be a thug.
Yet at the core Mr. Buchanan is an angry guy looking for other angry guys, and he evidently believes the way to find his kind is to look and act like an industrial Cro-Magnon man, an avatar of the time of the coal-and-iron brotherhoods. To see him is to picture men with long-necked oil cans and hear the singing, pinging noise of steam pent up in iron boilers, waiting for release. Hence his harping on jobs lost to low-wage factories overseas and the lament over how Pittsburgh vanished and the smoke is gone.
The people he wants to lead are a fraction of the labor force; there aren’t enough of them to catapult him very far. To get past where he is, he will have to learn how to talk to the newer, white-collar techno-proletariat. He’s smart, and he’ll learn, and then he will have to wait for his chance. It hasn’t come this year, but if the stock market tanks, next year may be better for him.
As things stand now, if he snags a third-party nomination, he won’t have the impact Aitch Ross Pee-rot had when he first came among us. Aitch Ross was saucy, original and quick, with sometimes funny, sometimes stinging wisecracks. He entertained us and fit into our daguerreotype notions of how genuine Americans should act and talk. Then his brain got fussed up with nightmares of conspiracies, and he lost his charm.
Mr. Buchanan doesn’t have any charm to lose. Charm is not a Cro-Magnon trait, but he is around and apparently intends to stay around, so dismiss him at your peril. Ours is a period when political parties have scant control over whom they nominate. When things go awry, you could wake up and find that the damnedest people have taken over.