“Hey, man!” hollered a young Latino kid in a Yankees cap, recognizing Patrick J. Buchanan, the former Nixon and Reagan speechwriter and three-time Presidential candidate, from his TV show. He was on West 34th Street.
“Hi, how are you?” replied Mr. Buchanan. He shook his head and gave a wheezy chuckle: “We’re in a real melting pot here, aren’t we?” he said.
On Monday, Aug. 30, the 65-year-old Mr. Buchanan-bigger than life, bigger even than TV, his eyebrows jutting out like falcon nests, wearing a gray pinstripe suit-was moving through Herald Square toward the MSNBC set of Hardball , and suddenly found himself in the middle of a Buchananesque nightmare: a hot, gummy, humid thoroughfare teeming with multiculturalism and discount stores, bursting with cheap Chinese imports. And not a pitchfork for miles.
“Honestly?” he said, eyes puckered in a squint. “What you’re trying is something that’s never succeeded before, which is an assimilation into a country, in a nation of one people, people of utterly different cultures, languages and religions, with nothing in common. And my guess is the whole country is headed for a major Balkanization.”
For Mr. Buchanan, midtown Manhattan was … the “twilight of an empire.” And at that moment, with Mr. Buchanan wiping sweat from his brow, the coming apocalypse he’d been flogging in speeches for years did indeed seem imminent-there was, in this steamy heat, a Republican National Convention in New York City.
“It’s like the late Roman Empire,” he said. “People all went into their villas and gated communities.”
Ever since the 1992 Republican National Convention, when Mr. Buchanan famously declared the beginning of America’s “culture war”-prescient sighting of the great Red-Blue divide-he has remained the pre-eminent American nativist, a political Bill the Butcher with a knife in his mouth and a scary twinkle in his eye.
“Western man is dying as Islamic man migrates north to await his passing and inherit his estate,” he warns in his new book, Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency .
But you had to wonder: How did Mr. Buchanan remain so lighthearted in what he deemed the “twilight of an empire”? Asked, he nearly keeled over laughing.
“I thought you were going to say,” he said, roaring, “‘in the twilight of a career’!”
Obviously he had never noted NYTV’s manners; we wouldn’t say that to Tony Orlando. But he made the point for us: At this point, Patrick J. Buchanan is settling into his skin as a different kind of public figure-namely a fallen one, a failed Reform Party candidate with no TV show, one precarious step away from an episode of The Surreal Life . He attempted to parlay a TV career into a candidacy for President, but couldn’t teach normal people not to be terrified of him. He has long been marginalized from the Republican Party. And yet he insists that he’s still its bedrock: the unyielding hard-liner, a bulkhead against an incoming tide of pluralism that will turn our national identity to sludge. And if the Bush administration was going to cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as the moderate strongman, he was going to call their bluff by reminding them what a real Republican sounded like.
With George W. Bush in the White House-Mr. Buchanan opposed his father on the first Gulf War-Mr. Buchanan was sitting alone in the somewhat rotted scow of conservatism. To hawkish neocons, his patented tomahawk-chop gesture was something dug up in an archeological dig.
In his latest prophecy, Mr. Buchanan boldly predicted a “civil war” within the party: a decisive split over government spending, illegal immigration, free trade and the war in Iraq-a war he considers a hapless foreign-policy debacle that will knee-cap the country.
“We’re in a helluva mess,” he said. “I don’t have a magic answer. My magic answer is, ‘For God’s sakes, don’t go in!'”
So now, in a kind of twine of the moment, Mr. Buchanan’s anti-war position has made the onetime Nixon Vietnam hawk a strange bedfellow of the left. At one point, a late-middle-aged hippie approached Mr. Buchanan on the street. He had a “W” on his T-shirt with a red line through it.
“Sir, I like you,” he said, shaking Mr. Buchanan’s hand. He was carrying what appeared to be a sheaf of political tracts.
“Well, thank you very much,” said Mr. Buchanan.
“You’ve become, if I may, much more reasonable in recent years,” said the man.
“Well, actually, I’m just sort of sloppy and selling out,” Mr. Buchanan said . “HA HA, heh heh heh heh! ”
On Air America, Mr. Buchanan sided with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth on the issue of John Kerry’s service in Vietnam, complimented President Bush’s political courage-and then ripped John Kerry for not opposing the war in Iraq.
“Kerry failed in his duty! Kerry failed in his duty!” he had yelled.
“That got heated,” he said afterwards, his cheeks flushed. He had a big grin on his face. “That was fun.”
All afternoon, Mr. Buchanan’s wife, Shelly Buchanan, in a perfect blond Beltway coif, acted as his media shepherd, guiding him from interview to interview, and at each one, Mr. Buchanan did his old act: brought down his hatchet hand and wondered where all the true-blue conservatives had got off to. He ended up that night on Fox News Channel, with Bill O’Reilly. He toted around a beat-up black leather briefcase that looked to be circa the Nixon administration. When he opened it, it was practically empty: some different-colored pens, his wallet, a sheaf of publicity papers for his book, an old computer disk and his own TV earpiece for his left ear.
As with his longtime friend Ralph Nader, Mr. Buchanan had about him the air of one who secretly winks at his own fading relevance. Mr. Buchanan talks about Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan like they’re in the room, palpable, hovering nearby, waving. He cites history as though he actually met James Madison. His crinkly eyes look off into the distance-at Nixon himself?-and he smiles. And then he laughs into a wheezing whistle.
Michael Kinsley, Mr. Buchanan’s old TV nemesis from CNN’s Crossfire , recognized the effect. “Ralph Nader came by the editorial board a couple weeks ago, and he had that same quality,” said Mr. Kinsley, now running The Los Angeles Times ‘ editorial board. “He was tired and he gets the joke-the same quality that Pat has. He doesn’t give a shit anymore. He’s weary but smiling, but undeterred. In both cases, unfortunately.”
Asked what, in his wildest dreams, America would look like were the U.S. borders closed and his Anglo-Christian vision for this country realized, Mr. Buchanan thought about it a minute. Again, his eyes looked off into the distance.
” Back to the Future !” he said, exploding with laughter.
“There’s a lot of changes that are very, very good,” he said. “I’ve got a heart valve, and I would be dead if it weren’t for all these modern conveniences-drugs and things. So that’s all very good.” But the 1960’s, he said, “has converted a significant slice of America, and now it’s all gone forever.”
In 2004, Pat Buchanan still saw the world through the prism of an Irish-Catholic dinner table. Just listen to his prescription for dealing with Iraq and terrorists:
“To me, you could call Saddam up and say, ‘Look, we’re coming for you and we’re thinking it over, and to show your good faith, give us the head of Abu Nidal in a bucket and send it out.’ Capone would send it: ‘I understand we’re dealing with the feds here-we don’t want any trouble with them, this is our neighborhood.’ So you can deal with him. But with Al Qaeda, you can’t.”
Mr. Buchanan’s view of a “civil war” in the Republican Party wasn’t so outlandish. It wasn’t, in fact, so different from what the New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks had suggested in a recent magazine article, “How to Reinvent the G.O.P.,” which said that “beneath the cheering and the resolve,” there were “waves of anxiety, uncertainty and disagreement” in the party, splitting along the issues of spending. “You hang around Republicans,” he wrote, “and you begin to hear all sorts of discordant things.”
But Mr. Brooks said that Mr. Buchanan simply couldn’t be taken seriously.
“The party has moved away from him,” he said. “Maybe he’s just realizing it. He blames the neocons for hijacking the party. The party has always been different from him. They don’t agree with Buchanan, and it has nothing to do with Richard Perle or Bill Kristol.”
Mr. Brooks said that Sept. 11 changed everything, and only Mr. Buchanan-a harsh critic of U.S. support of Israel-had failed to see the writing on the wall. But not everyone agreed. While Mr. Buchanan was in Radio Row in the convention hall, preparing for an interview with CBS, Stephen Mansfield, the author of The Faith of George W. Bush, came by and heartily shook Mr. Buchanan’s hand, telling him that his 1988 book, Right from the Beginning , had inspired him to write his own. Mr. Mansfield, a born-again Christian and avid Bush supporter, had spent time with President Bush as well as top officials in the White House. There, he said, Mr. Buchanan was indeed taken seriously-but not publicly.
“He was described to me in the White House as ‘a pain in the ass,'” said Mr. Mansfield. “But I happen to know that the person who said that goes home, lights up his pipe and reads him to figure out where he went wrong. So in that sense, I think he is a good small-‘p’ prophetic voice for the Republican Party …. I think sometimes the people who do us the most good are the ones who are most irritating to us. If Pat Buchanan passes the rest of his life being a bit of an irritant in American culture, but identifying the death of the West, etc., then I think he’s doing us a service. If he never did anything, if he never gets in office but has an occasional microphone on Fox, that’s O.K. with me.”
Certainly Mr. Buchanan’s intellectual prowess has been the one thing that’s given him a patina of credibility. “He’s a lot smarter than George Bush or Dick Cheney, and he’s more principled than both of them,” said Mr. Kinsley, “but he happens to have principles that are loony.”
Over the years, Mr. Buchanan has made a few not-so-subtle racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic remarks, most well documented and even more well argued in conservative journals. All things considered, it’s amazing he’s still on television. His Presidential runs in 1992, 1996 and 2000 were launched as a cable-TV pundit. In 1996, he announced his Presidential bid on Crossfire , with Mr. Kinsley helping Mr. Buchanan hoist a sign displaying his campaign’s 1-800 number.
His secret on-air weapon has always been the Crazy Pat laugh, a cackle that shatters the air. Lawrence O’Donnell, the former chief of staff to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and a sometimes sparring partner on The McLaughlin Group , called it “the single most devastating technique in political talk …. It dismantles what the other person has said,” he explained. “It fully communicates what Pat thinks.”
On HBO’s Da Ali G Show , starring British comic Sacha Baron Cohen, Mr. Buchanan agreed to sit down for a “British educational show.”
“Is you mashed or something?” Mr. Cohen asked him. “You was, like, so giggly. You had a little puff before?”
To which Mr. Buchanan, laughing, squinting, replied, “Yeah, I had a little puff before, sure.”
Mr. Buchanan said he’d figured out the jig halfway through the interview but kept up appearances, talking about Saddam Hussein’s dangerous “B.L.T.’s” with a straight face. After all, this was TV: You had to keep up appearances. Later, he read some fake hip-hop lingo handed to him by Mr. Cohen, even pronouncing his name “BOO-canon.”
“I didn’t think it came off badly at all,” he said, thoroughly amused. “One of my little nephews saw it and said, ‘Hasn’t Uncle Pat got a job?’ HA HA HA HA .”
Still, it was hard to understand how, if he really believed the things he wrote, he could actually be so light. “The thing is,” he said, “it’s like a death in the family: You’ve got a get over it. You know, you can’t go home again. You’re not going to recreate the 1950’s today or any other period again. And I think it’s sad that some of the great things we had growing up, these kids do not have-that the young people don’t have and won’t know . But they won’t miss them, because they don’t know them. And of course we miss them.”
In his book, he asks: “How does America find the way back to the constitutional democracy we were not so very long ago? Or is this just the politics of nostalgia, as the old republic is gone forever?”
“That’s the question,” he said. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s gone , you know? We did some great things. We won the Cold War under Ronald Reagan. It was great to be there. We did some good things.”
How did that make him feel?
Mr. Buchanan clicked his tongue. “We’ve had a good life,” he said, his cackle starting hard and going wistful. “You do your damnedest and that’s all you can do, you know? How would you feel if you were in the Roman Empire around 380 A.D.?”
At 7 p.m., Mr. Buchanan headed back toward Madison Square Garden to do Bill O’Reilly’s program, his wife and publicist walking 10 feet ahead. It was twilight in Manhattan. The streets were mobbed with conventioneers and tourists. A guy ran up and held a cell phone to Mr. Buchanan: “Say hello to my friend Jake!”
“Hey Jake, how ya doin’?” said Mr. Buchanan.
A black guy in a baseball cap was handing out pamphlets with Ronald Reagan’s face on them. Mr. Buchanan took one.
“It’s the Gipper,” he said. “Jeez, it’s a huge crowd coming, huh?” he said, waiting for policemen to direct traffic along Seventh Avenue. When the crowd moved, Mrs. Buchanan and the publicist disappeared into the throng.
“I didn’t see where they went,” said Mr. Buchanan, craning his neck. “Where did Shelly go, do you know?”
The crowd got heavier.
“I think we go down here,” he said. “I’ve got to put my glasses on so I can see here.”
Fans began approaching him. “How’s your lovely wife?” one inquired.
“My lovely wife is what I’m looking for,” said Mr. Buchanan, distracted.
There was a short but distinct moment of panic. Mr. Buchanan needed help getting to the convention studio of The O’Reilly Factor .
“Do you know how to get me in the box?” he asked. “Once I get in the box, I’ll be O.K.”
Inside the security perimeter, a man introduced him to his blonde daughters. “It’s their first convention!” he said. “Give ’em hell, Pat!” said another. Chortling fans streamed toward him. A band played “Good Golly Miss Molly.” “We’re going back to the 50’s with Little Richard!” he called to nobody in particular. A line of Republicans approached him. ” Love you! ” ” Keep doing it! ” ” I heard about your book on Drudge. ” ” Hi, Pat! ”
Patrick J. Buchanan’s eyes squinted into a veil of joy. It may have been twilight, but the lights were on.