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Think Again: The Long March of Patrick J. Buchanan

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It's no secret that MSNBC had more than enough cause to end its relationship with Pat Buchanan as it did last week, especially with the release of his new book, Suicide of a Superpower. Nobody has a constitutional right to give his or her opinions on cable television. ThinkProgress has been particularly diligent in keeping readers informed of some of the recent lowlights of Buchanan's career including attacks on immigrants, minorities, and liberals up to, and including, his flirtations with fascism and possibly even Holocaust denial -- all of which apparently reached a kind of crescendo in his new book.

One can identify any number of oddities in Buchanan's half-century career as one of America's most prominent and most extreme conservative voices. The first of these, of course, is the fact that he is complaining about being kicked off of MSNBC. Since virtually all of the mainstream media -- and even former President Bill Clinton -- considers that station to be a liberal analogue to Fox, how is it that MSNBC has this extreme right-wing culture warrior to cut loose in the first place? (And what about the fact that Joe Scarborough, the guy who occupies 15 hours a week of the station's programming and is lamenting Buchanan's departure, is a conservative former Republican congressman?)

Other anomalies abound. If conservatives believe in one thing in America, it is "family." But Buchanan and his wife have no children. (While there may be medical or other reasons for this, it is odd that Buchanan has, to my knowledge, never addressed them, particularly since he complains, "The West is dying. Its nations have ceased to reproduce, and their populations have stopped growing and begun to shrink.") And if conservatives believe in one other thing, it is "free enterprise." Yet Buchanan's entire life has been divided between "government" and "media" -- the twin bugaboos of every conservative complaint session. Finally, if conservatives exhibit one emotion in unison in America, it is anger, and yet Buchanan, who is liked by almost everyone who knows him even those who find his views abhorrent, is known as a kind of pussycat in person -- however effectively he plays a tiger on television.

I'll confess that when I got to know Pat while researching my first book, Sound & Fury, published 20 years ago (and from which I draw for this blog), I found him to be just as charming and engaging as the rest of Washington did. My research at the time revealed that while he was already one of the most famous figures in Washington journalism, he had only spent a grand total of two months as a reporter before becoming an editorial writer and beginning his distinguished career as a conservative polemicist, part-time government official, and presidential aspirant.

Buchanan comes from a deeply religious Irish Catholic family that prized loyalty and discipline above all. To impress upon Buchanan what the loss of the soul through mortal sin meant, Buchanan's father would light a match, grab his son's hands, and hold them briefly over the flame, saying, "See how that feels? Now imagine that for all eternity." Buchanan proudly observes that he comes from "the tradition that my great-grandfathers tried to overthrow the government of the United States."

It was in this atmosphere that Buchanan imbibed the religious dogma that he has so effectively preached in American political life. "Our political and social quarrels now partake in the savagery of religious wars because they are, at bottom, religious wars," Buchanan explained. This war, according to Buchanan, was "a conflict between what might be called the Right, which proceeds from Christian beliefs and values, and the counterculture, which proceeds out of secularist beliefs and values. Its manifestations can be seen in the move to equate homosexuality with normal heterosexual activity, tolerance of pornography, [the belief that] anything goes so long as it doesn't hurt another individual."

To this strange mixture of intolerance and good-heartedness, of religious certitude and political savvy, of strict pre-Vatican II Catholic conservatism, add a street fighter expelled from Georgetown University for punching two D.C. policemen, and you have an enormously effective spokesman for a radical, reactionary minority.

The secret to Buchanan's success, at least in my estimation, was his ability to conduct his holy war in a huggable fashion. On The McLaughlin Group, where he first came into the public eye, Buchanan played the tough Irish cop with twinkly eyes and a heart of granite. And when the cherubic Catholic crusader decided to announce his race for the presidency in December 1991, it came as no surprise to anyone who had closely observed his career in the punditocracy. He carefully considered the idea four years earlier but had deferred in favor of the more conventional politician, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-NY). By the time Buchanan reversed course, however, the displacement of "real" politicians at the center of the political dialogue was considerably further advanced. All of a sudden, in 1991 there was nothing ridiculous about the idea of the move from the small screen to the White House without having earned any interim qualifications.

Buchanan was a popular and much-admired character in President Ronald Reagan's Washington and proved invaluable to the conservative cause in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan White Houses. In between, as well as afterward, he became a widely syndicated columnist, the co-host of CNN's Crossfire, a regular on McLaughlin, and the host of Novak's own pundit CNN roundtable, The Capital Gang, when Novak and McLaughlin's egos grew too large to fit in the same room.

From the 1970s through the first decade of this century, Buchanan could almost always be depended upon to take things further to the right than most people had previously imagined possible. In Nixon's White House, Buchanan was the primary mover of the president's race-based "Southern Strategy" designed to move those offended by voting rights for blacks into the Republican column. As Reagan's White House director of communications, Buchanan was the only member of the president's inner circle to speak favorably, at least in the abstract, of treason. During the Iran-Contra scandal, when the first "Buchanan for President" boomlet began, its standard-bearer gave inflammatory speeches insisting, "If Colonel North ripped off the Ayatollah and took $30 million and gave it to the contras, then God bless Colonel North."

When the AIDS virus first hit the national news, Buchanan pooh-poohed the trauma. "The poor homosexuals," he wrote, "they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting." Buchanan regularly referred to gay men as "perpetrators" and argued that "by buggering one another," and "committing promiscuous sodomy," they "threaten doctors, dentists, health workers, hemophiliacs, and the rest of society by their refusal to curb their lascivious appetites."

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