For this hard-driving conservative populist, there's right and wrong, black and white, and little room for compromise
MARSHALLTOWN, IOWA, AND WASHINGTON — PAT BUCHANAN stands in the back of a pickup parked at the edge of a dormant cornfield. A small group of ardent supporters has gathered despite the winter chill. Behind Mr. Buchanan, campaign workers struggle to pull a blue tarpaulin off a roadside billboard, one of 24 he is unveiling around the state to proclaim his economic nationalism.
The billboard reads: "Buchanan: He'll bring the jobs home."
Buchanan didn't choose this town by accident. Across the street from the cornfield lies the sprawling Fisher Controls Inc., a valve manufacturer. The company once had two plants here, but as soon as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was passed, Buchanan tells the crowd, Fisher closed one facility and moved the operation to Mexico, at a cost of about 300 jobs.
Fisher disputes Buchanan's version. According to a company spokesman, the work performed by the plant was shifted to other Fisher plants both in and outside of the United States to improve cost-competitiveness and not because of NAFTA. But Buchanan has never been one to deal in nuance. There's right and there's wrong, black and white, like the ink on the newsprint that got him started on a career as an editorialist, presidential speech-writer, television pundit, and now two-time presidential candidate.
When the issues are jobs and international trade, Buchanan is absolute: Participation in NAFTA and the new World Trade Organization is tantamount to "surrendering American sovereignty," he says in a Monitor interview.
On abortion, there's no middle ground. Human life must be constitutionally protected from the moment of conception. Aid to foreign countries? End it completely. American troops in Bosnia? Pull them out and send them to guard the Mexican border.
But of all issues, economic nationalism has become the theme of Buchanan's second long-shot run for the Oval Office. Ironically, his populist mantra against free trade and big business has put the firebrand conservative - on this issue, at least - in league with the political left. Thus Buchanan has highlighted an ideological schism within the GOP at a time when the party would rather be closing ranks to defeat President Clinton.
Buchanan is unapologetic. But for someone who is admired by his supporters for the rock-solid constancy of his views, he is in fact a johnny-come-lately protectionist.
"I concede the point," says the pugnacious TV personality, "I used to be the most pro-wide-open free-trade man in the Reagan White House with the possible exception of the president....
"But what I've found in the last five years is a terrible phenomenon in this country. It is the steadily declining real wages of working men and women in this country. The ones who produce things and manufacture things and work on assembly lines and work in small plants....
"And it seems to be that those of us who are conservatives ought to be tremendously upset about this because we're concerned about community stability, we're concerned about the family."
Mr. Family Values
Indeed, family looms large in the life of Patrick Joseph Buchanan. The third of seven boys and two girls in a prosperous Roman Catholic family in suburban Chevy Chase, Md., Pat Buchanan recounts an upbringing rich with experience - and scrapes with authority.
Most admired and feared was his father, Bill Buchanan, whom Pat calls affectionately in his memoir "the man with the strap." The four oldest Buchanan boys, each born a year apart, learned to do battle while still in their cribs, with Dad's encouragement.
"While other boys were being punished for getting into fights as toddlers, we were punished when we failed to hit a punching bag 400 times a day," Buchanan recalls in his book "Right From the Beginning."
Combat has been a leitmotif of Buchanan's life. As a youth, it was mainly mischief - weekend brawling and arrests that he says were "simply no big deal" - though in his senior year at Georgetown University in Washington, he assaulted two policemen while they wrote him a ticket; Georgetown suspended him for a year.
As an adult, the battles have been verbal. While a speechwriter in the Nixon White House, he was the resident conservative attack dog, reliably recommending a tough line. Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman's diaries are sprinkled with references to Buchanan's style: "[President] was delighted with Pat's kickoff speech for VP, which really hits hard." He also mentions, early in 1972, the "Buchanan thesis," that Nixon's political posture should be as a "fighting president" rather than a "professional president."
If Buchanan got his classical education from the Jesuits at Washington's Gonzaga High School and later Georgetown, he got his conservatism from his father. At the head of the dining room table, Buchanan writes, "sat an authoritarian figure whose political heroes were Douglas MacArthur, Joe McCarthy, and General Franco."
Angela "Bay" Buchanan, one of Pat's younger sisters, apparently absorbed the family culture as well. As manager of both of his campaigns, she's called Pat's "field general."
Slugger with a smile
Pat Buchanan's hard edge, though usually delivered with a twinkle, is a turnoff to some conservative voters. Fellow conservative Republican candidate Alan Keyes, an African-American, finds some of Buchanan's racially tinged comments offensive. Buchanan has also battled accusations of anti-Semitism, fueled by the Bitburg flap, when he defended President Reagan's plan to visit a German military cemetery containing Nazi graves. Conservative William F. Buckley will not publish Buchanan anymore in the National Review, because of the anti-Semitism issue.
But Buchanan has his true believers, and a message that resonates. "Pat's my man...," says Denise Jones, a former teacher attending a rally near Des Moines. "NAFTA and GATT [the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] made up my mind. Pat was one of the few voices speaking against it at the time."
Tom Williamson, a former Buchanan aide in Colorado Springs, has been a Buchanan fan since his college days, when he and his fraternity buddies watched Buchanan's verbal sparring matches on CNN's "Crossfire." "Pat's message of populist conservatism has gotten lost in the Republican Party," he says.
Conservative activist Howard Phillips, an old ally from the Nixon days, argues that Buchanan would do better off running for president outside the party. The "establishment" Republican Party, he says, is too prone to compromise.
Indeed, many moderates in the party also wish Buchanan would take a hike, or at least tone down the rhetoric. Four years ago, at the GOP convention in Houston, he delivered a fire-breathing speech on America's "culture wars" - during prime time. Some Republican moderates moan that Buchanan hurt the party's image and helped hand the election to Bill Clinton.
Buchanan is unrepentant about '92 and promises more of same for '96: "I believe we're going to have a conservative convention, we're going to have a conservative party, and we're going to have a conservative platform. And I would offer as testimony to that the fact that Arlen Specter ran 100 percent pro-choice. He tried to collect all those votes. Arlen dropped out with 1 percent of the vote."
Chances are dim that Buchanan could win the Republican nomination, though the latest poll out of New Hampshire shows him running a respectable third behind Bob Dole and Steve Forbes - which makes him first among the hard-line social conservative candidates. Since he has never been elected to office, some voters may shy away from his lack of experience. But it allows him to claim outsider status, even as he boasts of his years on the "inside" in three White Houses.
Asked how he differs from candidate Phil Gramm, Buchanan says: "Phil is a career politician, and I am not. I've spent eight years in the White House, and he has not. I think I know the kind of leadership the White House requires. It's a leadership of conviction, of consistency, and constancy. It's a leadership of vision."
But if Gramm or Dole gets the nomination, Buchanan says he would not do anything to injure their chances of being elected. Gramm and Dole are "career politicians, they've had a long career of heroic conservative rhetoric and compromise and cave-in," Buchanan says. "But at the same time they would be better for America than Bill Clinton. Far better."