Buchanan takes road less traveled

It had been a long day for Pat Buchanan, and it wasn't over yet.

Press interviews before dawn, book signings, a luncheon fund-raiser that netted enough to keep the campaign going for a week (maybe), and an encounter with Buster, the man in the salmon suit who'd just come down from protests in Seattle.

And now - 12 hours later - he was having to join the other presidential candidates making a pitch for their party's nomination. It would have been great if this had been New Hampshire and the other guys had been Bush, McCain, Forbes - anybody with national name recognition.

But he was 3,000 miles from the symbolic center of the political universe. The Reform Party of Oregon was sponsoring the debate, and the seven others on the platform (earnest though they were) had absolutely no political stature - some with nothing more to recommend them than a "really great Web site."

But he soldiered on, giving the abbreviated version of his stump speech, then slipping out the back door for "a prior engagement."

So it goes for Patrick J. Buchanan, twice a presidential candidate and known best for his fightin' Irish style on TV slugfests like "Crossfire" and "The McLaughlin Group."

Mr. Buchanan joins a distinct group of political risk-takers aiming for the White House: former Congressman John Anderson, who ran as an independent in 1980; and former California Gov. Jerry Brown, who went after the Democratic nomination several times from an ideological perch considerably outside his party's mainstream.

The key question is: Has Buchanan - like Jesse Ventura in Minnesota - found a new constituency which could help transform politics at a time when no one seems enamored with the traditional parties? Or is he destined to be relegated to the television talk-show circuit forever?

Assuming he does get the Reform Party nomination, Buchanan faces an uphill battle of Sisyphian proportions. Ross Perot topped out at 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992, but by 1996 his vote tally had dropped to 8 percent - exactly where Buchanan is at in the polls today.

His take over breakfast

So how does Buchanan think things are going six weeks after he jumped ship from the GOP and announced that he was leading his "pitchfork brigades" to the Reform Party, thence to the White House?

"Terrific!" he said over a morning bowl of Special-K the other day. "If we can get into the debates, it'll be a wide-open election."

His campaign co-chairman, Pat Choate, reckons Buchanan can win by pulling in the Reform Party base plus 8 to 12 percent of both conservatives and "Reagan Democrats" -blue-collar workers mainly in the Midwest.

A long shot, but Buchanan has at least two important things going for him.

First, most observers would agree with Mr. Choate that "he's the best political orator on the scene today." He's funny, he's sharp, he's relaxed. He seems to know what he's talking about without being condescending and droning on about the glories of the flat tax or how the environment should be "the central organizing principle" of government.

Second, as the recent protests and subsequent failure of the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks in Seattle show, he may be on to something in his warnings about the globalization of trade and its consequent impact on national sovereignty. That may help explain his apparent ability to draw support from across the political spectrum.

"If you close your eyes, it is difficult to hear much of a difference between Ralph Nader on the left and Pat Buchanan on the right when they talk about corruption in government, the excesses of corporate welfare, the devastating effect of free international trade on the American worker, and a desire to clean big money and special interests out of Washington," says John Talbott, the Reform Party spokesman in New Hampshire.

Even Buchanan is a bit amazed at this alignment of political interests. "I find myself on the side of guys I've been fighting for years!"

Buchanan's major theme these days is that America needs to assert its sovereignty in the face of expanding globalism as represented by the WTO, North American Free Trade Agreement, and the United Nations. If it doesn't, he warns, it could be headed down the same road as Europe - where national identities have been subsumed by "a socialist superstate."

US forces should only be used to protect "vital interests," says Buchanan, which he considers "security of the Western Hemisphere and freedom of the seas for navigation." He opposed the use of US military force in Kosovo as "an unconstitutional and illegal war."

But he also says that America must "put the world on notice that no single hostile power will ever again be allowed to dominate all of Europe the way Hitler did." And he adds that "the US is at its best" when acting as "honest broker" in places like Northern Ireland, Cyprus, and the Middle East.

The wariness of free trade clearly strikes a chord with Buchanan's target voters: families earning less than $50,000 a year - most Americans. Just 37 percent of them see economic globalization as a personal benefit, according to the Pew Research Center. And many experts believe that the alliance between big labor and environmentalists over international corporate dominance is not a fluke.

"Globalization has become a major issue that no longer interests only pundits and academics," Jeffrey Garten, dean of the Yale School of Management, told The New York Times last week. "It's entered the mainstream of popular concern."

For a man who's never held elective office, Buchanan has more of a record - and therefore a higher profile - than most of the other candidates.

The details of his life are well-known: the third of nine kids in a large Roman Catholic family in Washington, D.C., where Pop Buchanan set up a punching bag in the basement and taught his seven boys never to run from a fight; Georgetown University and a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University; years of service in the Nixon White House, mostly as a speechwriter (he penned the phrase "pusillanimous pussyfooters" for Spiro Agnew); communications director for Ronald Reagan; staff man on numerous summits; GOP presidential candidate in 1992 and 1996, when he beat Bob Dole in the New Hampshire primary; syndicated columnist and a regular verbal gladiator on talk TV. He's also written four books on US policy as well as a highly readable autobiography.

Analysts see Buchanan as either a populist or a hard-core conservative - a "paleoconservative," as some academic critics have dubbed him in contrast to the more mild-mannered "neoconservatives."

Along the way, he's attracted some unflattering labels. Isolationist. Anti-Semite. Nativist. Sexist. Homophobe.

In person, Buchanan does not breathe fire. He discusses issues intelligently, with a moderate tone and an ever-present sense of humor. "Ike with an attitude," I scribble in my notebook during our breakfast meeting.

But as a very public figure whose whole adulthood has been spent in the trenches of partisan politics or in the equally opinionated world of journalistic commentary, Buchanan has accumulated a long record of provocative statements - some of which have brought rebukes from such conservative brethren as William Bennett, William Safire, and George Will.

Sharp words, angry groups

In particular, leftists and Jewish organizations have been on his case for years. Chip Berlet, senior analyst for Political Research Associates in Somerville, Mass. (an organization that tracks the far right on behalf of political progressives), has suggested that Buchanan's "coded rhetoric appeals to more zealous sectors of the hard right, including the patriot movement, the armed militia movement, as well as far-right race hate groups."

This guilt-by-association is hard to prove - or disprove. But in the conspiratorial world of the groups Mr. Berlet refers to, giving aid and comfort may be involuntary. Buchanan has called Israel "a strategic albatross draped around the neck of the United States," and he has referred to the Democratic Party as "the diapered poodle of the Israeli lobby."

In response to this kind of rhetoric, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith has produced two reports critical of Buchanan's "venomous crusade."

He also has drawn criticism for referring to "the harridans of feminism" and for suggesting that "women are simply not endowed by nature with the same measures of single-minded ambition and the will to succeed in the fiercely competitive world of Western capitalism." About the spread of AIDS, he has said that "the poor homosexuals have declared war on nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution."

There is no doubt that Buchanan takes a hard line on some issues, such as abortion, organized prayer in schools, immigration, and a "cultural war" marked by "pornography and filth coming out of Hollywood."

Do such comments make him anti-Semitic, misogynist, or homophobic? In the full context of his writings and speeches, it doesn't seem so. But it depends on whether the hearer perceives himself to be the object of offense.

As he barnstorms the country soliciting Reform Party support, Pat Buchanan is not filing off the edges of his sharp message in order to skate toward safe middle ground where most of the other candidates are huddled.

As he does so, there's a kind of serenity that comes with knowing you don't have a lot to lose.

"If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen," he says. "But at least I can say I've given it everything I've got."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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