Buchanan: Peck's bad boy of the Right

Right From the Beginning, by Patrick J. Buchanan. Boston: Little, Brown. 392 pp. $18.95. Pat Buchanan is the Peck's bad boy of the American Right. Ever since the syndicated columnist and TV commentator arrived on the national scene as a brash, 30-year-old speechwriter in the Nixon White House, Buchanan has taken a wicked delight in twisting liberals' tails and listening to them howl. He is Dennis the Menace with the pen of H.L. Mencken.

Mischiefmaking has been a constant in Buchanan's life, we learn in this engaging memoir-cum-political testament.

He grew up in a tight Roman Catholic family in suburban Washington, D.C., the third of nine children. The four oldest were strapping and combative boys, close in age and interests, and Buchanan recounts their escapades with a weren't-we-naughty grin - and not a hint of contriteness.

By his own account, from Day 1 little ``Paddy Joe'' was cocky and had a big mouth (the family always said Buchanan ``could talk before he could walk''). While still in his crib, he provoked one of his brothers into breaking a bottle across his face.

A rough-and-tumble competitiveness marked the family, who in this regard come across as sort of middle-class Kennedys. The patriarch, ``Pop,'' was an accountant and a ranking metropolitan tennis player. He was a strap-wielding disciplinarian, yet he ignored many of his sons' transgressions if he thought they evidenced spirit and toughness. He taught the boys to box and was proud when they triumphed in neighborhood fights.

Not that Buchanan required much tutelage in belligerence. Even in a family of boys who generally were up to some form of devilment, he was regarded as the Black Sheep. From stoning cars as a boy, he moved into teen-age years punctuated by beery, brawling weekend nights that often ended with the future writer cooling off in the local clink. Though bright, he was, he acknowledges now, a kid without purpose and headed nowhere.

The turning point came when, after a late-night fracas with two policemen who had stopped his car, Buchanan was expelled from Georgetown University in his junior year. He was genuinely chastened. He worked for his father for a year, then returned to Georgetown, where he graduated with honors. The Animal House years were over.

On the basis of his strong finish, he managed to get into the Columbia School of Journalism. During the nine months at Columbia, Buchanan came into his own. He learned to use his fire without his fists. Though one of the greenest students in the class of '62, he excelled and quickly landed a job as graduation approached.

The job was as a cub reporter with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Using what was becoming a characteristic blend of chutzpah and talent, Buchanan bulled his way onto the paper's editorial page within a few months. At 23, he was perhaps the youngest editorial writer at a major daily in America. He was, as he writes with undisguised pride, ``movin' on up.''

For three years Buchanan, by now a staunch disciple of William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater, wrote fire-breathing editorials for the conservative paper.

In 1965, a colleague introduced Buchanan to former Vice-President Richard Nixon, who was plotting his comeback from the political wilderness. Mr. Nixon took the young writer on as an all-purpose lieutenant. Until Nixon's resignation from the presidency in the Watergate summer of 1974, Buchanan was never far from his side - a story Buchanan is saving for the next book.

The main rationale for a book like this is to trace a writer's intellectual odyssey. In this regard, the book is not particularly interesting - perhaps because Buchanan's odyssey was one of character, not intellect. His political ideas seem to have formed in an ideological Big Bang in his late teens and to have changed little since then.

Buchanan is more successful in evoking, lovingly, the milieus that nurtured him: his family; Washington (as a place to live, not the seat of government - it wasn't until he was an adult that Buchanan could identify most of the federal buildings); the American middle class of the '40s and '50s; and the Catholic Church.

In a two-chapter coda, Buchanan sets out his political prescriptions for what he sees as an America that is faltering in the twilight of Ronald Reagan's Glorious Revolution. As a Reaganite, Buchanan has outlasted even Reagan himself. He's an uncompromising anticommunist who sees glasnost as simply a tactic in the Soviet Union's war on the West. He's also a supply-side purist and an advocate of a social agenda that codifies Judeo-Christian values. Above all, Buchanan holds that America is in the throes of a spiritual crisis, precipitated by a loss of confidence in its core beliefs.

For anyone seeking a concise summary of the tenets of modern American conservatism, Buchanan's clear, sharp-as-a-jab prose is a good place to start.

As the post-Reagan Republican Party edges away from the views of conservative True Believers, one can be sure that Pat Buchanan will be tossing his stink bombs into other than just liberal circles. Distrustful as he may be at the advent of Bushism, his eyes must be gleaming at the expanded fields of fire for a born mischiefmaker.

James H. Andrews is on the Monitor staff.

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