IT was the 25th Christmastime that journalists had sat around the Monitor breakfast table. The guest on this morning was one of their own, Pat Buchanan, who has left their ranks, at least for a while, to offer himself to the voters as a presidential candidate. They found the transformation difficult to grasp.
As the moderator of the group I put this question to Mr. Buchanan, whom I have known since the early days of the Nixon administration when Pat was serving as a speechwriter:
"If after all my years in journalism I would announce today that I was running for president, everyone would giggle a bit. Why should we take you any more seriously than that? What in your background qualifies you to be president of the United States?"
"Well," he said, "when you consider the office, it is pretty awesome. But when you consider the competition I don't see any reason to be awed. I've been a leader in the conservative movement for some time now. I've had eight years in the White House. The presidency in my view is preeminently a place of moral leadership. The prerequisites are conviction, decisiveness, and the ability to communicate. And in those terms I think I am the equal of any candidate running right now.
"I may not be taken seriously down here. But I know they are taking me dead seriously up in New Hampshire."
I was reminded of the days when Ronald Reagan was trying to decide about running for governor of California. I kept asking him in one way or another why he, an actor, felt he could run a big state government. Reagan's answers, too, were about his deep conservative convictions and how this, not experience in politics, was what the people wanted and would vote for.
We journalists were so very slow in taking Reagan seriously in the political world. Even when he came to Washington as a governor, we were still not perceiving his presidential potential.
Nearly 50 of the nation's best-known news gatherers and scribblers had shown up for the Buchanan breakfast, more than had attended some recent breakfasts for several of the Democratic candidates. Obviously, something more than skepticism had drawn them there.
Time magazine columnist Hugh Sidey provided the explanation that I thought was squarely on the mark: "We all think there's a chance Pat might cause an explosion in that New Hampshire primary. That's why we're here."
That's it, of course: The chance that what Eugene McCarthy did to Lyndon Johnson in 1968 Pat Buchanan might do to George Bush in 1992. There's little evidence of a widespread anti-Bush feeling among the voters these days comparable to the anti-war sentiment that mobilized against Johnson. But reporters just aren't sure how the voters feel about President Bush. Could it be that Buchanan is on to something?, they ask.
Buchanan is sure he's on to something. "Up there in New Hampshire," he said, "there is a genuine hostility toward the professional political class - against the power crowd. That's why we are having this movement for term limits all over the country. People want to see new leadership."
"But," someone asked, "are you in this to win, Pat - or just to send a message?" Buchanan responded, "I wouldn't be in it if I didn't think I had a shot at winning this thing. It's a long shot. I'm going to have to do very well in New Hampshire. I don't know what that number is. That's for you and the voters to make the judgment. But if I do well in New Hampshire, I think I can ignite a storm all across this country, rock Bush back on his heels. And, maybe, if the victory was big enough, it would carry m e through one or two more victories. And if I can do that - that's my chance to get the nomination, to get Bush to decide that his time has come and gone."
Was this just a bit of creative writing on the part of columnist Buchanan? Or were we hearing the sound views of a political winner in the making? One newsman reminded several of us that John F. Kennedy had worked as a reporter before going into politics. Then someone else recalled that Warren Harding had been a newspaper publisher. Obviously, we were beginning to take presidential candidate Buchanan a little more seriously.