British scholar Timothy Stanley has produced the first significant biography of Patrick J. Buchanan, describing his life from his boyhood in Washington, D.C., up to the present. Stanley’s book is written in a breezy, informal manner—Buchanan is referred to as “Pat” throughout—and it makes for quick and generally enjoyable reading. Stanley gets much right in his general narrative of Buchanan’s life, particularly his description of Buchanan’s 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns.
Despite his recognition that Buchanan has been a major figure in American politics, Stanley refuses to commit himself on the nature of Buchanan’s legacy:
He is a controversial figure, so I have avoided passing judgment. It is better simply to tell his story from beginning to end and let the reader make up his or her mind as to whether [Buchanan] is a visionary or a brute.
No one who reads Stanley’s biography, however, can reasonably conclude that Buchanan is a “brute,” since the book details nothing that can reasonably be described as brutish. A former aide, Greg Mueller, recounts that, during the 1996 campaign, Buchanan “was incredibly patient and never got angry.” Indeed, all those who know Buchanan realize that he is a gentleman, a conclusion buttressed in the book by such disparate figures as liberal columnist E.J. Dionne, Andrew Sullivan (to whom Buchanan wrote a supportive private note after Sullivan was diagnosed with AIDS), and Joe Scarborough, who told Stanley that the young interns at MSNBC would balk at working with Buchanan, until they actually met him: “They’d really squirm and say, ‘Isn’t he an awful person? He’s so right wing.’ But after a couple of days with him, they’d all want to adopt him as their father.” Scarborough’s interns were repeating the reaction of Peggy Noonan, who was worried about having to work for the hard-right Buchanan in the Reagan White House, yet ended up making him one of the heroes of What I Saw at the Revolution.
Stanley also provides facts that refute some of the attacks made on his subject. Those who charge Buchanan with antisemitism need to come to grips with the fact that, “Throughout his career, Buchanan had been a cheerleader for Israel.” Buchanan’s view of America’s relationship with Israel did not change definitively until the end of the Cold War, which caused him to reevaluate his foreign-policy views across the board. Buchanan opposed George H.W. Bush’s first foreign intervention, the invasion of Panama, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, as Stanley relates, on Crossfire Buchanan called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall, provided the Russians withdrew their troops from Eastern Europe. Stanley notes that Buchanan’s concern for Americans charged with complicity in the holocaust, such as John Demjanjuk, grew out of Buchanan’s anticommunism and the fact that the evidence being used against such Americans came from the Soviets. In a similar vein, Stanley writes that Ronald Reagan’s visit to “Bitburg had nothing to do with Buchanan; the decision to go was made before he was appointed.”
The author also deals with the Myth of Houston: the notion that Buchanan’s speech to the 1992 Republican convention blindsided the White House and destroyed George H.W. Bush’s chance for reelection. Indeed, the Bush White House coveted Buchanan’s endorsement and vetted the speech. As Greg Mueller told Stanley, “The White House saw that speech. And they loved it.” They were not alone. David Brinkley pronounced it “an astoundingly good speech,” and Sander Vanocur agreed:
Viewed in terms of classic raw rhetoric, that was the most skillful attempt to remind the party faithful of the role that ideas have played in American politics since Eugene McCarthy nominated Adlai Stevenson at the 1960 Democratic convention.
The polls validated the judgment of those veteran political journalists: Following Buchanan’s speech, Bush went from trailing Clinton by 52 to 35 percent to lagging behind him by only three percentage points (45 to 42 percent) with a lead among male voters of 47 to 41 percent. Indeed, given the state of the economy, the social and cultural issues highlighted by Buchanan were Bush’s only possible road map to victory. But after the left savaged Buchanan’s speech, Bush grew timid and went down to defeat instead. The soundness of Buchanan’s strategy was shown by Bush’s son, who used the division of America into Red States and Blue States that accompanied his 2000 election to win reelection and elect more Republicans to Congress in both 2002 and 2004, until the disastrous tendencies of his administration became impossible to ignore.
Stanley’s narrative also provides plenty of facts to support the view that Buchanan has been a “visionary.” In the Nixon White House, he played a significant role in crafting Spiro Agnew’s attack on the media, an attack that has been imitated by conservatives ever since. Buchanan wrote to Nixon that “Our future is in the Democratic working man, Southern Protestant and Northern Catholics,” and also “argued that if [Nixon] wanted to get reelected, he had to reach out to the people who voted for George Wallace.” Republican success in winning over such former Democrats has been instrumental to the GOP’s political success, and likely would have made the Republicans as dominant as the Democrats were under FDR, had the GOP not stood by and allowed the left’s Gramscian march through the institutions and the Immigration Act of 1965 to transform America.
Buchanan’s foresight has been clearest in the areas where he broke from the Republican mainstream. As Stanley notes, Buchanan was one of the first Republicans to argue that America should resume her traditional policy of nonintervention following our victory in the Cold War. After the United States lost thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars in a vain attempt to transform the Middle East into something resembling the Middle West, more and more Americans have come to agree with what Buchanan has been saying forcefully and consistently since the collapse of communism.
Buchanan was one of the first Republicans to question the GOP’s policy on trade and economics, decrying “vulture capitalism” long before Rick Perry applied that term to Mitt Romney’s career at Bain Capital and opposing the free-trade policies that decimated American manufacturing long before Rick Santorum began lamenting the deindustrialization of America. Stanley quotes these remarks by Buchanan from his 1996 campaign:
There’s no doubt there is an inherent contradiction between conservatism and unfettered capitalism. Conservatives ought to be worshipping at a higher altar than the bottom line on a balance sheet. What in heaven’s name is it that we conservatives want to conserve if not social stability and family unity?
Stanley is correct in seeing Buchanan as a conservative transformed into a revolutionary by the leftist ascendancy in American society:
Traditionalism created a paradox among orthodox Catholics like Pat. On the one hand, Buchanan longed to obey. On the other hand, to preserve anything worth obeying he had to fight the authority of reforming priests and bishops. Traditionalism turned conservatives into unlikely revolutionaries.
This insight is also applicable outside the Catholic context. Stanley quotes the penetrating analysis of contemporary America offered by Buchanan’s friend Sam Francis in this magazine:
We must understand that the dominant authorities in . . . the major foundations, the media, the schools, the universities, and most of the system of organized culture, including the arts and entertainment—not only do nothing to conserve what most of us regard as our traditional way of life, but actually seek its destruction or are indifferent to its survival. If our culture is going to be conserved, then we need to dethrone the dominant authorities that threaten it.
Buchanan’s campaigns were an attempt to dethrone those dominant authorities. He was shaped by, and remains loyal to, the America that existed before the cultural revolutions of the 1960’s, just as the revolutionaries have no use for the America that predated them. This is why Buchanan was viciously attacked at the time and is still viciously attacked today, most recently by leftist groups petitioning MSNBC to terminate his employment, using Buchanan’s most recent book, Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive Until 2025?, as a pretext.
Unfortunately, Buchanan’s presidential campaigns, to which Stanley devotes the bulk of his biography, did not succeed. There were many reasons for this failure. The task was always a daunting one. As I argued in 2008 in an article on VDare.com,
What Buchanan did in his campaigns, by defending traditional morality and beliefs and arguing against mass immigration and globalism, was to take on both wings of America’s elite at the same time—the left-wing elite that gives lip service to displaced manufacturing workers but is really animated by its hatred for traditional morality and its desire to advance social radicalism; the right-wing elite that gives lip service to defending traditional morality but is really animated by its desire to advance the interests of transnational corporations and enrich its members.
When Buchanan showed signs of succeeding, both wings attacked him. As Stanley notes of Buchanan’s victory in the New Hampshire primary in 1996, “No humiliation the Tea Party endured in 2010 could match the things that were said about Pat Buchanan in New Hampshire, 1996.” And the resources of the campaign were simply insufficient to meet such a challenge. What Stanley wrote of the 1992 campaign was true of them all: “his campaign was a genuine crusade of the little man; paid for and staffed by ordinary people united in anger at the way things were.”
But another reason the campaigns failed is that too many of those who knew enough to support Buchanan refused to do so. Buchanan has long been a stalwart social conservative, and he certainly is the most socially conservative candidate to have won a Republican primary or caucus in the post-Reagan era. But Buchanan ran his campaigns without any significant support from the leaders of the Religious Right. As Stanley observes (again regarding the 1992 campaign), “the organized religious right was committed to supporting [President Bush].” In 1996 and 2000, its leaders preferred Bob Dole and George W. Bush, even though neither man could match the consistency and intensity of Buchanan’s social conservatism. Indeed, in 1996, Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition did all he could to help Bob Dole beat back the challenge from Buchanan, especially in the South Carolina primary. The same is true of the more conservative members of the Beltway Right, none of whom bestirred themselves to help Buchanan, even when they agreed with Buchanan on most of the issues.
Then there was Buchanan’s run as the Reform Party candidate in 2000. Although Stanley is critical of that campaign, he does note that at one point national polls showed George W. Bush at 39 percent, Al Gore at 35 percent, and Buchanan at 16 percent—far more than the 5 percent the Reform Party would have needed to continue to receive federal matching funds. Buchanan’s goal, as he told supporters, was to create “a new fighting conservative traditionalist party in America.” Unfortunately for Buchanan, mainstream conservatism had become obsessed with the obvious moral failings of Bill Clinton, and, as a result, most conservatives were too consumed by the need to deny Al Gore the White House to consider whether the cause of conservatism might benefit from “a new fighting conservative traditionalist party in America.” Another significant problem was Ross Perot, whose chief political aide, Russ Verney, had encouraged Buchanan to run for the Reform Party nomination. But after Buchanan had served Perot’s interests by thwarting former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura’s attempt to take over the Reform Party, Perot turned on Buchanan: “Perot could use Pat to break [Ventura], and then use the convention to break Pat. The Buchanans were being set up.” Indeed, Perot later signed an affidavit stating that he regarded Buchanan’s opponent for the Reform Party nomination, John Hagelin (a devotee of transcendental meditation and “yogic flying”), as the nominee of the Reform Party, and ultimately endorsed George W. Bush—even though Bush championed NAFTA, which both Perot and Buchanan had opposed.
There are problems with Stanley’s biography. He sometimes adopts conventional criticisms of Buchanan without much additional thought or analysis. He has a tendency to employ colorful generalizations to keep his narrative flowing, even when those generalizations are supported by scanty evidence at best. And he gets a number of details wrong, including attributing to me a belief that the Republican establishment “cheated” during the 1996 campaign and citing me to establish that John Hagelin won the support of the Reform Party in Ohio. Neither statement is accurate. Stanley devotes little attention to the substance of the many books Buchanan has written since the 1996 campaign, not to mention the many White House memos and hundreds of columns Buchanan has authored, and the transcripts of Buchanan’s numerous television appearances.
Despite these flaws, anyone who followed Buchanan’s presidential campaigns and remains interested in this American statesman will want to read Stanley’s biography.