Did Pat Buchanan’s politics fail?  That is not a question Joseph Scotchie’s biography explicitly seeks to answer, but it is one that a reader of the book cannot help asking.  As the Reform Party’s candidate, in his third and last presidential bid, Buchanan earned less than one percent of the vote.  In his exposition of the 1992 presidential campaign, Scotchie himself asks, “Was Pat Buchanan a leader of a new movement that would transform American politics or was he just a colorful commentator out of his league . . . ?” 

Today, perhaps only die-hard political junkies remember the GOP’s 1992 New Hampshire primary, when Buchanan’s second-place showing rocked the White House and sent its occupant’s campaign consultants scurrying back to their polling data and campaign manuals.  After the polls closed, Buchanan, with a shoestring budget and a skeleton staff of mostly amateurs, had won a stunning 38 percent of the vote against George Bush, the sitting President and a former CIA director whose impeccable Republican political résumé included having been Ronald Reagan’s vice president.  Virtually the same showing in New Hampshire in 1968 by political newcomer Eugene McCarthy, an antiwar academic, drove President Lyndon Johnson out of the race altogether.

Scotchie, who is at his best recreating the essential details as well as the spirit of the controversies driving the conflicts he describes, puts Buchanan’s showing in the right political context:

As his campaign began clicking in Georgia [where he would earn another respectable 37 percent], Buchanan’s standing in American politics was being transformed.  No longer was he a conservative gadfly making life difficult for a sitting Republican president.  His victory in New Hampshire made Buchanan a political force in his own right, the leader of a potentially significant chunk of the GOP.  His status as a politician who wanted to dramatically [sic] alter American politics was now taken seriously by the Washington media establishment.  As such, not only the Nixon-Reagan coalition, but the entire conservative movement was being ripped apart.  “Conservatives haven’t been this divided since the 1950’s,” claimed Fred Barnes.  Indeed, by surviving New Hampshire and doing well in Georgia, Buchanan could now lay claim as a national political leader.

Scotchie notes that, as a result, “Back in Washington, the tone of liberal and conservative criticism of Buchanan was taken to a higher level. . . . Now the real heavy artillery was rolled out.”  The attacks on Buchanan were unusually ferocious.  “On Crossfire one evening, [cohost Michael] Kinsley remarked that the level of criticism brought against Buchanan was unprecedented in recent political history.”

Pat Buchanan suddenly found himself denounced by self-styled GOP standard-bearers William J. Bennett and Charles Krauthammer for “fascistic” tendencies and “flirting with fascism.”  Also adopting the rhetoric of the far left, GOP Chairman Richard Bond claimed the only difference between Buchanan and David Duke was their attire.  (Duke wore white sheets while Buchanan wore fancy suits.)  Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich agreed, charging that Buchanan was “closer to David Duke” than to “normal mainstream conservatism.”  Bush spokesman Marlin Fitzwater claimed Buchanan’s speeches were laced with “code words,” and called him “a bully.”  New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd went so far as to claim that Buchanan had once written “a column praising Adolf Hitler.”

The purpose was not merely to chase GOP voters away from Buchanan but to delegitimize the entire viewpoint he represented.  The reasons for the smears were strategic and cultural rather than tactical and expedient.  Scotchie quotes Chronicles contributing editor Samuel Francis:

[T]he authors of those mendacities had perceived some quality in the Buchanan movement that disturbed them more than usual.  What they perceived was . . . the emergence of a new identity in American politics, one that the high science of managed and manipulated democracy is not yet quite prepared to handle and which is therefore more of a threat to the established powers than almost any previous challenge from the castrati of right and left.

Buchanan called the new identity born of that campaign a “conservatism of the heart”: a conservatism that actually sought to conserve something real—namely, the jobs and neighborhoods of American workers who were being impoverished by free trade and global capitalism.  Buchanan had also called for an end to Bush’s “New World Order,” pledging to withdraw American troops from their imperial outposts in Korea, Germany, and Japan—hardly evidence of incipient fascism.

Buchanan’s was an America-first platform that wedded an old-republic patriotism with concern for the economic welfare of middle-class Americans and a vigorous defense of their culture and values from assaults by cosmopolitan elites in the media, academia, and politics.  It was a union of the most potent appeals normally used separately by Democrats and Republicans in opposition to each other.  In Buchanan’s expert speechwriter’s hands, the uniting of concern for working-class economic interests with a vigorous defense of traditional cultural values threatened to wreck the two-party scam in which antitraditionalist Demo-crats pretended to care about workers and big-business Republicans pretended to care about social and moral issues.

Two presidential campaigns later, however, the Buchanan movement appeared to have spent itself, dissolving in the dismal results of the Reform Party campaign of 2000.  With no Buchanan disciples now holding office or party posts, it seems fair to ask: Is the movement really exhausted, and, if so, should we assess Buchanan’s political impact?

Scotchie, maintaining some distance, provides a cordial and accurate recounting of Buchanan’s political life.  Although he does not shy away from discussing arguments sparked by some of Buchanan’s political decisions—such as his controversial selection of Ezola Foster as his running mate in 2000—Scotchie, perhaps wisely, avoids any assessment of them.  After all, Buchanan is still rocking the cosmopolitans’ boat, most recently through his magazine, the American Conservative.  And we do not yet know whether some young member of the Buchanan Brigades will one day appear in Congress or in some other leadership position on the American right.

We can, however, evaluate the impact of some conservative figures—William F. Buckley, Jr., for example—and seek comparisons.  Buckley’s magazine, National Review, and books (God and Man at Yale, Up From Liberalism, etc.) helped launch modern American conservatism as well as the 1964 Goldwater campaign that produced a generation of conservative activists.  Could the repercussions of the Buchanan movement be analogous to the events that followed in Buckley’s wake?  If so, that might provide grounds for optimism.

Given the temper of today’s political warfare between paleoconservatives and neoconservatives and the nature of the threat to the American people—which changed from communism abroad to cultural Marxism at home—Buckley-Goldwater conservatism may well be dead, having rendered itself harmless to an increasingly multiculturalist cosmopolitan establishment by merging with the now-globalist Republican Party.  

Yet Buchanan’s candidacies and the wide reception of his books reveal that the spirit of resistance that characterized some of early Buckley-Goldwater conservatism still lives, even though no Buckley-Goldwater conservative could have written The Death of the West.  Thus, a new postconservative right may be emerging—thanks, in no small measure, to Patrick Buchanan.  

Like Buckley before him, Buchanan’s political trajectory includes writing politically charged (though more serious and significant) books, especially the best-selling Death of the West, and founding a magazine.  The Great Betrayal and A Republic, Not an Empire (also a best-seller) are substantiative historical investigations that provide the philosophical context and factual base for Buchanan’s—and, perhaps, a postconservative—challenge to the global-capitalist establishment.  Also like Buckley, who helped found Young Americans for Freedom to propagate his conservatism, Buchanan founded the American Cause, which sponsors conferences on themes important in the postconservative era.  (The most recent meeting examined mass immigration, which GOP conservatives have joined the far left in defending.)

Whether his impact will be seen as lasting or ephemeral, Buchanan undertook political tasks that no one else was willing to do at the time, tasks that had to be accomplished in some fashion if the American right was to survive assaults by globalists and immigrationists parading as standard-bearers of American culture and values.  Today, Buchanan remains the right’s liveliest and most quotable writer and is certainly among the most courageous.  Even after the ignominious results of his 2000 presidential run, Bu-chanan published a runaway best-selling book, founded a magazine, and is still fighting—all testimony to his remarkable resilience.  It is arguable that Pat Bu-chanan has done more for the American right than any other figure, but with far less popular acknowledgment.  Ultimately, however, how he is seen in the future will depend less on the content of those rather solid accomplishments than on the objective political and cultural conditions that follow.

An assessment now would simply be too early.  In the interim, Scotchie’s biography provides a politically accurate history of the events influencing Buchanan and the events Buchanan hoped to influence.  Joseph Scotchie has the journalist’s flair for capturing the essential details without including the extraneous ones, while bringing forgotten controversies back to life.  Students of contemporary politics will need this book if they intend to understand the controversies and conflicts of the 90’s and perhaps glimpse the origins of an as-yet-unseen postconservatism.


[Street Corner Conservative: Patrick J. Buchanan and His Times, by Joseph Scotchie (Alexander, NC: Alexander Books) 352 pp., $18.50]