COLUMN RIGHT : Buchanan Is Now a Player in the Game : He can use language to slam opponents, but his words will be thrown back against his cause.
Well, the Republican presidential race now has two new candidates. There is David Duke, whose political career has been, as the phrase has it, meteoric; and now Pat Buchanan, who has never run for anything anywhere but who has served three presidents. American politics appears to be a realm of rapid upward mobility.
I am particularly keen to see what happens to Buchanan, a friend going back to his days with Richard M. Nixon. Will the liberals, who are as abundant and mischievous in the media as pollen in an autumn meadow, render him a creep? Will he assist them?
Inasmuch as the Republican ascendancy of recent years still leaves them feeling like strangers in a strange--and menacing--land, our liberals see merit in Buchanan’s challenge to George Bush. Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 challenge to President Lyndon B. Johnson put the kibosh on the Democratic ascendancy of that time; Buchanan’s challenge to George Bush could have a similar happy ending.
Yet in Buchanan’s campaign, liberals also see many of the ghosts and goblins of their own liberal mythology. When Buchanan orates, liberal knees stop jerking and start knocking. Their fears all go back to the danger-on-the-right alarums sounded by the liberal professoriate in the 1950s and 1960s.
The American conservative movement that Buchanan claims to represent evolved out of the late 1940s. As the movement grew, so did the liberals’ fevered conviction that conservatism posed a danger to democratic institutions. The danger was meticulously delineated by liberal social scientists in a series of essays, pamphlets and even books proclaiming “Danger on the Right.” This danger came from certain Americans whom the liberals adjudged peculiar, namely, rich Western businessmen, churchgoers, middle-class provincials worried about their slipping status, Southern whites, the military and William F. Buckley Jr.
In hindsight, this prophecy of danger-on-the-right appears as one of ritualistic liberalism’s many failed predictions. But remember that the liberal imagination is a believing imagination, undaunted by facts, common sense or snickers from the sidelines. When American conservatives nominated Sen. Barry Goldwater as their first presidential candidate in 1964, the liberal faithful heard the Goldwaterites described as Nazis and lunatics by such eminences as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Sen. William Fulbright and California’s Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown; and they believed.
They believed still when Ronald Reagan carried the conservative banner in 1980. Even eight years later when the courtly George Bush won a freely contested election, unassisted by storm troopers, the liberals believed. Commenting on the Bush campaign, Democratic candidate Richard Gephardt lamented, “Hitler would have loved these people.”
Now they are presented with the campaign of my friend Pat Buchanan. No sooner had he declared his intention to challenge President Bush in New Hampshire than the evening news disinterred old clips of Buchanan’s provocative moments on political talk shows. Of course, on those shows Pat was supposed to be provocative. Hence he could punctuate his arguments for renewed nationalism in a post-Cold War world with colorful flourishes.
But now he is on a wider and wilder stage. He is campaigning for the presidency and claiming to represent millions of other conservatives. He can use his language against his opponents, but he will now see his language used against himself, and by a larger number of opponents than he might ever have realized he had. He can slam at his opponents, but the incoming slams will come from every corner and even from outside the ring. How will he take it?
Buchanan has always loved what the journalist Frank Kent many years ago called the “great game of politics.” In the 1980s, Pat rose to become one of the liveliest commentators on that game, but he has never actually played it. The game calls on all sorts of talents, not the least of which is to gather people to the cause, not to exclude people from it. And it calls for attracting notice, not notoriety.
In Pat’s forthcoming speeches on international relations, domestic policy and all the social pathologies that he rightly identifies in the land, I hope he will remember the troubled liberal so painfully ensnared with the liberal mythology. Conservatives do not want Pat to provide that mythology with still more ghosts and goblins.