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COLUMN ONE : Buchanan Breaks All the Rules : The conservative pundit attacks the head of his party, tangles with senior citizens, shoots from the lip in New Hampshire. Is his bully-boy image for real or just an act?

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Patrick J. Buchanan, the brawls began early.

As a toddler, he showed a gift for public speaking, quickly learning the “Hail Mary” while his young brothers stumbled through the Roman Catholic prayer. Soon, little Paddy Joe started reciting it over and over at bedtime.

One night, hearing a scuffle, Buchanan’s father charged into the bedroom and found him bleeding from the forehead. Pat’s brothers, fed up with the noise, had bashed him with a baby bottle, hoping to silence him. But the lesson never took.

Some 50 years later, the scene shifts to New Hampshire, where Buchanan--now a pugnacious, conservative pundit known to millions--is challenging George Bush for the GOP presidential nomination. An elderly man, angered by Buchanan’s vagueness on health care issues, interrupts his speech at a hotel here and demands specifics.

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“You’re not saying anything concrete, and you’re going to get nailed for this,” the man charges. “You shouldn’t take the advice you’re getting.”

Buchanan’s face turns red. Like a boxer sizing up an opponent, he glares at the old man, then stuns him with a sucker punch: “Would that include your advice, sir?”

It is campaign ‘92, Buchanan-style.

With the exception of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, no candidate in the presidential race has shown more disdain for campaign protocol than Buchanan. And the roots of it go back to his boyhood in Chevy Chase, Md., where he learned to slug it out with his brothers--to land the first punch and keep his guard up on the left.

Ever since he entered the presidential contest Dec. 10, the bully-boy candidate of the American right has broken all the rules: Most Republicans do not attack the head of their party. Politicians rarely tangle with senior citizens, who vote in large numbers. And even the most freewheeling candidates think twice before shooting from the lip.

“He seems kind of extreme to me,” Marilyn McKibbin, an unemployed paralegal, said after meeting Buchanan in a Manchester unemployment office. “But, my goodness, he certainly says what he thinks, doesn’t he?”

Buchanan’s blunt style has served him well throughout his career, first as a speech writer for President Richard M. Nixon, then as director of communications for President Ronald Reagan, and finally as a columnist and fixture on TV shows like “Crossfire,” “The McLaughlin Group” and “The Capital Gang.”

“Politics is like religion to Pat,” says Martin Duggan, a St. Louis journalist and former colleague. “If you cross him, them’s fightin’ words.”

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The tough-guy routine has made him a household name. But to his friends, it is all an act. In private, they say, Buchanan is a quiet, self-effacing person. Peggy Noonan, who worked with him as a speech writer for Reagan, remembers her boss as a pleasant man who promoted women’s careers in an Administration not known for its feminism.

“I had never seen such a gap between public persona and private personality,” she wrote in her memoirs of the Reagan years. “He is neither bombastic nor especially combative.”

For those who have felt the sting of Buchanan’s lash, it is hard to believe.

Hammers the President

In recent weeks, the pundit has mounted a harsh campaign against Bush, hammering the President for breaking his 1988 pledge not to raise taxes. He raised eyebrows by choosing “America first” as his theme--a phrase that recalls the isolationist and pro-German movement in America before World War II.

Buchanan has recommended locking up the homeless, cracking down on “our little Chinese friends in Beijing” and waging a trade war against “predatory” nations like Japan. Earlier, he wrote that AIDS is nature’s “awful retribution” against gays, who have “declared war upon nature.”

The candidate questions whether thousands of Jews died at Treblinka from diesel engine fumes. He has written that the real liberators of American women were not “feminist noisemakers” but the automobile, dishwasher and garbage disposal.

Asked to retract comments that some have called anti-Semitic, homophobic, racist or sexist, Buchanan refuses and insists there is an organized effort on the left to silence him.

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“Look, there are people who don’t like me,” he says quietly in a hotel coffee shop interview. “Who really don’t like me. Who feel that Pat Buchanan has to be kept away from wherever the power lies. . . . They are going to keep hammering me and hammering me and hammering me for the rest of my life.

“People want me to apologize, and other folks want me to crawl,” he continues. “But I wasn’t raised that way.”

Taps Resentment

Many Republicans dismiss Buchanan’s chances against Bush as slim or none, citing his lack of political experience and narrow base. But his slashing attacks on the President’s economic policies have tapped into a mother lode of resentment in New Hampshire, and some polls suggest that Buchanan could snare as much as 30% of the vote in the Feb. 18 GOP primary.

If he does, it would be a stinging setback for Bush and a boost for what many believe is Buchanan’s real political agenda.

“This is a candidate who wants to be a leading voice for the hard-core conservatives, and New Hampshire is a perfect place for him to make this appeal,” says liberal political columnist Sidney Blumenthal. “He feeds on classic themes of resentment towards Bush up there . . . about unemployment, a staggering economy and the feeling that we’re in a state of political decline.”

Populism Surfaces

To some, Buchanan’s campaign has revealed an odd populist streak in a man who has spent most of his life in and around Washington, D.C. In recent weeks he has campaigned energetically in unemployment lines, meeting people down on their luck. It is not the company he is used to keeping. Buchanan, 53, lives in a comfortable McLean, Va., home with his wife, Shelley, and earned an estimated $400,000 annually before quitting his media jobs to run for President.

He drives a Mercedes and admits he has never been on the Washington subway. A dedicated jogger, Buchanan is a trim, tall man whose slicked-down hair, dark suits and wingtip shoes make him look more like a relic of the ‘50s than a candidate of the ‘90s.

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“We may be seeing a new Buchanan,” says Kevin Phillips, a conservative political analyst. “He’s been affected by the economic mess up there in New Hampshire, and it’s made him a more sympathetic person. Maybe it’s something he never understood before, when you think about where he came from.”

Born in Washington on Nov. 2, 1938, Buchanan was the third of nine children. The head of the household was “Pop,” William Baldwin Buchanan, a successful accountant, strict disciplinarian and staunch conservative.

If his children got out of line, Pop used a leather strap. When they learned to defend themselves, either with fists or words, he lavished praise on them. He was rough, demanding, opinionated, competitive, feisty and brash--the most compelling influence in young Patrick Buchanan’s life.

Looking back, the candidate remembers his youth in almost idyllic terms, as a time when he and other Roman Catholic kids in the neighborhood grew up tough and strong, loyal to each other and their parents’ values. It is an America that has vanished, he says, where good and evil were strictly defined and Mother Church was a bedrock.

There were also political icons: Buchanan’s father revered Spain’s Generalissimo Francisco Franco, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin and right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler. From an early age, the son inherited his father’s political loyalties and deep hatred of communism.

Buchanan went to a series of parochial schools, including Gonzaga, a renowned Catholic high school in Washington. Like many of his friends, he began drinking alcohol as a young teen-ager. The combination of beer and a volatile temperament got him into numerous fights--but nothing compared to the 1959 incident in which Buchanan, then a student at Georgetown University, was stopped by two policemen who claimed he was speeding.

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Convinced they were wrong and enraged by their demeanor, he fought back and injured both officers, sending them to the hospital. Eventually, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and was suspended from school for a year. Looking back, he says “it was among the great, dumb deeds of my life.”

Takes Up Journalism

After pondering his future, Buchanan decided to give journalism a whirl and was admitted to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York in 1961. Penn Kimball, a former professor, says he cannot remember meeting a student as conservative as Buchanan. It was also a watershed for the young scribe, who says he first encountered people openly critical of their country.

When the term ended, Buchanan was hired by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, an editorially conservative paper that has since folded. Quickly bored with reporting, he shifted gears and churned out biting, right-wing editorials. The pundit had been born.

Soon, however, Buchanan left St. Louis for the first great adventure of his political life. In 1965 he learned that Nixon, a longtime idol, was visiting the city. He persuaded the once and future presidential candidate to hire him as an assistant at his law firm and remained with him until Nixon resigned the presidency nine years later.

“He (Buchanan) was Mr. Tough Guy, Mr. Right Wing, Mr. Sock-It-to-the-Liberals, and the President loved it,” says historian Stephen Ambrose, who has written a three-volume biography of Nixon. “For a speech writer, he played a more central role in the White House than anyone else I can think of.”

Presidential files from the Nixon years show Buchanan lashing out at the “left-wing drift” of public television, criticizing racial integration, attacking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and trying to promote disarray among Democrats.

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In confidential memos he referred to feminists as “the Butch Brigade,” called one Democratic fund-raiser a “screaming fairy,” and speculated about a campaign to question the patriotism of Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota, Nixon’s Democratic opponent in 1972.

“I am a summa cum laude graduate of the Richard Nixon school of political hardball,” he says now. “They were some of the greatest years of my life. They taught me friendship, loyalty and how to fight for what you believe in.”

In 1971, Buchanan married the former Shelley Scarney, an aide to presidential secretary Rose Mary Woods. He made scores of enemies on the left and grew close to the Nixon family. But he still had time for old friends like Denny Walsh, an investigative reporter who worked with him in St. Louis.

Although Walsh had written damning articles about Nixon, Buchanan invited him to lunch at the White House, despite protests from other staffers.

“Pat could have backed away from me; it would have been the easy thing to do,” says the reporter, who now works for the Sacramento Bee. “But he didn’t do that. He was loyal.”

Begins His Column

After Nixon resigned, Buchanan began writing a syndicated national column. Several years later he debuted the “Crossfire” show on CNN. But when the opportunity arose to be Reagan’s communications director, he jumped.

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Reagan seemed to embody his conservative views more than Nixon, and Buchanan plunged into the political wars of the 1980s, becoming a strong advocate for the Nicaraguan Contras and other anti-communist movements.

But he never got the political or ideological foothold that he wanted, and Buchanan eventually quit the post to resume his punditry in 1987. He was rolling along, appearing on television seven days a week, when he decided late last year to challenge Bush and roll the dice once again.

“I think he views this whole campaign as a political bungee jump,” says one former colleague. “He can’t really be hurt by this, and meanwhile, he might have a lot of fun. So what’s the down side?”

As he campaigns, Buchanan’s economic-oriented message has made an impact. But some question how far he can go beyond New Hampshire, given his history of extreme political comments.

“His past is going to come back to haunt him,” says Michael Kinsley, the New Republic’s liberal senior editor who has been a co-host with Buchanan on “Crossfire.” “Pat’s just said too many harsh things over the years.”

Even in recent weeks, Buchanan said Western heritage should not be “dumped onto some landfill called multiculturalism.” And he said it would be better to have Englishmen settle in Virginia instead of “a million Zulus,” because the English would better adjust to U.S. culture.

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The candidate concedes that his blunt style opens him to attack. But he refuses to retract any comments and insists the furor will die. One question, however, haunts him: Is Pat Buchanan an anti-Semite?

Those who know him insist he is not, and the candidate angrily denies the charge. Kinsley says his co-host is a genial person who does not hate Jews--but he adds that it all depends how one defines anti-Semitism.

“If people have a paranoid view of the world that blames problems on Jews, I think Pat has said things that raise troubling questions about whether he holds that paranoid world view,” Kinsley says. “Virtually everything he’s printed individually can be explained. It’s just that in context with everything else, it becomes alarming.”

The main controversy grew out of comments Buchanan made after the invasion of Kuwait in August, 1990. In a broadcast of “The McLaughlin Group” later that month, he declared: “There are only two groups that are beating the drums for war in the Middle East--the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States.”

In a newspaper column at the same time, he wrote of “Israelis . . . goading us to attack.” Prior to that, he had called Congress “Israeli-occupied territory.”

Buchanan has also questioned the wisdom of tracking down suspected Nazi war criminals decades after the crimes, saying the world overlooks existing concentration camps in countries like China, Cuba and Vietnam.

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“I don’t think Pat Buchanan gets up in the morning and says, ‘How can I hurt the Jews?’ ” says Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League. But Foxman, analyzing the pundit’s career before his presidential campaign, adds that “he’s said enough things to hurt people he respects, who have said to him, ‘Hey, this is hurtful and it’s anti-Semitic.’ ”

Buchanan’s comments also have sparked debate in conservative circles. In December, columnist William F. Buckley wrote a lengthy essay in the National Review about anti-Semitism, devoting a section to the candidate’s recent comments.

“I find it impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he did and said during the period under examination amounted to anti-Semitism, whatever it was that drove him to say and do it, most probably an iconoclastic temperament,” Buckley wrote.

Responds to Criticism

In response to a wave of criticism, Buchanan has defended each statement. He says he initially opposed the Persian Gulf War, like many other Americans. He does not question the enormity of Nazi crimes and explains that his remark about “Israeli-occupied” territory reflected Congress’ constant caving in to lobbying groups.

The commentator insists he is not anti-Israel, and longtime friends have rushed to his defense. “I don’t believe any of these criticisms,” says Charles Leasure, an administrator with the National Institutes of Health in North Carolina who has known Buchanan since grade school and remains a close friend.

However, when asked how Buchanan has changed, Leasure suggests that his friend’s views on immigration and isolationism are more extreme than the folks he grew up with.

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As kids, he says, “we were receptive to and included (non-Catholic) people when they appeared.” Buchanan sees his childhood as the “good old days,” Leasure notes, “but I don’t think you recreate them by excluding other people. . . . Pat’s view is that we maintain this by excluding those people. And that’s different from what I might have expected from him 10, 15 years ago.”

Has Buchanan changed?

As he wolfs down a hamburger during the coffee shop interview, the candidate says he has not given the question much thought. Then he starts thinking out loud:

“I think there’s still a lot of the kid from Chevy Chase in Pat Buchanan. I think there’s still a certain boyishness you want to retain all your life. But you’re a mature man now. You’re no longer the young man around Nixon.”

Maybe things do not change that much, Buchanan concludes. His father always told him to keep his left up--and that is one lesson he has never forgotten.

“I watch myself on television answering questions about Mr. Bush, and I look like a pretty tough character, a hard, tough guy,” he says. “But that’s the natural stance. You go into the fighting crouch. That’s how you respond.”

A Candidate Who Thrives on Confrontation

Background

Born: Nov. 2, 1938, Washington, D.C.

Education: Georgetown University (1961); Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism (1962)

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Military Service: None

Family: Married since 1971 to the former Shelley Scarney, no children

Career: Special Assistant to President Richard M. Nixon, 1965-74; Director of Communications for President Ronald Reagan, 1985-87; Syndicated columnist and television commentator, 1975 to 1991.

Campaign Themes

Short Term

Cut taxes and promise not to raise them as President.

Promote a “get-tough” attitude with Japan, Germany and other economic rivals, especially when their state-subsidized industries compete with and undercut U.S. industries.

Discourage “multiculturalism” in U.S. education, promoting a return to the values of Western culture and the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Cut federal environmental regulations that impinge on small business.

Oppose affirmative action, quotas and other hiring policies that favor one ethnic group over another.

Long Term

Reduce U.S. troops in Europe and the Pacific, requiring Germany, Japan and other nations to pay more for their own defense.

Provide humanitarian but not long-term economic aid to the newly formed nations of the former Soviet Union, due to uncertainty over the political situation there.

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Offer a phased-in program of tax credits to working families so they can purchase health care insurance.

Restructure or abolish the current welfare system, so it will not encourage a culture of dependency among recipients.

Reduce annual U.S. foreign aid expenditures.

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