Patrick J. Buchanan has always said his campaign stands for “America first.” Just what that implied was sometimes left unstated in the early days of his effort to unseat President Bush.
But now, as he struggles for political survival, Buchanan has begun to spell it out.
In recent weeks, he has warned that illegal immigration puts the United States at risk “of not being a nation anymore.” He called AIDS a “social disorder.” Challenged by Jewish protesters, he told a Georgia crowd that his rally was “of Americans, by Americans, and for the good ol’ U.S.A.”
He accused Germany and Japan of “stealing America’s markets.” He scorned them both as “dinky little countries,” and labeled Japan “a pile of rocks.”
These statements are mild compared with things the conservative commentator has written in the past, but they constitute what a growing body of critics call a pattern of intolerance at the core of his political credo. Almost no matter what the issue, Buchanan presents it as Us versus Them--with a strong suggestion that “Them” is undesirable, inferior or not truly American.
His message--which his campaign has vowed to carry forward even if his hopes for winning the Republican nomination are extinguished after today’s Illinois and Michigan primaries--could leave a bitter legacy, critics charge.
“The negativity is the danger,” says William J. Bennett, the former Bush Administration drug czar who is among prominent conservatives who have begun to speak out against what he calls Buchanan’s “music of resentment.”
“With Buchanan as a megaphone, and a sense of economic distress, it becomes much easier to see everything as a zero-sum game in which immigrants are getting more than their fair share and citizens are being deprived,” said Wayne Cornelius, head of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego.
Buchanan and his advisers insist that he intends no hostility toward foreign cultures. The candidate has accused critics of seeking to “demonize” him to silence his message.
“These views are resonating among the American people, who are a good people and who are thinking about problems like masses of illegal immigration,” he said in a recent television interview. “And there’s nothing wrong with raising them in a national debate.”
For Buchanan, whose bluntly stated opinions have been the main source of his livelihood for nearly 30 years, controversy is nothing new.
A debate has raged in conservative circles for more than a year about whether his writings show him to be anti-Semitic. There has been a similar argument about whether his views have racist overtones.
Most of those who have worked with Buchanan and traveled with him on the campaign trail say they have seen no evidence to substantiate such charges.
“I don’t welcome the support of anyone who is voting out of hatred of any group or out of bigotry,” Buchanan has said. “We don’t want it.”
Distancing himself from former klansman David Duke, he said of his rival’s core of racist support: “When you get down to that vote, it’s not ours.”
But what Buchanan has not said is also noteworthy. In criticizing Duke, he has never specifically repudiated his ideas. Nor does he soften his criticism of foreign cultures with any words of praise.
And whether it is intended or not, many experts believe his campaign message has already given new legitimacy to old intolerances. Racist/right-wing newsletters like the Spotlight, published by the Liberty Lobby, have embraced his candidacy as a victory for their cause.
“The issue is not whether Buchanan is an anti-Semite or a racist,” said Leonard Zeskind, research director of the Center for Democratic Renewal, a group that monitors the activities of so-called hate groups. “The issue is what his movement is engendering, and the clear answer is that it is engendering racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic bigotry. He’s touching all the bases.”
“The totality of his message is that we are under siege by what he calls non-traditional values,” said Raul Ysaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino immigration-rights group. “Of course he raises legitimate issues. But if you approach them from a racist, mean-spirited, xenophobic point of view, they stop being so.”
In fact, the bulk of Buchanan’s campaign-trail vitriol continues to be directed at Bush. Except in response to questions, he has avoided mention of immigration altogether in recent weeks.
But advisers to Bush regard Buchanan’s writings as a damning paper trail.
Among the judgments to which Buchanan signed his name were conclusions that AIDS is “nature’s retribution” against homosexuality and that immigration threatens to turn the United States into a “Third World nation.”
He also used a column last year to reassert his fierce sense of affront at homosexuality: “A prejudice against males who engage in sodomy with one another represents a normal and natural bias in favor of sound morality.”
And in a 1983 column already used by the Bush campaign as the basis of a TV ad attack, Buchanan described women as “less-equipped psychologically” to survive in the business world.
Forced to respond to that ad, Buchanan says he intended to suggest only that women should feel no qualms about choosing to be a wife and mother. But he also wrote in the column that women in the workplace were “simply not endowed by nature” with the qualities necessary to succeed. “The momma bird builds the nest,” he wrote. “So it was, so it shall ever be.”
In Buchanan’s defense, his allies note that it is the job of a pundit to take controversial stands. His campaign spokesman complains further that critics had begun to “lift elements out of context” from his vast published record.
“Mr. Buchanan has said he would not retract or take back anything he has written,” campaign communications director Jerry Woodruff said. “But that does not mean everything he wrote as a columnist in the past decade or more would become national policy.”
Even so, if the commentator has stated his views more gently since becoming a candidate, his words still hint of the old animus.
“I think God makes all people good,” he said on ABC-TV’s “This Week With David Brinkley” in an interview soon after he began his campaign. “But if we had to take a million immigrants in say, Zulus, next year, or Englishmen, and put them up in Virginia, what group would be easier to assimilate and would cause less problems for the people of Virginia?”
When he mourns the way crime has transformed Washington, his boyhood city of “400,000 black folks, 400,000 white folks, a wonderful town,” the unstated comparison is to a city that is now two-thirds black.
So far, Buchanan has not aired TV advertisements critical of illegal immigration. But as the campaign turns toward California, the divisive issue is expected to take on new prominence.
Already Buchanan has complained to supporters that “hundreds of thousands” of illegal immigrants “come and take social services from California which are provided by the taxpayer.”
“The California budget is in crisis,” he continued. “Laws are being violated, and they’re coming across in trucks and cars and vans, virtually running down border patrolmen.”
He said he could not understand “an Administration that sends 500,000 people around the world to defend the borders of Kuwait and cannot defend the borders of our country.”
William Moore, a professor at the College of William and Mary and an expert on right-wing extremism, contends that such language reflects “a politics of division,” saying: “Buchanan seems to reject pluralism in America.”
But Woodruff insisted that Buchanan’s stance has “nothing to do with who is good, who is bad, or who is desirable” and that it simply gives voice to a universal aspiration. “Any population doesn’t want foreign populations affecting their way of life,” he said.
Special correspondent Patrick Thomas contributed to this article.