Republican presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan suspended one of his campaign co-chairmen on Thursday after learning of charges that the official had appeared at gatherings of militant hate groups.
Buchanan put Larry Pratt, president of Gun Owners of America, on leave after a liberal-leaning Washington research group reported that Pratt had spoken at meetings attended by members of the racist Aryan Nation and armed militia groups.
Both Buchanan and Pratt angrily denied allegations of Pratt’s ties to white supremacist groups. And at a debate among the GOP candidates here Thursday night, Buchanan pledged to “stand by” his aide.
“He’s being attacked because he supports me,” Buchanan said. “I would urge the gun owners of New Hampshire and America to stand with Larry Pratt and stand with me.”
In a Washington press conference, Pratt admitted speaking before groups that included supremacists, but he said he had done so “unknowingly.” His purpose, he said, was simply to advocate the right to bear arms.
“I see this as a political effort, a tool to try to discredit the Pat Buchanan campaign,” Pratt said.
It could well do so, and the incident illustrates the dangers latent in Buchanan’s campaign appeals to the economic and social anxieties of those Americans who feel left out of the current economic boom and under assault by a culture that seems to mock their values.
Buchanan’s appeal to the disenchanted puts him in close proximity to groups and individuals who advocate even more radical solutions to America’s perceived flaws than Buchanan’s populist program. And his aggressive style and combative rhetoric make him one of the most divisive figures on the political stage.
Buchanan stormed into New Hampshire this week after strong showings in Alaska, Louisiana and Iowa intent on tapping the American vein of class and race resentment and upending the established Republican order. Borrowing from such ideological forebears as Huey Long and George C. Wallace, Buchanan attacks big business, big banks and the new world order that he says has been imposed by international elites on the American workingman.
He wants prayer restored to the schoolhouse, abortion outlawed and federal judges subject to recall by the citizenry. He advocates sharply reducing immigration and abrogating trade treaties that he says are exporting American jobs to fatten the balance sheets of global corporations.
It is a combustible mix--one with a high potential for detonating in a candidate’s face, as the blow-up over Pratt demonstrated.
Pratt’s links to radical right-wing organizations were detailed in a study released Thursday by the Center for Public Integrity, a liberal group in Washington. The report--"Under the Influence: The 1996 Presidential Candidates and Their Campaign Advisers"--found questionable associations of officials of several campaigns. But Pratt’s links to the radical right were the most dramatic findings.
The information about Pratt was originally revealed last year in articles in Playboy and Rolling Stone magazines and by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is preparing a major study of right-wing extremist groups.
At his press conference, Pratt acknowledged that he had appeared at gatherings organized by overt racists and right-wing militia groups, but said he was only there to gather information on behalf of his own organization, a group of about 200,000 dedicated gun owners based in Falls Church, Va.
But he denied that he is a racist or an anti-Semite. “I think there’s been an effort to tar people who even say the word ‘militia,’ ” he said. “I loathe the Aryan Nation and other racist groups with every fiber of my being.”
Pratt opposes all gun-control legislation, and he has also advocated the formation of armed citizens’ militias. He has written that the Bible demands that Christians bear arms to defend their faith.
Last summer, Pratt spoke at a convention in Long Beach of survivalist organizations, appearing on a panel about the 1993 Waco, Texas, standoff between federal agents and the Branch Davidian cult. The standoff ended with the deaths of 86 people and has become a cause among ardent foes of federal gun regulation, who blame the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for causing the confrontation.
Pratt also said he took part in at least one anti-government meeting in 1992 while looking into the Ruby Ridge incident, in which federal agents killed white separatist Randy Weaver’s wife and son, but insisted that he didn’t know racist groups were going to be there.
Pratt said he was leaving the Buchanan campaign to “address these charges and put them to rest” but said he hoped to return.
Buchanan said Thursday that he accepted Pratt’s assertion that he was not a member of any racist or anti-Semitic organization. However, Buchanan said Pratt “stood aside so as not to be a distraction to the campaign.”
Buchanan’s response to the controversy did not go far enough for some. Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, called on the candidate to permanently disassociate himself from Pratt. “There is no room for such people to serve as key advisors in America’s most important campaign,” Hier said.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Buchanan’s chief rival for the nomination, said Thursday that Pratt “ought to be fired” for associating with racists.
Dole and other GOP candidates intend to continue to paint Buchanan as an extremist, and the former Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan aide will be forced to explain and defend his long public record of provocative statements.
“There is a decided element of trepidation and panic in the Republican establishment today because they hear the hoofbeats of this revolution,” Buchanan said this week, and there is some truth to his words as he maintains his position among the leaders in the tight race for the nomination.
“I represent something dramatically different in the Republican Party . . . true populist conservatism,” Buchanan said. “We are the real thing.”
Some polls show Buchanan virtually tied in New Hampshire with Dole, the 72-year-old avatar of the Republican establishment who is hitting hard with ads that highlight some of Buchanan’s more inflammatory comments.
But so far, Buchanan retains a large and loyal following in New Hampshire, voters who believe that only a firebrand like Buchanan can really shake up Washington.
“I like the guy; I like what he says about how he’d like to see the system run,” said Richard George, 37, an employee at Elliott & Williams Rose Co. in Dover, N.H., where Buchanan appeared Wednesday to decry international trade deals he says are breaking the backs of American workers.
“If I had my way, I’d rather see an isolationist as president. I don’t care how much they sugarcoat it, but somebody needs to put their foot down,” George said.
If angry white men like George are looking for a tribune, Buchanan is their man. Although he speaks with pride of his service to Nixon and Reagan, it is Nixon’s dark world view that he mirrors more than Reagan’s sunny optimism.
Early Buchanan memoranda to Nixon following his close victory in 1968 over Hubert H. Humphrey and Wallace reveal that Buchanan early on recognized the angst of white men in the South and in working-class districts of Northern industrial cities as the most fertile ground for growth of the Republican electoral coalition.
Emory University historian Dan Carter, author of a new biography of Wallace entitled “The Politics of Rage,” said in an interview that Buchanan admired the Alabaman’s ability to play off the racial and cultural fears engendered by the social turmoil of the late 1960s and has adapted it to the current political climate.
In many of his stump speeches, Buchanan cites court-ordered busing as an infringement by an unelected elite of appointed judges on the rights of families to send their children to neighborhood schools. He assails affirmative action and what he describes as the unchecked deluge of illegal immigrants.
“There is an extraordinarily direct line between George Wallace and Pat Buchanan,” said Carter, who is currently a visiting professor at Cambridge University in England. “They address not just the same issues but use the same techniques of identifying a threatening force--whether it’s foreigners, blacks, or even at times flirting with Jews.”
Carter said that Wallace exploited what are now called “social issues"--busing, forced integration, assaults on traditional morality. “Buchanan was on to them then and is using an updated version of them now. He and Wallace both insist it has nothing to do with race, but they were both perfectly willing to flaunt code words to make their point.”
In tax-phobic New Hampshire, Buchanan is stressing the economic side of his message, while in Iowa and Louisiana he emphasized his opposition to abortion, affirmative action and cultural rot.
He argues that he is the only Republican candidate who can draw in low-income voters, Perot supporters and the blue-collar “Reagan Democrats.”
“We are offering now a great coalition,” Buchanan asserted Tuesday in a television interview following his surprise second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, arguing that he can bring Democrats and independents into the GOP.
Unless he scares them away first.
“Buchanan’s problem--as we learned in 1992--is that when support for him increases, he believes it’s because everybody agrees with everything he says,” said Dick Bennett, president of American Research Group, a polling firm in Manchester. “That’s not the case. They use him as a protest vehicle. He doesn’t understand that, and then he scares them with some of his more radical solutions.”