Commentary Magazine


Right from the Beginning, by Patrick J. Buchanan

Street-Corner Conservative

Right from the Beginning.
by Patrick J. Buchanan.
Little, Brown. 392 pp. $18.95.

These memoirs by Patrick J. Buchanan—the pertinacious political commentator, syndicated columnist, and former resident controversialist in the administrations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan—are a near-approximation in the pantheon of conservative political manifestoes to Barry Gold-water’s Conscience of a Conservative. As such, they tell us much about the future trajectory on which Buchanan would like to take the conservative movement if the Republicans hold onto the White House in November, and especially if they do not. Paraphrasing the Abbé Sieyès during the French Revolution, Buchanan writes: “Now is the time to get more, after which we will demand and get everything. That is the correct mindset for our conservative counterrevolution.” It is also a mindset that betrays a go-for-broke absolutism which many readers who consider themselves conservative may find discomfiting, perhaps even chilling.

Unlike most autobiographies, the title of this one captures precisely and entirely what Buchanan has to say about the genesis of his moral and political views. The first half of the book is a great bath in nostalgia, from Buchanan’s birth in Washington, D.C. in 1938 through his undergraduate years at Georgetown University. Though he would later become well-known for his vitriolic assaults on the “Eastern Establishment,” Buchanan was raised, and has never really left, one of its main citadels; but his was a “sleepy and segregated Southern city,” not the “cosmopolitan capital” of today.

Raised in a devout Catholic household along with eight siblings, Buchanan imbibed his “street-corner conservatism” from people “whose heroes were Douglas Mac-Arthur, Gen. Franco, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy.” Along with many conservatives, Buchanan sees the early 50’s as an idyll, before the decadence and nihilism of the counterculture undermined traditional notions of faith, family, and country. It was a time, he writes, “when you didn’t need a presidential commission to tell you what pornography was,” before “high heels were considered sexist and bad for the calves,” and when Buchanan could have the high-school nickname “gay blade” without raising eyebrows. Unfortunately Buchanan’s Norman Rockwell-like depiction, while welcome as an attempt to correct the popular caricature of the 1950’s as a time of national hysteria fed by right-wing paranoia, is itself overwrought and devoid of nuance.

A definitive influence on the young Buchanan was his father William, a successful accountant and Al Smith Democrat who, along with millions of conservative Catholics, became disillusioned with FDR in the mid-1930’s and switched to the GOP shortly thereafter. Every night, William made his sons hit a punching bag: 100 lefts, 100 rights, 100 one-twos. The lesson—always be ready for a fight—was to stand Buchanan in good stead in the future, as his penchant for “exposing and attacking,” which he attributes to an inborn Scotch-Irish “irascibility,” became apparent. During his freshman year at the Jesuit Gonzaga High School, he argued in debate in favor of a U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations and in defense of McCarthy. Running for the presidency of a student organization at Georgetown, he caused a campus-wide sensation by assailing his opponent as a “faculty fanny-kisser” and a “poodle” (he lost the race nonetheless). In 1958, he and his friends were picked up by the D.C. police for transgressing the grounds of the Soviet embassy in Washington to protest Khrushchev-sanctioned mob attacks on the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

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Although there are few examples in these memoirs of the tightly wound prose and searing wit Buchanan’s readers have come to expect in his syndicated columns and other writings, a delightful exception is his discussion of his year at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Fifty years ago, Buchanan writes, most newsmen were “high-school dropouts, tough men from working-class families who respected local values of neighborhood, home, and church,” but at Columbia in the 1960’s he encountered the new-style journalist, “a mournful missionary, sent out to a certain martyrdom, to save the world.” Adopting the brawling manner of the old New York Daily News to “carve up JFK for his plan to ransom the Cuban patriots he had left stranded at the Bay of Pigs,” Buchanan horrified his professor in an editorial-writing class. Expectedly, the budding journalist got A’s in financial reporting and libel law but a C for “basic issues in the news.”

Buchanan’s experience at Columbia was an important source for his later critique of the media, put forth forcefully in the 1970’s when he worked in the Nixon White House and wrote his two previous books, The New Majority and Conservative Votes, Liberal Victories. As Buchanan was to see it then, the “media moguls” were the most influential members of a new privileged liberal elite, a shadow government that had conspired to flout Nixon’s “silent majority” of middle-class Americans who believed in traditional values. But all that was still to come. Back in the 1960’s, after a disastrous job interview with the Washington Post in which he criticized the paper’s coverage of Nixon, Buchanan landed work at the now-defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat, where, like other promising conservative-leaning journalists, he soon found himself assigned to the paper’s bedrock Republican editorial page. (One cannot help wondering what would have been the result if Buchanan had ended up, as did so many of his Columbia colleagues, as a New York Times editor or CBS News producer.)

By 1964, Buchanan had become smitten with the Goldwater effort to wrest control of the Republican party from the wing led by Nelson Rockefeller, those whose main concern was “getting in 18 holes before martini time.” In the Goldwater campaign is to be found the nascent emphasis, advanced by Buchanan then and still now, on ideological clarity, on a vigorously anti-Communist foreign policy, and on sociocultural issues (as opposed to economic ones) that pit intellectuals, professional politicians, government bureaucrats, and Wall Street against the rest of the country. Dismayed with the Globe-Democrat‘s failure to endorse Goldwater in the fall campaign, and rejected by the Nieman Fellowship board at Harvard, Buchanan sought out Richard Nixon, his choice for the 1968 GOP nomination, and persuaded Nixon to hire him as an assistant in his New York law office.

The decision to enter politics, Buchanan writes, came from a desire “not for power, but to be part of a cause larger than and beyond the self,” an impulse he would follow again in 1985, interrupting a highly lucrative ten-year career as a political commentator to join the Reagan White House as communications director. This memoir, however, ends on the day in 1966 that Buchanan began working for Nixon, and leaves for another book an exposition of his more troubling political battles—for example, defending Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal, or opposing the Justice Department office that tracks down Nazi war criminals.

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Buchanan, of course, had a purpose in producing this particular book at this particular time. Talk of the collapse of the conservative movement in the post-Reagan era, and even of what it means to be a conservative, is enjoying a certain vogue these days. Buchanan, too, believes the movement has lost its bearings, devolved into “many mansions.” By focusing on his beginnings and on the future, he is trying to connect his root beliefs to the “duty of the political conservative.”

Though the 1950’s saw the incipience of a conservative renaissance in the world of ideas in America, readers looking in this book for the intellectual antecedents of Buchanan’s conservatism will be disappointed (aside from an occasional quotation from T.S. Eliot and G.K. Chesterton, and the by-now requisite obeisance to National Review). Buchanan’s is fundamentally a theological conservatism fostered by the traditional values amid which he was raised and educated. He conveys well the power and beauty of the Catholic Church in the days before mass in the vernacular, ecumenism, and altar girls. The Catholic faith, Buchanan writes, “provided us with what our own non-Catholic friends did not have: a code of morality, a code of conduct, a sure knowledge of right and wrong.” In Catholic school, “our education began with the answers. We had the Way, the Truth, and the Light. Other ways were not equally valid. They were false.”

With this came a number of coincident political convictions, notably that Communism was the enemy of God and man. It is from the abandonment by the Church in the 1960’s of this uncompromising posture—when the “Church Militant was superseded by the Church Milquetoast”—that Buchanan traces the general decline in the authority of orthodox religious belief, a great social unraveling that gave rise to rampant secularism and “false religions” like feminism. Buchanan, however, still fervently holds the old-time beliefs as givens, and elevates them to the status of supreme certitudes. Which brings him to his current view: “Our political and social quarrels now partake of the savagery of religious wars because, at bottom, they are religious wars. The most divisive issues in American politics are now about warring concepts of right and wrong, of good and evil.”

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One’s starting point is obviously an essential component of what one becomes, and Buchanan is surely correct to see religion as an anchor of one’s politics. It is possible, nonetheless, to deplore the secularization of society and all the pathologies it has unloosed—from the excesses of the sexual revolution to the drug culture—without claiming for one’s own beliefs and opinions exclusive spiritual or moral or ethical purity and seeking to infuse every aspect of public policy with them. Buchanan does not tell us if the “religious war” which characterizes our national politics is between the religious and irreligious or between the “traditional Christians” and everybody else. Problems arise, alas, in any case.

Certainly there are many decent people, including many conservatives, who are agnostic or atheist. Conversely, as Buchanan well knows, many mainline church groups are today quite liberal. They too speak with religious conviction when they urge unilateral disarmament, or an expansion of the welfare state, or sanctions against South Africa, or a prohibition on the death penalty. On which side of the “war” does Buchanan put these two groups of religious and irreligious?

Buchanan insists, moreover, against much evidence to the contrary, that there is no longer a “common moral code or common idea of patriotism” among ordinary Americans. He overstates this point to mask what is in his view the real cleavage, separating those who adhere perfectly to his ironclad sense of “what is truly morally evil” from those who do not, an apocalyptic formulation that excludes most Americans, not to mention most conservatives (including probably Barry Goldwater).

This becomes evident when Buchanan gets down to specifics, making every small political contest an apodictic one. The narrow concerns of the New Right—amending the Constitution to make unborn children “persons,” explicitly to allow capital punishment, to establish English as the official U.S. language, to permit the scuttling of Supreme Court decisions by a two-thirds vote of Congress, to sanction religious instruction in the schools, and so on—are assigned here a moral weight indistinguishable from such first principles as defending democratic capitalism against Soviet-style totalitarianism. Noting that Congress has failed to overrule a Supreme Court decision outlawing prayer in public schools, Buchanan raises this specter: “A National Day of Prayer, conducted inside the classrooms of Christian teachers in open defiance of Supreme Court edicts, would send a message of political strength the Secular City could not ignore.”

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To be sure, there is much in Buchanan’s agenda for conservatism that is appealing, including not only the Reagan Doctrine and a reduction of marginal tax rates but also efforts to defend traditional bourgeois values. But if the Republican party is to retain and even expand upon the Reagan coalition, democratic politics requires an appeal based on the broad patches of conservative consensus. There is in fact a conservative majority, no longer hidden. It coalesced as conservatives turned away from isolationism, nativism, elitism, and an exclusory Roman- and Anglo-Catholic world view and opened their ranks to ex-liberals and individualist libertarians, blue-collar ethnics and intellectuals, Jews and evangelical Protestants. Buchanan’s language of “religious war,” leaving as it does no room for compromise or diversity, threatens the new conservative coalition and could yet trigger a corrosive and ultimately self-defeating battle within the Republican party.

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