Who's afraid of Pat Buchanan?

His spineless Republican rivals and the political punditocracy, that's who.

Published September 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Pat Buchanan is back in the presidential campaign saddle again, leaving a trail of racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetorical dung behind him wherever he goes.

But unlike in his two previous runs, this time around virtually no one seems willing to call him on it. Not the press, not the commentators and, most significantly, not his fellow Republicans. This week, as rumors intensify that Buchanan may bolt for the Reform Party, thereby becoming a significant factor in the presidential race, the silence has become deafening.

"There's no doubt he makes subliminal appeals to prejudice," says conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, one of the few members of the news media willing to speak out about Buchanan's bigotry. "He tries to be subtle, the comments are not direct appeals to prejudice, which is one of the reasons he gets away with it." But the subtle appeal, Krauthammer argues, "is very much heard by his audience."

Subtle, but not too subtle.

You knew who Buchanan was talking about, for example, during the week of the Iowa straw poll when he blamed the farm crisis on "New York bankers" and "the money boys up in New York."

He didn't say "money-grubbing kikes," but it was there, lurking in the subtext.

Or, in a radio interview, when Buchanan justified his anti-immigration policies by insinuating that the character of Mexicans was generally criminal -- "60,000 of them are in our prisons." The "railroad killer" is the kind of person we're going to have more of unless we build up the border patrol, he said.

He didn't say "dangerous wetback drifters." He didn't have to.

And again, during his speech at the straw poll, he promised that, if he were elected, he'd open up China for U.S. trade -- or else China will have sold its "last pair of chopsticks in any mall in the United States of America."

He didn't say "yellow menace" or "Chinks" or "they're not like us" -- not in so many words, anyway -- but he seemed dangerously close to the precipice of actually uttering such words.

Buchanan has a documented history of making these kinds of incendiary comments. In 1992, the Anti-Defamation League charged that Buchanan had shown "a disregard or hostility toward those not like him and a consequent displeasure with the exercise of freedom by these others ... [a] displeasure ... expressed in a 30-year record of intolerance unmatched by any other mainstream political figure."

Even Richard Nixon found the views of his former speech writer, Buchanan, too extreme on the segregation issue. According to a John Ehrlichman memo referenced in Nicholas Lemann's "The Promised Land," Nixon characterized Buchanan's views as "segregation forever."

After Nixon was reelected, Buchanan warned his boss not to "fritter away his present high support in the nation for an ill-advised governmental effort to forcibly integrate races."

This mind-set continued as Buchanan segued from working in communications for Nixon and Reagan to bloviating as a columnist and a CNN windbag.

In 1990, Buchanan spewed out another hate-filled sound bite: "With 80,000 dead of AIDS, 3,000 more buried each month, our promiscuous homosexuals appear literally hell-bent on Satanism and suicide."

Many in the media, when asked by Salon News why they aren't covering Buchanan's slightly more veiled bigotry in 1999, suggest that he's only a marginal political figure.

"I had to think twice before I wrote about him," Krauthammer explained. "He's simply not a player. It's like attacking Lamar Alexander."

Maybe. But Buchanan kicked Alexander's butt in the Iowa straw poll. And while Alexander has since withdrawn from the race, Buchanan's name is increasingly bandied about as a possible Reform Party candidate.

In fact, the entire debate on CNN's "Crossfire" last Wednesday night focused on whether Buchanan would go third party. Buchanan's bigotry wasn't mentioned once during the half-hour show.

The Wall Street Journal's conservative columnist Paul Gigot devoted his space Friday to a discussion of how a Perot/Buchanan deal could deny the White House to the GOP next year, again without so much as mentioning "Pitchfork Pat's" racism.

"I don't have unlimited space," Gigot said in an interview with Salon News, explaining why he didn't mention Buchanan's bigotry in his column. "But my guess is that if Buchanan does become a third-party candidate, or if he does well in the primaries, the press is going to cheer him on. Members of the press like a contest. and they like the idea that he's going to stick it to Bush."

Nonetheless, Gigot says, if Buchanan "becomes a player, I assume all those things would come back."

(Neither Pat Buchanan nor his campaign returned phone calls for comment for this story.)

There is plenty of reason to believe that Buchanan may not be as marginal a figure among the electorate as some would like to believe. In between his racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic and anti-Semitic rhetorical outbursts, Buchanan speaks cogently and with conviction about a number of subjects -- including trade, abortion and foreign policy -- that clearly resonate with voters.

An August poll of 1,000 voters, taken by Schroth and Associates, had Buchanan winning 16 percent of the vote in a hypothetical three-way race against Gore (35 percent) and Bush (39 percent). That's twice as much as Ross Perot scored in '96, and Perot -- while seemingly unbalanced -- has been raked over the media coals far more than Buchanan, and for offenses far less ugly.

Besides, the last time the press deemed Buchanan as "marginal" he went out and beat former Sen. Bob Dole in the New Hampshire primary. That was 1996.

"If your theory is that the press takes it easier on him because he's one of us, that's certainly a possibility," says Michael Kinsley, the editor of Slate, who had to stare at Buchanan's scowl on "Crossfire" off and on for about four years. "The bad way to look at it is that he's getting a free pass 'cause he's a pal. The slightly more complicated way to look at it is that if you know someone, you know their complications, and you're slower to reach conclusions about them. Especially negative conclusions."

"In person, he's charming," notes Howard Kurtz, media critic of the Washington Post. "That doesn't mean he's not evil. It just means it's harder to reach the conclusion that he's evil. Many pundits tend to give Pat Buchanan a break because he is a member of the fraternity. There is a tendency with Buchanan -- who was, after all, a professional bomb-thrower as a commentator -- to roll your eyes and say, 'There goes Pat' when he says something outlandish. And that is probably a mistake."

So, his media chums say, Buchanan isn't really a bigot, he just plays one on TV.

But, what would happen, say, if it were discovered that George W. Bush had made a pet cause of defending World War II Nazis, often engaged in his own form of Holocaust denial and had once praised no less than Adolf Hitler, calling him "an individual of great courage, a soldier's soldier in the Great War, a leader steeped in the history of Europe, who possessed oratorical powers that could awe even those who despised him"?

Or, what would the media fallout be if Elizabeth Dole sarcastically sneered at "the poor homosexuals -- they have declared war on nature and now nature is exacting its retribution"?

How would the press corps react if someone discovered that Steve Forbes had once called Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko "the porch-nigger of the Politburo," or if he labeled the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa, in which 67 blacks were killed, "whites mistreating a couple of blacks"?

Or if Vice President Al Gore, on the subject of immigration policy, proclaimed, "Jose, we ain't gonna let you in again!"?

Or if former Sen. Bill Bradley proclaimed, "Rail as they will against 'discrimination,' women are simply not endowed by nature with the same measures of single-minded ambition and the will to succeed in the fiercely competitive world of Western capitalism ... The momma bird builds the nest. So it was, so it ever shall be. Ronald Reagan is not responsible for this; God is"?

What would happen if any non-Buchanan candidate made any of the above comments -- every single one of which came from Buchanan? The answer, according to Kurtz: "The press would go nuts." But perhaps even more curious than the silence among reporters about Buchanan's racism is the self-censorship among his fellow Republicans seeking the White House.

In an interview with Salon News, former Sen. John Danforth, a Republican from Missouri, expressed bewilderment at the fact that not one of Buchanan's rivals for the GOP nomination has been willing to condemn Buchanan's bigotry.

"I've never been in presidential politics," Danforth says. "But had I been, I think I really would have used that kind of thing. It's the right thing to do, but I also think it's good politics. It's good to have a foil. It's good to have somebody you can contrast yourself with."

Danforth, of course, is no liberal. He was one of the Senate's most ardent conservatives while in office, and is best-known for having shepherded Clarence Thomas through his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

But Danforth, who retired from the Senate in 1994, scratches his head in an interview when he's asked why the Republican presidential candidates are so afraid of taking on a man who could be their party's version of a right-wing Sister Souljah.

Souljah was the harsh anti-white rapper then-Gov. Bill Clinton berated in 1992, generating much favorable publicity for his campaign. Could Pat Buchanan be just such a foil for the GOP this year? An extremist whom mainstream Republicans could condemn, thus indicating their willingness to attack a somewhat-fringe member of their core constituency who has gotten out of line?

Any candidate who did so might then win over moderate voters in the electoral middle, and become, in the parlance, more "electable" -- not to mention the beneficiary of a significant media bounce.

"It would be a good thing for people to take that on," Danforth says. "To say, 'Here's what he said and this is wrong.'"

In the past, a few conservatives have had the guts to condemn Buchanan's hatred.

When Rich Bond was national chairman of the Republican National Committee, in 1996, he charged that Buchanan was "heading toward a low-road message of anger, hate and race-baiting."

After Buchanan insinuated that Jews were roping America into the Gulf War, William F. Buckley condemned Buchanan in the National Review back in 1991: "I find it impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he did and said during the period under examination, the military build-up for the Gulf War, amounted to anti-Semitism," Buckley wrote, "whatever it was that drove him to say and do it; most probably an iconoclastic temperament."

This time around, however, the right, like the media, seems to be giving Buchanan a pass.

"The interesting thing is how he can say these things and still be considered a national figure," Krauthammer says. "Even the 'chopsticks' line. If any other politician made that comment, he would have to spend a week apologizing. It's a real puzzle; I don't understand why he gets away with it."

Last week, as an experiment, I contacted each of Buchanan's rivals to see what they thought about the comments cited above. They are all, after all, running to be president of a country that contains blacks, Latinos, Jews, gays, lesbians, immigrants and all the other groups that Buchanan so casually maligns.

Some of these candidates consider themselves "compassionate conservatives," speaking en español on the stump, eating chimichangas and dancing to salsa in their figurative big tents.

But unlike the glimmers of courage we've seen in Republican candidates in the past, not one of Buchanan's eight rivals this year was willing to condemn his remarks.

"Gov. Bush is running a positive, issue-oriented campaign focused on his record of accomplishments and his agenda of prosperity with a purpose -- and not on other candidate's agendas," Bush spokesman Scott McClellan told me in explanation of his man's unwillingness to condemn Buchanan.

But isn't racism and anti-Semitism an issue? I asked.

"Sure it is," McClellan said. "But Gov. Bush's philosophy is one that's uplifting, hopeful and inclusive. Others may believe in pitting people against one another, but Gov. Bush believes in uniting people around common goals."

Sen. John McCain's spokesman made similar comments. "John McCain is a strong supporter of legal immigration, a strong supporter of Israel and is probably the strongest supporter of free trade in Congress," said McCain spokesman Dan Schnur. "Clearly there are some differences in both policy and tone between the two candidates [McCain and Buchanan], and that's why we have elections."

It's clear that both Bush and McCain know what Buchanan's up to, and they don't approve of it. But since they themselves aren't preaching bigotry, they don't feel the need to risk any political capital by condemning it in a rival.

But to their credit, at least I got that much out of the Bush and McCain folks.

"Elizabeth Dole is going to focus on her campaign and what she needs to do," said Dole spokesman Ari Flesicher. "She's not going to be distracted by other candidates."

"Gary wants to take a pass," said Bauer spokesman Matt Smith, whose boss was running in Iowa as a sort of Buchanan without the baggage.

Spokespeople for Forbes and Hatch asked to be sent the quotes cited above. After I sent them, they refused to return phone calls.

Dan Quayle spokesman Jonathan Baron took a different tack, offering a figurative "Welcome Bigots!" sign on behalf of his boss to Buchanan supporters. "Even many of his enemies recognize that Pat Buchanan is sincere and passionate and a good person, and Dan Quayle certainly considers Pat Buchanan a friend and an important member of the conservative movement," Baron said. "They may not agree on every issue, but they agree on many issues."

"Look," Baron added, "everybody recognizes that Buchanan's colorful quotes have enabled him to attract media attention."

Beggers can't be choosers, I suppose.

So, that left one more candidate:

"Alan Keyes said for me to tell Salon that there is an Eighth Commandment," said Keyes spokeswoman Becky Fenger.

"Thou shalt not steal?" I asked.

"That's the Eighth in the Protestant Bible," she told me. "In the Catholic Bible it's 'Thou shalt not bear false witness.'"

"Huh?" I asked. "These are quotes. From Buchanan's columns, and transcripts from his speeches. Buchanan's proud of them. What's the 'false witness'?"

"I would guess," Fenger said, "That Alan Keyes is saying that he's never heard Buchanan make those comments himself, so he wouldn't want to bear false witness against him. But that's just my interpretation."

(Fenger can be forgiven. Many of Keyes' transmissions come from planet Neptune, so they're often tough to decipher.)

To be fair, much of the reluctance of the other candidates to denounce Buchanan is based on the so-called 11th commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of thy fellow Republican."

But utilization of the 11th commandment among the GOPsters seems spotty. Just last month, front-runner Bush was asked about Louisiana Republican David Duke, a former Klansman, and said, "I don't like Duke's politics. I don't like where his heart is. I don't like the bigotry and prejudice that he spreads. That's my position on David Duke ... As a loyal Republican, I don't want that kind of message in our party."

Of course, speaking out against a guy in a sheet is easy. Condemning a Republican on the same stage as you -- one with a voter base, one who may well live to fight another day in another venue, as host of CNN's "Crossfire" once again -- is a little tougher.

As a front-runner who claims to be reaching out to new voter pools besides white Christians, Bush may be ready to affirm himself as a non-racist, but he's not yet able to criticize friends who, figuratively, at least, wander over and shake hands at the local Klan rally.

Take Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster, for example, who has admitted purchasing a mailing list from David Duke in his last campaign, against an African-American congressman named Cleo Fields, and illegally failing to report that fact.

When asked a few weeks ago whether Foster, who is now Bush's Louisiana campaign chair, should have purchased a mailing list of racists to target for votes, Bush said, "Here's my position. Gov. Foster is a good and decent man. He's an honorable fellow. I respect him a lot. I'm fortunate to have him as a friend and ally."

When asked if he would have purchased a mailing list, Bush said, "I don't know all the facts. I don't know what the facts are. I do know I trust Mike Foster, and know he's a good man."

"I don't know all the facts"?

Let me enlighten you, Governor: In 1995, Foster was running for governor. That year, and two years later, Foster purchased mailing lists from Duke for $152,000.

Foster broke campaign laws by keeping the purchases secret because, in his own words, "it ain't cool" to be associated with the former Klansman. But in an investigation into Duke's finances, the deal with Foster was brought to light. And then, just a few weeks ago, Foster was fined $20,000 by the Louisiana Board of Ethics for "failing to accurately ... report campaign expenditures."

It would seem in this that Foster has been anything but "good," "decent" or "honorable."

It is worth noting that besides remaining silent about Buchanan's smears, Bush and his fellow Republican candidates have yet to say anything significant on the issue of race and prejudice in America in this, an insecure era that has seen a number of high-profile murders and shootings based on prejudice in Los Angeles, Chicago, Wyoming.

With the exception of Elizabeth Dole, all of the Republican candidates have denied that the proliferation of guns is one of the causes of such violence -- but then they also refuse to condemn the warped thinking of bigotry when it is demonstrated in anyone of any political consequence.

"That's another thing I don't understand about these Republican candidates," says Danforth. "Is why none of them talk about race at all."

"They wouldn't have to say very much," Danforth says. "All they have to say is, 'We've got a problem with race in this country, and we need to figure out what to do about it.' They wouldn't have to be for quotas or anything, they'd just need to indicate some interest in the subject. If somebody said, 'We've got to do something about this race issue,' it would immediately color the perception of that candidate. People would say, 'This is a moderate.'"

But for now, among Republicans, no one has anything to say about the bigot in their midst. Would David Duke be afforded such a courtesy if he were running for president? Of course not -- he wears a sheet.

So consider Buchanan's own words on the former Klansman: "David Duke is busy stealing from me," Buchanan said in 1991. "I have a mind to go down there and sue that dude for intellectual property theft."

Go, Pat, go.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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