Not standing Pat

Buchanan revamps his presidential campaign and image by joining the Reform Party and making "racial reconciliation" a pet issue. But just how warm and fuzzy can the new Pat be?

Published October 25, 1999 10:30AM (EDT)

Pat Buchanan finally stopped waffling on his party preference Monday, formally announcing that he was tearing up his lifelong Republican Party membership card to pursue the Reform Party presidential nomination and its $13 million in federal matching funds.

"This decision was not made without anguish and regret," Buchanan told a room packed with reporters at the Doubletree Hotel, before dishing out anti-New World Order, anti-NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) red meat for his fans, as well as a bone of "racial reconciliation" to his new multi-ethnic Reform Party bedfellows.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties "have become nothing but two wings of the same bird of prey," Buchanan said. Both parties supported NAFTA and GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), "open borders and centralized power," most-favored-nation status for China, "the surrender of our national sovereignty to the World Trade Organization," "the illegal war on Serbia" and on and on.

Buchanan railed at GOP elites. "They have rearranged the primary schedules and rigged the game to protect the party favorites," Buchanan declared. "We choose not to play our assigned role in their sham election!" he insisted, pointing a final middle finger at the leaders of the Republican party on his way out the door.

But most of his speech was aimed at his new pals: "My friends, this year is our last chance to save our republic, before she disappears into the godless New World Order that our elites are constructing in a betrayal of everything for which our Founding Fathers lived, fought and died."

"Only the Reform Party offers the hope of a real debate and a true choice of destinies for our country," he said.

The heft of Buchanan's address indicated the common causes he shares with Reform Party animals and their suspicions of the "godless New World Order." He slammed International Monetary Fund "bailouts of deadbeat dictators," "cancerous trade deficits" and the erosion of the U.S. industrial base because of free trade policies like NAFTA. He dumped on the Internal Revenue Service, federal meddling in education and the Supreme Court.

Noting that isolationist is "one of the nicer things they call us," Buchanan said, "if they mean I intend to isolate America from the bloody territorial and ethnic wars of the new century, I plead guilty." He pledged to never send the U.S. military to fight "in a foreign war unless our country is attacked or our vital interests are imperiled."

Additionally, Buchanan sounded out a popular Reform party theme that hadn't previously seemed much of a priority by speaking out against the unregulated, unrestricted party cash known as "soft money," decrying how both Democrats and Republicans "write laws with lobbyists looking over their shoulders."

To giggles and guffaws, he cautioned United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan -- who has warned that the U.S. could lose its vote in the U.N. if our government continues to hold back from paying our U.N. dues -- saying, "I would give Mr. Kofi this word of advice: Sir, don't go there."

The fact that Buchanan, historically a notorious race- and Jew-baiter, would refer to Annan as "sir" indicated a new direction for the former CNN commentator -- one no doubt borne of necessity, as his new bedfellows include Dr. Lenora Fulani, an African-American socialist, and David Goldman, the Jewish chairman of the Reform Party of Florida. But Buchanan went even further than the "sir," offering an olive branch of "unity and reconciliation" that was mentioned time and time again by the moderate-to-left Reform activists who are watching Buchanan's leap into their pool with wary eyes.

"Of all the needs of this nation, none is greater for our peace and happiness than racial reconciliation," Buchanan said. While he reiterated his opposition to bilingual education, open immigration, and affirmative action, which he called "un-American devices that reward individuals based on what color they are, or what continent their kinfolk came from," Buchanan did so by framing his policies in a new "We are the world" leitmotif.

Thus, Buchanan argued, we need to be "English only" so we can be as one. We need to call a "time-out" on immigration because "it takes time to assimilate the 30 million who have come in the last 30 years ... to ease the downward pressure on workers' wages and to defeat the forces of separatism that threaten us and nations all over the world."

"This land is our land," Buchanan said, stopping short of busting out Woody Guthrie's guitar. "It belongs to all of us, immigrant and native-born." The U.S., Buchanan went on, needs to "rediscover what brings us all together as one nation and one people ... Any man or woman from any continent or any country can be a good American. We know that ... It would be unpardonable ingratitude if we, the children of pioneers and patriots of every color, continent, and creed, lost this last best hope of earth, because we could not learn to live with one another, and could not learn to love one another."

"I think you will hear more" of that message in his speeches, allowed Buchanan's sister and senior advisor, Bay Buchanan.

Added Fulani, "His campaign and my office have had some discussions about the African-American community and the campaign."

"I've been talking with his campaign about what it means to build something new ... and already he's making new remarks. I think this move is an indication about creating something new in this country. I think we have a shot at dissipating some antagonism between black working-class people -- who I have particular relationship to -- and his relationship to the white working class. I want a shot at angry white men. If we're going to do something about race relations, we have to stop speaking with those who agree with us and build something with America," Fulani said.

Historically, Buchanan hasn't exactly been the poster boy for peace, love and harmony. Monday might have been the only occurrence in his lifetime that he uttered the words "racial reconciliation" without having to spit afterwards. In 1992 -- long before Buchanan voiced his immigration policy with a simple "Jose, we ain't gonna let you in again!" -- the Anti-Defamation League gave him the honor of having "a 30-year record of intolerance unmatched by any other mainstream political figure."

Reform party leaders, however, seemed to buy the new warm-and-fuzzy Pat.

"I'm Jewish, and I'm very sensitive to anti-Semitism," said David Goldman, chairman of the Reform Party of Florida. "If I were advising Pat Buchanan, I might say 'You might want to say something different, or add some other names in there, too'" among the lists of Jewish-American names Buchanan has historically trotted out in his implications of nefarious Jewish elites.

"But in all fairness to Pat Buchanan, he's spent 20 years being a columnist and a political commentator on shows like 'Crossfire,' where you make somewhat exaggerated statements to prove your point, where it's something of a political food fight."

All of which is beside the point, says Goldman. "I see his input as being 100 percent constructive in terms of building the party. The Reform party can't just be a small club of political activists. It has to become a major party."

Goldman adds that he was pleased by two items he heard in Buchanan's speech, which indicate to him that Buchanan is coming around to the Reform Party and not the other way around. One was Buchanan's opposition to political soft money. The other was "hearing him talk about the need for diversity, the need for all people to come together, regardless of race."

"The statement about how Americans have to work together -- I thought that was pretty good," seconds Nancy Ross of the Independence Party, Reform's New York arm. "Seeing where he'll go in the next few weeks will be very important toward making the decision" about whether she'll endorse Buchanan's candidacy, she says.

Many Reformers argue that their party's "huge tent" philosophy make Buchanan's racial baggage inconsequential. Social issues, after all, aren't the point. Political reform is.

Cathy Stewart, chair of the Independence Party of Manhattan County, says that as a supporter of abortion rights, she has "many disagreements with Mr. Buchanan on social issues ... But in a way, that's the point of Reform party, to bring together divergent Americans to engage in the process of reshaping the political culture so we can have a meaningful debate and dialogue. And that debate is going to go forward. Because the American people need a better political process to participate in, so I don't see [accusations of Buchanan's bigotry] as a problem. I will be evaluating Mr. Buchanan's candidacy in terms of his agenda for political reform."

Stewart notes that she's the county chair for none other than Donald Trump, who today was likewise scheduled to change his party registration to Reform in anticipation of a presidential run. But other than "a lot of bombast," Bay Buchanan responds, there is no indication that Trump is serious about actually running. There has been no move to organize in the states, no offer to assist the party in securing ballot status and no declaration of candidacy.

"You're starting to see Pat Buchanan changing," says third-party commentator Jackie Salit. His speech indicated a "focus on changing the process of American politics," Salit says.

"He put aside the old language, approach and political perspective of Republicanism. Compare the speech today with the talk he gave at the Iowa Straw Poll, which was a very, very hardcore conservative, jingoistic talk designed to appeal to the base of the Republican party." Monday, however, "Pat Buchanan was emphasizing his populism more than his conservatism. In some ways he's been freed up to do that, freed up by joining the Reform party."

Regardless of his motivations, the new, freed-up Buchanan is throwing himself into his new party and race with characteristic hustle, says Bay Buchanan. The campaign is reaching out to Reform Party state chairmen around the country, working to raise an additional $4 million, and trying to secure a presence on the November voting ballots of the 30 states where the Reform Party has yet to secure ballot status.

Because the Reform Party convention next August will allow anyone, of any party, a vote, the Buchanan campaign will try to recruit the 75,000 members of the Buchanan brigade. In an attempt to block mass defections of Buchananites, Republicans who heretofore have remained mum on Buchanan's questionable views on World War II finally mustered the gumption to speak out against their leader.

"Pat Buchanan is leaving the Republican Party because Republicans rejected his views during his three failed attempts to earn the Republican Party's presidential nomination," sneered Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Seconded Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson: "In the past, Pat has been an ardent Republican ... [but] Pat obviously has drifted from the Republican Party and its principles. Speaking as a veteran, I find his views on World War II both historically inaccurate and disturbingly misguided."

"I have said from the beginning that Pat Buchanan left the Republican Party the day he questioned America's involvement in defeating Nazi Germany," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "Unlike so many others" -- most notably Bush and Nicholson -- "I have made no attempts to convince him to stay in the Republican Party and I do not mourn his departure. Too many of my party's leaders made the mistake of trying to appease Buchanan. His actions today prove that their efforts were wrong."

But Bay Buchanan points out that her brother seeks voters from other sources as well. "There's enormous support for Pat if you go through the industrial base of our country," she says. These Democrats, she hypothesizes, may feel "more comfortable coming into the Reform party than they might have been coming all the way over" to the GOP. Buchanan will be also reaching out to the self-disenfranchised voters who gave the Reform Party's one statewide office holder, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, his victory.

After all, Bay Buchanan joked to a circle of reporters, "anyone who requests a ballot can vote, anyone who wishes to vote, including all of you gentlemen."

This hunger for votes may be at least part of the reason for Buchanan's Kumbaya. "What we're talking about is not only the white working class, but the Hispanic and the black working class," says party elder Pat Choate, who rode shotgun to Perot in '96 as the party's choice of veep. "It's the sort of goal that Dr. Fulani put together, so we're going for that segment of the vote."

"I think the American people [want to] move beyond the politics of remarks," Fulani says when she's asked about Buchanan's borderline racist insinuations.

"Pat Buchanan was on the stage today, and he made a major move from being an important insider in the two-party system to become the leading figure inside a national third party. So he said a lot of things. I think that we have to move beyond [lists of past remarks] and allow [Buchanan] to do what he's doing, which -- if he does it well -- is helping to build a national political party for ordinary Americans. That's what I support, that's what I'm standing by, and that's what I think is important."

By Jake Tapper

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

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