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Prince Hal (played by Pat Buchanan) experiences technical difficulties.

Published October 25, 1999 6:00PM (EDT)

Pat Buchanan's announcement Monday morning that he was leaving the GOP to run for president in the Reform Party came as a surprise to no one -- except perhaps the audio-visual support team in the auditorium in Falls Church, Va., where he spoke. After being introduced by both his sister, Bay Buchanan, and the Reform Party's Pat Choate, the ubiquitous author, TV commentator and World War II revisionist began in a literary mode. "It is St. Crispin's Day," he told his cheering supporters, "and we're here to make a little bit of history."

That was when the wireless mike he had clipped to his red tie began to cut out, leaving only every other phrase audible to those watching the announcement live on CNN: "... only Goldwater supporter ... Richard Nixon ... " It was like an impressionistic history of Buchanan's life as a conservative, digital sampling to a jungle beat of confused cheers. "We can't hear you!" someone shouted, and, trouper that he is, Buchanan tried again. "Let me see if we can get this working," he said, squeezing the recalcitrant device.

The intervening moments were classic dead air, sure to be included in some future version of a "Presidential Bloopers" video collection, available only on TV. "It's hard to make an announcement when no one can hear what you're saying," said the CNN anchor, helpfully. Someone finally set Buchanan up with an old-fashioned mike, with a wire.

Suddenly he had sound, and the candidate took it from the top, invoking history again (or Shakespeare's interpretation of history) before trotting out his conservative bona fides. As a graduate student at the Columbia School of Journalism in 1961, he'd been a Goldwater supporter; later, he was a speech writer for President Nixon. "The Republican Party has been good to me," he said ("veddy veddy good to me" I expected him to add), but now it was asking too much of him, "too much of us." The two-party system was a fraud, he declared, "two wings of the same bird of prey." Both parties, he continued, "seek out the hollow men [for whom] the readout of the focus group is holy text ..."

With his allusions to Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot and later Sinclair Lewis (calling Clinton "our own Elmer Gantry"), Buchanan was starting to sound as if he was at open mike night at a new-bohemians cafe. He rapped about "the junkyards of history" and "the temples of our civilization" (which Clinton, like some Puck armed with spray paint, had desecrated). I expected his followers to start snapping their fingers.

Then, right in the midst of some choice U.N.-bashing (to Kofi Annan asking for money: "Sir, don't go there"), his mike began to break up again. CNN cut away, first to senior political analyst Bill Schneider, then to campaign reporter Candy Crowley, who was in Virginia.

Of his technical difficulties she said, "It's always tempting in journalism to do metaphors, so I won't do one today." (Oh, please, just one.) She mentioned that other candidates had had their technical difficulties in the past. Remember California Gov. Pete Wilson's kickoff in New York, on the Hudson River with the Statue of Liberty in the background? Wilson had lost his voice and could barely be heard above the din of the city -- talk about your metaphors. No big deal. But by the time Buchanan had resolved his problems, a few viewers had doubtless tuned out.

"I want to tell you network fellows that what's been knocking out our mikes is all the applause," the candidate quipped. But a sampling of the broadcast networks, in New York at least, revealed the usual Monday-morning fare of soaps and talk shows. That means not many viewers were there to witness his technical difficulties, or hear his closing remarks. In these, he forewent the classics in favor of Costner: "If we lead, they will follow. And if we built it, they will come."

Of course they're fighting over the site of that fictional baseball field in Iowa, just as the Reform Party will surely soon be scrapping over which of an increasingly colorful rogues' gallery of candidates on which to bestow its blessing (and some $10 million plus in federal matching campaign funds). Donald Trump pledged his allegiance to the Reform Party Sunday, no doubt in part to steal Buchanan's thunder. He still hasn't made up his mind about the president thing, though.

Even those viewers who were trying to give Buchanan their undivided attention, waiting with good grace for someone to let him be heard, might have also missed his most famous allusion. In the midst of a plea for a (for him) newfound tolerance of immigrants, Buchanan said, "This land is our land."

That thumping sound was Woody Guthrie turning over in his grave.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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