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Right from the Beginning.

Patrick Buchanan

He can be a likable character but his politics are poisonous

I think this book(*) is going to backfire on Pat Buchanan. It's a good-humored, childhood-to-early-manhood memoir that humanizes the famous attack dog of the right, making him more understandable, likable, even endearing in a "what a character!" way. But even as Buchanan's self-portrait softens the sharp edges of his personality, it brings into focus exactly what is objectionable about his role in politics. Pat Buchanan, this book makes clear, is not a political activist so much as a religious crusader. The combination of his brawler's temperament, the scorched-earth debating style he learned at home and school, and the dogmatic world view he retains from the fifties-era Catholic Church all help him bring to American politics the same tender reasonableness the Ayatollah brought to Iran. The constancy of Buchanan's personal faith is admirable. It also accounts for the most moving sections of this book, when he discusses his older brother's death and his own reflections as he nears his fiftieth birthday this fall. But when he takes his religion into politics he reminds us why separation of church and state is such a good idea.

Most of the book concerns Buchanan's boyhood years in Washington D.C., where he was born in 1938 and grew up as third of nine children in a Catholic family moving steadily toward the upper-middle class. His mother was a German Catholic from Ohio who came to Washington as a young nurse. His father, raised in Washington as a Treasury agent's son, was not Irish but mostly Scotch-Irish--a distinction that Buchanan says explains a lot. The hard-boiled Scotch-Irish, who came from Ulster to the Appalachians, were renowned for behaving exactly the way Buchanan does in print and on TV. (He quotes approvingly Thomas Sowell's description of immigrant-group traits: "The Germans were noted for their order, quietness, friendliness...The Scotch-Irish were just the opposite--quick-tempered, hard-drinking...constantly involved in feuds among themselves or with the Indians.") When Buchanan was little, his father was starting out as an accountant; by the time the youngest children were in college in the late sixties, the family was very comfortably established and had moved across the District line to Chevy Chase. As they prospered, neither their sense of self as ethnic Catholics nor their faith wavered. "To impress upon us what the loss of the soul through mortal sin meant, my father would light a match, grab our hands, and hold them briefly over the flame, saying: `See how that feels; now imagine that for all eternity.'"

If you've seen any of the movies or read any of the novels about growing up Catholic in the fifties (for example, Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?) you've got the comic tone of this book. On one side is Holy Authority: the priest in his parish, Papa with his strap and matchbook at home, the stern nuns drilling students on the Baltimore Catechism, the Jesuit brothers--the "Pope's Marines"--teaching in high school, all surmounted by Pius XII in Rome. On the other side is Randy Youth: boys ripping off their neckties as soon as the Jesuits are out of sight, getting in fights and sneaking out for smokes and ogling the girls, always scheming to beat the rules without getting caught. "In my junior year, someone wrote on a lavatory wall a commonplace obscenity about our math teacher, Mr. Hohman," Buchanan says in setting up a typical scene at Washington's Gonzaga High, the legendary Jesuit-run school that he and all his brothers attended:

When word got back to the headmaster's office, he broke off from his work, went over to the lavatory, inspected the wall personally--and called an emergency assembly of the entire school. "A disgusting phrase has been written about a Jesuit brother who has given his life to Christ," Father Troy said, his mouth grim, his eyes staring coldly out into the silent auditorium through the wire-rimmed glasses he always wore. He wanted to know who did it, so that the student's immediate expulsion would set an example for the school. No one said a word. The auditorium was like a tomb.

"What would decent people think of Gonzaga," Father Troy asked, "if they knew such things happened here?" He paused for effect. "What would become of Gonzaga's reputation, if the gentleman from Formal Wear, who had just come through the school measuring the juniors for their tuxedos for prom night, had chanced upon this disgusting phrase?" At that, the entire auditorium literally exploded--in laughter. It was not in disrespect of "Billy" Troy but in derision of the lascivious reprobate from Formal Wear, whose ribald comments to every junior being measured for a summer tuxedo were a standing joke throughout the school.

Buchanan tells us, numerous times, that he was an excellent student--first in his class at Gonzaga--but it appears that in other ways he was completely one of the guys. He is strangely evasive about the details of many teenage hijinks and portrays himself as having never thrown the first punch or really been in the wrong; it's as if he's still trying to talk his way out of a jam with the irate headmaster. (The few times that Buchanan tries to say he was wrong about something he practically gags on the words. When lamenting what the Church has lost by abandoning its old traditions for new ones, like the folk mass, he says: "And there are no few pangs of personal regret that when much of this was being thrown out like so much old furniture during the 1960s, some of us, who should have been there, were AWOL at the time." These "apologies" are the only mealy-mouthed sentences Buchanan is capable of writing.) But even without the juicy details the overall picture comes through. Buchanan says that his father had to come to jail to bail him out more often than for all his brothers combined. It took him five years to finish college at Georgetown because he was expelled for a year after brawling with a D.C. cop who had the effrontery to pull him over.

Buchanan tells these stories well, and they're especially interesting because they're set in Washington. Except for Al Gore and Don Graham, most people with professional careers in Washington came there as adults and think of it as a place to work, rather than to grow up in or to be "from." But Buchanan gives us a Catholic version of American Graffiti set in Tenley Circle, along Western Avenue, in Rock Creek Park. His Washington is just another normal American city, where life revolves around the parish and the neighborhood and the school rather than the self-impressed Most Important City In The World (as Washington's Riggs Bank used to intone in an advertisement that made me punch the TV). His only Inside-The-Beltway scene is a hilarious encounter with then-Vice President Richard Nixon at Burning Tree Country Club, where Buchanan had landed a job as a caddy. "You did not need to be Ben Hogan to see that the Vice President of the United States was uncoordinated," Buchanan says. But Nixon's every spastic swing was greeted with cries of "`Great shot, Dick, a real beauty!' from his toadying partners. `Your game is really improving, Dick,' [a retired Army general] interjected smoothly at one point, which made me wonder what it had been like a year ago."

A boxer, not a Buckley

Of course, Pat's not just playing for laughs. He says he is offering his life story because understanding his experience is the only way to understand his political beliefs. This is a noble and important concept, but the sort of experience he describes is different from, say, John Kennedy's generation watching Hitler rise, fighting against him in the war, and carrying the hard lessons of Munich and Pearl Harbor with them when they governed. It is different from Paul Tsongas or Christopher Dodd talking about what they learned in the Peace Corps, or John Kerry and James Webb talking about what they learned in Vietnam, or Jimmy Carter talking about what he learned when segregation came to an end. Buchanan is not talking about formative young-adult episodes or conscious acts of inquiry or scholarship. He's talking about a combination of faith and biases: the faith he learned in church and the biases he picked up around the household and, apparently, never had reason to question later on. "Before we come to know," Buchanan says, "we first believe."

"Our conservatism was learned at the dinner table, soaked up in parochial school, picked up on the street corner, and imbibed in a high school where the Jesuits emphasized, first and foremost, the salvation of your immortal soul," he says. "Not until my twenties did I learn to conscript the intellectual arguments of the sages to reinforce the embattled arguments of the heart." Buchanan says that his whole career in political journalism has been an extension of "what I was taught, even before I knew how to think."

The purely religious part of "what I was taught" is mixed up with other, indirectly religious factors--for instance, the class and cultural divide that isolated Catholic life in the fifties. Buchanan's stance as an embattled outsider is largely a fake: like, say, Robert Novak, he's done very well in the Washington political establishment by pretending to be undyingly hostile to it. But also like Novak, his outsiderness has something real at the core. (Rowland Evans could never convincingly play Novak's role on the talk shows, any more than William F. Buckley could play Buchanan's or George Bush could play Spiro Agnew's.) "The Catholic world of the postwar era was not an us-versus-them world," Buchanan says half-convincingly, "but it was us-and-them. We were different, and we considered ourselves different; we were raised apart."

Buchanan and his friends cheered for Notre Dame the way the blacks had cheered for Joe Louis. They played sports at the CYO and in the Catholic League. They went to parochial schools all the way through--and then to college at places like Georgetown, Fordham, and St. John's. "Even though I was first in my class in the premier Catholic school in the city, the Ivy League was never an option," he says. It would have been too expensive for a family with nine children ("and there were no Ivy League recruiters hanging around Gonzaga, no affirmative action scholarships to Harvard and Yale for deserving Catholic boys"). But even if it had been free his parents would never have permitted him to go where he might "lose his faith." Buchanan eventually went to Columbia's journalism school for graduate work, and years later he seethed when he discovered that the Columbia admissions office had crossed out all the theology and moral philosophy grades on his Georgetown transcript, amounting to 40 hours of course work, when computing his "real" grade point average.

If you're any younger than Buchanan, this near-total isolation of Catholic life is impossible to remember and hard to believe. This is so even though there is abundant literary evidence, most recently Philip Roth's memoirs, that until the sixties most white ethnic groups, not just Catholics and Jews, lived in sealed-off societies. Buchanan's book is a useful reminder of why John Kennedy's election was such a big deal for Catholics and the country in 1960--and of how rapidly the whole issue of "dual loyalty" for Catholics in politics (would they answer to the Americans who elected them? or to the Pope?) evaporated after that. The rest of the country quickly crossed this divide, speeded along by Kennedy's assassination, the post-Vatican-II liberalizations in the church (which Buchanan detests), Catholics' rising incomes, and their over-all assimilation. Professionally Buchanan is fully assimilated but emotionally he is not.

I don't mean that he has "dual loyalties" but that he clearly has not forgotten the feeling of being different, of having Columbia condescend to his hard-earned moral philosophy grades. This leads him to rail, like Joe McCarthy, against the decadent establishment--but it also gives him a healthy antisnob edge, in clear contrast to so many other half-British-sounding, smarty-pants young conservatives. (In his book, Buchanan praises the biggest smarty-pants of them all, William F. Buckley, for holding the conservative movement together during the fifties, but there's something fishy about his tone. Except for being a right-winger, Buckley epitomizes everything that Buchanan hates: snobbishness, pretension, sneering down at the average Joe. Never in a million years would Buckley want Buchanan along on one of his trans-Atlantic sailing trips or for a week of skiing at Gstaad. Buchanan's effusive compliments to Buckley have the sound of extra-fervent prayer from one who is embarrassed about having an impure thought--namely, that it would be great if Buckley were a pinko so Buchanan could rip into him for his foppish ways.) As a teen-ager, Buchanan loved to crash fancy parties with a group of tough friends. "I would present myself at the front door, neatly groomed in a coat and tie, introduce myself to the parents, suggesting I was from Landon or St. Alban's, the elite prep schools, or maybe pre-med at Princeton."

Dogma bites man

Still, Buchanan's Catholicism remains with him in a doctrinal rather than merely sociological form. Despite the antics of his youth and his patent sense of betrayal over the changes that Pope John XXIII wrought in the Church, he remains devout. Buchanan's faith is personal and not for me to quarrel with. But I can quarrel with what it does to American politics. The Catholic education that shaped Buchanan teaches people to believe in causes. It gives them the capacity to be true believers and to fight holy wars. It's given America Robert Kennedy and Dorothy Day, Robert Drinan and Cesar Chavez. But it also spawned Gordon Liddy and Joe McCarthy and Oliver North--and Pat Buchanan. Maryknoll missionaries go to Central America to risk their lives in the divinely ordered cause of social justice. Pat Buchanan denounces them for helping godless communism. The direction of these believers' crusades is less predictable than the intensity with which they are often fought. (True, Catholic education has also produced milder-mannered reformers, like Bruce Babbitt and Theodore Hesburgh.) "We were not confused," Buchanan says of himself and other products of the fifties Jesuit education. "We had certitude." That's fine for him, but bad for politics.

There are two things that can go wrong with the politics of religious certitude. First, it can rely on dogma--not ideas, evidence, experience--to determine what the right policy is. Second, it can excuse bullying, brutal, divisive behavior, as long as it's for a just, holy cause. Buchanan's career and book illustrate both problems.

As for the "what" of American politics--the rights and wrongs of national policy--Buchanan relies unapologetically on faith and "what I was taught, even before I knew how to think." The three or four cases in which his views have been shaped by experience or evidence practically leap from the page since they're so atypical. The Buchanan family's pet cat was repeatedly mauled by neighborhood dogs, and dogs harassed Buchanan during his brief teenage career as a mailman. Therefore, he's in favor of strict leash laws, which he would otherwise denounce as another stupid liberal reform. (The next time you hear Buchanan pontificate about respect for law or property recall how, as a mailman, he got revenge on barking dogs: "Another way...was to put the mail through the slot, slowly, piece by piece, until the dog was frenetic. Then, having held back the most important piece of correspondence--say, a Social Security check--gently push this letter though the slot and take it back, again and again, while the crazed dog snapped at it and tore it to bits. After this vital piece of family correspondence had been torn and chewed beyond salvaging, push it through the slot--and let the dog explain to the master of the house that night why he had ripped up the family's monthly check." This is funny, but can you imagine how Buchanan would sound if some hulking black teenager had been destroying the U.S. mail?) Watching Muhammed Ali change from a sassy, pretty-faced young man to a pathetic, brain-damaged has-been made Buchanan reconsider his previous CYO Boxing League view that boxing was an ideal way to build a boy's character. He traveled to Japan for the first time for the Tokyo summit in 1986 and was served breakfast by a sweet young waitress in the city's most expensive and American-oriented hotel. This makes him reflect that perhaps the firebombing of Tokyo in May 1945, which killed more people than the first atomic bomb, was unjust. (In fairness, his Jesuits had told him earlier that anticivilian bombing campaigns were wrong.)

That's about it, when it comes to Pat confronting or learning from the wrinkles of the real world. For the rest, he knows what he's always known, whether or not it fits the facts. The Far Eastern economies are beacons of free enterprise and anticommunism, so a trade war with them "would be an act of almost terminal stupidity for the West." Fine, except that all their economies are more government-controlled than the American economy, their national policies are essentially mercantilist rather than capitalist (they build up trade surpluses for their own sake, rather than trying to improve their people's standard of living), and they are anticommunist and anti-Russian for very good reasons of their own. South Korea lives in constant fear of invasion from the north (and, I'm convinced, dreams of the day when it will be strong enough to send soldiers north across the DMZ). Japan is right next to Russia, has fought against it twice, and nurses deep, bitter memories of the Russians declaring war on Japan and seizing its northern islands only after the atomic bomb was dropped. A trade war does not make sense in economic terms, and would whip up anti-Americanism, but there's not a chance that it would drive the South Koreans or Japanese to communism. "What is the sense of this endless flow of foreign aid into the Indian subcontinent?" Buchanan asks. "What are we getting for it?" Well, when India was getting a lot of money from the U.S., we imagined that it was in a sort of Olympic-medal race with China to prove that a noncommunist country could industrialize faster. Our aid helped make India able to feed its own people--something that seemed impossible 25 years ago, and a moral goal if ever there was one. Now India hardly receives an "endless flow" of money--more than half of all American foreign aid goes to either Israel or Egypt.

Memoir to manifesto

Buchanan's life experience has been strangely narrow: he's been an editorial writer, speechwriter, columnist, and TV personality, always vending opinions rather than developing them from observation. On the evidence of this book, he's never seen any of the rest of the world except on big-shot political trips. These limitations don't bother Buchanan since he's so sure he's known the right answers since he was little. But they leave him with absolutely no sympathy for anybody whose experience isn't exactly like his. His heart goes out to fellow average-Joe Catholics; everybody else should stop whining.

This is most dramatic with American blacks. Though he opposes legalized segregation, Buchanan cites conversations he once had with some southerners in arguing that blacks were happy and dignified in the old separate but equal days. Has he talked this idea over with many blacks? Buchanan is keenly aware of the slights he suffered as a Catholic--those transcripts!--but seems half-amused that his family's black maid objected to a doll that "we innocently called `The Pickaninny.'" He says that today's blacks are as racist as whites, since racism means "obsessive preoccupation" with race and that blacks are obsessed. "In the late 1940s and early 1950s, however, race was never a preoccupation with us; we rarely thought about it." Great point, Pat! When the Columbia admissions officer was growing up, anti-Catholic prejudice was never a preoccupation with him either; he rarely thought about it. The nastiest scene in this book is one Buchanan regards as merely droll: Gonzaga was in a tough black neighborhood, and black hookers worked the street outside. Buchanan opened a window and fired an apple at one of them as she leaned over toward a customer in a car, hitting her square in the rump. She yowled, and the hookers and their boyfriends gathered around and started swearing at the school. But they didn't go inside to complain to the brothers (fat chance)--"they just kept cussing and hollering and making a stink." Buchanan sauntered off, leaving a priest who saw only the crowd of inexplicably (yet typically!) riled-up blacks to mumble, "I will never, never understand these people."

In his final chapters, which switch from memoir to manifesto, Buchanan argues that the U.S. must not simply resist communism, it must be committed to rolling it back in the Russian heartland itself. (The chapter is called "Containment is Not Enough.") "The only way to bring true peace to mankind," he says, "is to eliminate the root cause of this century's struggle: the Communist party of the Soviet Union."

Now, I know why Buchanan believes Soviet communism must be overthrown. In this book he tells me: it's a matter of faith. "The Catholic Church of Pius XI and Pius XII, in which we were raised, never lost sight of the truth that the permanent, irreconcilable, and decisive conflict for the destiny of mankind was between a West, built upon Judeo-Christian values, and the Communist East....Either men are, or they are not, children of God, with immortal souls, destined for eternity and possessed of God-given rights no government can take away. If they are, Communism is rooted in a lie; and every regime built upon that lie is inherently illegitimate. We were taught that, and we believed that then--and we still do."

But suppose I disagree. Suppose what I know about Russian politics and history, leads me to conclude that while the "de-Leninization of the Soviet Union" would be desirable, we can't make it happen. The Russians beat Napoleon, they beat Hitler, and they can out-sacrifice and out-wait us. Suppose, moreover, I have a fatalistic/isolationist view: it's their country, it's a long way from ours, let them run it the way they want, especially since we probably can't change its internal structure anyway.

Furthermore, suppose that what I have seen in the Third World, and Buchanan has not, convinces me that the struggle between communism and Christianity is really beside the point in most of these countries. It's absurd to talk about "Judeo-Christian values" being involved in Thailand's victory over its communist guerrillas; there are practically no Christians in the entire country (and even fewer Judeos). The powerful forces of nationalism were against the communists in Thailand, as they'd been on the communists' side against the French and Americans in Vietnam--and the U.S. played its part mainly by getting out of the Thai government's way. In the 1950s, Malaya used the powerful forces of racial hatred to help beat its "communist terrorist." (Most of the communists were Chinese, so the mainly Malay military happily hunted them down.) It's absurd to speak of communism in China as if it were primarily a question of saving souls. If Buchanan can find much difference between how the Chinese carry out their traditional ceremonies in communist Guangzhou and in super-capitalist Singapore, he's seen something most other people can't.

Suppose, in short, we disagree about the right policy--toward communism, about taxes and welfare, whatever. In that case, it doesn't impress me very much that Buchanan has "certitude" and still believes what he was taught. And it doesn't impress him that my experience goes counter to his faith. In normal politics we would debate about facts and interpretation, and one of us might persuade the other. But this disagreement isn't about facts. All that's left is Holy War.

"Our political and social quarrels now partake of the savagery of religious wars because, at bottom, they are religious wars," Buchanan says, adding the emphasis himself. He seems to think this is inevitable--and as with his childhood fights, the other guy naturally threw the first punch (by removing prayer from schools, say, or legalizing abortion). Therefore he feels no qualms at all about hurling stones in return. This is the second problem with dogmatic politics: it turns people into bullies.

When people disagree with Buchanan in this book, they are "morally confused" or have a "mental disorder" or are "decadent" or "willfully self-deluding." Buchanan's chapter of endorsement for Joe McCarthy ("As We Remember Joe") is really a defense of gut fighting in which ends justify means. "We have a different sense of what is truly morally evil," he says of those who supported McCarthy. "What, after all, is McCarthy's bullying of witnesses compared with Harry Truman's coercive `repatriation' of two million Russian POWs to the tender mercy of Joseph Stalin in Operation Keelhaul--one of the bloodiest and greatest crimes with which this country has ever been associated?" And what was McCarthy's broad-brush smear approach compared to the cravenness of the American Establishment that watched China go communist and fired MacArthur "for insisting that America seek victory over Asian Communism"?

operation Keelhaul was a disaster, and unlike the communist victory in China the U.S. could have prevented it. (If Buchanan thinks the U.S. could have held off the Chinese communists in a land war in Asia, he's talking about real, jihad-style holy wars.) But why should that make McCarthy's tactics right? And what about the damage he did the country by routing a generation of Asia experts in the government who might have spared us Vietnam?

Buchanan doesn't care about McCarthy's tactics because in religious politics, ethics begins and ends with choosing the right side. Whatever you do to advance the holy cause is just and right. This was Oliver North's explanation for his secret efforts, and it's no wonder that Buchanan defended him so vehemently--in background, temperament, and conviction, North and Buchanan are the same guy. And once you go where faith has pointed you, you never look back, never give up, never admit you might be wrong. Buchanan was the last bitter-ender on the White House staff to oppose Nixon's resignation. (He says that near the end, "I picked up the phone at the White House to hear my father say, `Pat why aren't you fighting?' That was the right question. Whether Nixon was wrong was not the relevant issue.") An even longer fight would have been worse for Nixon, worse for the Republicans, much worse for the country--but so what? A tough guy should never back down.

No doubt Buchanan throws gut punches partly because he's always been punching somebody. His father raised him to believe that "fighting was a concomitant of man's existence," and many of his anecdotes conclude with a fist-fight or a run-in with the cops. His father taught him to revere and emulate Westbrook Pegler, with his "venomous wit," "acid pen," and "gift for invective few Americans have ever matched." Buchanan remembers to say, piously, that faith teaches him to "hate the sin but love the sinner," but that's a joke. His famous campaign against homosexuals as America's new plague-bearers lacked even the slightest "sympathize with the sinner" element. I cannot believe that Buchanan would have written this way if one of his brothers or even a good friend from the CYO had been gay and gotten AIDS.

Buchanan sums up the case for Joe McCarthy and, by extension, political Holy War, this way: "Joe's lasting contribution was to have ripped the bandages off the underlying wound in America's body politic: Them or us." He's not talking about communism against Christianity here. He's talking about his fellow Americans, who disagree about the right policy toward Nicaragua or SDI or anything else. Them or Us: this is what has given the world Lebanon, Northern Ireland, the Iran-Iraq war. Them or Us: more even than communism it accounts for the Third World's troubles, in the form of bitter tribal and religious hatred. Them or Us: it's wrong, poison for America. Pat Buchanan's memoirs can make us love the sinner while still hating this sin. Right From The Beginning. Patrick J. Buchanan. Houghton Mifflin, $18.95.
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Author:Fallows, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1988
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