August 16, 1999


No one – but no one – gives a better speech than Patrick J. Buchanan. His performance in Ames, Iowa, last Saturday was a stem-winder that thrilled everyone within earshot, his enemies, as well as his supporters, with its sheer narrative power. The cadences, the passion, the crescendos, even the pauses – all spoke with the kind of conviction that comes directly from the heart.


After suffering through the coltish George W., the anemic Forbes, the pathetic Quayle, the eunuch Bauer, and the harridan Dole, the sheer power of it was enough to electrify the disinterested, the cynical, and even the liberal media. In the wake of that parade of automatons, it was a kind of shock to see a real human being stride onto the stage and give voice, in the language of ordinary Americans, to the deeply-held yet inchoate feelings of the crowd. All stood in awe of Pat, the incomparable orator, his voice resonant with sincerity and regulated by almost perfect sense of timing. No one who was listening could have mistaken him for an ordinary politician. Buchanan is no politician, as the results of the Iowa straw poll – and three presidential runs – make clear. He is an intellectual, an ideologue, and his campaign embodies a cause, whereas a politician, almost by definition, is his own cause.


Buchanan's political evolution from a Cold War conservative to an America First nationalist is the kind of biography I would love to read, or perhaps write; suffice to say here that he is almost single-handedly responsible for the rise of a noninterventionist tendency among conservatives. His brave and unflinching opposition to the Gulf War and his writings on the subject threw down the gauntlet to the neoconservative globalists and opened up new vistas for the American Right. In his breathtaking essay, "America First – and Second, and Third," [reprinted in Owen Harries, ed., America's Purpose: New Visions of U.S. Foreign Policy; San Francisco, CA: ICS Press, 1991, pp. 23-34], he takes on "the democratist temptation" that lured us into two world wars and would yet ensnare us in a third – if we let it. The Soviet empire had hardly begun to topple when he advocated US withdrawal from Europe and wrote: "As the United States moves off the mainland of Europe, we should move our troops as well off the mainland of Asia." In Korea, "US troops should be taken out of the front line" and "if Kim Il Sung attacks," he asked, "why should Americans be the first to die?"


A good question, and one asked by many of his Old Right forebears, whose legacy he consciously and quite deliberately invoked by raising the old slogan of "America First." When Truman bypassed Congress and did what FDR has never dared, sending US troops overseas by his own command and under his own authority, it was the remnants of the old "isolationist" conservatives who raised a hue and cry. These were what was left of the original "America Firsters," the so-called isolationists who opposed US intervention in World War II. America First, as Buchanan well knew, was the slogan of the greatest and certainly the largest antiwar movement in American history: the America First Committee (AFC), founded on the eve of World War II as a last-minute effort to prevent the US from being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the conflict. An alliance of old-style liberals like John T. Flynn, socialists such as Norman Thomas, and conservative businessmen such as General Robert E. Wood, of Sears and Roebuck, the AFC grew to some 800,000 members, organized in chapters nationwide, militant and readily mobilized. In coming together against the New Deal and Roosevelt's war, this broad coalition of conservatives, nationalists, progressive Midwest Republicans and disillusioned liberals became, in time, the Old Right, the "isolationist" descendants of today's Buchananites.


The Old Right was Senator Robert A. Taft, in politics; in literature, H. L. Mencken; among the magazines, George Herbert Lorimer's Saturday Evening Post, and of course the daily newspaper of this movement, its geographical and editorial center, was Colonel Robert R. McCormick's Chicago Tribune, the flagship of the Old Right. In harking back to this tradition, Buchanan incurred the wrath of the neoconservatives, who were roused to such a rage that they compared him to Lindbergh, the man they had succeeded in smearing as a "Nazi sympathizer."


The smear may have stuck to Lindbergh all those years, but it didn't stick to Buchanan. Instead of cringing, Buchanan faced down his accusers, fought back – and won. Pat's invocation of Israel's "amen corner" in the US as a major cause of the Iraq war was perceived by almost no one as evidence of "anti-Semitism," as his critics alleged, but only as a simple statement of fact.


In taking on the Smear Brigade, and rescuing the legacy of the original America First movement from the libels of the court historians, Buchanan's great achievement was to effect a fundamental realignment on the Right. Separated out from the political hacks, neoconservative ex-Trotskyites, and professional Cold Warriors who made up the conservative movement in America, a new breed of noninterventionist "America Firsters" was born. This was almost single-handedly Buchanan's achievement, and that spirit burst forth in Ames, last week, as he raised the old banner of noninterventionism and spoke out against the phony "victory" in Kosovo with his usual eloquence:


"Now, let me talk about this recent war in Kosovo. What is our party doing, cheering Mr. Clinton on in an illegal, unconstitutional war that destroyed a country that had never attacked us and in a region of the world – the Balkans – where we have never had a vital interest? What are we doing, embracing that policy?

"I'm against that war for other reasons. We had no vital interests there and Serbia had not attacked us. I believe it was launched in part by Bill Clinton to cover up the latest disgrace in the Oval Office!

"And I oppose that war for another reason. I don't believe the man who launched that war, Mr. Clinton, is fit to be the commander-in- chief of the armed forces of the United States.

"We got our armed forces spread all over the world, my friends, some places under UN command. They're defending borders in Korea, in Kuwait, in Kosovo. What we need to do is rebuild, re-arm and replenish that military and bring them home. And if you want to defend a border, why don't they try defending the southern border of the United States of America!"

This is American conservatism at its best: respectful of national sovereignty, mindful and even jealous of it's own, and ruthlessly skeptical of all foreign entanglements. The roar of the crowd, not all of them Buchananites by any means, in response to this nationalist-"isolationist" credo was deeper, and more authentically raucous than the preppy "rah rah rah" of the Bushies and the dweeby fireworks-and-balloons that punctuated a good third of Forbes' halting speech. It was a sound like thunder, full and deep-throated, rolling and building like a wave rising out of the human sea of faces.


It must have stricken the Bushies with terror, just as much as it enthralled the conservatives. For one panicked moment, they must have thought: is it really him again, our nemesis and conscience, risen once more?


It was almost enough to make me throw caution to the winds. Even when I disagreed with him, the eloquence and the carefully wrought words of a writer and orator without peer were nearly enough to make me run up the old banner of Buchananism, and run out to join the Buchanan Brigades. But once the emotional impact of the speech wore off, a number of questions immediately arose. First and foremost was how the author of such well-written denunciations of globalism could have embraced it so militantly in the first part of his speech. To those who took his earlier writings and pronouncements seriously, and who expect some sort of consistency in their intellectual leaders and ideologues, if not in politicians, it is baffling to hear the following:


"What is part of our party doing embracing the policy of groveling and appeasing of Communist China with Most Favored Nation trade treatment that gives Communist China a $60-billion trade surplus every year with the United States?

"Let me tell you I've got a different policy in mind. I've got a different policy in mind. If Mr. Zhou Rongli had come to see me in the Oval Office as he saw Bill Clinton, I would have told him, sir, you're going to stop persecuting Christians, you're going to stop bullying our friends on Taiwan, you're going to stop pointing missiles at us, or you're going to have sold your last pair of chopsticks in any mall in the United States of America.

"We're just – we're just getting there. You know, the Chinese Communists are all whining and complaining. They said, we don't know how your American missile hit our embassy in Belgrade. You know, the Chinese Communists said that, but if the Chinese Communists don't know how our missiles work, who does? They stole every secret we got under Bill Clinton."


But if Serbia has not attacked us, then neither has China. And if the Balkans are not vital to America's national interests, either because of its proximity to Europe or our commitment to the NATO alliance, then how vital is Taiwan to those same interests? Buchanan was outraged by the Kosovo war – and his critique resembles nothing so much as that of the Chinese government, which denounced the US/NATO campaign as an imperialist attack on the concept of national sovereignty. Buchanan, too, denounced the NATO forces as an "imperial army." In spite of all the guff about "Communist" China, Buchanan is too smart to believe his own rhetoric: he knows that nationalism, not the dead dogma of Marxism-Leninism, is what moves the doddering Chinese hierarchs to "whine" and "complain" about the bombing of their embassy. Are the Chinese embassy personnel who died in that "accidental" bombing any less victims than the thousands of Serbians and others who were slaughtered by NATO's bombs – and all because Clinton was having another bimbo eruption?


An even more pertinent question is: would Buchanan really go to war with China over Taiwan? He is uncharacteristically vague on this subject. But if he questions why Americans ought to be the first to die if the North Koreans invade South Korea, then why is Taiwan any different? But this is just the first of a whole series of questions that conservatives, particularly admirers of Buchanan, must begin to ask themselves. Buchanan himself once wrote that, with the end of the Cold War, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, no enemy can stand against us, and asked: "Who is left? The corrupt, bankrupt China of Deng Xiaoping? It will not survive the decade." How does this square with Buchanan's current position?


The answer is: it doesn't But the China issue is "hot" on the Right, these days, and a good part of this China-bashing has to be opportunism. It is sadly misplaced, on Buchanan's part, for almost outdoing him in the China-bashing department is Gary Bauer, the former head of the Family Research Council. Bauer is a sanctimonious popinjay who manages to combine all the most unpleasant aspects of American conservatism – its belligerent militarism, its thin-lipped priggishness, and its undisguised demagoguery – in one singularly unattractive package. Bauer is pushing many of the same projectionist themes, with none of Buchanan's baggage, and the former's victory over the latter in Iowa was a painful blow. With Buchanan in the race long before Bauer, one has to wonder what motivated the former head of an obscure Washington Religious Right thinktank to plunge into a purely symbolic presidential bid – except, perhaps, a desire to split off a key section of the Buchanan base.


Indeed, there is a pro forma quality to the other conservative contenders for the GOP nomination. Sure, Forbes is spending millions and will spend millions more, and Bauer is energetically pursuing his little crusade (probably to the bitter end). But these all seem like competitions for chips and influence in the campaign we all know is coming, the triumph of the Bushies and the inevitable unity-mongering that has already become the main theme of the Bush campaign. In this crowd, Pat is an outsider. It is hard to see either him or his followers reconciled to the coming coronation.


There was an elegiac quality to Buchanan's speech, as if he were resigned in advance to what he and everyone else knew the outcome of the Ames auction was going to be: the party would go to the highest bidder. But before it did, he would have his say, and not only that but issue a warning, to the victors and to his followers alike:

"I'm proud and honored to be here. And I've had a long, good career in politics, and I just thought tonight that I would want to leave with a thought that I remember reading in Teddy White's book that Jack Kennedy said. He quoted Lincoln in the final days – final days of his campaign in 1960 when he came out on the porch in some place in Connecticut, and he quoted Lincoln. And I want to say this especially to my wonderful folks over there in the brigades. He said, I know there is a God and I know he hates injustice. I see the storm coming and I know His hand is in it. But if there is a place and a part for me, I believe that I am ready."


But ready for what? What this says about Buchanan's future as a presidential candidate, in or out of the Republican Party, seems entirely obscure. He could go either way – either retire completely from the political scene, or else choose some third party route and lead his followers into a new phase in their political evolution from Goldwater conservatives into "America Firsters." Whatever course he takes, his impact on the American political scene is bound to be substantial. The word is that he is working on a new book, to be called A Republic, Not an Empire, a disquisition on American foreign policy. Perhaps we will have to wait until the Buchanan campaign runs out of steam, and he finishes his book, before we get an answer to the above-mentioned questions. In any case, what Ames confirmed, beyond doubt, was Buchanan's stature; standing next to the likes of Bush II, Dole II, and the rest of the zoo, he was truly a giant among pygmies.

Check out Justin Raimondo's article, "China and the New Cold War"

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (forthcoming from Prometheus Books).


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