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St. Pat's Day

Ted Soqui

Bully Pulpit: A tremendous performer on the stump, Pat Buchanan holds rallies that are like nothing else in American politics today.

Pat Buchanan, avenging angel of the white working class, guns for the conservative elite

By Harold Meyerson

The tower at the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan, four miles north of the Detroit city line, rises 110 feet, dwarfing everything else in the neighborhood. After the Klan welcomed Father Charles Coughlin to his new parish in 1927 by burning their crosses right across the street from his fledgling church, Coughlin vowed to erect a crucifix of his own, so massive and permanent that the Klansmen would never even consider a return engagement. When he finished, in the single worst year of the Great Depression, a 30-foot Jesus looked down on a sea of unemployment that stretched beyond the horizon.

Beginning in the late '20s, Coughlin broadcast weekly homilies over the radio that attracted a wide audience, first in Detroit, then all across America. In short order, he became the first media-personality priest--and the first media-personality pol. Initially, he directed his scorn at the Klan, and later, as the economy gave way, at Wall Street financiers. He urged his listeners to support Franklin Roosevelt in 1932; he encouraged his local legions to join the auto workers' union. By the mid-'30s, though, he had turned against both the president and the union: there were too many socialists hanging around both of them. He then struck up an alliance with Huey Long; they planned a challenge to Roosevelt that Coughlin was compelled to scale back after Long's assassination. By the late '30s, his broadcasts grew more isolationist and overtly anti-Semitic. Eventually, his bishop ordered him off the air.

A number of accounts of Pat Buchanan's family history claim that Buchanan's father was an avid Coughlinite, but Buchanan insists this isn't true.

On Thursday, March 14, the Buchanan campaign rolled into Michigan for a rally in the Detroit suburb of Warren, in Macomb County, just four miles from the Shrine of the Little Flower. Michigan in all likelihood would be Buchanan's last stand of the primary season. The campaign was rolling by bus now--Dole had a lock on the nomination, and the money for a chartered plane just wasn't there any more. But if Buchanan could afford to seriously campaign in only one Midwestern state out of the four that voted on March 19, Michigan was clearly that one.

No state has a richer heritage of right-wing, working-class populism, or a longer record of white backlash voting. In the '30s, Detroit had been America's most militant metropolis in labor struggles--and was also home to more Klansmen than any other Northern city as well. By the '60s, white Detroit was in full flight from the increasingly black city, moving into adjacent Macomb County, and as racial liberalism came to dominate the Democratic Party, they were in full flight from the Democrats, too. Following a 1971 federal court order mandating school busing across the Detroit city line into Macomb, they flocked to the Democratic presidential primary campaign of George Wallace. The day of the 1972 Michigan primary was both the high point and the end of Wallace's career in national politics. He carried Michigan with 51 percent of the vote; he carried Macomb with 66 percent. On the same day, he was shot and permanently disabled while campaigning in Maryland. And from that day to this, Macomb has been perhaps the single most reliably Republican working-class suburb in the nation.

It was no surprise, then, that the Buchanan bus rolled to a halt in Macomb County on its first night in Michigan. For some of the older members of the audience at the rally in Warren, the event must have seemed a trip down memory lane. Buchanan even threw a Wallace line--unattributed--into his speech: "We don't need some character at the Department of Education in sandals and beads," he thundered, "tellin' us how to educate our children!" Never mind that the sandals-and-beads crowd hadn't been around for 25 years, the audience appreciated this homage to the invective of their youth. "We haven't been fired up like this," one senior told me, "since Wallace came through in '72."

But Buchanan's Michigan campaign was more than a mere exercise in nostalgia. As Buchanan arrived in the state, the UAW's strike against GM had led to the closure of virtually every GM plant in Michigan. Over 100,000 auto workers were abruptly without work, and Buchanan, however gingerly, was coming out in support of the strikers. "Those fellas aren't on strike for super pay increases," he told a TV anchorman in Flint the following day. "They're on strike to keep their jobs from going overseas. Republicans should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them." For the GOP to back the auto workers against General Motors--hell, for Pat Buchanan to back the auto workers against General Motors--was a stunning reversal. But then, his campaign is of interest not because it has maintained a faint pretense of contesting the nomination with Bob Dole. It's of interest because Pat Buchanan is trying to redefine the fundamentals of American conservatism, and reshape the politics of the white working class.

We'll Get to Boutros-Ghali
in a Minute!

Say what you will about his politics--and there is plenty to say--Buchanan is a tremendous performer on the stump, and his rallies are like nothing else in American politics today. As his campaign has ceased to be a serious effort to win the nomination, his crowds have been winnowed down not just to true believers but to the Pathead cult. They've heard him on C-SPAN, and they all seem to know the speech before he delivers it. That doesn't detract from their pleasure, though, anymore, say, than a knowledge of La Bohéme would diminish the enthusiasm of Pavarotti fans.

The most self-conscious of tribunes, Buchanan is thoroughly amused at his own excesses. During one Michigan rally last week, he imagined how President Buchanan would order the closing of the National Endowment of the Arts. He'd ordered it padlocked, but that was just the start. "Fumigate it!" he bellows. "Get a priest to exorcise the place! Sprinkle holy water on it!" At that, he stops; he is laughing too hard to go on. It's a brilliantly successful style: he can vent his rage, and that of his followers, while simultaneously distancing himself from it. Minus the self-amusement, he'd be too terrifying to appear in public. His supporters would tear up the joint.

It's instructive to compare, for instance, Buchanan's handling of hecklers with that of the other master campaigner in this year's field, Bill Clinton. On his one-day swing through Manchester during the week before the New Hampshire primary, Clinton was heckled by AIDS activists at a Manchester rally. Within a few moments, Clinton had managed to affirm the value of the hecklers' message and had woven their refrain--"Action, Not Words"--into his speech. Buchanan encountered hecklers once this past week, at his rally in Chicago. He calmed the crowd, then recounted how at one earlier rally, demonstrators argued that throwing them out would constitute a violation of their 10th Amendment rights. "In the first instance," Buchanan recalled saying, "it's the First Amendment. In the second instance, you're still outta here!" And then the kicker: "The quality of anti-Buchanan demonstrators is goin' down," he said sorrowfully. "They're an indictment of the public schools." Clinton responds to heckling by affirming, Buchanan by attacking--but comically, lest all hell break loose.

Even with the humor, all hell is never far from the surface of a Buchanan rally. Some portion of the crowd invariably comes to seethe. At a Saturday-morning meeting of the Michigan Christian Coalition, there's a fat guy in the last pew who's clearly itching to pop a reporter, any reporter. Sure enough, during Pat's speech, one TV correspondent starts chatting loudly over his cell phone with the home office. In a flash, the Buchanan supporter has hurdled the pew and is making for the loudmouth; it takes two horrified young ladies on the staff of the Christian Coalition to persuade him to turn the other cheek.

Buchanan both expresses and mitigates his supporters' rage; they are as amused as he at his verbal riffs. At times, they can't wait for him to get to their favorites; they shout out topics, as a Grateful Dead or Tony Bennett fan would shout out song suggestions during a concert. "Hey Pat," one hollers during the Chicago rally, "what about Boutros Boutros-Ghali?" (The UN Secretary-General is a favorite Buchanan target--"a man so great," Buchanan calls him, "we all have to say his first name twice.") "We'll get to Boutros Boutros-Ghali in a minute!" Pat shouts back.

Working-Class Hero

It's Saint Patrick's Day, and Buchanan, in a green T-shirt, surrounded by aides wearing "Go-Saint Pat-Go!" buttons, is waiting in a southwest Chicago clothing store for his unit to start marching in the Southside parade. It's as good a time as any, his press secretary concludes, for this Californian from a weekly newspaper to get his interview in.

One on one, Buchanan's often--not always--less truculent than he is on the stump.

The bombast fades, the humor is gentler; reporters who can't stand the guy's politics frequently succumb to his charm. Besides, his newfound passion for the proletariat has created a common ground, however narrow, with longtime antagonists on the left. No one in American politics is a more dangerous and insidious champion of xenophobia and homophobia; he also has a history of playing to the racist or anti-Semitic sentiments of his followers when it suits his political purposes. But, as would not be the case with the less-threatening Bob Dole, there's about 10 percent of Buchanan that a leftist needs to take seriously.

Buchanan himself is uncomfortable with his leftward march--"We're moving onto terra nova here," he tells me early on. Mainstream American conservatism has always been more capitalist than traditionalist, placing a higher value on corporate freedom than on the claims of community. With the globalization of once-American corporations, though, Buchanan has shifted himself onto the community side. "This libertarian strain of conservatism has really gone too far," he tells me. "The worship of the great god Efficiency has gone too far. And the indifference to the impact on communities and families and towns of this rapid, turbo-charged global economy and accelerated change--you just want to say, 'Stop! What is it we are celebrating?' Maximum efficiency and the tremendous change that capitalism engenders is having a devastating impact on the other values we're supposed to cherish."

Ted Soqui

Tough Campaigner: Pat Buchanan's chances for the White House may be down, but he's not out of the political limelight.

Buchanan talks the language of class warfare more bluntly than any other American politician--emphatically including Democrats. For Buchanan, it's the ability of corporations to pay 10 cents an hour in China for work that Americans used to perform that's at the heart of the brave new world economy. "That's why middle-class incomes are stagnating while profits soar. They're pocketing the difference!"

To the problems of class, Buchanan posits nationalist solutions. Global government is no panacea; it erodes national sovereignty every bit as much as global capital. Wages are plummeting, but we don't need a higher minimum wage; we need a tighter labor market, which we can get not through governmentally planned work projects but a governmentally constructed fence on the border.

And yet--Buchanan's trade policy is less nationalist than he himself insists it is as we await the start of the parade. He's hardly calling for an autarkic America. He wants the U.S. and Japan to negotiate an equal share of each other's market--if they take 15 percent of ours, then we take 15 percent of theirs. More interestingly, he now supports a social tariff. "We need an equalization tax with some countries," he told me, "especially some countries that have very able labor forces but very, very low pay. You know, many of the countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia, Mexico and Latin America."

Here, for one brief shining moment, Buchananism overlaps just a bit with the program of the global left. The consequence of his policy would be not only to protect American markets; it would also raise wages in the Third World. When I suggest this to Buchanan, he is nonplussed; his intent, he emphasizes, is to protect American industries.

More broadly, Buchanan pays scant attention to the imbalance of power in employer-employee relations, other than to note that the globalization of capital has given employers the upper hand. On increasing union rights, he's been mute--until last Sunday. Suddenly, on the David Brinkley show, he changed positions on a key workplace issue. The Republican position affirming a corporation's right to hire permanent replacements for strikers was wrong, he said; and while he wasn't prepared to support most Democrats' position--that such hiring should be outlawed--he was at least in motion on the question.

On other questions, he is often a deliberate blur. "Look at what they're doin' to us in Mexico," Buchanan shouted at the same Chicago rally. "They've got no EPA, no OSHA, no minimum wage, no nothin'!" Like much of Buchanan's labor policy, this is smoke and mirrors. To his social conservative supporters, this could be taken as meaning that to keep competitive in a world market, we shouldn't have these either. To his union supporters, this could be taken to mean that Buchanan actually supports these provisions, when in fact he does not.

After the speech, I spoke with one of the delegates on Buchanan's slate in Illinois. "I supported Pat because he was the most conservative one running," he moaned. "What's this nonsense about striker replacement? He's pandering to the unions!"

Fawn on Ice

Buchanan's lunch with UAW members in LaPeer, just outside Flint--site of the 1937 sit-in where workers won their first contract with GM, and in some sense, then, the birthplace of both the CIO and of America's middle-class majority--is a less than overwhelming affair. Only 40 auto workers are present, none of them so much as a local shop steward. Buchanan's union supporters are invariably two-fers: they're also drawn to him because they loathe gun control, or favor home schooling, or dread affirmative action, or believe abortion is a sin.

One fellow, who both looks and sounds a good deal like Rush Limbaugh, is concerned about the anti-terrorism legislation Clinton is pushing; it could disarm the American people. A second says the problem is that every leader in both parties, and at GM and their own union, is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations. Then he pauses--he realizes he has no idea if Steve Yokich, the UAW's new president, is a member or not. But it would certainly help clarify things if he were; how better to explain the succession of less-than-great contracts the union has produced?

But the majority of union members are not on the far right of social issues (for that matter, the majority aren't even white men). In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last week, the general public favored Clinton over Buchanan by 33 points. Union members favored Clinton over Buchanan by 40 points. Buchanan's union support is real, but it's a niche market.

It's Local 150 that's invited Buchanan to march with its contingent in the Southwest Chicago St. Patrick's Day parade later that day, over the vociferous objections of parade organizers. While Buchanan is preparing to do a live feed on the Brinkley show from the union hall, four reporters are ushered in to meet the local's leaders. The problem, 150's president William Dugan asserts, is affirmative action and immigration--and gun control. "Almost every member owns a gun," he continues.

Dugan must own an arsenal; his office is one amazing trophy room. There are half a dozen deer heads on the walls, several moose heads, some boar heads, a wildebeest head. In one corner there's a stuffed tiger; in another, a giraffe head and about 8 feet of neck. ("The rest of the giraffe's in my basement," Dugan assures us.) And there, on the bookshelf, stands a tiny stuffed fawn.

It seems Dugan was coming home from a weekend at the lake, and the car in front of him had hit and killed a deer who walked onto the road. The other driver hadn't wanted it, so Dugan tossed it into his boat, took it home, skinned it--and discovered two unborn fawns in utero. That was one on the shelf.

None of us reporters can quite formulate the question that would relate this to Buchanan's opposition to fetal tissue research, but New York Times-man James Bennet does pop the other crucial question. "Where's the second fawn?" Bennet asks. Dugan beams. "At home," he says, "in the freezer."

The Third Force

On Tuesday night, even as Bob Dole was locking up the nomination, Pat Buchanan's investment in Michigan paid off. He pulled down 34 percent of the vote, splitting the male vote evenly with Dole, and running just three points behind Dole among all voters in Macomb County. Had the Michigan primary immediately followed New Hampshire, Buchanan would almost certainly have beaten Dole.

But the Michigan primary didn't follow New Hampshire's, Dole is the nominee, and Pat Buchanan has to decide if he still belongs in the Republican Party. The gap that has opened between Buchanan and Gingrich, say, on economics is huge. No public figure is more committed to the agenda of America's multinationals than the Speaker. No public official is less committed to that agenda than Buchanan, even though he still favors a Gingrich-like deregulatory agenda here at home.

The choice before Buchanan is part strategic, part ideological. He could join what may be a gaggle of NAFTA opponents seeking the presidency on third-party lines this year: Ralph Nader and Ross Perot are certainly possible candidates. The mere threat of such a candidacy maximizes Buchanan's leverage at this summer's Republican convention. How much room there is for compromise is another question. The Republican Party cannot easily repudiate free trade, nor Buchanan embrace it. At the level of fundamental ideology, Buchanan is not likely to transform the GOP from Gingrich's hypercapitalism to his own assertive nationalism.

Like Coughlin, Long and Wallace, Buchanan has become a distinct third force in American politics, outside the camp of either party. What's distressing is that there doesn't seem to be a first force. In the mid-1930s, historian Steven Fraser has written, German- and Polish- and Slavic-Americans could turn on the radio and choose between the social conservatism of Father Coughlin and the social democracy of John L. Lewis, father of the CIO. In the mid-'90s, when the economic crisis takes the form not of unemployment but of declining incomes, the heir to Father Coughlin is alive and well, tromping through California all this week.

The heirs of John L. Lewis have a ways to go yet: the new leadership of the union movement is just embarking on a long journey of reconstruction, while the Democratic president prescribes only more training to restore the living standards of America's workers.

In fact, neither Clinton's training nor Buchanan's nationalism is adequate to the task. But it's Buchanan's answer that resonates the more deeply in some pockets of working-class America. And as the world market continues to wreak havoc among American workers, as the potential for xenophobia continues to mount, Buchananism may grow stronger yet. Defeated in the primaries, he is not yet done cashing in on the promise of Coughlin and Wallace.

Research assistance by Nick Karno

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From the Mar. 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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