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The first Trumpist

Book review of Nixon's White House Wars

Joe Klein 

The Battles That Made and Broke a President and Divided America Forever
By Patrick J Buchanan
Crown Forum
Illustrated; 436 pp; $30

Patrick J. Buchanan is a merry troglodyte, a naughty provocateur. He still calls homosexuality “sodomy,” just to get the goat of a community he will only reluctantly call “gay.” He writes that he wanted to be named ambassador to South Africa by President Ford so he could support the apartheid government. He thinks public television is “an upholstered playpen” for liberals. He considers The New York Times an epithet. His stump appearances in his outlaw 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns were a guilty pleasure for the reporters who followed him, a hilariously clever, and prescient, exhibition of right-wing populism. “Buchanan,” Richard Nixon once told him, “you’re the only extremist I know with a sense of humour.”

And it is Buchanan, not Nixon, who emerges as the central — and most intriguing — character in Nixon’s White House Wars, an entertaining memoir of that benighted presidency. Buchanan’s Nixon is a familiar figure: distant, awkward, smart, defensive and damaged, caring a bit too much what the Establishment — a word Buchanan uses frequently — thinks of him. The not-so-tricky president is a policy moderate; he has surrounded himself with brilliant, if mainstream, experts like Henry Kissinger and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. There is also a retinue of traditional moderate Republican aides like Ray Price and Leonard Garment, and technocrats like H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. Buchanan, the house wing nut, finds all this moderation frustrating; he began as a peripheral figure in the Nixon White House, a political gunslinger perhaps a bit too hot for the high-rent nuances of governance. 

Over time, however, Nixon realised that the “liberal establishment” was unwilling to cut him a break — even as he created the Environmental Protection Agency and maintained many Great Society programs — and a gunslinger could have his uses. But Nixon sensed that Buchanan was onto something much bigger than vitriol, a new grand strategy for the Republican Party, a new majority anchored by the white working class, not just in the South, but also in the Northern ethnic, mostly Catholic, enclaves. This philosophy has been the driving vision of Buchanan’s life. It has made him one of the most consequential conservatives of the past half-century. Indeed, he’s a reactionary who was also an avatar: the first Trumpist.

Buchanan was born in Washington, D.C., in 1938, although his family’s roots are in Mississippi. He celebrates ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, but his most enduring loyalty is to the conservative Catholic Church of the 1950s — the church schools he attended, the Knights of Columbus, the Legion of Decency, Sodality and the Holy Name Society. His people are the white ethnic “unfashionable minorities,” as opposed to the “media minorities.” He and Nixon “were like working-class kids in an elite university who, caught smoking pot in the dorm, would be expelled and disgraced for life, while the legacy students would be confined to campus for the weekend.”

It was the “legacy” students in the C.I.A. and on John F. Kennedy’s staff who had started the war in Vietnam — and “legacy” students who opposed it; the children of Irish pipe fitters had to fight it. Despite the war’s provenance, Buchanan was an unabashed hawk who believed Vietnam was necessary to stem the tide of Communism. He continued to believe this even as Nixon proved that Communism wasn’t monolithic by embracing the Russians in détente and going to China — Buchanan was along for the Beijing trip, appalled. 

Buchanan’s political calculus is that the “silent majority” is larger than the “fashionable minorities,” who include violent antiwar protesters — nearly five bombings a day in 1971-72! — racial agitators, limousine and lifestyle liberals. In fact, the only real weapon that the counterculturalists have is the elite media, which he described, in a memo to Nixon, as their true adversary: “The Nixon White House and the national liberal media are as cobra and mongoose.” Does any of this sound familiar?

Nixon won the 1972 election in a historic landslide, using Buchanan’s strategy, but lost the war. Buchanan was boggled by Watergate, which he considered stupid. Why bug the Democrats when Nixon’s new majority is about to win bigly? Somehow he managed to skate through the scandal, compartmentalised, kept out of the loop, but asked for cleanup advice — and famously told Nixon to “burn the tapes.”

It is easy to be horrified by Buchanan’s gleeful excesses, but that is the reaction he’s hoping to elicit. Humourless upper-crust liberalism is the fattest of targets. Beneath the vitriol, though, Buchanan has spent his career raising important questions that our society has never seemed willing to discuss forthrightly. What should be the limits of identity politics? In a democracy, should courts or legislatures decide basic policies like abortion, busing and campaign finance? Should we trade the higher prices that will come from protectionism for the increased stability that might come from keeping more blue-collar jobs at home? These are the issues that Buchanan has been thumping for the past 50 years, and that Donald Trump exploited in 2016. They cannot be dismissed. We are, for the moment, living in Pat Buchanan’s world.

© 2017 The New York Times News Service