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The Devil Is in the Details

Timothy Stanley captures the essence of Pat Buchanan and Buchananism.

By From the May 2012 issue

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The Crusader: The Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan
By Timothy Stanley
(Thomas Dunne Books, 464 pages, $27.99)

On the dust jacket of Timothy Stanley’s The Crusader: The Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan, Paul Gottfried offers this “Advance Praise”: “Stanley’s biography of Pat Buchanan combines meticulous research, including the fruits of multiple interviews, with highly accessible prose and judicious judgments.” The sheer heft of this 455-page volume, the first full-length biography of the journalist, commentator, assistant to two presidents, and three-time presidential candidate, seems almost enough to confirm at least the first part of Professor Gottfried’s assessment. The few paragraphs in the book that do not have at least one endnote are mainly composed of one sentence. Taken together, those notes fill 53 pages, followed by a 7-page Bibliography.

The thoroughness of Stanley’s effort is even more impressive when you consider that the bulk of the book covers only the last 20 years of the 73-year-old Buchanan’s life, from the time of his first run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1992. It’s not that the earlier years are unimportant—indeed, those decades, more so than anything that has happened to him since 1992, made Buchanan what he is today—but Stanley, an Oxford University historian whose specialty is the United States, could have added little to what Buchanan himself had to say about his life in his 1988 autobiography Right From the Beginning. In fact, when he covers some of the same material—for instance, in his discussion of a meeting held in the living room of Buchanan’s McLean, Virginia, home in January 1987, when he was considering a run for the Republican nomination in 1988—Stanley leans heavily on Right From the Beginning, to the point where those who have read both books may experience a sense of déjà vu.

Stanley sees the 1992 campaign as a major turning point in Buchanan’s life, though I would argue that the change wrought was personal rather than political. As Stanley himself notes, Buchanan decided to forgo a run for the nomination in 1988, when he might have succeeded in uniting more of the conservative movement than he did four years later, because “He was a private man who disliked large crowds and strange faces.” Making the decision to run in 1992 required rising above that aspect of his personality.

Stanley, however, sees the change as primarily political, and his judgment is summed up in the title of Chapter 12: “Pat Becomes a Paleocon, Runs for President.” Life is never quite that simple, as historians well know—and as other passages of Stanley’s own book make clear.

In that chapter, Stanley pins Buchanan’s intellectual conversion—from the right wing of mainstream conservatism to paleoconservatism—on his reaction to George H. W. Bush’s “New World Order” and the Gulf War. He emphasizes the growing friendship among Buchanan and columnists Sam Francis and Joe Sobran, forged by their mutual opposition to the war. While that friendship was of great importance in helping Buchanan to clarify his thinking in the run-up to the 1992 race, it reflected the evolution of Buchanan’s thoughts on foreign policy in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism (which Stanley treats in the preceding chapter).

In Right From the Beginning, Buchanan had written that “The raison d’être of any realistic (i.e., nonideological) American foreign policy must be the preservation of the Republic.” In 1988, that meant that “Containment Is Not Enough,” the title of the chapter on foreign policy in Right From the Beginning; three years later, it meant “Now That Red Is Dead, Come Home, America,” the headline of the pivotal op-ed Buchanan published in the Washington Post on September 8, 1991 (which does not make an appearance in Stanley’s book). In between, and tying the two together, came Buchanan’s contribution to the Spring 1990 issue of the American Interest, “America First—and Second, and Third.” Between 1988 and 1991, the circumstances had changed, but the principle had remained the same.

Buchanan’s transition from a longtime supporter of free trade to a more nuanced position of “fair” or “managed” trade likewise did not represent a change of principle, though that may be hard to see until we understand what principle was at stake. In Right From the Beginning, at the end of a section in which he calls the prospect of a “trade war” with Asian countries “an act of almost terminal stupidity for the West,” Buchanan writes:

The Republican party should stand for traditional values, even when that means standing against laissez-faire; we should set our sights on something higher than the bottom line on a balance sheet. The greatness of a country and the goodness of its people are not to be measured by its GNP.

It is one thing to believe that the federal government should not interfere with healthy competition; it is another to believe that the federal government should make it easier for American corporations to profit by transferring production and jobs overseas. To insist on free trade when it has begun to harm the American interest and the interest of the average American is to turn a worthy ideal into an ideology.

Stanley repeats the oft-told story of Buchanan’s heart-wrenching visit to a paper mill in New Hampshire, where, just days before Christmas, all of the workers had been fired. By Buchanan’s own account, the plaintive appeal of a worker, imploring Buchanan to save their jobs, affected him deeply. But it is painting with too broad of a brush to say, as Stanley does, that on that day, “Buchanan the Republican was dead. Buchanan the populist was born.” Up until then, Stanley writes, “For Pat, the trade issue had always been an intellectual conceit.” But four pages earlier, he describes a fundraising letter that Buchanan had written as “an attack on free trade,” and traces the genesis of the letter back to a conversation between Buchanan and Buchanan’s Uncle Bob 15 years earlier, at the 1976 Republican convention.

Life is messy, and tracing the intellectual development of someone like Pat Buchanan is undoubtedly hard. But The Crusader sometimes reads as if Stanley sketched out the narrative of the biography first and went searching for the supporting details later. And considering the wealth of endnotes, he gets a surprising number of details wrong. That Antiwar.com editorial director Justin Raimondo is a Hispanic-American would undoubtedly come as a surprise to his Sicilian grandparents. Paul Gottfried is repeatedly described as a philosopher, though his academic training is in history. Sam Francis certainly “lost about twenty pounds,” but only before he went on to lose perhaps a hundred more, in a diet that began more than a year earlier than Stanley says it did. This particular paragraph about Francis contains at least a half-dozen errors of fact (despite three endnotes), and ends with a description of Francis’s death that is appallingly abrupt. Joe Sobran receives similar treatment in the very next paragraph.

A description of a meeting between Buchanan and Russell Kirk at Kirk’s Piety Hill in the weeks leading up to the March 1992 Republican primary in Michigan leaves the impression that Kirk and Buchanan barely knew each other and left the meeting estranged. But the two men first met when Buchanan was serving in the Nixon White House (Kirk, in his posthumously published memoirs, The Sword of Imagination, describes Buchanan at that time as “the ablest of the President’s inner circle”), and Buchanan secured a Washington appointment for Kirk, who, though grateful, turned it down because “he did not mean to be converted into a cultural bureaucrat.” In the last years of his life, Kirk frequently, and proudly, recalled his role as Buchanan’s Michigan campaign chairman, and he describes Buchanan as a friend in the last pages of his memoirs. Buchanan, for his part, dedicated his 2007 Day of Reckoning “To Russell Kirk (1918–1994), Friend and Teacher,” and describes Kirk as “the great conservative scholar and author and chairman of the Buchanan Brigades in Michigan in 1992,” noting that “he seems ever to grow wiser as I grow older.”

Stanley clearly relishes controversy, which leads him to place undue emphasis on rather unimportant events, often not involving Buchanan at all (or involving him only tangentially). By the time I reached the final page of text—the Acknowledgments—it hardly seemed surprising to read this line: “I didn’t know where to start my research, so I googled ‘Buchanan right-wing activists crazy’…” Still, it struck me as an odd admission from an Oxford historian.

And yet, despite all of these problems, I would recommend The Crusader to anyone interested in Pat Buchanan and the brand of right-wing populism he exemplified in the last decade of the 20th century. Professional historians all too often succeed in meticulously documenting the details, while missing the big picture (or getting it entirely wrong). But Stanley, despite his errors and overgeneralizations, has largely captured the essence of Buchanan and Buchananism. Approach The Crusader the way you would view an Impressionist painting: If you spend too much time examining the brush strokes, the work of art will get lost. Take a step back, regard the canvas as a whole, and the broader truth of the artist’s work comes into focus.

Remember, though, to take any particular details you read in The Crusader with a grain of salt—even when they come with an endnote.

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About the Author

Scott P. Richert is the executive editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.