In late 1965, when 27-year-old Pat Buchanan got the job interview with Richard Nixon that would change his life, there was one matter on which he would not compromise. He writes in his autobiography that Nixon expected him to say he was not as conservative as William F. Buckley. Buchanan was anxious to work for Nixon, but he wouldn't budge. "I have a tremendous admiration for Bill Buckley," he said. In fact, Buchanan considered Buckley's National Review to be his "spiritual guide" in polities.
Last week, as Buchanan announced his candidacy for president, Buckley didn't exactly return the favor. In a 40,000-word National Review essay on anti-Semitism among intellectuals, Buckley suggests that Buchanan's columns on the gulf war were anti-Semitic. While apparently free of prejudice against individual Jews, Buchanan has a real problem. His 1992 campaign slogan-"America First"-echoes more than just pre-World War II isolationism. The America First Committee, headed by Charles Lindbergh, was also discernibly pro-German and anti-Semitic, as Buchanan (whose father was a supporter) well knows. Worse, many of his columns have shown a peculiar obsession with Nazi revisionism.
"There are only two groups that are beating the drums for war in the Middle East-the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States," Buchanan said on TV last year, singling out A.M. Rosenthal, Charles Krauthammer, Henry Kissinger and Richard Perle, all Jews. Why, Buckley asks, didn't he mention any similarly credentialed Christian war supporters, such as James J. Kilpatrick, George Will, Frank Gaffney and Alexander Haig?
Buchanan also wrote that if the United States went to war, the fighting would be done by "kids with names like McAllister, Murphy, Gonzales, and Leroy Brown." Buckley, in his usual opaque writing style, argues that this amounts to charging Jews with starting a war they wouldn't fight in a genuine slur against them. He adds: "I find it impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he did and said during the period under examination amounted to anti-Semitism, whatever it was that drove him to say and do it: most probably, an iconoclastic temperament."
These are rough words coming from Buckley, who goes to great pains to distinguish between anti-Semitism and simply voicing criticism of Israel. (Buchanan denies being antiSemitic and says he was the target of orchestrated efforts by pro-Israel groups.) The dust-up suggests that the post-cold-war split in American conservatism into isolationist and interventionist camps is deep and wounding. Buchanan's bid is more than a right-wing version of George McGovern's "Come Home America." It's a campaign of nostalgia for a narrow-mindedness even Buckley wants to leave behind.
Strangely, Buckley makes little of Buchanan's attitudes toward the Holocaust and Nazi war criminals. Last year Buchanan wrote that it was impossible for 850,000 Jews to be killed by diesel exhaust fed into the gas chamber at Treblinka. When George Will challenged him about it last week on TV (it is, alas, all too possible), he ducked. Buchanan's long battle with Nazi-hunters is shy of loony but still conspicuous. In 1983 he criticized the U.S. government for expressing regret over its postwar protection of Klaus Barbie. In 1985, he advocated restoring the citizenship of Arthur Rudolph, an ex-Nazi rocket scientist accused of employing slave labor at a V-2 plant. In 1987, he lobbied to stop deportation of Karl Linnas, accused of atrocities in Estonia. He could well be right that John Demjanjuk was wrongly accused of being Treblinka's "Ivan the Terrible." (Newly released Soviet documents suggest he may have been merely a camp guard.) But this respect for civil liberties is suspiciously selective. An ACLU man, he ain't. Buchanan is a hardliner on all accused criminals-except Nazis.
None of this is likely to hurt his campaign much. Reporters who enjoy seeing him act out their Walter Mittyish fantasies-like him personally and have already lent him respectability with an absurd amount of TV exposure. Buchanan's attack last week on "the professional political class of both parties in Washington" was preposterous. He has lived all but four of his 53 years in Washington and is a card-carrying member of the political-media establishment. The same clubbiness he attacks may keep him from being properly garroted by his old columns.
In his article, Buckley recalls driving back with Murray Kempton from the 1969 funeral of Westbrook Pegler, a venomous columnist who was a hero to Buchanan's father. "I had a letter yesterday from Peg," Kempton said. "I knew he was sick. He wrote seven pages and didn't once mention [Israeli Prime Minister] David Ben-Gurion." Pat Buchanan is not quite in that league. Then again, Westbrook Pegler never ran for president.