OF OUR TIME, NOT SOME DRESS CODE
FOR THIS AT LEAST WE MAY HAVE PATRICK J. BUCHANan- an to thank: clarification of what is truly signified by the much overused and played-with term "outsider." As in: political outsider, outside-the-Beltway outsider, I-despise-Washington-insiders outsider and/or anti-establishment outsider. Since about the mid-1970s, such outsiderism, in all its kaleidoscopic variety, has become the passionate claim of candidates for high office with increasing frequency and fervor, if not much plausibility. But now comes a candidate--there have been a few, but not many, before--who really is an outsider. Voters get a chance to inspect the genuine article in Buchanan and decide what they think about it.
I am aware even as I write these lines of a growing chorus of protest in the galleries: Hey, hasn't everyone who opposes Buchanan been tauntingly pointing out in the past two weeks that he is actually that lowly form of life most despised in our time, a Washington insider? Haven't endless smirky articles been written making the case that Buchanan has lived all his life in Washington, that he indulges a taste for fancy food and drink, that he dwells in a tony suburb and is, when he is not running for office, very much a part of the Beltway polemical circuit?
The response to this litany of evidence is supposed to be, "Ha!" But I think the right response is, "So what?" It has been a true inanity of the muddled debate over outsiderism and anti-Washingtonism to seek to define that condition in the most superficial terms, as a geographical or sartorial or cultural or even culinary phenomenon, something to do with Chardonnay and neckties and whereabouts, as distinct from attitudes and ideas. This encourages every kind of ridiculous campaign imposture. But the true political outsider in our time is defined by being outside the dominant political consensus -- someone who defies the basic assumptions and violates the outer limits tacitly accepted by the big shots of both parties and of other major institutions of American life. This can be for better or very much for worse, depending on which assumptions and limits are breached. But it is what outsiderism is really all about--and you can practice it while ingesting all the effete French wines and costly, malodorous cheeses you want. Velveeta makes great macaroni, but even eaten on the 11 o'clock news it doesn't make an outsider. That is a condition of the head, and in some respects the heart, but definitely not the palate.
The candidates for office in our day obviously don't understand this, apparently believing they can establish their unimpeachable outsider, non- or anti-Washington credentials with what are called "visuals." Lamar Alexander has taken a well justified ribbing over his vaunted red-checked lumberjack's shirt, which is meant to validate a claim of outsiderly virtue. Typically, many of us pointed out in response that Alexander, forever talking about the awfulness of Washington insiders, had spent more than a few years here himself as one of them. On reflection, I think our response may have been almost as irrelevant as the brandishing of the shirt which incited it, since presence in Washington in general and in government in particular is not really conclusive evidence one way or the other.
You can be high in government in Washington and still be outside that prevailing intellectual consensus of which I spoke concerning on- and off-limit subjects and what must be accepted no matter how you feel. Notable former senators like Wayne Morse of Oregon and William Proxmire of Wisconsin maintained this disposition through long careers here. Likewise, mannerisms are unreliable indicators of outsiderness. This was never understood by some who came to town in recent years proclaiming their anti-establishment, anti-Washington values, stocked the government nevertheless with many retread Washington-establishment types and then sought to keep the outsider image through the good services of a handful of oafish aides who could be counted on to burp, grope or otherwise shatter decorum on strategic occasions. But burping isn't thought (the Supreme Court may not even consider it speech), and withdrawing, either from government or from encounters with others in it, isn't policy. In fact it is possible to be one of the rare actual Washington outsiders while still being comfortably ensconced in the very heart of the federal establishment.
This is in fact a description of the Republican president from whom so many of this year's GOP candidates seek to claim descent -- Ronald Reagan. Reagan spent much time in the company of political opponents with whom he was self-evidently comfortable; he and his wife frequented social circles in Hollywood and New York that many in his party habitually condemn; he was unfailingly congenial; he wore lumberjack shirts when he was doing lumberjack things on his ranch and expensive suits at other times, and--oh, yes--he doggedly and systematically defied the consensus that prevailed when he got here. From his universally startling early decision actually to fire the striking air-traffic controllers through his adamant refusal to yield on that original tax-cutting program, to his equally adamant insistence on toughing it out over the Pershing missiles with the Soviet Union, again and again he confounded expectation and induced something like shock that he actually deep down did not believe all the pieties or subscribe to the notions of how things must be done that had been so generally accepted before.
I don't liken Buchanan to Reagan in anything but this capacity to function outside the boundaries of the prevailing consensus. I believe many of Buchanan's convictions and inclinations are mean-minded and dangerous in a way that has nothing to do with Reagan or the Reagan record. But he is the one real outsider in the pack. His opponents variously say he is out of the established mainstream (which he is) and that they are in it (which mostly they are) but that they are also in some unspecified way outsiders, threats to the old ways of doing things (which most are not). He will claim, of course, that the mainstream he represents is that in which most of the rest of the country swims and that this is why he should be elected. Forget his street address, income and taste in wine, and listen to what he says, including the punishing part. He means it.