Eternal Culture War: Pat Buchanan on Notre Dame and Sotomayor

In August 1992, Pat Buchanan, fresh from a spirited but unsuccessful attempt to win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination away from President George H.W. Bush, addressed the GOP convention:

There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.

To conventiongoers, it was pure red meat; culture war politics in black and white.

Reports of Buchanan’s meanspirited and divisive speech may have startled a national audience. (Over the years, some liberal commentators have insisted that it was the speech that ultimately helped the Democratic Party, led by Bill Clinton, eke out a victory that year.) Whatever else it was, the speech did not surprise longtime right-wing watchers; it was nothing more than could be heard on a regular basis from such movement leaders as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

But as Leonard Zeskind points out in his recently published Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream, Buchanan’s remarks were only the tip of the iceberg. “In a later speech re-rehearsing what he called the ‘savagery of the reaction’ to his convention talk,” Zeskind writes, Buchanan invoked the name of fellow columnist Sam Francis in discussing what this “cultural war” was really about: “As columnist Sam Francis writes,” Buchanan said,

it is about power; it is about who determines the norms by which we live, and by which we define and govern ourselves… Who decides what is right and wrong, moral and immoral, beautiful and ugly, healthy and sick? Whose beliefs shall form the basis of law?

Zeskind points out that those remarks were “completely undisguised” Buchanan; unplugged and unrestrained. “The question at issue for Buchanan was not what the common beliefs of the Republic should be,” Zeskind writes,

but whose beliefs. Not which ideas should hold hegemony, but which people should rule. Whose nation is it anyway? Buchanan and Francis often asked. Their answer was always the same: the United States was and should be a white nation, a Christian nation. If others happen to be citizens, they should submit to the will of real Americans.

Whatever one thinks about the curmudgeonly Buchanan, the former Nixon White House operative, bestselling author, nationally syndicated columnist, cultural critic, and longtime conservative spokesperson on cable television news (including co-hosting Crossfire, CNN’s groundbreaking shout-fest), he can always be counted on to stir the pot.

Shooting from the Lip

Sometimes his tone harkens back to those heady days in 1992 when he collected nearly 3 million primary votes and raised more than $14.5 million in campaign contributions. These days, however, he’s doing his share of pot-stirring on MSNBC, where on any given day you can get regular doses of his political analysis from early morning hours (Morning Joe), to primetime (Countdown and The Rachel Maddow Show) and stops in between (The Ed Show and Hardball). In fact, if memory serves, the only MSNBC programs Buchanan has yet to appear on are the Lockup series, and To Catch a Predator.

Although a toned-down Buchanan can at times seem more “softball” than “hardball,” he has recently gone old school. In the recent kerfuffle over President Obama’s invitation to speak at the University of Notre Dame (and his receiving an honorary degree from one of the nation’s most prestigious Catholic institutions), Buchanan was vituperative in his criticism of Notre Dame officials.

And, in his comments about Obama’s nominee for the US Supreme Court, 2nd Circuit Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor, Buchanan is once again shooting from the lip.

In a recent debate with Salon’s Editor-in-Chief Joan Walsh on Hardball, Buchanan labeled Sotomayor—who graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude from Princeton University, who ran the Yale Law Journal, and who worked as a prosecutor and a civil litigator before being appointed to the federal bench—as an Obama affirmative action pick.

Buchanan also suggested that Sotomayor was “not that intelligent.”

A dumbfounded Walsh wrote on Salon:

Unbelievably, Buchanan compared Sotomayor to Harriet Miers, President Bush’s personal attorney who was, in fact, not at all qualified to be a Supreme Court justice. Ever notice it’s the Republicans whose “affirmative action” picks aren’t qualified (as in Miers and Clarence Thomas)?

A Cheney Fan

In a recent commentary posted at MSNBC, Buchanan pointed out that “Dick Cheney is giving the Republican Party a demonstration of how to fight a popular president. Stake out defensible high ground, do not surrender an inch, then go onto the attack.” The man who served as a speechwriter and senior adviser to President Richard M. Nixon—and is said to have contributed mightily to Nixon’s “The Great Silent Majority Speech” and to the unapologetic and unrelenting attacks on the liberal media by then-vice president Spiro Agnew (before financial scandals forced him to resign)—knows about going on the attack.

Ultimately, Buchanan agrees with Cheney that waterboarding, which the former vice president continuously asserts has made us all safer, was the way to go. And by telling it like it is, Cheney is “undeniabl[y] winning.”

Clearly Patrick J. Buchanan is a fan of the re-energized Dick Cheney. “Not only has his approval rating risen to 37 percent, probably higher on national security, Obama’s coalition is cracking apart.” Buchanan concluded his May 27 commentary by urging the the Republican Party “to get off the psychiatrist’s couch, and stand up and fight for what it believes. You don’t need a moderate with a pretty face to deliver a moderate message. The former vice president with the crocodile grin has just shown the way.”

During his MSNBC appearances, Buchanan returns fire, yet often grins and bears it. If at times you wonder why the twenty-first century Buchanan is presenting a kinder and gentler television persona, it may be that he’s just plain worn out from losing so many culture war battles in recent years.

Yet, when push comes to shove (think the Notre Dame affair and the Sotomayor nomination), Buchanan’s inner pit bull, to paraphrase that old confederate slogan, rises once again.

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