Pat Buchanan turned 75 the other day. His birthday is November 2: All Souls Day. When I saw an article mentioning this, I was reminded of Timothy Stanley’s excellent biography of Buchanan: The Crusader: The Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan.
This book ought to be of interest to a lot of politically active or aware Catholics. Buchanan is a serious Catholic who has never failed to speak up for the unborn. No Mario Cuomo style compartmentalization for Pat: for him the right to life is a personal moral conviction that had to inform his public life as well. But the book also ought to be of interest to any student of American politics. Whether you like Buchanan or not, he served at a high level in two important Republican administrations: Nixon and Reagan. He was close to the top in those White Houses, and therefore an eyewitness to, and even a participant in, important events. And all that was just prelude to his influential although failed runs at the presidency in the 1990s. All in all, his is a political life more consequential than most, and the Oxford historian Tim Stanley tells his story well.
Stanley begins from Buchanan’s famous–or, to some, infamous–speech to the Republican National Convention in 1992. Stanley observes that the speech has been subject to some revisionism. It seemed effective at the time, and most commentators praised it on the night it was delivered. But soon thereafter there was a kind of campaign to vilify the speech and the speaker. The leaders of this effort were, of course, American liberals who disagreed with Buchanan. This is understandable. It is easier to denounce something that argue with it. More of a surprise is that even some conservatives piled on to the speech.
The part that came in for the most criticism was where Buchanan declared a “culture war” in America. He declared it, let it be understood, not in the sense of starting it, but acknowledging it because it already existed. Here is what he said, and what some people even of his own party objected to:
Friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe and what we stand for as Americans. 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. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side. And so to the Buchanan Brigades out there, we have to come home and stand beside George Bush.
Buchanan mades these remarks in the context of noting that the Clintons and their allies were against prayer in the public schools, for abortion, for women in combat, and for the idea that homosexual couples should have a standing in law equal to that of married couples.
That some conservatives objected to this portion of the speech raises some questions, questions that might be worth pondering for the sake of the future of any viable conservatism.
Did the conservatives who at the time objected to this part of the speech think that Buchanan was factually wrong? Did they think that he was being hysterical, that there really was no such culture war going on? If so, shouldn’t they acknowledge that he was right and they were mistaken? There’s Buchanan in 1992 warning that the Democratic Party stands for gay marriage and women in combat. And here we are twenty one years later looking those things right in the face. They are happening before our eyes.
Did the conservative critics of Buchanan think that such a culture war was going on, but that Buchanan was wrong to take note of it and want the Republican Party to take a side in it? Did they think the Party should concern itself only with economic matters? If so, why should moral traditionalists have anything to do with such a party?
Or did the conservative critics of the speech think that Buchanan was right that such a war was going on, and that it was important, but that it was somehow impolitic of him to speak about it in such clear and forceful terms? But if that was the basis of the complaint, shouldn’t such conservatives explain how the culture war–which is, as Buchanan correctly noted, a cultural war of aggression by liberals against the existing culture of America–could be won without openly acknowledging it and fighting it?
These questions are relevant not just to the past but to the present and the future of America. There are still conservatives who want the Republican Party to stake out the least controversial position possible: to hit the Democrats on taxes, the economy, and the size of government and to say nothing else. But how can a conservatism like this conserve the other aspects of America that are also worth conserving?