Boy Bush, Boy Buchanan
Jude Wanniski
September 13, 1999

 

Memo To: William F. Buckley, Jr.
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Boys Will be Boys

You certainly are right about your baby, the National Review, shaking up the national political scene with these two columns by John O'Sullivan and Rick Brookhiser -- John on why Pat Buchanan stands a much better chance winning the presidency as the Reform Party nominee, so why not try, and Rick on the dark side of George W. Bush. Your September 8 syndicated column, which I reproduce below, properly is pleased at the provocative result. O'Sullivan and Brookhiser are both heavyweights in the world of political journalism -- John for years as editor of the National Review, Rick as a serious political historian (his new biography of Alexander Hamilton is a pleasure to read). Thus, their analytics will be taken seriously.

The dissection of the younger Bush by Rick is, as you rightly put it, "the most potentially damaging of any treatment ever published about him..." There are very few ifs, ands or buts in his "Boy Bush" piece, which made me think of P.T. Barnum getting masses of people to pay to see the "Egress." I sized up W as an "empty suit" in a client letter I wrote last February, knowing he was being tutored at night on "How to be President of the Only Superpower" by folks I would not put up for Mayor of Sheboygan. Then again, maybe W is a quick study, huh? But I had no idea the boy is really a brat with a mean streak, which is the picture puzzle we see from the little pieces Brookhiser has collected. If that's the case -- and I hope Brookhiser is wrong -- the national electorate will see it when he has to mix it up with the competition on national television. He may have to add charm school to his tutorials.

As for Pat Buchanan. I love the guy, but every time I begin to think he might amount to something in elective politics, he grabs that silly pitchfork and makes those menacing gestures. O'Sullivan thinks he has finally grown up, but Pat's letter in Friday's Wall Street Journal reveals the same old bad boy. He had to drag out his version of history of World War II; he criticized Neville Chamberlain for warning Hitler not to invade Poland, because England had no national interest there, saying Chamberlain should have let Hitler invade Poland and be forced to confront Stalin and the Red Army right then and there. Well, yes, there is a chance that if England and France stood by and watched Poland eaten up by those two monsters, they would have been better able to take on the bloodied winner. That's pretty cold-blooded, wouldn't you say, especially to a Wanniski. And I'm not about to assume a distracted Hitler would have forgotten all about having a Holocaust. No sir, I will stick with Dan Quayle, an internationalist who prefers lots and lots and lots of diplomacy before we show our mean streak and drop bombs for the fun of it.

September 8
William F. Buckley, Jr.
Universal Press Syndicate
Copyright 1999

The political scene will be affected by two questions, the first being the consolidation of GOP sentiment on George W. Bush; the second, the whirl of considerations that will end with Pat Buchanan as the third-party candidate for president, or Buchanan as a campaigner for the GOP candidate. The current issue of the National Review magazine (I am its retired editor) does what the primary organ for conservative opinion, now almost a half century old, should do: ventilate bright opinion. The current issue gives two views, highly controversial, highly provocative, on Bush and Buchanan.

The article on Bush, read thoughtfully, is the most potentially damaging of any treatment ever published about him because it questions that asset which Bush and his fans have mostly stressed, namely the eminence of his qualifications as a man of character, in sharp distinction from the incumbent.

Richard Brookhiser, author of prize-winning biographies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, shoots with both barrels at the outset of his essay, which is called "Boy Bush" and subtitled "Another perpetual adolescent." From the interview with Bush in the magazine Talk, "a picture of a fairly unpleasant 53-year-old teen-ager looms behind."

"Begin with George W.'s assertive casualness -- the way he hugs bikers, high-fives people on rope-lines, and calls them 'man.' ... Casualness shades into crudity, and even cruelty. Who but a teen-ager would think of 'Please don't kill me!' (Bush's imitation of Karla Faye Tucker) as a punchline?"

The much-quoted lines in Tucker Carlson's interview in Talk spoke of the petition for clemency sent up to the Texas governor the day before the execution, and the flippant rendition of it in that interview. Brookhiser wonders whether that flippancy betokens a general unconcern with serious thought. He quotes Mark McKinnon, a Democratic consultant who has gone to work for Bush and has said of him that Bush was "incredibly independent of ideological interests or party interests." Brookhiser comments, "Maybe of any interests. All he lacks to be a complete punk is a backward baseball cap and a face that has decided that not shaving is the solution for acne."

There is something of the youth in romantic historical figures. Teddy Roosevelt and Reagan are cited. But in such situations, "the child was father of the man. Now the child reproduces himself as a child-man, uncivil and uncivilized. ... If we had to point to a moment when male adulthood began leaking out of American political life, that moment might be Camelot. Along with JFK's undeniable style came the frantic football games, the thoughtless risk-taking, the feral sexuality, and a general air of thuggishness."

It is the biggest question of the primary season whether Mr. Bush will be rejected by the voters, on the grounds that he is lacking in such gravitas as is evident in John McCain and Steve Forbes.

But the question that seems almost immediate (Buchanan will need to declare before December) has to do with the Reform ticket, created and for a while owned by Ross Perot. John O'Sullivan, formerly the editor of National Review, ardently urges Buchanan to fight for the nomination, upon winning which he'd find himself with 13 million federal dollars to advance his campaign.

The reader has a little bit of the sense of it that the sheer excitement of a Buchanan candidacy weighs in O'Sullivan's enthusiasm for it. And O'Sullivan correctly scorns the change in the attitude of the GOP establishment, now a supplicant body, on Buchanan. "A bully boy and sinister force only a few years ago, Buchanan is now a gentleman and orator, the soul of the GOP."

In O'Sullivan's judgment, a fight between Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota and Pat Buchanan for the Reform ticket's nomination would "rivet the nation, push the primaries and conventions of other parties into the shade, and give the eventual winner a tremendous boost entering the general election."

What about Buchanan's ties to social conservatism? O'Sullivan acknowledges that the party of Ross Perot had only indecipherable links to such issues as abortion and vouchers and school prayer. "Buchanan certainly has moral conservatism in his mix of politics, but he is not solely defined by it. Protectionism and a nationalist foreign policy have been his major themes in recent years."

That analyst's conclusion being? "(Buchanan) has a much better chance of winning the presidency as the Reform Party nominee than of winning the Republican nomination in the first place. So the political mathematics are clear: GO, PAT, GO!"

One moral of the story, at National Review, is that when the cat's away, the mice will play.