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The Heresies of Pat Buchanan

Cruising for a bruising

Joe Sobran, a syndicated columnist who was himself accused of anti-Semitism a few years ago, offers this perspective on the Pat Buchanan flap: "Jewish claims are being cut down to size in various ways. It's coded by a lot of Jews as anti-Semitism. I don't think it is. It's more like counter-Semitism.''

Sobran says that "counter-Semitism," unlike anti-Semitism, does not seek a "negative outcome" for Jews. It is an attempt "to bring Jews down to the level of ordinary civil society." According to Sobran, he shares with Buchanan, a friend, an urge to diminish "the excessive moral prestige Jews have in the media and the public square. . . . Jews deciding the standards, setting the criteria of humanity. Since they set themselves up as the arbiter, there is, if you'll pardon the expression, a certain kill-the-umpire impulse. . . . People are looking at them and saying, come off it. This period of moral prestige has kind of ended."

Now that's anti-Semitism. The case of Buchanan is far more problematic. He does not speak of cutting the Jews down to size, or of being sick and tired of hearing about the Holocaust. If he has expressed negative sentiments about Jews in the past, they are not quite the crude ones vented by his colleague from National Review.

Such distinctions have largely been lost in the dustup that started with A. M. Rosenthal's J'accuse in The New York Times of September 14. Focusing on a remark made on "The McLaughlin Group" that the only two groups beating the drums for war in the Middle East were "the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States,'' Rosenthal charged Buchanan with the "blood libel" that "Jews are not like us but are others, with alien loyalties for which they will sacrifice the lives of Americans.'' Rosenthal's column was hyperbolic and unsubstantiated. The charge of dual loyalty -- arguably implied by Buchanan's off-the-cuff remark about the amen corner -- is far from the fanatical hatred of Jews connoted by the term blood libel, literally the accusation that the blood of Christian children is used to make matzoh.

Most of those who know Buchanan -- including ideological antagonists -- find it hard to countenance the charge of anti-Semitism. They point out that he shows no sign of rancor toward Jews in his personal or professional life. They also caution against using the label anti-Semite lightly, especially in connection with views about the Middle East. If Buchanan's strong words about the Israeli lobby convict him of anti-Semitism, what term is left to describe Louis Farrakhan or David Duke? Those who argue for the prosecution, on the other hand, point to evidence that Rosenthal lazily skated over: Buchanan's repeated claim that accused Nazi war criminals are victims of a KGB frame-up, his endorsement of some of the claims of Holocaust revisionists, and a series of intemperate remarks about Jewish influence and Jewish power.

This argument becomes a kind of semantic quibble: depending on how you define anti-Semitism, Buchanan's comment that Jewish demands for Catholic sensitivity about the Holocaust were "becoming a joke" may or may not qualify. There's no blood test for this condition. The trouble with the focus on the definitional question is that it ignores the substance of Buchanan's ideas, implying that anti-Semitism is merely the defect of an otherwise reasonable person. In fact, Buchanan's entire worldview is deeply disturbing. His instincts are powerfully authoritarian and anti-democratic, and, in a distinct sense, fascistic. A conspiratorial frame of mind and a misguided sense of loyalty lead Buchanan to view the world in terms of eternal struggles between Catholics and Jews, conservatives and liberals, anti-Communists and Communists, Americans and anti-Americans. These opinions should be cause for alarm, whether the person who holds them is anti-Semitic or not.

Buchanan's politics has its roots in the 1930s isolationism of Father Charles E. Coughlin and Charles A. Lindbergh. The hallmarks of this tradition are a fierce and unselective anti-communism, an animosity toward Britain, and an eccentric obsession with the menace of "Jewish internationalism.'' Buchanan's earliest syndicated columns echo these obsessions. In 1975 he attacked the infamous United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism. But he laid some of the blame at the door of "Western intellectuals and internationalists, many of them Jews.'' The fault was partly theirs, he wrote, because Jews supported the idea of the U.N. in the first place. Attempting to draw out this supposed irony in another piece, he blasted "the American intelligentsia, a significant slice of which is Jewish and avidly pro-Israel.'' This echoes Coughlin, in whose lexicon "intellectual" and "internationalist" were not only cusswords but also synonyms both for Jews and for secular liberals.

Buchanan absorbed this view while being "raised Catholic," as he puts it, in Washington in the 1940s and '50s. "My father's sympathies had been with the isolationists, with Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee," Buchanan writes in the first chapter of his 1988 autobiography, Right from the Beginning. By the time he had reached political consciousness, he identified with his father's heroes: Franco, Douglas MacArthur, and Joe McCarthy.

What the Buchanans admired about these men was their pugnacity and their loyalty to their causes. Patrick's father taught his sons to fight and encouraged them to do so. The boys were beaten if they didn't practice ``hitting the bag'' often enough. ``Whenever we were arrested for fighting or came home bloodied, we were not punished by my parents, so long as we had fought fairly. Pop was usually more interested in how well we had done,'' Buchanan writes. Much of his memoir is a gleeful recounting of brawls, including ones in which he and his brother Hank ganged up on single victims, or ``sucker punched'' guys who deserved it. The book is suffused with a thug's love for combat, which metamorphosed into verbal violence sometime after Buchanan graduated from Georgetown, a year late as a result of mixing it up with two policemen trying to give him a ticket. McCarthy, Buchanan writes, ``was cheered because for four years he was daily kicking the living hell out of people most Americans concluded ought to have the living hell kicked out of them.''

Not turning "chicken'' even when you're getting whipped is the surpassing virtue for Buchanan: "Whether Nixon was wrong was not the relevant issue. Even if he had booted it, he had a right to be defended; his friends had a duty to be there." In 1986 Buchanan denounced Reagan supporters who were "heading for the tall grass" because of Iran-contra. This sense of loyalty as an absolute value, transferred to matters of faith, accounts for some of the statements that have most offended Jews. In 1988 Buchanan portrayed the dispute over the Carmelite nuns at Auschwitz as a rumble between rival gangs:

If U.S. Jewry takes the clucking appeasement of the Catholic cardinalate as indicative of our submission, it is mistaken. When Cardinal O'Connor of New York seeks to soothe the always irate Elie Wiesel by reassuring him, ``there are many Catholics who are anti-Semitic . . . it's deep within them,'' when he declares this ``is not a fight between Catholics and Jews,'' he speaks for himself. Be not afraid, Your Eminence; just step aside, there are bishops and priests ready to assume the role of defender of the faith.

To Buchanan, any criticism of Catholics is an attack on all Catholics. When it comes from a Jew, it occasions battle between all Catholics and all Jews. As reason for turning against Israel he cites, in his response to Rosenthal, ``the caustic, cutting cracks about my church and my popes from both Israel and its amen corner in the United States.'' Instead of distinguishing the individuals who make such attacks, he lashes out at their collective identity.

On "The McLaughlin Group,” a week after the attack, Buchanan described “a preplanned, orchestrated smear campaign against me. They're calling names of any editor around the country now. They say, ‘If you carry Buchanan, we're going to call you the same thing.’” When I asked him for evidence of an orchestrated effort, Buchanan responded: “The ADL has sent out bulletins on me. There are little fact sheets they sent to all the newspapers right away. A friend called me from Chicago -- there was an ADL meeting in Chicago to denounce me. Somebody is keeping a big, long, serious file on me.” A couple of days after I interviewed him, Buchanan faxed me an article from AIPAC's Near East Report, which recommends lobbying editors to replace Buchanan's column with that of a conservative alternative like George Will. AIPAC's idiotic request almost lends credence to Buchanan's paranoia. But his evidence still fails to support the claim that Rosenthal's column was the beginning of a premeditated, centrally planned effort to silence him.

To quote Sobran again: “All of this stuff blends in his mind when it comes from the other side of the fence. All he knows is that someone threw a tomato, and he throws it back” And Irving Kristol says: “I am convinced that Pat Buchanan sincerely believes that he is not an anti-Semite. But he seems not to understand the difference between being critical of Jews and expressing hostility to Jews. He therefore fails to appreciate that some of his remarks about Jews are of a kind that only an anti-Semite would make. As an experienced journalist, he ought to know better.”

The strongest element in the case against Buchanan is his ostensible affection for fascism. Even posthumously, he defends the Falangist strain of Franco the ``soldier-patriot'' and Salazar of Portugal. On the German variety, Buchanan's attitude is more equivocal. In 1977 he wrote:

Though Hitler was indeed racist and anti-Semitic to the core, a man who without compunction could commit murder and genocide, he was also an individual of great courage, a soldier's soldier in the Great War, a political organizer of the first rank, a leader steeped in the history of Europe, who possessed oratorical powers that could awe even those who despised him. But Hitler's success was not based on his extraordinary gifts alone. His genius was an intuitive sense of the mushiness, the character flaws, the weakness masquerading as morality that was in the hearts of the statesmen who stood in his path.

Hitler was also onto something in his criticism of Weimar -- which Buchanan often compares to the United States. “Homosexuality is not a civil right,” he wrote in a 1977 column urging a “thrashing” for gay groups. "Its rise almost always is accompanied, as in the Weimar Republic, with a decay of society and a collapse of its basic cinder block, the family." In another column he adds: "Midst the moral crud of the Weimar Republic, the Nazi bullies must have had a certain appeal." None of this makes Buchanan a fascist in the sense that he would want a fascist government to come to power in the United States. But it does indicate a natural identification with the use of brutal power in the service of moral and social order. Recall the slogan of Buchanan's near-presidential run in 1988: "Let the bloodbath begin."

In the 1980s Buchanan became the country's most prominent defender of accused Nazis. "Perhaps the endless search for Nazi war criminals, these endless re-enactments on stage and screen of Hitler's concentration camps, are good for the soul," he wrote in a 1983 column that criticized the U.S. government for apologizing to France for protecting Klaus Barbie. "To what end, however, is all this wallowing in the atrocities of a dead regime when there is scarcely a peep of protest over the prison camps, the labor camps, the concentration camps operating now in China and Siberia, in Cuba and Vietnam?" Around the same time, Buchanan wrote the first of many columns defending John Demjanjuk, a Cleveland auto worker accused of being Ivan the Terrible, a mass murderer at Treblinka, who has since been deported to Israel, convicted, and sentenced to hang. Buchanan called the case "an official lynching choreographed by the KGB." In championing Demjanjuk's case, Buchanan argued that the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations (OSI) was relying on Soviet disinformation to make its case against him. Buchanan supports the campaign by Eastern European émigré groups to close down OSI.

When he was Reagan's communications director in 1985, Buchanan met with supporters of Arthur Rudolph, an ex-Nazi rocket scientist accused of participating in atrocities and using slave labor. Rudolph's supporters succeeded in enlisting Buchanan in their campaign to get OSI to drop charges against Rudolph and restore his U.S. citizenship. In 1987 he lobbied Attorney General Ed Meese to stop the deportation of Karl Linnas, accused of supervising atrocities at the Tartu concentration camp in Estonia. Buchanan's investigations have led him to question received wisdom about the death camps. In a column earlier this year he wrote that 850,000 Jews could not have been killed by diesel exhaust fed into a gas chamber at Treblinka. "The problem is: diesel engines do not emit enough carbon monoxide to kill anybody. The Environmental Protection Agency never requires emission inspections of diesel cars or trucks. In 1988, ninety-seven youths, trapped 400 feet underground in a D.C. tunnel, while two locomotives spewed diesel exhaust into the car, emerged unharmed after forty-five minutes. Demjanjuk's weapon of mass murder cannot kill."

Buchanan will argue each of these cases until he and his antagonists are blue in the face. He does not say that Rudolph was innocent, merely that he deserves a hearing before Congress. As for Demjanjuk, Buchanan told me that the truth will be known once the Polish war archives are opened. If he's wrong, he will admit it. "But what if information comes out which shows that the whole story of Treblinka is not quite clear?" Buchanan says. "What does Allan Ryan [director of OSI] say? I persevered and I hanged a man and I destroyed his life and his family? It seems to me they've got a much worse problem than I do." Buchanan showed me documents leaked to him, purportedly from the Polish war archives, that he says prove Demjanjuk's case. He declined, however, to name the source of the information, or to allow me to take copies of the documents.

On Treblinka, Buchanan stands by his bizarre claim about the diesel engines, but refuses to discuss it on the record. Suffice it to say that he embraces a bolder debunking claim than he is yet willing to endorse in print. But there is no legitimate question about Jews being gassed at Treblinka. Carbon monoxide emitted by diesel engines is sufficient to asphyxiate people when they are crammed by the hundreds into thirteen-foot chambers. According to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, suffocation at Treblinka took as much as half an hour; Buchanan's comparison only proves that the children he describes had sufficient oxygen to survive whatever length of time they were trapped in the tunnel. Where did he get the anecdote? "Somebody sent it to me."

The anonymous sources point to a serious problem. Much of the material on which Buchanan bases his columns is sent to him by pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic cranks. Treblinka is a favorite of such types. Because the camp was destroyed and most witnesses murdered before the Allies arrived, a smaller quantity of conclusive evidence survives than from Auschwitz. The revisionist case is therefore harder to discredit.

Those peddling such claims know they can expect a hearing from Buchanan. He more or less admits this: "You don't know anybody's exact motives in some of this," he says. "But if you look at the data, and if the data is solid, regardless of their motives, I think it's fair to use it." Buchanan, who is certain that OSI has been hoodwinked by fraudulent evidence procured by the KGB, is strangely confident about his own ability to distinguish fact from forgery in the faxes of photocopies sent to him by nutty Holocaust revisionists.

All journalists rely on tips and background information gathered by partisans -- I requested material from the ADL, among others, when I started researching Buchanan. But it's the responsibility of the writer to approach such evidence skeptically, and to check it out thoroughly before using it. Buchanan's evidentiary standard is lower when evidence supports what he wants to believe: that Nazis are being framed. One can respect the instinct to support underdogs who have no other defenders (although Buchanan has no such instinct when it comes to other categories of innocent victims). But in his will to believe, Buchanan has clearly allowed himself to become a conduit for those whose agenda is not just defending wrongly accused Nazis, but of defending Nazism itself as wrongly accused.

It is hard to understand what has motivated Buchanan to participate in this effort at historical mitigation. The most plausible explanation is that it has supported his worldview by further demonizing communism. If Buchanan has a hidden agenda, it seems to be to demonstrate that Stalin was worse than Hitler, to show that communism is an eternal menace, while fascism was merely a passing historical problem. "Once Hitler was dead, Hitlerism was dead. Communism, however, did not die with Lenin or Stalin. Wherever it triumphed, churches have been gutted, priests massacred, and children indoctrinated in Communist lies; the family has been subordinated to the state, and the betrayal of friends has become a matter of duty," Buchanan writes in his autobiography. Ultimately, it is his misguided version of Catholic solidarity that is at the root of his interpretation. Whatever its other crimes, fascism did not declare war upon Buchanan's church and his popes. Communism's international eclipse appears not to have prompted him to reconsider the danger it poses.

Earlier this year The Spotlight, the largest anti-Semitic newspaper in the country, began publishing Buchanan's column. Buchanan says he withdrew permission as soon as a friend alerted him, and that the column ran for only two weeks. In fact, Spotlight, which is published by Willis Carto's Liberty Lobby, ran the column for five weeks. But granting Buchanan's innocence in the matter, it is still telling that Spotlight would want to reprint him. The reason is not merely that he is the Clarence Darrow of ex-Nazis (though one column Spotlight reprinted compares the Allies' treatment of German civilians after the war to Himmler's treatment of the Jews).

The reason is that Buchanan shares the Liberty Lobby's distaste for the pluralism and democracy in the United States and around the world. Buchanan has no more sympathy for blacks than for Jews. To him Martin Luther King Jr. is not a hero, but rather ``one of the most divisive men in contemporary history.'' Abroad, his appreciation for right-wing regimes and movements knows no limit. He has cheered not only Pinochet in Chile, but what he calls the "Boer Republic" in South Africa. He has never been interested in human rights. He writes disparagingly of "the one man, one vote Earl Warren system," and the "democratist temptation," by which he means the democratic idea. If his isn't quite the Liberty Lobby's view of the world, it's not far off.

"I'm entitled to be a heretic," Buchanan says. Indeed he is. But because he is someone who has held powerful positions in the White House under three presidents, whose columns and broadcasts reach tens of millions of people, and who still nurtures an improbable ambition to be president, his heresies demand scrutiny. And scrutiny makes it clear that Jews, blacks, and gays -- and all those who see American society as more inclusive and tolerant than the Catholic Church of Pat Buchanan's childhood -- are right to tremble at the thought of the crusade he would lead, and the country he would create.