AN AMERICAN VIEW

Watch out for George Bush’s next Bold Step

The President is a Nowhere Man, a fellow of such little substance that he might float away in any vagrant political updraft

FRED BRUNING March 9 1992
AN AMERICAN VIEW

Watch out for George Bush’s next Bold Step

The President is a Nowhere Man, a fellow of such little substance that he might float away in any vagrant political updraft

FRED BRUNING March 9 1992

Watch out for George Bush’s next Bold Step

AN AMERICAN VIEW

FRED BRUNING

The President is a Nowhere Man, a fellow of such little substance that he might float away in any vagrant political updraft

In New Hampshire, George Bush got what he deserved: Pat Buchanan. As self-appointed propaganda minister of the freaky far right, the President’s firebreathing nemesis huffed and puffed through the northland and departed looking suspiciously like a winner. Buchanan collected 37 per cent of the Republican primary vote and though Bush posted 16 points more, White House pride absorbed a major pounding and what is quaintly known as presidential credibility crumbled even further. The Leader of the Free World had been challenged by a snarly TV smartass without an hour’s experience as an elected official, and—what do you know?—the snarly TV smartass did remarkably well.

Buchanan is not going to be the Republican nominee, of course, and his candidacy could implode at any moment. New Hampshire is suffering mightily in a recession that Bush, man of the people, long claimed did not exist. To the rescue came Buchanan crying, “America first,” and voters pulled the appropriate lever. How the rascal fares in other states isn’t terribly important. New Hampshire gave him a legitimate forum, and a chance to expose the President’s weakness. A boxer in his youth, Buchanan wasted no blows. By the end of the battle, the upstart was frisky and calling for a rematch. A groggy President seemed happy for the bell.

Said one of Bush’s top New Hampshire advisers after the primary: “The anger expressed by our electorate is contagious. The White House has to figure out some way to change the mood of the country very quickly or the President will be in serious trouble.” But attitude adjustment is not so easily effected in times of unemployment, race tension, general malaise and seven-figure salaries for so-so baseball players. People are in a lousy mood, to be frank, and not likely to cheer up any time soon. Who can blame them?

Like David Duke in Louisiana, Buchanan

plays to that restive constituency of hardpressed folks hoping for easy answers in tough times. With a curious combination of balm and blitzkrieg, he rallies unhappy Americans who fear the good times will never roll again, cynics of various persuasions convinced the political process is a bust, career conservatives who claim they have been betrayed by that notorious mainstreamer, George Bush. There may be a crypto-fascist or two in the crowd, as well, but Buchanan is not leading a crusade of crazies. That’s what worries Bush. Serious trouble ahead? Could be.

Accordingly, let the world scramble immediately to full alert. Feeling vulnerable, our President is entirely capable of a Bold Step in the name of international order and stability. If they are smart, Fidel Castro, Mo Gadhafi and the infernal Butcher of Baghdad had best find themselves a time-share in the Himalayas and play pinochle until election day. At home, too, strange things may come to pass. In 1988, Bush excoriated the American Civil Liberties Union as though it were an offshoot of the Red Brigades. This year? Watch out, League of Women Voters.

It is this peculiar form of survivalism that makes Bush an easy target for even a rank

beginner whose presidential qualifications consist of writing speeches for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, appearing endlessly on CNN’s Crossfire program and composing a million newspaper columns on the subject of how America is going down the tubes.

Bush would most certainly be impervious to attack from the likes of Buchanan—a man who once described Adolf Hitler as “an individual of great courage”—if aforesaid Bush only believed in something beyond the simple theology of his own political preservation. Oh, if George Bush only believed in something.

“Give Buchanan this,” writes Michael Kinsley, a liberal who often tangled with Buchanan on Crossfire. “Unlike his rival George Bush, he’s got principles. True, they’re mostly the wrong principles. But Bush versus Buchanan is a tempting illustration of the maxim that in some ways the wrong principles are better than no principles at all.”

Without a doctrine to sustain him, lacking so much as a hint as to what he finds worth his passion and loyalty, willing to reverse field as the situation demands, the erstwhile occupant of the Oval Office is a Nowhere Man extraordinaire, a fellow of such little political substance that he might float away in any vagrant demographic updraft.

Ever the slave of success, Bush has been running towards the right for years. Vying for the Republican nomination in 1980, he dismissed the “voodoo economics” of his adversary, Ronald Reagan, only to extol the same monetary mumbo jumbo after becoming the Gipper’s vice-president. Bush once backed Planned Parenthood, though he now proclaims himself ardently anti-abortion. Under pressure from Buchanan lately, the President fired his own chief of the National Endowment for the Arts. Why? Southern conservatives opposed the work of certain artists receiving NEA grants and Buchanan threatened to make Bush pay while campaigning for primary votes in Dixie.

How embarrassing for the President. Here we have George Bush at the pinnacle of his career and he sometimes seems a copyboy for Patrick Buchanan. Patrick Buchanan! This is the fellow who said that AIDS was “nature’s retribution” against gays, who believes Holocaust survivors indulge in “fantasies of martyrdom,” who warns that “multiculturalism” threatens “our Western heritage,” who claims that Americans can identify with the Baltic independence movement largely because citizens of the Baltic states are white!

“Why are more people shocked when a dozen people are killed in Vilnius than a massacre in Burundi?” Buchanan said in an interview with the London Sunday Telegraph. “Because they are white people. That’s who we are. That’s where America comes from.”

Surely, it is where Buchanan’s America comes from, and he is entitled to keep his own company. The president of the United States has a somewhat broader mandate, however. He is obligated to represent all the people, not just those who speak loudest and control the crucial votes. If dignity doesn’t require that Bush tell Buchanan to get lost, the constitution does.

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.