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Jewish World Review Sept. 30, 1999 /20 Tishrei, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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The worst thing about Buchanan -- THERE ARE FEW SUBJECTS more tiresome than the quadrennial question: Is presidential candidate Pat Buchanan an anti-Semite? If he talks and writes and incites like one, what's the difference if his heart is supposed to be pure?

I'll take the guy whose heart is full of prejudices (we all accumulate 'em) but who overcomes them, and never lets an ethnic slur directed at any of his countrymen go unprotested, over the fellow with "a good heart'' who goes through life spreading hate.

I'd even take the honest hater over the opportunist who exploits the hatred of others for fun and political profit -- like George Wallace and Orval Faubus. Nobody ever accused them of being dumb. They knew what they were up to, and it was wicked.

Buchanan is no fool, either, and by now his record is replete with anti-Semitic jibes. My favorite is the one about how "people named Perle, Rosenthal and Kissinger are calling for a war that boys named Brown, McCarthy and Gonzalez will fight.''

That observation struck Capt. Greenberg, USAR, with particular irony coming from somebody who'd never served.

I don't think Buchanan ever apologized for that crack or ever will, but if he's ever so moved, he could start by making the rounds of the American military cemeteries in Europe, beginning in Normandy, and pausing to pay his respects before every Star of David.

That he's a parlor anti-Semite instead of another Gerald L.K. Smith only makes Buchanan less forthright. Nor is he anywhere near as eloquent as the late Gerald L.K., who even in his dotage could electrify a meeting room at the old Sam Peck Hotel here in Little Rock.

Still, Buchanan's speechifying is bad enough. Or as somebody -- I think it was Molly Ivins -- said of his hateful harangue at the Republican Convention of '92, it sounded a lot better in the original German.

It would be unfair to call Pat Buchanan a crypto-fascist. There wasn't anything crypto about his exhibition that steamy night in Houston's Astrodome. You could feel him bringing out the worst in that crowd jelling into a mob.

It isn't his ideas or policies that have to be the worst thing about Buchanan's low appeal, but his all-pervasive, all-poisonous style. It covers every issue he raises with a thick film of ill will, and that cheese-eating grin of his when he's caught saying something despicable doesn't help. It just adds insincerity to malice.

The guy is a one-man Era of Bad Feelings. He need only walk into a television studio, or take the platform, or scowl that scowl -- and sides are drawn.

He says he's a conservative, but he's no more a conservative than Huey P. Long was a liberal. Because one was a genius and the other is a hack does not obscure their common source: the poisoned stream of American political thought called populism. They both represent a recessive but always present gene in the American tradition, an instinct that comes as close to fascism as the American atmosphere will allow.

It was Huey Long, the genius, who anticipated the hack, Pat Buchanan, when he predicted that, if fascism ever came to these shores, it would be called Americanism.

Pat is this year's entry in a long line of populist agitators of left, right and even center -- Ross Perot, George Wallace, Huey Long, Tom Watson, William Jennings Bryan .... The breed is endemic to the American political tradition. These types sweep through like prairie fires and burn out the same way, depending on wind conditions, leaving nothing behind but a little burned-over territory. And they remain endemic to the American political tradition, the way hookworm and pellagra used to be to these latitudes.

Populist leaders can be dynamic, even febrile. Pat Buchanan does have a certain talent -- for bitterness, for divisiveness, for expressing the resentments of others. And even for rhetoric if you like it grating and a little offensive. But it is not a talent for anything positive, uniting, redeeming, all-American.

Listening to him, you could forget that it's possible to be an American conservative without being a petty chauvinist; to love one's own without hating others; to support decency without endorsing repression; to fight for life without embracing deadly hatreds; to emphasize self-reliance without just being mean; and to be religious without being willing to merge church and state into one vaguely sanctified blob. It is even possible to disagree without being disagreeable.

It is possible, in short, for conservatism to have a human face. This presidential candidate claims to be a conservative while eroding the civil discourse that is at the core of conservatism. Conservative ideas, despite Pat Buchanan, need not be dim, brutal, repetitive appeals to the lowest common denominator of one whole side of the political spectrum. They can be thoughtful, nuanced, proportionate, wise, even lyrical and lustrous. Edmund Burke should have taught us that.

Conservative ideas should repel the blowhard and bully, not attract them. But in Buchanan the country has a candidate who uses conservative ideas, after he has ground them down sufficiently, as blunt instruments to advance his own political fortunes. He is not likely to win the next presidential election, but he could certainly confuse it and lower its tone. And lower the tone of conservatism, which deserves a better representative.

John McCain, the one candidate in this year's presidential race who seems real even when he's fumbling an issue, is right: A decent political party has no place for a Pat Buchanan.

Brother Buchanan only confirms the most unfair stereotypes of the conservative persuasion. To react against many aspects of this decadent, empty, heedless, profoundly vulgar culture is a healthy instinct, but Buchanan gives being a reactionary a bad name. That's the worst thing about him, and I resent it. candidates.

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©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate