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The Born-Again Republicans

Monday: Culture War

They were the perfect Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside.” The Tennessee delegate dated himself by this reference—as I did by getting it. (I saw Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis play for Army in the 1940s.) “Buchanan spoke to the people in the Astrodome, and Reagan spoke to those outside it.” Pat Buchanan, coming first, had nudged Ronald Reagan out of prime time, which was a symbol of what the right wing had been doing all through the run up to the Republican convention. The forces of Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson had dictated terms to the platform hearings. “Total victory,” Phyllis Schlafly crowed over the no-exceptions anti-abortion amendment. “None of the big tent garbage.” Bay Buchanan, Pat’s sister and campaign manager, said, “We got our platform four years early.”

The mere fact that Buchanan was speaking, and in such a prominent opening-night spot, showed that President Bush did not feel in a position to retaliate for Buchanan’s insulting challenge to his nomination in the primaries. Buchanan was even exempted from the vetting of his text that all other noncandidates submitted to. All Buchanan had to guarantee was that he would endorse Bush—which he did on his own terms: that he be allowed to define, from the outset, this campaign’s meaning.

What is that meaning? Republican campaigns, hitherto based on the cold war, must now be based on the equally important culture war:

There is a religious war going on in this country for the soul of America. 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 [Bill and Hillary] are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side.

That little word “our” did heavy work in Buchanan’s speech. Pornography should not be allowed to pollute “our” popular culture. Those who voted for him in the primaries “share our beliefs and convictions, our hopes and our dreams.” He ended with an extended analogy: as the brave young men of the 18th Cavalry retook streets after the Los Angeles riots, block by block, so “we must take back our cities, and take back our culture and take back our country.”

It was not generally noticed that Buchanan’s speech was a reworking of the commencement address he gave to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty College last May.1 He described there his reaction to the televised laughter of rioters in Los Angeles:

Theirs was the authentic laughter of the barbarian from time immemorial, after some church or synagogue is burned and looted, after they have brutalized and beaten. From Brown Shirts to Red Guards, the mocking laughter is always the same. Friends, make no mistake: what we saw in Los Angeles was evil exultant and triumphant, and we no longer saw it as through a glass darkly, but face to face.

Buchanan went on to say that only force can turn back “evil exultant”—not social programs, not job training, not do-goodism. That might be true if the blacks in Los Angeles were Brown Shirts or Red Guards. The terrorism of those groups was ordered from the top, to protect an evil regime in control of courts and society’s center. But the Los Angeles blacks were not disciplined troops systematically eliminating opposition to a regime, they were people flailing impotently at police who had beaten a man and at courts that exonerated those police. The man who delivered the thirtieth blow to an unarmed Rodney King, surrounded by complicitous men in uniform, some of whom had chuckled at “gorillas” over their radios, were closer to Brown Shirts than were the foolish rioters savaging their own.

But Buchanan was not primarily interested in the rioters in Los Angeles. In his eyes, they were put up to their destructive acts. They were doing the will of others. The rioters destroyed this or that grocery store. Those behind them, manipulating them, intend nothing less than the destruction of “Judeo-Christian culture.” And Clinton & Clinton is the law firm for these destroyers. The important thing was not what the mob itself did, but where the mob came from. His Liberty College address answered that question:

It came out of public schools from which God and the Ten Commandments and the Bible were long ago expelled. It came out of corner drugstores where pornography is everywhere on the magazine racks. It came out of movie theaters and away from TV sets where macho violence is romanticized. It came out of rock concerts where rap music celebrates raw lust and cop-killing. It came out of churches that long ago gave themselves up to social action, and it came out of families that never existed.

The mob comes, in short, from “the adversary [i.e., liberal] culture, with its implacable hostility to Judeo-Christian teaching.”

The way to dispel the mob, in other words, is with prayer in schools, a ban on Playboy, censorship of movies and rock music, and abolition of the National Council of Churches. But these acts of cultural self-defense are being blocked by the enemies within. So all the energies of the cold war must now be redeployed to conquer that enemy within:

A year ago I stood on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC, as Gen. Schwarzkopf led the armies of Desert Storm in the victory parade. It was a moving sight. As I told a friend, this is what it must have been like reviewing the Roman legions as they marched in triumph after yet another victory in Gaul or Spain.

The analogy holds. As America’s imperial troops guard frontiers all over the world, our own frontiers are open, and the barbarian is inside the gates. And you do not deal with the Vandals and Visigoths who are pillaging your cities by expanding the Head Start and food stamp programs.

While some are talking about postwar conversion problems in terms of phasing out the cold war military establishment, Buchanan thinks of conversion as a turning of energies from an outer enemy to an inner one.

It was not an unshared fantasy in this gathering. Lacking the cold war as a unifying enemy, many Republicans decided that liberal Democrats had taken up the standard that fell from Stalin’s hand. It was not surprising that Pat Robertson would echo this theme. One day after Buchanan, he orated: “The people of Eastern Europe got rid of their left wingers; it is time we in America get rid of our left wingers.” Though world communism has collapsed, centralized government in America is “a more benign but equally insidious plague…[and] the carrier of this plague is the Democrat Party.” But the extremist orators were not the only ones sounding this theme. The platform itself, entitled The Vision Shared, said:

At a time when the rest of the world has rejected socialism, there are communities here at home where free markets have not been permitted to flourish. Decades of liberalism have left us with two economies [one free, one not].2

The keynote speaker picked up the theme. Senator Phil Gramm of Texas ranked Democrats along with the two surviving Communist regimes:

Thanks to the leadership of President Bush, freedom has swept the planet. And all over the world people are turning to free enterprise and limited government to promote economic growth and prosperity. Don’t you know the Democrats are lonely tonight! In all the world, only in Cuba and North Korea and in the Democratic Party in America do we still have organized political groups who believe that the answer to every problem is more government.

The President himself made a nod to this notion in his acceptance speech, saying Democrats want us to live with “the tattered blanket of bureaucracy that other nations are throwing away.”

It is said that the Republicans need a new enemy now that communism is gone. Many of them think that enemy has not so much disappeared as gone underground, nearer to us. For them, this election is not merely the moral equivalent of the cold war but the equivalent tout court. In this, as in many other respects, Buchanan’s speech was not a bitter exception to the more “moderate” addresses of the week. He simply put plainly what the others nudged toward us, nodding, in hints and code.

Even Ronald Reagan, whose speech would be continually contrasted with Buchanan’s preceding one, had a more graceful way to suggest that Democrats were on the losing side of the cold war. Noticing that even some Democrats now say, “We won the cold war,” Reagan, in his pleasantly musing way, said, “I heard those speakers at that other convention saying ‘we won the cold war’—and I couldn’t help wondering, just who exactly do they mean by ‘we’?” Liberals, he went on to suggest, are trying to make “America herself forget the lessons of individual liberty that she has taught a grateful world.” Much of the late talk on Monday was about Reagan’s as the sunnier face of conservatism, which works more effectively than does Buchanan’s surly and snarling way. When Reagan was playing Reagan, Buchanan watched the movies that taught him to imitate his look-alike, the 1950s B-movie heavy Ted de Corsia.

But Buchanan followers could take some comfort from the fact that Reagan, always welcome back on the nostalgia circuit, is definitely a voice of the past, even in the eyes of former admirers. On the day he spoke, both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times ran stories on the former president’s low standing in current polls—lower than Jimmy Carter’s. In fact, Thomas B. Edsall of The Washington Post reversed the judgment of my Tennessee delegate who called Reagan “Mr. Outside”: “There is also strong evidence that among a crucial segment of conservative voters, the memory of Reagan has soured—that the Reagan message will play far better here inside the Astrodome than on the outside.”3

Actually, Buchanan-Reagan were less Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside than the Bad Cop and Good Cop meant to accomplish the same thing by using complementary tactics; and the tone was set by the Bad Cop, not vice versa. The pattern would be repeated on each of the following nights.

Tuesday: Polling Huts

On the second night, Newt Gingrich played Bad Cop to Jack Kemp’s Good Cop. The keynote address by Phil Gramm was simply embarrassing. In his own best huckster words, he called the Clinton-Gore team a pair of used-car salesmen, prompting an inevitable protest from the used-car salesmen’s professional organization. Gramm came up with the most imaginative answer to the problem of President Bush’s record drop in the polls (plummeting fifty points in five months). Pollsters were simply looking in the wrong place. They should have been knocking on the doors (if any) of huts in darkest Wherever: “In any hut in any village on the planet, one world leader is loved, honored, and admired above all others. Spoken in a thousand dialects, his name is still George Bush.” Still? Were we expecting it to change? The most convincing moment in the speech came when Gramm gave us the supererogatory assurance that “I failed the third, seventh, and ninth grades.”

  1. 1

    Buchanan’s May 9 address at Liberty College was printed in Human Events, May 23, 1992.

  2. 2

    The Vision Shared: Uniting Our Family, Our Country, Our World (The Republican Platform, 1992), p. 31.

  3. 3

    Thomas B. Edsall, “The Gipper Tries to Win One More For Bush,” The Washington Post, August 17, 1992. Edsall notes that a CBS / New York Times poll gave Reagan only 45 percent favorable rating (against 37 percent unfavorable) in the populace at large, and that the opposition is greater among working people and the so-called “Reagan Democrats” needed by President Bush in November. “In a study of Reagan Democrats in the key states of Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio, Michigan Researchers Associates found that Reagan had the highest unfavorable rating of a wide range of public officials, 63 percent, higher even than Jesse Jackson, who had a 55 percent negative rating.”

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