Populism’s Prophet: A Chat With Pat Buchanan
Liberal commentators and many conservatives were shocked when an outspoken populist defied the Republican Party establishment and won a devoted following on the right with his attacks on free trade, foreign military interventionism, and insecure borders. This presidential contender had never before held elective office, and critics denounced him as an extremist. But this isn’t the tale of Donald J. Trump—it’s the story of Patrick J. Buchanan, whose campaigns in 1992, 1996, and 1999–2000 previewed the direction conservatism would take some twenty-five years later. As a former Nixon and Reagan staffer, a longtime syndicated columnist, and a bestselling author, Buchanan has been for more than five decades a prophet and exponent of what is now called national conservatism. In this interview with the young libertarian writer Atilla Sulker, conducted in July, Mr. Buchanan reflects on his experiences and applies the wisdom he’s gleaned as he looks ahead at the reconfiguration of American politics in the wake of the “woke” cultural insurgency and the impending crack-up of the Democratic Party’s progressive coalition. —ed.
Atilla Sulker: You’ve had a very distinguished career—working as a speechwriter and assistant to President Nixon, and as White House communications director under President Reagan. Which one of these very interesting jobs did you enjoy the most?
Pat Buchanan: I couldn’t say which I enjoyed the most, but I spent far more time with and was far closer to President Nixon, whom I joined in January 1966, three years before he was elected. That’s the presidency about which I’ve written two books. Reagan was historic. I was at Geneva with him and I was at the Reykjavík Summit. I think it would be hard to pick or choose, but I think—since I’ve written the two books about him—I would say I’m much closer to Richard Nixon.
AS: In the Nixon Era, there were a number of other very politically ambitious people involved in the administration. People who instantly come to mind are Henry Kissinger, Don Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney. What was it like to interact with some of these people?
PB: I didn’t interact that much with Cheney and Rumsfeld when they were with Nixon. They were not in the White House until Gerald Ford came in and I was on my way out.
The interactions with Dr. Kissinger—I had an interaction with him on the plane coming home from Shanghai when I felt the communiqué with communist China was horribly written from the standpoint of the United States. And I said so and told him so on the plane, had a little bit of a personal confrontation. But I’d prefer not to go into a lot of stories and anecdotes about Henry. He and I were contentious because I was a hawk on Vietnam and a conservative—and concerned about our political coalition with the conservatives. And Henry was much more tuned in to the Harvard background he had and to that crowd, and to Georgetown. So we had some disagreements, but that’s ancient history now.
AS: Looking at the Reagan years—Jack Matlock, in his book Reagan and Gorbachev, recounts the 1985 Geneva Summit with the Soviets. You took over the position of White House communications director not long after David Gergen’s departure. What was going through your mind during those initial negotiations with Gorbachev and what made you more of a hardliner than Secretary of State George Shultz and some of the more pro-negotiation people in the National Security Council?
PB: Well, I was a hardliner before I came into the Reagan White House. And the Geneva Summit came out of the blue, pretty early in my two years there. When I went to Geneva, I basically agreed that we ought to go—Ronald Reagan wanted to talk to Gorbachev. And he had told me once, when I first went in with him, that he had wanted to talk with a Soviet leader, but, he said, “Pat, they keep dying on me.”
Brezhnev had died. Chernenko had died. Andropov had died. And now we had Gorbachev, and the president was anxious to speak with him. And I was in favor of the summit with the president, and I thought it went very well. I wasn’t at the house where they talked, but the president came back to the house after he met with Gorbachev at the first gathering. And he came back, and he had his arm in a sling as though he’d been beaten up by Gorbachev, and we all laughed at it because it was a joke.
But we thought it [the summit] had gone off successfully, and when we flew home I felt that Reagan had come off far better than Gorbachev, because with that meeting at the house, where it was very cold, Reagan came down the steps in his suit coat and helped Gorbachev out of the car, and Gorbachev got out and he had on this big old overcoat and hat. And so Reagan sort of looked like the superior host for the affair, and he came off very well.
I was with him also at Reykjavík—which was a far more dramatic summit—which was called in 1986 on a few days’ notice. I was there with him at Hofdi House on that final day and flew home with the president after the thing blew up.
AS: While we’re on the Reagan years, another hardliner in the administration was your old colleague Richard Perle. In a 2007 documentary, he visited you at your house and interviewed you about the state of the Iraq War then, and he tried to convince you it was going well. In response, you called his foreign policy “neo-Comintern.” How did people like yo
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