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Rather Right Than President : RIGHT FROM THE BEGINNING by Patrick J. Buchanan (Little, Brown: $18.95; 392 pp.)

May 08, 1988|Kevin P. Phillips | Phillips is a columnist and the author of "Post Conservative America" (Random House) .

One book in a thousand can logically put its worst chapter first, and former White House communications director Patrick Buchanan's new political autobiography "Right From the Beginning" is among them. The chapter in question is Buchanan's account of how back in 1987 national conservative leaders--ahem--tried to draft him to run for President in 1988.

Even in Buchanan's rather sanitized version, we are not exactly talking about the latter-day equivalent of the move to draft Wendell Willkie in 1940. The machinations to pull Buchanan into the 1988 Republican nomination fight came from the right-wing fringe of the GOP--officials of Jesse Helms' National Congressional Club, Conservative Caucus Chairman Howard Phillips and Washington Times columnist John Lofton. It was already clear by that point (February 1987) that New York Congressman Jack Kemp's bright-eyed and bushy-tailed economic themes weren't mobilizing the GOP electorate, so some alternative-seeking New Right leaders were looking for someone with close ties to Ronald Reagan and a proven record of being able to hit hard-right hot-buttons like the Panama Canal treaties, gay rights, the Martin Luther King federal holiday, and so forth. Buchanan satisfied both criteria.

On a limited, negative scale, it was a plausible idea, but in the end, Buchanan had the sense to realize that not only would he earn enmity from the conservatives whose campaigns he would be undercutting, but that he also would gain little glory from a hard-right protest candidacy unable to rise above 8-12% of the vote (as Iowa and New Hampshire turned out--hotly contested--his bid would probably have been a joke). So Buchanan wrote this book instead, and relived his not-quite-presidential campaign in print.

The role of the first chapter, of course, is to establish Buchanan as a national figure in order to justify the rest of the book. This was probably a good idea. The rest of the book is better, lacking pretentiousness and underscoring one of Buchanan's more appealing character facets: not taking himself all that seriously. In fact, the abundance of escapades detailed in the book--from boyish pranks to campus police encounters--almost certainly bespeak the man's own awareness that his aborted 1988 White House contemplation was also his last. You can, after all, be a conservative agenda-setter without running for President.

Early reports of Buchanan's writing plans, published right after he abandoned his political odyssey, suggested he was at work on what amounted to "Memoirs of a Catholic Boyhood," to paraphrase Mary McCarthy's earlier title. That would have been a reasonable description, too. Much of this book is about Buchanan's Catholic boyhood--from Blessed Sacrament parish in Northwest Washington to Gonzaga High School and Georgetown University. Non-Catholics may not be quite so captivated with the recurring references to Jesuits. And non-Washingtonians may feel the same about the chronicle of Buchanan's boyhood in upper Northwest Washington and the adjacent Maryland suburbs of Bethesda and Chevy Chase. This is precisely where I live; if that weren't the case, the frequent references to the Avalon Theatre, the Hot Shoppe, the Edgemoor Club and the Bethesda police station might cloy.

But for those interested enough in Buchanan and his career to wade through Jesuit educational chronology and suburban Maryland geography, the book has one outstanding merit: skillful and even engaging narration. The man and his (large) family become interesting; the personal-level book works.

In fact, the reader who vaguely knows the conservative word-slinger will find some long-held but one-dimensional views changing. If his boyhood support for Senator Joseph McCarthy--"Tail Gunner Joe"--confirms one pre-conception, the intellectual Buchanan who emerges in this book rebuts another. He turns out to be a scholar, not someone who grew up on FBI stories in Reader's Digest. And the picture of the author as a smut-busting traditional moralist shreds a bit at the edges with the revelation that as a young editorial writer at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in the mid-1960s, Buchanan played the lead role in organizing a supposedly hundred-year-old semi-secret "Prince of Wales Society," the annual parties of which could only be attended by the city's prettiest young women on invitation of a small, select bachelor membership. It actually lasted through two parties, the details of which Buchanan tactfully omits describing in his book--and presumably likewise omits when he speaks to Phyllis Schlafly meetings and anti-abortion rallies.

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