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TIM RUTTEN

Capt. Buchanan's Loose Canon

August 20, 1992|TIM RUTTEN

I take Pat Buchanan personally.

I know I shouldn't, but I do. Watching him address the opening session of this week's Republican National Convention in Houston, it became clear to me why.

In part, it's because, broadly speaking, we grew up in the same tradition--the Irish-Catholic milieu that dominated American Catholicism's communal and intellectual life for most of this century. So, I recognize his type.

There's one brooding at the end of nearly every Irish bar from South Boston to San Francisco's Outer Richmond. They're loud and angry, intent on ruining the quiet pints of every man or woman within the sound of their bray. The booze warms them, but nothing like their hatreds. For "the worst," as Yeats put it, always are "filled with passionate intensity."

Their grandfathers cheered Franco's victories and Father Coughlin's weekly radio slanders of Jews and Franklin Roosevelt. Their fathers stoked the pyres of Joe McCarthy's witch hunt. They've spent most of their own lives spitting invective at the "evil empire" and its purported supporters here in the United States.

But now--thanks to the only truly sustained bipartisan effort in American history--the Cold War is over. And our own dark angels, such as Buchanan, are looking homeward.

If what they say in Houston is true--and I think these are men and women to be taken at their word--what they now intend is to bring the war back home.

"There is a religious war going on in this country," Buchanan said in his speech to the GOP delegates. "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. (Bill) Clinton and (Hillary) Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side."

Vice President Dan Quayle with his campaign against "cultural elites" also is a member of this emerging Republican war party. So too is former education secretary William Bennett, who nourishes presidential ambitions and believes America is locked in a "cultural war." Richard N. Bond, the GOP's national chairman, is more blunt. Republicans, he says "are Americans"; Democrats "are not."

The problem with putting politics on a war footing is that it turns the people with whom one happens to disagree into enemies. In a diverse and democratic society such as ours, that has consequences. Are pro-choice women really the "enemy"? Are feminists? Are gay and lesbian people whose only desire is to be protected against employment discrimination really to be equated with Saddam Hussein?

The case Buchanan put forward for doing so was a tissue of misrepresentation: Bill Clinton, who backed Arkansas' parental notification law, is pro-choice, but obviously does not favor "abortion on demand." Hillary Clinton's influential law journal articles on the legal implications of dependency and custodial relationships, in fact, do not equate marriage with "slavery." One could go on, but the anecdote with which Buchanan concluded his speech is particularly instructive.

In it, he recounted how, while touring Los Angeles in the aftermath of the riot, he met two 19-year-old national guardsmen who--"M-16s at the ready"--alone confronted an angry mob and prevented it from looting a convalescent hospital. Dramatic stuff, and it made for a great windup to the speech. "As those boys took back the streets of Los Angeles, block by block," said Buchanan, "we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country."

The problem is, the events Buchanan recounted never happened.

As Times staff writer Paul Dean reported May 7, residents of the Vermont Knoll Retirement Center at 83rd Street and Vermont Avenue were surrounded by gunfire and flame. But for 36 hours, they defended themselves.

"Those who could walk and were willing to fight back," Dean reported, "formed a ring around their building and told looters not to set fires that might engulf the center." Ultimately, to the elderly residents' great relief, 13 members of the National Guard's 1st Squadron, 18th Cavalry did arrive.

But there was no confrontation with any mob, and residents of the center were upset with Buchanan's remarks. As Mordine Howard, 67, told Times reporter Amy Wallace Tuesday: "I resented it."

Maj. Pat Antosh, a spokesperson for the guard, agreed that Buchanan's version of events at the retirement center not only slighted the residents' efforts in their own defense, but also misrepresented what occurred when the troops arrived.

Capt. Alan Skidmore, who commanded the troops at the center, remembers introducing Buchanan to some of his men later on. But he agreed things were not as Buchanan described. Buchanan, he said, "dramatized things a bit. I think he got the mood right, but the details were wrong."

As the saying goes, truth is the first casualty of war. If Buchanan and his allies have their way, there will be more before Election Day.

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