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CAMPAIGN 2000

Buchanan Revels in Image Foes Created of Him

Profile: The Reform Party candidate accuses the media and critics of misrepresenting him, but he hasn't done anything to change it.

August 12, 2000|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As a boy, Pat Buchanan liked to play games. One of his favorites involved tossing golf balls at cars passing along the busy street that ran in front of his boyhood home.

The trick was to ping the car as it went by, and then, confronted by an angry motorist, angelically apologize for the accident, assuring the victim it was an innocent mistake.

To some extent, Buchanan never stopped winging golf balls. And he also never lost his almost uncanny ability to say "Who me?" after tossing verbal hand grenades.

It's a posture he maintains even as critics paint him in broad strokes--fascist, bigot, zealot, homophobe.

"If everything my adversaries said about me were true, I wouldn't vote for myself," he said in a recent interview.

While he says he is misrepresented by his foes and the media, others, including some who have worked closely with him, point out that Buchanan has done little to distance himself from the caricature. In fact, they say, he revels in it and has no plans to change now, especially since he has secured the presidential nomination of one of the Reform Party's dueling conventions being held this week in Long Beach.

"They are taking care and pain to make sure that image stays exactly as it is," says Neil Bernstein, who was Buchanan's spokesman until he was fired by Buchanan's sister and campaign manager a few weeks ago.

Just this week Buchanan railed against "rampant homosexuality" and America's moral decline, saying that "cultural decadence [goes] hand in hand with the death of republics and the end of empires."

To his loyalists--the "Buchanan Brigaders" who startled Reform Party regulars throughout the primaries with shouts of "Lock and load!"--he continues a message that is simple and passionate, delivered in a riff.

"There are people who love this country and see it slipping away from them. They feel they have no control over their own destiny. That's why voting is going down. In a sense it's a little bit of professional wrestling, a little bit of a fake, a little bit of a fraud, a put on, and I think they are correct in that," he says.

Through it all he remains defiant of those who don't like him.

When he saw a parody of himself on "The Tonight Show," shaking his hand in his trademark chop, German imposed over his own voice: "I almost fell out of bed. It was very funny. If you can't take that, you shouldn't be in the business."

But others, including the Anti-Defamation League and leaders of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People find nothing funny about Buchanan. Over the years the ADL has put out several indictments of his statements, including a report of remarks they label anti-Semitic, called "Pat Buchanan in His Own Words."

This year, when asked on a cable news show if Buchanan was invited to speak at the NAACP convention in Baltimore, Chairman Julian Bond said, "Bigots weren't welcome."

The man who came from a large, tightknit Roman Catholic family in Washington, D.C., has aged well. His chin sags, but the puppy-dog eyes--still slightly off-kilter from boyhood eye operations--remain the color of flat cola. The part for his hair has migrated southward over the years, now sitting just an inch or so up from his left ear, the hair expertly shellacked across his thinning crown.

On the set of Jesse Jackson's CNN interview show here, "Both Sides," Buchanan jokes around, calling the cameramen by name. He goads Jackson on purpose, proclaiming himself a proud member of the Sons of the Confederacy and saying the NAACP was discriminatory in its demand for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol.

Buchanan likes to stir it up, but Jackson, who has known him for years, pays him no mind--sort of like much of America. And Jackson concedes, their political differences aside, Buchanan is a likable man.

Even bitter ideological foes call him "charming" and "likable."

"They're correct," Pat Buchanan says of the flattery with a chuckle.

"A cheerful irritant," said Leonard Garment, a former Nixon attorney who served in that administration with Buchanan. Someone "worthwhile in this land of dozing-off politics."

Summing up Buchanan can seem deceptively simple. There is the temptation to boil him down to a single anecdote. For instance, all you need to know about Pat Buchanan is this:

By age 8 he was proficient at boxing. Trained in a makeshift ring his father built for the boys in the basement. Required, on threat of corporal punishment, to hit the bag at least four sessions weekly.

Or this:

As an adolescent, he chose Francis Xavier as his name when he was confirmed in the Catholic church--honoring a Jesuit, as was the family tradition. But a nun told him he could only pick one name. He chose Francis.

His father was angry. He was worried someone might think his boy was honoring Francis of Assisi--the "pacifist with pigeons."

But just when you thought there isn't anything new to learn about Patrick J. Buchanan comes this:

"I liked Joan Baez. I had a crush on Joan Baez," he says.

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