1992 was a polarizing year in American politics—the year of the Rodney King riots, of the lingering crack epidemic and burgeoning AIDS crisis, of an economy mired in steep unemployment and a sense of defeat by an unstoppable Japan. Incumbent President George H.W. Bush had betrayed his “no new taxes” pledge, and the war he won against Iraq failed to pay dividends for Americans at home. 

It was the year that Patrick J. Buchanan first challenged the Republican establishment in the electoral arena. He had finished a strong second in New Hampshire that January; in August he would give what became known as the “culture war” speech at the Republican convention in Houston—rousing the right and horrifying the nation’s press corps. 

Between New Hampshire in January and Houston in August, the strengths and weaknesses of Buchanan’s campaign stood out in clear relief. Who was this renegade Republican, and what did the movement he led portend for the country?

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Some commentators called Pat the white man’s Jesse Jackson. It was said in jest but had a ring of truth. Buchanan was now a spokesman for conservative white males everywhere—Republican, independent, even Democrat. Pat looked at the returns from the polling stations and dreamed of building a new coalition of cultural traditionalists and economic populists, an alliance of nostalgiacs. The brigaders wanted to go back to the world before Toshiba, Jane Fonda, and Lee Harvey Oswald. They wanted to bathe in the warmth of a perpetual summer of ’63.

Pat’s friends said that he didn’t represent a point of view so much as a social force. This force had been around for a long time; railing against immigration at the hair salon or throwing empty beer cans at the TV every time Ted Kennedy tried to socialize something. But it was Pat who brought these people to the polls, and it was a small body of intellectuals that tried to define what they felt and thought about the great crapshoot of American politics. Pat started to refer to this marriage of anger and ideas as the Middle American Revolution.

Of all Pat’s buddies, the one most excited by his campaigns was columnist Samuel Francis, who had worked for North Carolina senator John East before landing a job with the Washington Times. Physically, he was a fearsome toad. The journalist John Judis observed that “he was so fat he had trouble getting through doors.” He ate and drank the wrong things and the only sport he indulged in was chess. The mercurial, funny, curious Francis was an unlikely populist. But he was ahead of the curve when it came to Pat’s insurgency.

Back in the 1980s, Francis had predicted an uprising against the liberal elite that governed America. The only people who would break their stranglehold were the ordinary folks who made up the ranks of the “Middle American Radicals,” or MARs. Mr. MARs was Mr. Average. He was either from the South or a European ethnic family in the Midwest, earned an unsatisfactory salary doing skilled or semi-skilled blue-collar work, and probably hadn’t been to college. He was neither wealthy nor poor, living on the thin line between comfort and poverty. All it took to ruin him was a broken limb or an IRS audit.

But Francis argued that the Middle American Radicals were defined less by income than by attitude. They saw “the government as favoring both the rich and the poor simultaneously… MARs are distinct in the depth of their feeling that the middle class has been seriously neglected. If there is one single summation of the MAR perspective, it is reflected in a statement … The rich give in to the demands of the poor, and the middle income people have to pay the bill.”

Preferring self-reliance to welfare feudalism, the MARs felt that the U.S. government had been taken captive by a band of rich liberals who used their taxes to bankroll the indolent poor and finance the cultural revolution of the 1960s. The MARs were a social force rather than an ideological movement, an attitude shaped by the joys and humiliations of middle-class life in postwar America. Any politician that could appeal to that social force could remake politics.

Two things made the MARs different from mainstream conservatives (and libertarians). First, not being rich, they were skeptical of wealthy lobbies. They hated big business as much as they hated big government. They opposed bailing out firms like Chrysler, or letting multinational companies export jobs overseas. They were especially critical of businesses that profited from smut, gambling, and alcohol. Although free market in instinct, they did appreciate government intervention on their behalf. They would never turn down benefits like Social Security or Medicare.

Second, the MARs were more revolutionary than previous generations of conservatives. Conservatives ordinarily try to defend power that they already control. But the MARs were out of power, so they had to seize it back. This was why conservatives like Buchanan behaved like Bolsheviks. “We must understand,” wrote Francis,

that the dominant authorities in… the major foundations, the media, the schools, the universities, and most of the system of organized culture, including the arts and entertainment—not only do nothing to conserve what most of us regard as our traditional way of life, but actually seek its destruction or are indifferent to its survival. If our culture is going to be conserved, then we need to dethrone the dominant authorities that threaten it.

Buchanan agreed. He wrote, reflecting on Francis’s words, “We traditionalists who love the culture and country we grew up in are going to have to deal with this question: Do we simply conserve the remnant, or do we try to take the culture back? Are we conservatives, or must we also become counter-revolutionaries and overthrow the dominant culture?”

The populist counter-revolution that Francis proposed was not explicitly racial. In theory, Hispanic or black industrial workers were just as threatened by economic change and high taxes as their white co-workers. And the cultural values of Hispanic Catholics and black Pentecostals were just as challenged by liberalism as those of their white brethren. But in Francis’s view, these ethnic groups had become clients of the liberal state. Only political correctness—argued Francis_prevented whites from admitting this and organizing themselves into their own ethnic interest group. In this worldview, the Democrats gave handouts to African-Americans in exchange for votes. Hispanics were brought in from Mexico to lower wages and break unions, providing cheap domestic labor for the ruling class and maximizing corporate profits. The only people without friends in high places were the middle-class white majority.

Buchanan and Francis disagreed over this point. Pat was concerned about the decline of Western civilization. But he never saw Western society in explicitly racial terms. He opposed both welfare and mass immigration, but he thought they hurt blacks and Hispanics as much as whites. Francis believed that human characteristics—including intelligence—were shaped by race.

Sam Francis said that Pat’s candidacy had awoken the Middle American Radicals’ revolutionary spirit. But what was odd about this populist campaign was the amount of legwork that was done by intellectuals. One volunteer in the March 17 Michigan primary was the philosopher Russell Kirk.

Kirk lived in his ancestral home of Piety Hill in Mecosta, Michigan—a tiny village that his industrious family built and owned. He wrote books in an old toy factory that had been converted into a mammoth library. Kirk was a genius. The author of 32 monographs and hundreds of essays and short stories, he was the intellectual godfather of the conservative movement. Russell Kirk married New Yorker Annette Yvonne Cecile Courtemanche in 1963. He was 42 and she was 17. Together they had four daughters, Monica, Cecilia, Felicia, and Andrea, and became exquisite hosts at Piety Hill.

They welcomed East European refugees, African kings, Republican statesmen, wandering philosophers, and vagabonds. Summer afternoons were spent playing croquet with Malcolm Muggeridge, Robert Graves, or Richard Weaver. Kirk greeted them all in his trademark three-piece suit and fob watch; coffee and cake in the garden, Schubert in the drawing room, tea and honey in the kitchens. At dusk, Russell told ghost stories.

One day in 1992, Russell Kirk came home and told his wife that he had decided to become the Michigan state chair for the Buchanan for President campaign. Annette wasn’t overjoyed: “I knew it meant I would do all the work.” Because Russell lived independently of a university, he had to supplement his income with tours and speeches. Much of the week, he wasn’t at home. So Russell became the state chair in name and Annette in person.

A brilliant, fast talking New Yorker, Annette loved the role. The kitchen at Piety Hill became campaign headquarters and “half my time was spent trying to keep weirdoes out.” Like everywhere else, they had no money and no organization. But unlike in New Hampshire and Georgia, they had no Pat Buchanan either. In Michigan, the campaign took on a life of its own.

Annette shared her workload with another academic—economist Harry Veryser. Donnish, monkish, and fiercely right-wing, Veryser knew and loved the Middle American Radicals like they were family. The Michigan GOP was split between the industrialized East and the suburban West. The two worlds hated each other and Veryser, a traditional Catholic, was king of the East. Many of the GOP activists out East were members of the United Auto-Workers union. These were ethnic Catholics who worked with their hands. George H.W. Bush represented the socially decadent world of the West—big money people who voted Republican for the tax breaks, but who wouldn’t turn down a toke at a pool party.

Pat Buchanan’s Michigan campaign was run out of a philosopher’s kitchen by an economist with an army of Catholic trade-unionists. It was an extraordinary alliance between scholars and workers, but it reflected the spirit of Buchanan’s paradoxical campaign. Pat thought he might win Michigan. Sam Francis fed his ambition. It looked like MARs territory, Francis said.

The state was poor and getting poorer. Once an industrial metropolis, Detroit was a ghost town. Overregulation, bad management, and foreign competition were killing the motor industry. Across the state, unemployment was high—at 9 percent, well above the national average. Cars became the theme of the contest. Bush offered to veto fuel efficiency and environmental legislation that affected the cost of producing new automobiles. Buchanan accused Germany and Japan of “stealing America’s markets.” They were both “dinky little countries.” Japan was just a “pile of rocks.”

During the primary, Veryser arranged a meeting between himself, Pat, Francis, and Kirk. Buchanan and Francis behaved as if no one else was there, and Pat sat in rapt silence listening to his friend expand upon the coming revolution. It was an intellectual romance, said Veryser. Harry was embarrassed, Kirk was furious that he wasn’t paid the attention he deserved. Both concluded that Buchanan was in love with Francis’s mind, that he truly believed that the two men could remake the world. Francis was a true believer, and his zeal infected Pat. He gave to Buchanan’s peculiar rebellion the theoretical structure of a popular revolution.

In Michigan, Buchanan discovered the limits of his populist message and the MARs revolt. Carried away by his success among blue-collar audiences, he wanted to concentrate on union halls and factories. Because many of his most fervent supporters were members of the UAW, he thought he had the union on side. Veryser told him he was wrong. Maybe twenty years ago the union halls would have welcomed Pat with open arms. But since then they had moved with the times and embraced affirmative action, gender equality, and even gay rights. The UAW’s membership might have been conservative and Catholic, but the bureaucracy was fashionably liberal.

There was another problem. Other candidates were turning on to Buchanan’s message. Democrat Jerry Brown, the former governor of California, stole it wholesale. Brown was an eccentric politician who, after two terms as governor, had gone to India to discover himself. He returned preaching a new gospel of popular democracy. He entered the 1992 Democratic primaries calling for limits on campaign donations, pollution clean-up, and a flat tax.

At face value he was a hippie in a suit. But Brown was also a Catholic and an ex-seminarian who shared much of Buchanan’s conservative philosophy. He believed that America was living beyond its means, and that it required a spiritual reawakening to get it moving again. Brown’s religion might have been Vishnu and yoga, but he shared Buchanan’s abhorrence for materialism and despised the “go for growth” politics of Clinton. Buchanan and Brown often met at the end of the day in TV studios. Paul Erickson bemoaned the fact that when they got talking, he couldn’t stop them. “Pat and Jerry saw eye to eye on a lot of things,” he sighed. Trade became one of them.

Brown went to Macomb and addressed parents and pupils at an all-white school. He told the blue-collar audience that Bill Clinton favored giving the president “a blank check, quasi-dictatorial authority, to go down to Mexico in secret with a lot of paid lobbyists and negotiate the export of American jobs, Michigan jobs.” He said he opposed such trade negotiations and said they could cost “an additional 400,000 good-paying jobs.” Brown’s state organizer said, “The class issue—the fear that you’ll be next, the hatred of the system—is overcoming the social issues.” To make sure no one missed the point, Michigan’s Attorney General, Frank Kelley, an old-line Irish politician, stood behind the candidate, along with Art Blackwell, the chairman of the Wayne County Commission, who was black. “It’s a nightmare, this state,” said an observer, “and Jerry Brown can really draw the lightning. He’s a pure protest candidate, a Democratic Pat Buchanan. He appeals to people who are mad at the rich guys.”

Ticking all the cultural boxes that modern Democrats needed to tick, Brown soaked up the labor vote. Buchanan sank in the polls. There was a glimpse of how it might have been in Illinois, which held its primary the same day. Pat had written off the state and scheduled just one half-day visit. The Chicago Tribune gave him a grand welcome. “Patrick Buchanan is not an alternative but a disgrace,” it editorialized, “a loathsome boil on the body politic. Illinois Republicans would do their party and the nation a service by lancing the boil, rejecting Buchanan and his intolerance and isolationism.”

Yet the reception he received was stunning. Blue-collar Eastern Europeans remembered his uncompromising anticommunism and his call for the independence of Soviet satellites, and they loved him for it. He dropped in at a Lithuanian national hall and attacked Bush for being too cozy with Mikhail Gorbachev. “I was ashamed that time of the behavior of my government and the leaders of my party,” he said. The crowd, surprisingly big, roared with approval. Then he dropped in on a 400-strong Croatian gathering on the Northwest Side and slammed Bush’s lack of support for an independent Croatia. The mob went wild and threw $10 bills at him. Somewhat dazed, Buchanan finally drove to an Irish pub on the South Side. The red-faced construction workers inside cheered him and pounded their fists in the air.

These were the people who Buchanan advised Nixon to go after in 1972. They were the men (and they were mostly men) who went for Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Anticommunist and religiously conservative, they were also under economic threat. Jobs were no longer for life. Their kids went to college now and trained to become accountants and lawyers, not fitters and machinists. The shops were full of foreign-made crap. Hucksters on Wall Street in fancy foreign cars made millions of dollars manipulating takeovers, while they tried to make an honest buck in a shrinking market. They had been undone by the Japanese, the liberals, and the vulture capitalists.

Bush walked the Illinois and Michigan primaries. In Illinois, he won 76–22 percent. In Michigan, he won 67–25 percent. Pat put the blame on Jerry Brown and said that he had siphoned off his votes. Certainly Brown commanded an unusual coalition that probably dented Buchanan’s performance: he took a third of voters with union membership and a third of those with a postdoctoral qualification, giving him 28 percent to Clinton’s 48 percent. Buchanan had some good news. In Michigan, 71 percent of his voters said they liked him and 42 percent said that they could not vote for Bush in the general election. Buchanan’s vote was narrowing, but it was more committed and this gave him leverage come the convention. Even though Pat was losing, the president still needed his endorsement to sew up independent and Republican conservatives. So Buchanan would not stop.

After Michigan and Illinois, Pat received a phone call from Richard Nixon’s office. The Old Man wanted to see him. “I don’t doubt that Nixon loved what Pat was doing,” said one of Nixon’s friends. “He loved to see someone stick it to the establishment.” The Old Man shared some of Buchanan’s views on foreign policy too. Privately, he told a friend of Pat’s that he didn’t appreciate,

some of the fatuous assessments of the New World Order emanating from many of the foreign policy experts who live in the Washington Beltway—the modern version of Plato’s Cave… I feel strongly that the United States as the only complete superpower in the world today should play a positive role on the world scene. On the other hand, we have to bear in mind Frederick the Great’s admonition—‘He who tries to defend everywhere, defends nothing.’

The Old Man greeted his loyal boy at his home in New Jersey. Nixon had aged physically, but his mind was still young. “He was full of questions and jokes,” remembered Buchanan. They talked for an hour, Nixon pumping Pat for gossip and opinion on the political situation. He played that old fugue again: “How is it on the campaign trail? What does Bush think of you? Will Clinton win the Democratic nomination on the first ballot? Will Perot run in November?”

Everything was discussed, except the most important issue of all. Then Nixon fell silent. His aide, Monica Crowley, said, “It’s probably time for you get out of the race. From now on, you can’t win and you can only hurt Bush.” Nixon smiled.

“I’m not getting out,” said Buchanan. “I owe it to my people to carry on going.” Nixon interrupted and changed the subject. “And that,” concluded Pat, “was how he told me to quit the race.”

Afterwards, Nixon basked in the attention of reporters and offered this: “I agree with [Pat] on some things and disagree on others, as was the case when we worked together. There’s only one thing worse in politics than being wrong, and that’s being dull. And Pat Buchanan is far from dull.” Perhaps, after his years of service to a man with nothing left to lose, Pat could have expected more than an ironic compliment. But if you loved Richard Nixon, you had to learn to live with hurt.

Team Buchanan decided to focus on North Carolina (May 5) and California (June 2). California proved too big to purchase much media in. So North Carolina looked like a better investment. Pat thought he might find more of the MARs to stir up among the Tar Heelers. The decline of the textile industry meant that plenty of working-class Democrats and Republicans were hurting. Plus he had some personal connections to the state. Both Sam Francis and campaign press spokesman Jerry Woodruff worked in the late Senator Jim East’s office.

One afternoon, Pat swung down south and hosted a fundraising event in Raleigh. After the national press had left, conservative senator Jesse Helms and his wife appeared from nowhere. A lone local reporter caught the scene as Pat and Jesse said hello, Jesse embracing Pat with obvious warmth. This was not an endorsement, he said. But that wasn’t how it was reported. It was, wrote local journalists, “interpreted by many as giving a green light to North Carolina conservatives to support the insurgent Republican’s campaign.” And many did. In two weeks, Tar Heelers gave Buchanan $30,000.

It was all over when Helms became honorary chair of the Bush campaign. That signaled that the state’s conservatives were falling in line behind the president. On May 5, Buchanan polled 20 percent in the North Carolina primary. Few people noticed the result. The press’s attention was moving beyond the primaries and towards the general election. On the Democratic side, Jerry Brown pulled off a surprise win in Connecticut in March and looked set to derail Clinton in the New York primary. Then he said that he would consider picking Jesse Jackson to be his running mate. Jackson had once referred to New York as “Hymietown.”

Clinton swept the primary and looked set to walk the June contest in California. But Brown had done plenty of damage to Clinton, who as the Democratic candidate would ordinarily inherit the anti-establishment vote. He forced Clinton to appeal to the party base and made him and his wife look sleazy. He played on claims that Bill had funneled contracts and money to Hillary’s law firm while governor of Arkansas.

After North Carolina, Pat joined a one-mile “fun run” in Ridgewood, New Jersey. The reporter trailing him from the New York Times was cynical. The campaign was over, but Pat wouldn’t stop running:

He dismisses last Tuesday’s primaries in Arkansas and Idaho, in which Mr. Bush beat him, again, better than five to one. He chooses to ignore polls that indicate that in the contests on Tuesday, especially the much-watched California primary, he may fare even worse, given all the political attention now being focused on Ross Perot… He seems unconcerned that, of late, some Buchanan rallies have drawn as few as a dozen supporters and no reporters.

Pat would have nothing of it. “Not the point, not the point,” he said. “I sent them a message.” And he wasn’t going to stop sending it. “More than anything else, my candidacy, my historic candidacy, has been aimed at moving our party back to the right, back to its roots.” It was correct to say that he had forced Bush to rethink his economic policy and to reach out to cultural conservatives. But the long-term impact of his campaign upon the GOP wouldn’t become obvious for a couple of years.

On the fun run, the reporter noted with pleasure that Buchanan “started last and finished last.” But before he vanished, Buchanan said that “he deliberately started last and finished last because the news cameras were positioned at the back of the pack.” It worked. Buchanan made the evening news and the morning papers. Pat wasn’t through yet.

From The Crusader by Timothy Stanley. Copyright © 2012 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

Timothy Stanley blogs for the Daily Telegraph and is the author of The Crusader: The Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan.