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Don’t Call It the ‘Culture War Speech’

Everyone in the room in 1992 thought Buchanan gave an uplifting speech. Only later was it spun as a dark diatribe.

Pat Buchanan at the 1992 RNC
(Shepard Sherbell/Corbis via Getty Images)

When Patrick J. Buchanan stepped onto the stage the night of August 17 at the 1992 Republican National Convention, he faced a seemingly impossible task. He had just spent the last eight months campaigning fiercely against President George H.W. Bush. His criticisms were manifold: Bush had raised taxes when he promised that he would not, Bush had neglected working people and the culturally conservative wing of the Republican Party, Bush had spent wildly on military adventures in Europe and the Middle East when there were urgent problems within the country’s own borders. Stop after stop across the country, Buchanan hammered away at the president. “The differences between us are now too deep,” Buchanan said of Bush in his launch speech, delivered on a frigid December day in New Hampshire. “He is yesterday, and we are tomorrow.” Many people agreed, but not enough to steal the nomination away from the president. So it fell to Buchanan in Houston, Bush’s home turf, to reconcile himself—and his three million voters—to the past without losing sight of the ideals he fervently believed were the future of the party, and, if he had his way, the country.

And those were just the political difficulties. Only a few days after the California primary wrapped up in June, Buchanan boarded a cross country flight to Washington, D.C., for open heart surgery. His campaign stressed that the operation was elective—he had a defective aortic valve; his doctor recommended that it be replaced—and that he would be healthy again in time for the convention. But elective or not, any heart surgery is a major procedure, and it left Buchanan in recovery for the better part of the summer. Buchanan had promised his supporters in New Hampshire that he would take the fight all the way to Houston, but the campaign was effectively over. Buchanan did not have the strength to get back on the trail and, at that late date, any point he would have made would have been purely rhetorical. By August, he could walk on his own without difficulty. But he could not yet run.

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It fell to his sister and campaign manager, Bay, to broker his appearance at the convention. This required some delicacy. When Republican officials first approached her in New York, as the Democratic National Convention was under way, they wanted to know if Pat planned to endorse Bush. Of course, she replied. The goal was always to beat Bill Clinton one way or another. Pat would endorse from center stage in prime time, or, if the convention would not have him, he would call the Buchanan brigades home from down the street. That wouldn’t be necessary, of course. At this point, Bush needed Buchanan on center stage. The Democratic convention had done wonders for Clinton, and when Ross Perot dropped his candidacy shortly afterward, he sent most of his voters into the Democratic camp. Bush was falling even further behind and couldn’t risk losing Buchanan’s voters, or, as some feared, suffer his criticism through November. Even to those on the outside of the negotiations, it was clear that if Bush wanted any shot at winning, he and Buchanan would have to make peace.

“I suspected the Bush people were desperate and wanted to showcase party unity,” said Michael Barone, who covered the conventions with Robert Novak. “And that they wanted Buchanan to do a hatchet job on Clinton.”

That’s not all they wanted. The Bush team had three requests for Buchanan’s speech, laid out at a meeting in Washington. Bashing Clinton was important, but they also needed him to praise Ronald Reagan, still the most popular man in the party, and wholeheartedly endorse Bush, who was very much unpopular. Bay was willing to agree to all three, but only if Pat appeared in prime time—and not as a warm up act for some other suit.

The RNC gave her that and more: Buchanan was to give the convention’s opening keynote, directly before Reagan. The graciousness of the gesture was not lost on Bay. She rushed from the conference over to Pat’s house in Virginia, hitting one hundred miles per hour on the George Washington Parkway. He was as enthusiastic as she. They had one of the best spots available. All they needed was a speech.

Pat Buchanan supporters at a New Hampshire campaign rally. (Steve Liss/Getty Images)
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Actually writing the speech proved frustrating. The campaign, which in large part focused on Bush’s economic policy, had been a constant stream of attacks. During a speech in New Hampshire, Buchanan said that state Republicans considered it “payback time” for all the jobs that Bush had shipped offshore. At the meeting of a Rotary Club in Vermont, he said that while it was true that Bush had created thirty million jobs, Bush “didn’t tell us he would be creating them in Guangdong Province, Yokohama, or Mexico.” Buchanan pushed similar buttons on taxes. He was always quick to remind his audiences that after his “read my lips” promise, Bush had done just the opposite, becoming “the highest taxer in American history” and running up “the largest deficits in American history.”

What won Buchanan the most attention—most of it negative—was when he challenged Bush fundamentally on what it meant to be an American after the Cold War. “He is a globalist and we are nationalists,” Buchanan said in his first campaign speech. “He believes in some Pax Universalis; we believe in the Old Republic. He would put America’s wealth and power at the service of some vague New World Order; we will put America first.” These distinctions were ultimately what divided Buchanan from Bush and, more than any individual issue, they defined the campaign.

But as Buchanan and his team drafted and redrafted his convention address, they found that emphasizing the distinctions was not appropriate to the occasion. Using old lines from the campaign wouldn’t cut it. They needed something that up to that point neither Bushies nor Buchananites had really envisioned: a speech that highlighted points of agreement between the two camps and offered a positive path forward for the party. Buchanan’s run had roused an energy in voters that the Bush campaign had been unable to inspire. He had a vision for the country whose reach extended well beyond the immediate collapse of the Soviet Union and whose formulation appealed to people otherwise unconcerned with politics. Most importantly, Buchananites understood that Republican voters were more open to their ideas than Republican leaders. If Buchanan could inspire excitement over those ideas in service of Bush, the president’s team just might embrace them.

The strictures that the RNC gave for the speech made it easier to craft a pitch to the Bushies. At the time, nearly everyone agreed that Reagan was a great man of history. He had presided over a massive economic recovery and he had hastened the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. It was not hard to recall these past glories, where Bush had stood at Reagan’s side the entire time, and give the Gipper’s deputy some of the credit, too. In truth, Bush deserved credit in his own right for the ultimate dissolution of communist Russia. That left room for Buchanan to find agreement between himself and Bush by criticizing Clinton. He had more leeway to say what he pleased in that area, and, more importantly, it allowed him without criticizing anyone in the party to identify the areas Republicans needed to show strength. Many of the issues on which Buchanan said he agreed with Bush—abortion, gay marriage, the Supreme Court—were areas where the president’s administration was weak and needed the aid of true believers. Buchanan offered his supporters as reliable soldiers, so long as their general protected them.

President George Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush at the 1992 Republican National Convention. (Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis via Getty Images)

“This election is about more than who gets what,” he said in what is now the speech’s most-quoted passage. “It is about who we are. It is about what we believe, and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side.”

In the other frequently quoted passage, Buchanan identifies his soldiers as basically nonpolitical people. This is an observation he drew directly from campaigning in New Hampshire, where with a bare bones staff, armed with only a laptop and a printer, he traveled constantly through small, industrial towns, wrecked by a recession and the loss of manufacturing to overseas production. Staffers recall that Buchanan was constantly active and working through a problem in his mind: the United States, which had become wildly prosperous under Reagan and then the unquestioned world champion under Bush, was itself a dysfunctional place, whose leaders had not yet become introspective enough to address its internal issues. Everywhere he went, it seemed people who shared common values were looking for direction. If Bush was to win, he needed to offer strong leadership to them. 

“These people are our people,” Buchanan said. “They don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke, but they come from the same schoolyards and the same playgrounds and towns as we come from. They share our beliefs and convictions, our hopes and our dreams. They are the conservatives of the heart,” he added, “We need to reconnect with them. We need to let them know we know how bad they’re hurting. They don’t expect miracles of us, but they need to know we care.”

Buchanan painted a picture in his conclusion of a country without leadership, one that was not that remote. The Los Angeles riots, which had occurred only that spring, were still fresh in people’s minds. Bush had visited the wreckage of Koreatown as the city was still cleaning it up, in a bulletproof limousine and accompanied by a 30-car motorcade. The whole affair was televised and led many to remark that it looked like Bush was visiting a third-world country. The end of Buchanan’s speech served as a grim reminder that without strong leadership, that was an open possibility. 

These people are our people.... They share our beliefs and convictions, our hopes and our dreams. They are the conservatives of the heart. We need to reconnect with them.

— Pat Buchanan

When Buchanan finished writing his speech, he read back through it, line by line, looking for areas where he strayed from his message. If he found any, he cut them. It was a meticulous process. By the time he was satisfied with the speech, it was a tight sixteen minutes, though with all the applause lines, he knew it could go on for twice as long. He practiced it repeatedly as he gained the strength to walk out to the podium. When Bay Buchanan read the final version, she was impressed with its tone and balance: “He managed to do a phenomenal job raising issues that brought Bush and Buchananites together.”

The Bush team thought so as well. Down in Houston, as the convention was beginning, they asked Bay for a copy of the speech. She handed over a copy, careful to see that it wasn’t leaked to the press before it was delivered. Several sets of Republican eyes looked over it and gave the speech the green light. It had everything they asked for: Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. The controversial Buchananite themes were left on the trail. The speech was about unity, leadership, and American greatness, with a good helping of Buchanan’s caustic humor. The Bush team, Bay recalls, only asked for one tweak. They asked that Buchanan mention specifically the hundreds of millions of people freed from communism during Bush’s term. The Buchanan team was happy to accommodate. The speech was passed along to the White House, along with a handwritten note from Buchanan wishing the president the best of luck. 

When Buchanan stepped onto the stage the next evening, expectations were high. News about the speech had leaked to the press after all, and it was generally known that Buchanan would tear into Clinton. But the audience in the convention hall, for the most part, was not familiar with his message. It was an intriguing surprise then, when what began as encomium for Ronald Reagan and George Bush developed into a diatribe against Bill Clinton and concluded with analysis of what it really means to be an American.

The longer Buchanan spoke, the quieter his audience became. He exercised a strange control over the crowd, and at points it seemed like the entire Houston Astrodome was listening. John Chancellor, who covered the convention for NBC, climbed up on top of the roof of the network’s office to get a look at the people in the rafters. Even there, he said, they were paying attention to the center stage. “Rhetorically, he was loud and then he was very soft,” he said. “They were all listening intently in the upper reaches of this vast auditorium.” 

Buchanan received standing ovations several times throughout the evening. One of his staffers recalls taking note of the various Republican officials who joined in the swaying, univocal movements of the crowd. At multiple points, Rich Bond, who was then the chairman of the RNC, rose and joined the applause. By the time Buchanan described the scene after the Los Angeles riots and delivered his final line—“as those boys took back the streets of Los Angeles, block by block, my friends, we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country”—the Astrodome was completely silent. Then the room broke into thunderous cheers as thousands of Republicans raised Bush signs, flags, and other paraphernalia and chanted their approval. Buchanan strode off the stage—long after his allotted time—making way for Reagan, who delivered what proved to be his final televised address. 

Bay Buchanan, who was seated along with Barbara Bush and Shelley Buchanan, recalled the first lady leaning over and thanking Shelley for her husband’s speech, which she said was much more than what the Bushes could have asked. Other assessments were equally enthusiastic. Robert Novak, who was commenting on the convention for CNN, remarked after Reagan’s speech that Buchanan had done more than rally the party around Bush. “I never thought I’d see that Pat Buchanan, the servant, would upstage Ronald Reagan, the master, but he gave a much better speech and he had the audience going,” he said.

OPENING OF THE REPUBLICAN CONVENTION (Photo by Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Sygma via Getty Images)

Even those who had a distaste for Buchanan’s politics admitted that, simply as a piece of rhetoric, it was impressive. Craig Fuller, who was then chairman of the convention committee, assured the press that Bush himself was enthusiastic about the speech. “It is a speech that is eloquent with respect to Ronald Reagan, eloquent with respect to George Bush, and pretty tough on those guys who George Bush is running against,” he said. “That’s fine with us.” The polls coming off the convention that night were encouraging as well. Bush was still down, of course, but the lag was not nearly as embarrassing as it was before Buchanan and Reagan took the stage. “We reconnected with our base,” Bond said of Buchanan’s speech.

In the days that followed, nearly everyone’s perception of the speech changed. The press branded the address “the culture war speech,” a term that to this day Buchanan does not use when referring to the event, and Buchanan’s rhetoric was picked apart by commentators and operatives in both parties, looking for evidence of bigotry. The Bush team, spooked by the sudden barrage of bad press, put as much distance between themselves and Buchanan as possible. Speaking to reporters in the days afterward, Jack Kemp claimed that “nobody clears Pat Buchanan’s speeches,” implying that he had gone off the reservation. Kemp’s assertion soon became the party’s line on the speech. Bond, who had praised the speech when it was delivered, later apologized for Buchanan’s appearance and claimed that because organizing the convention was such a massive task, he did not know if anyone screened the speech at all. “I know that I did not,” he said.    

To many observers, it was clear that the outrage was manufactured by commentators looking for a way to brand the entire Republican party as morally repugnant.        

“The culture war label was deployed by many in the press who wanted to make Buchanan’s alleged intolerance and racism as the central defining characteristic of the Republican party,” Barone said, adding that the fact that Buchanan didn’t mind courting controversy didn’t do much to stop the criticism. “Those in the press seeking to characterize Republicans as intolerant couldn’t really hang that label on Reagan, but they could and gladly did on Buchanan.”

That strategy worked in 1992, but the speech has lived on long after the political circumstances under which it was delivered. Buchanan’s particular brand of Clinton-bashing became Republican orthodoxy for nearly the next two decades. And his fervent defense of the right-to-life issue soon became Republican orthodoxy. The other issues raised in the speech have waxed and waned in their relevance, but any one issue isn’t what animated the speech. Instead, it is Buchanan’s emphasis on politics as a “struggle for the soul of America” that still prompts people to return to his words, even thirty years later.

U.S. President Donald Trump participates in a campaign rally in Lexington, Kentucky, on November 4, 2019. (Hu Yousong/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Buchanan’s speech has become such a part of American public life that even those with shaky knowledge of recent political history gravitate toward its tone. When Bay Buchanan was watching Donald Trump debate Hillary Clinton in 2016, she kept noticing that Trump’s arguments, although unpolished in their presentation, reminded her of something she knew well. She called Pat. “Are you advising him?” she asked. “Every single thing he says is you. It’s firm and strong and it’s not watered down—it’s you.”

Every single thing [Trump] says is you. It’s firm and strong and it’s not watered down—it’s you.

— Bay Buchanan

But Trump isn’t the only heir to Buchanan’s rhetoric. That legacy is legion and uniquely American. It includes anyone with an impish smirk who can get up in front of a group of people with whom he disagrees, and laugh them over to his side. It’s a trait celebrated not just in our politics but in our literature, in our folklore, in our history. When Tucker Carlson saw Buchanan live in Houston, he recognized it immediately. “I loved it,” he said of the speech, not least because “all the usual assholes were triggered.”

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