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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

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.