History Today columnist Stanley (Kennedy vs. Carter: The 1980 Battle for the Democratic Party’s Soul, 2010) treats the paleoconservative and “culture warrior” to a sympathetic close-up and finds he’s a hard guy to dislike—even if we have him to thank for Sarah Palin.
Buchanan has been on the American political scene for decades. This crisp narrative goes all the way back to the beginning on the streets of Georgetown where he learned the importance of quick hands and unwavering loyalty. Both attributes would serve him well throughout his stormy life as a political pundit, advisor to two presidents and three-time presidential contender. Stanley tracks these events with a professional level of scrutiny that is rarely unflattering, but never quite fawning. We learn that Buchanan stokes the fire in his belly with a burning desire to return America to a sanitized version of itself, a time when same-sex couples were criminals and every nice white family had a black maid all its own. And so what if he understood AIDS as “nature’s retribution” and once referred to Hitler as a “man of courage.” He’s also sharp, witty and talented. Even liberal commentator Rachel Maddow, we learn, reserves a begrudging affection for the guy. These confounding complexities are so delightfully examined that the last third of the book proves to be something of a disappointment, as the biographical thread almost gets lost in tangential analyses of dusty opponents like Bob Dole, Lamar Alexander and George H.W. Bush. Stanley gives only cursory attention to Buchanan’s TV career as a ubiquitous talking head. The takeaway is that while he has been consigned as an “also-ran,” Buchanan has undoubtedly been successful in at least one thing: elevating group biases to the level of “cultural issues” and thereby making possible the ascent of the Tea Party and similar groups.
An engrossing look inside an ultra-conservative mind.