Pat Buchanan: The Communicator Who’s Raising a Storm
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Silent in public but making his influence felt in private, Patrick J. Buchanan sits near the center of storms over Nicaragua and Bitburg three months after his appointment as President Reagan’s director of communications.
Until he was tapped for the vacant communications post on Feb. 5, Buchanan was a free-swinging television commentator and columnist, denouncing the ″palace intrigues, the malevolent leaks″ and ″the incessant back- stabbing″ of Reagan’s first term.
Now, Buchanan’s conservative supporters say he is himself the victim of leaks. They say he is unjustly blamed for the failure of the president’s plea for aid to Nicaraguan rebels and the embarassment that arose over his decision to visit Nazi graves in Bitburg, West Germany.
Critics - some in the White House - charge that Buchanan has unwisely pushed Reagan into confrontation with Congress over Nicaragua and insisted on going through with the Bitburg visit when others on the White House staff were seeking an alternative.
″He is a merchant prince of bad ideas; a dangerous vendor of ideological zealotry that eventually is going to get this country into a lot of trouble,″ says one outside observer, Laurence H. Burd, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, who once debated Central American policy with Buchanan on television.
Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, who says he speaks with Buchanan periodically, told a reporter he believes most of Buchanan’s advice has been ignored so far, but added, ″I think he is happy to be where he is; I think he feels he gets his licks in; he wins some and loses some, but he has a clear conscience.″
Buchanan, 46, was asked in a telephone interview Friday whether he thought his tactics contributed to the administration’s recent congressional defeat on Nicaraguan policy.
His reply was a terse, ″Ancient history.″ He declined comment on his role in the Bitburg controversy.
Buchanan’s backers said previously entrenched White House staffers such as long-time Reagan aide Michael K. Deaver, who is leaving May 15, were trying to block the new communications chief’s efforts to move the administration toward a more confrontational stance. They also blamed these aides for news stories in which sources suggested that Buchanan was more interested in promoting conservative causes than in supporting the president.
″We can’t really assess his effectiveness with Mike Deaver in the position he is in,″ said Paul Weyrich, head of the conservative Committee for a Free Congress. ″He has not really been able to staff up in the communications area.″
Buchanan has, however, won a couple of White House turf battles. He wrested control of the office of public liaison from Edward J. Rollins, the president’s political assistant, and won a contest with White House spokesman Larry Speakes over responsibility for dealing with out-of-town news organizations.
In the policy area, his record is more subject to debate.
His critics say he pushed for confrontation with Congress on the Nicaraguan issue, juicing up Reagan speeches with such phrases as one describing the rebels as ″the moral equivalent of the founding fathers,″ while others in the administration were seeking a formula for compromise.
His backers say his efforts on behalf of the aid package were blunted by White House aides who opposed his plan for a presidential speech on the eve of the voting, in which the package was approved by the Republican-controlled Senate but rejected in the Democrat-led House.
Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn., even though he had argued that the vote should be put off because ″we could not win in that short a time,″ also said Buchanan ″gave the right advice and it wasn’t followed; if the president had followed Pat’s advice and given a televised speech on the situation in Central America, we would have won.″
On the Bitburg issue, Buchanan was identified in a recent article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, based on interviews with unnamed White House sources, as the strongest advocate of Reagan’s visit to the German cemetery. The article said Buchanan’s star could fade quickly if the visit did not go well.
Weber, however, who went to the White House with Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., to meet with Buchanan and argue against the Bitburg visit, said, ″I think had he been able to change the decision he would have. I felt he was pretty sympathetic to our point of view.″
NBC News reported Thursday that Buchanan wrote the phrase ″succumbing to the pressure of the Jews″ repeatedly on a piece of paper during a discussion of the planned cemetery visit. Buchanan issued a statement saying he took notes during an April 16 meeting with Jewish leaders, who said they did not want the president to seem to be succumbing to pressure. He said it was ″downright silly″ to suggest that fragments of his notes represented his own opinion. White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan, in Bonn with the president, said he had ″full confidence″ in Buchanan.
Burd, of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, said Buchanan ″has become a voice the president listens to,″ overcoming the counsel of more moderate presidential advisers so that ″anything goes now with Buchanan.″
A former White House official who worked with Buchanan, however, speaking on condition he not be identified, said the communications chief ″clearly wants to sharpen the rhetoric, but is willing to back down on occasion.″
″He understands that there are times when you take a harsh tone and there are times when you don’t,″ this official said.