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6 October 1999

Our current howler (part II): Going by the book

Synopsis: Pundits slammed Buchanan’s message. But they rarely got around to his text.

Commentary by William Safire
Meet the Press, NBC, 9/26/99

Commentary by Pat Buchanan
Tim Russert, CNBC, 10/2/99

Smart cookie? Crackpot?
Ben Wattenberg, The Washington Times, 9/23/99

A Republic, Not an Empire
Pat Buchanan, Regnery, 1999

McCain’s Fresh Air
A.M. Rosenthal, The New York Times, 9/24/99

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 9/22/99

Pat Buchanan was engaged in an hour of backyard brawling on cable's outstanding Tim Russert. Midway through, host Russert played tape of William Safire from the previous week's Meet the Press:

SAFIRE: Now with this new book, calculated for his campaign, essentially saying that Hitler was Mr. Nice Guy and all we had to do was let him defeat the Russians and he wouldn't have bothered both the Jews of Poland and he wouldn't have bothered the west, Michael [Kinsley] says that's nutty. I think that's calculated to try to solidify a hating element in America.

It's no wonder the book has stirred such a flap, if Buchanan has been making such comments about Hitler. Buchanan disputed the characterization:

BUCHANAN: With regard to World War II, there is not a line in that book saying anything that Hitler is a wonderful fella. He's not a nice guy. He's a beat. He's a pagan, and he's a murderer as of 1934 when he killed all his colleagues without a trial.

But Safire wasn't the only one making such characterizations of Buchanan-on-Hitler. Ben Wattenberg, in a syndicated column:

WATTENBERG: Mr. Buchanan says Americans were tricked into entering the war. It was all a terrible mistake. Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and Fuehrer Adolf Hitler were misunderstood.

Wattenberg penned repeated passages ironically discussing "misunderstood Hitler," "the misunderstood Nazis," and "misunderstood Japan."

Is Pat Buchanan anti-semitic? At THE HOWLER, we don't really know. But we do know what he wrote in his book—they have it on sale at a local store—and, in fairness, Safire's comments are hard to reconcile with the book's plain text. For example, here is Buchanan's opening paragraph about "Mr. Nice Guy," Adolf Hitler:

BUCHANAN: Hitler had taken power five weeks before Roosevelt. From its first days, the authoritarian nature of the Nazi regime was manifest. Dachau had been receiving prisoners as early as March 1933. Jews were soon being subjected to ugly actions and discriminatory laws. In 1934 Ernest Roehm, head of Hitler's army of street-brawling brown-shirts and his only rival for absolute power, was liquidated...

As an effort to paint Hitler as a misunderstood "nice guy," this strikes us as pretty strange stuff. One paragraph later, Buchanan discusses Hitler's 1935 military build-up and subsequent entry into the Rhineland. Buchanan's view? Hitler should have been stopped right there:

BUCHANAN: He nervously waited for the Allied reaction, his generals paralyzed with apprehension. France had 500,000 men under arms, and the German battalion was under orders to withdraw at the first sign of French intervention. It never came. Hitler had gambled and won. The last chance to stop him without risking another European war had slipped by.

But A.M. Rosenthal, in the Times, offered this:

ROSENTHAL: [Buchanan's] new book does not hide his belief that it would have been better if Nazi Germany had won the war.

We'll admit we couldn't find it. And here was a tabloid talker, on an inventive show:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Pat Buchanan has written this book months ago, where he takes the argument that we should not have fought Hitler.

Buchanan's book has a whole section, called "America's Failure to Prepare," in which he berates President Roosevelt for failing to respond to the German military build-up of the 1930s, leading to "the pathetic state of America's armed forces as of September 1, 1939," the day Hitler marched into Poland.

The recent criticism is littered with comments which are hard to reconcile with Buchanan's plain text. "[O]ne by one, the disasters came," says Buchanan of Hitler's victories after 1937.

But what is most striking to us in all this? Not the fact that the criticism is often hard to square with the text. What's striking to us is how rarely the critics ever quote from the text to begin with. The critics accuse Buchanan of a serious moral crime, and make extreme, damning statements about his historical views. One would think that pundits would want to be exceptionally careful in making such serious statements. When William F. Buckley explored this topic in 1991, for example, he wrote a lengthy, detailed critique of Buchanan's past work, and offered only tentative conclusions about the state of his soul. But in recent weeks, the pundits have rarely made any effort to repeat Buchanan's current statements. In this practice, they remind us again of the press corps' sense that it gets to tell the stories it likes—that it gets to tell us pleasing tales, adjusting the facts as it suits them.

On Friday, we'll take a look at the larger point Buchanan says he is arguing. But first, how about that "misunderstood" Tojo? Here is Buchanan discussing Pearl Harbor:

BUCHANAN: For the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and the massacre of American sailors that Sunday morning, Japan bears absolute moral responsibility...

Whether or not it had been America's war before December 7, it was our war now. In Yeats's line, "All changed, changed utterly." Americans were united as never before or since by Japan's treachery in attacking our ships and murdering our sailors in our sleep, united in the conviction that the Japanese empire should be destroyed.

If poor old Tojo is misunderstood, he isn't getting much sympathy here.

What is the state of Buchanan's soul? At THE HOWLER, we aren't really certain. But we have had a chance to look at his text—at the words he actually put into print. And we were a bit surprised when we saw what he wrote, after listening to the words of the press corps.


Friday: Historians say Buchanan's thesis isn't all that odd—and the press corps ignores his larger argument.

Tomorrow: Tomorrow (Thursday) we'll post a longer article which we'll be discussing on Thursday night's O'Reilly Factor (Fox News Channel). The article describes the press corps' love for improving the news. And oh yes: All praise to Bill O'Reilly, for allowing such thoughts on the air.