Buchanan campaigns on white and narrow trail


CHICAGO -- Pat Buchanan flew here for a day of campaigning and did the white thing.

He did it so relentlessly, in fact, that one had to wonder whether he was trying to make a point.

His first stop was at Elmhurst College, a small, church-affiliated school in a northwest suburb that was the site of an ugly racial incident last October.

Two male black students (blacks make up less than 10 percent of the enrollment) took two female white students to a movie. Later that night, somebody slashed the tires on the car of one of the black students and left a threatening note using the words "KKK" and "nigger." The FBI is still investigating.

But this is where Pat Buchanan chose to make his first appearance in Illinois in advance of the primary Tuesday.

His next meeting with voters was in the Marquette Park neighborhood of Chicago. Marquette Park was where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was stoned by enraged white residents when he marched there in 1966.

And the rest of the day followed the same pattern: a stop in a white enclave on the city's northwest side and then a stop in a white enclave on the city's south side.

It was a day in which Buchanan addressed only white voters in a city where it is easy to find a variety of hues.

True, Republicans traditionally do better among white voters than black voters and Buchanan is a Republican.

And President Bush is usually careful to make a few campaign stops, however symbolic, in a few neighborhoods where there is something on the demographic menu besides white bread.

It sends the message that he wants to be president of all America, not just certain parts of America.

But that is not the message Pat Buchanan sends. Not this day.

And at Elmhurst College, where three or four black students in the crowd loudly booed him, Buchanan seemed to relish the boos as he attacked George Bush for signing the most recent civil rights bill.

"He said he'd never sign a quota bill and he signed a bill in October saying small businessmen must hire by racial quotas!" Buchanan thundered. "That's wrong! It is as wrong as racial discrimination laws of 30 or 40 years ago. That's not what the party of Lincoln should stand for!"

Buchanan is at his rhetorical best when he is talking in broad strokes about issues such as race or communism or conservatism.

But when audience questions get away from ideologies and into details, this is where the candidate and the campaign begin to unravel.

In February, at an Elks Lodge in Claremont, N.H., I saw Buchanan stumble through an answer on health care that made it clear he had no detailed grasp of the issue. That, however, was at the very beginning of the presidential campaign.

Yet it is now March, several primaries later, and Buchanan still has no grasp of the issue, even though he gets asked about it all the time.

"We've got to get the economy up and going and get business up and going and we need some sort of program for individuals who are working that provides the same health care as people on welfare!" Buchanan said at Elmhurst College. "We need something!"

Something? Some sort of program? What thing? What sort of program?

Pat Buchanan does not know. And does not particularly care.

Because he is not running for president in 1992 in order to become president in 1992. And I doubt, though many disagree, that he is running now in order to get a head start on 1996.

No, Pat Buchanan is campaigning where it is comfortable for him to campaign, where the crowds are likely to be supportive (and white), and where he does not have to get into technical, detailed issues for one reason:

Like all columnists and TV stars, he is in love with the sound of his own voice. And he wants as many people as possible to hear that voice for as long as possible.

And so he ends most of his speeches the same way:

"You might disagree with Pat Buchanan, you might figure well he's good on "Crossfire", but the presidency is a bit of a reach. But why end the debate? If you vote for Pat Buchanan, you can keep the debate going!"

And going, and going and going and . . .

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