An ugly face in Houston


POLITICS," Henry Adams observed, "is the systematic organization of hatreds."

In Houston the country-club Republicans supplied the organization and the Buchanan-Robertson brigades supplied the hatreds.

Even as the Democratic fringe was being shown the door by the party's new leadership, the GOP was surrendering to its own fringe, the San Jacinto Republicans.

San Jacinto is the marshy site near the convention center where, in 1836, Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna managed to turn his overwhelming advantages over Sam Houston's small army of rebel Texans into a debacle.

Santa Anna's tactics -- take no prisoners, burn everything -- only reinforced Texan resistance to his reactionary authoritarianism.

There is a moral here worth considering as the Republicans, scorching the earth as they go, march off into the fever swamps. Santa Anna would find himself at home in the pantheon of Patrick J. Buchanan, an acknowledged fan of two 20th-century Catholic tyrants, Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet.

The traditional values upheld by Santa Anna -- reactionary Catholicism, militarism, contempt for pettifogging parliaments and civil rights, hatred of subversive immigrants -- are closer to those of the Buchanan brigades than the values of live-and-let-live Texans such as Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, William Barret Travis (a divorced womanizer) and Sam Houston (a divorced atheist known among the Cherokees as Big Drunk).

What would hell-for-leather heroes of the Texas Revolution think of Mr. Buchanan, a Washington journalist who, though he never spent a day in battle, rants obsessively about soldiers and policemen -- a brave patriot who, having earlier identified the greatest threat to America after the Cold War as (largely Jewish) neo-conservative professors, now mans the ramparts to protect the Republic from lesbians?

Whether the San Jacinto Republicans lead the GOP to re-enact the fate of the San Jacinto Mexicans or not, one thing is clear: Mr. Buchanan, with the help of the Rev. Mr. Robertson, is undisputed leader of the masses of the American right.

That means the chances for a responsible, intelligent conservatism are in danger.

The William F. Buckleys and Irving Kristols who detoxified the right are being succeeded by a generation of Buchanans and Rush Limbaughs setting up a retox ward.

As the saints come marching in, watch for a lot of others -- Reagan Democrats, moderate Sun Belt suburban Perotistas, neo-conservatives -- to go marching out.

There is no big tent in Houston, only a revival tent. No doubt, in the weeks ahead moderates will try to erase this impression.

What can decent Republicans such as Jack Kemp offer mainstream Americans who are repelled by the militant fundamentalism of the Buchanan brigades? A capital gains tax cut? Enterprise zones?

These are not ideas to send middle Americans to the barricades -- even to the polls.

Most likely the voters in November will remember what they have seen this week: conservatism with an ugly face.

So far the convention's mascot has been The Snarl, in all its varieties -- the self-conscious sneer of Rich Bond, the pugnacious frown of Phil Gramm and above all the tight-lipped grimace of Pat Buchanan.

Like a dark parody of the Cheshire Cat, the San Jacinto Republicans, as they fade into the swamp gas, leave nothing but a disembodied scowl.

Michael Lind is executive editor of the National Interest.

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