Two weeks before the Republican presidential vote comes to Maryland, David Blumberg is remembering four years ago and eight years ago. Jesse Jackson, he says. Jackson was the soft spot. Today they're voting in New Hampshire. Patrick Buchanan, says David Blumberg. Buchanan is the Republican Party's Jesse Jackson.
He is talking vulnerability. He is talking of those in politics whose causes, for better or worse, become lightning rods of anger for their opponents. Four years ago, the Democrats ran Bill Clinton, but the Republicans talked Jackson. Eight years ago, the Democrats ran Michael Dukakis, but the Republicans talked Jackson.
"We'd make speeches prepared by the Republican National Committee," Blumberg, chairman of Baltimore's Republican Party, was remembering yesterday. "We were told to highlight Jackson as much as Dukakis or Clinton, even after Jackson had stopped running, even after Clinton and Dukakis had gotten the nomination.
"The idea was, the voters are leery. Remind them that the Democratic Party is the party of Jackson, that they had to play ball with Jackson and the things he stood for. Now, Pat Buchanan has risen to that kind of prominence. He exposes the vulnerability of his party."
As the Republicans go to the polls in New Hampshire today, not everyone thinks of Buchanan as a liability, but there's nastiness in the air. He won in Louisiana and finished a close second in Iowa. The polls say he's surging in New Hampshire. David Blumberg cringes at the news, and not only because he's backing Bob Dole.
In New Hampshire, one of Buchanan's campaign co-chairmen, Larry Pratt, stepped aside last week amid allegations by the Center for Public Integrity that he has "a track record of working with leaders of the Aryan Nation, a white supremacist organization that organizes neo-Nazi skinheads and leaders of the militia movement."
The next day, Susan Lamb, acting chairwoman of the Buchanan campaign in Duval County, Fla., was removed after it was revealed that she was a local leader of the National Association for the Advancement of White People, a group founded by former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke.
On such matters, David Blumberg shakes his head in sadness and wonders at the political benefits the Democrats will gain. But, on the telephone from New Hampshire yesterday, Buchanan's deputy press secretary, K. B. Forbes, complained that too much was being made of Larry Pratt and Susan Lamb.
"From his experience in the Nixon campaign, Mr. Buchanan feels these are dirty tricks and smears," Forbes said. It's a weird time, and an odd point of pride, to link Buchanan with the old dirty trickster himself, Richard Nixon -- unless Forbes is saying it takes one to know one. Anyway, he quickly added, for perhaps the 400th time, "Larry Pratt took a leave of absence to answer what he calls these false and slanderous allegations. The woman [Lamb] was immediately let go as a volunteer."
But the damage has been felt. The neo-Nazi connection raises uncomfortable memories of previous Buchanan remarks and have quickly become material for comics. On television, comedian Bill Maher declared, "The Nazi ties were denied by Buchanan spokesman Joseph Goebbels. He said Larry Pratt was fired from his political duties, but he'll still handle the campaign's medical experiments. ... Buchanan went to breakfast the other day and ordered the luftwaffles."
K. B. Forbes says such focus is unfair. He called the Buchanan campaign "a battle of ideas." He may be right. The question is: Which ideas?
Four years ago, Buchanan declared this: "The U.S. should stand up for values, shared values. Why are we more shocked when a dozen people are killed in Vilnius than a massacre in Burundi? Because they are white people. That's who we are. That's where America comes from."
And this: "The other day, Shelley [his wife] went down Connecticut Avenue and these guys were sitting on the corner playing bongo drums. I mean, this is the town I grew up in."
He's the one who said American kids with non-Jewish names went to war in the Persian Gulf only because of Israel's "amen corner" in Washington.
He's also the guy who once called Adolf Hitler "an individual of great courage." Louis Farrakhan says it, and he's branded a racist fanatic. Buchanan says it, and he's still a serious contender for the presidency. And we're supposed to be surprised at a Larry Pratt or a Susan Lamb in his campaign?
Thus, yesterday, we had the Baltimore Republican Chairman David Blumberg, two weeks before his party's Maryland primary, shuddering at the long-range damage Pat Buchanan causes his party.
"He's very good at hitting nerves," Blumberg said. "When he gave that speech at the Republican convention four years ago, I walked out. I knew America was watching at home, and they were thinking, Buchanan's making it official: This is the party of exclusion.
"I'll tell you something. I think he had more to do with George Bush's defeat than Bill Clinton did."
And that was before anyone heard of Larry Pratt or Susan Lamb.