When Patrick Buchanan swooped into a suburban Virginia hotel on October 25 to formally shred his ties to the Republican Party, a shiny new issue emerged awkwardly from his clutch of conservative concerns: electoral reform. Strongly felt tenets of the Reform Party such as ballot access and campaign finance reform suddenly became Buchanan’s causes, too. “Our vaunted two-party system is a snare and a delusion, a fraud upon the nation,” he told the cheering crowd of 350 supporters. “Our two parties have become nothing but two wings of the same bird of prey.”
Buchanan is a late arrival to reform–both the party and the concept of clean elections. Together with his sister Angela “Bay” Buchanan, who perched at the edge of the flag-lined stage as he made his announcement, Buchanan has built one of the most rapacious political machines in the country. Pat is the peacock. Every four years he takes a break from his work as a television pundit to strut the campaign trail, throwing out sharp-tongued barbs as quickly as he can think them up. Bay tends the nest. As compulsively organized as her brother is freewheeling, she keeps the campaign running with an attention to detail that aides describe as obsessive. She “runs it like a general,” Pat’s wife, Shelley, told the Christian Science Monitor. “There wouldn’t be a campaign if it weren’t for Bay.”
Pat and Bay have built a semipermanent organization that has promoted conservative causes while at the same time making them rich. They’ve become experts at the lucrative game of direct-mail fundraising and masters at qualifying for federal matching funds. In between presidential elections, they continue their issue-advocacy and fundraising operations through a tightly controlled nonprofit organization. In this fashion, Buchanan Inc. has been promoting Pat’s television and publishing careers–and employing Bay full time–since 1992.
Having already embarrassed President George Bush in 1992 and briefly sidelined Senator Bob Dole in 1996, this predatory pair have now fixed their sights on the Reform Party. The hunt will not be easy: Bay must land Pat’s name on ballots in twenty-nine states where Reform is not recognized and snag the largest number of mail-in votes in a chaotic open primary. They’ll have to fend off attacks from Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura and New York real estate tycoon Donald Trump. And they’ll have to scrape together a minimum of $4 million more in campaign cash. But the prize they aim to snatch is meaty indeed: an extended campaign, a shot at presidential debates and an extra $12.6 million in party matching funds.
Patrick Buchanan moved into his first White House office three decades ago, as a speechwriter and senior adviser for President Richard Nixon. There he coined the phrase “silent majority” and helped shape the middlebrow strategy that drew millions of hard-hat Democrats to Nixon. “We should move to re-capture the anti-Establishment tradition or theme in American politics,” Buchanan wrote in a typical 1972 memo. The candidate who now calls for clean elections also popularized the phrase “political hardball”–proposing, for example, that the Internal Revenue Service be ordered to investigate liberal think tanks.
Watergate devastated Buchanan, who considered Nixon a second father. He unleashed his fury at traitorous “liberal elites” through a barrage of pugilistic punditry that subsequently transformed him into the nation’s best-known Angry White Guy. Today he is a multimillionaire defined as much by his contradictions as his convictions. He paints himself as an outsider running against Washington, yet he’s lived inside the Beltway for all but four of his 61 years. A devout Catholic, he appeals to evangelical Christians whose lives revolve around their families, though he himself has never had children.