When Pat Buchanan spoke yesterday at the Institute of Politics, he got at least one thing right: "Pat Buchanan is not a beloved figure in America, but neither is Harvard." Unfortunately, during the course of yesterday's spectacle, the basis of Harvard's poor reputation was more apparent than the basis of Buchanan's.
Given the multitude of very good reasons to dislike Buchanan, this should not have been the case. We all know that Buchanan is, shall we say, right of center. He is opposed to gay rights, has rather backward opinions regarding the place of women, and he seems to harbor a bit of a xenophobic streak. There is also ample evidence in his remarks about the Holocaust and Israel to suggest that he isn't exactly a friend of the Jews.
Yet, remarkably, Buchanan's prejudices were nearly overshadowed yesterday by the extraordinary insolence of Harvard's student body. Thankfully, students were better behaved than they were two years ago when Ralph Reed came to speak. On that occasion, a group of overgrown infants in the audience decided to stage a public orgy in order to prevent the Christian Coalition leader from even delivering his address. Yesterday's audience was gracious enough to permit Buchanan a few words. However, when the floor was opened for questions, Harvard's true colors shined through.
One man rose to the microphone and inquired, "Mr. Buchanan, I was wondering if you would like to go out on a date with me tonight?" In response, the audience guffawed with delight. Another student pointedly explained to Buchanan, in what was more an exposition than an inquiry, that he possessed "no redeeming qualities." When Buchanan observed that, based on the demographics of the country at large, white Catholics and Christians are currently the most underrepresented group at Harvard, an undergraduate rose to retort, "Well, perhaps white Catholics and Christians such as yourself are not qualified to be here."
Less egregiously rude, but equally unproductive, were those who called Buchanan to task for his past offenses, both spoken and written. There are certainly plenty of these, and bringing them to light is a legitimate tactic of criticism. But, for some reason, those at yesterday's address felt compelled to employ what I can only describe as a carpet-bombing approach. Rather than rationally probe Buchanan's extremely vulnerable ideas, each questioner, in their turn, would simply let out a maelstrom: "Mr. Buchanan, in 1977 you wrote 'x' about the Jews. In 1983 you wrote 'y' about black people. In 1986 you said 'z' about women. Please respond." The effect, and apparently the intention, was not to rightly illustrate the flaws in Buchanan's outlook, but merely to assail him with a barrage of hostility.
The atmosphere in the Forum degenerated to such an extent that IOP Director Alan K. Simpson was forced to take the podium and implore the audience to present substantive questions and not personal attacks. The audience toned down their antics from that moment on, but by then there was little time left in Buchanan's appearance. When the event finally came to a close, those valiant soldiers of the Left who had unleashed their vitriol undoubtedly felt a deep sense of satisfaction. Not every day does a paladin have the opportunity to confront the Devil himself, and besides, it's always nice to vent.
It is too bad, however, that the crusaders spoiled such a valuable opportunity to really tackle Buchanan's message. As much as we would like to dismiss Buchanan as a stone-age bigot and group him alongside David Duke, such a characterization is not entirely accurate. Buchanan has somehow managed to avoid the oblivion of the fringe. For starters, his philosophy of "economic patriotism" is based on ideas that are popular across the political spectrum. On issues such as free-trade and globalization, Harvard students should keep in mind that in addition to millions of blue-collar workers, Buchanan can claim the sympathies of Ralph Nader, and even to some extent, our own Professor of Government, Michael J. Sandel.
Further, Buchanan may not be a popular powerhouse, but he is likely to be the only significant third-party candidate in the upcoming Presidential campaign. Now that the Democrats and Republicans have decided to nominate Tweetle-Dum and Tweetle-Dee, Buchanan is well-situated to adopt John S. McCain's message of campaign finance reform. It is a message that has demonstrated its broad appeal, and many who are less passionate about social issues may not care that it is now Buchanan who carries it.
All of this is not to say that Buchanan deserved a warm reception yesterday--Nazi apologists generally do not. Nevertheless, his appearance was a squandered opportunity for Harvard students to explore the platform of a man who may be more than an insignificant player in this year's race for the White House. A sophisticated discussion of Buchanan's policies might have given him, and the independents in the audience, something to think about. Yesterday, by confirming the country's worst suspicions about Harvard's self-righteous arrogance, we only alienated those independents and fueled Buchanan's devotion to his frightening cause.
Noah D. Oppenheim '00 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.