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Jewish World Review Sept. 28, 1999 /18 Tishrei, 5760

Ben Wattenberg

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Smart cookie? Crackpot? -- ONCE AGAIN, the question: Is Pat Buchanan a smart cookie or a crackpot?

The case for smart cookie concerns Pat's flirtation with the Reform Party, founded by Ross Perot (speaking of crackpots).

In August, Buchanan got 7 percent in the Iowa straw poll, behind religious conservative Gary Bauer, among voters once believed sympathetic to Buchanan. It wasn't that Pat wasn't well-known; his recognition factor is 84 percent.

It wasn't that he didn't know how to campaign in small venues; he won the 1996 Louisiana caucuses. Fact is, of prospective candidates, Buchanan has the highest negative ratings. A July survey shows Buchanan at 21 percent "favorable" versus 50 percent "unfavorable."

So Pat announces that Republicans are just Xerox copies of Democrats and courts the Reformers and their $12 million in public campaign funds. He sticks with his old themes: a "time-out" on immigration, and protectionism to "save American jobs." I think these views are wrong-headed, but they are surely within the ambit of current American thought. Trying to turn adversity to good fortune is the mark of a smart cookie.

To see the crackpot case, turn to Buchanan's new book, "A Republic, Not an Empire," published to coincide with his presidential run. Pat is running for president by opposing America's victorious role in World War II! (Which ended 55 years ago.) Pat is running against encouraging democracy! (Just when it is spreading to every corner of the world.) Better to run against motherhood.

World War II holds a powerful place in America's soul. More than 16 million Americans fought the war. Count their spouses, descendants and close relatives. About 80 percent of likely voters have a profound and direct familial connection with the war.

How do Americans feel about it? The title of Tom Brokaw's book "The Greatest Generation" sums it up. Voters are proud that they, or their parents or their grandparents, played a central role in destroying regimes that were casting totalitarian darkness across the earth. Coupled with a later victory in the Cold War, Americans believe they have been instrumental in the survival of human liberty. The story is remembered in fading photo albums on most every street in America. Books and movies about World War II attract huge audiences.

Buchanan says Americans were tricked into entering the war. It was all a terrible mistake. Prime Minister Tojo and Reichsfuehrer Hitler were misunderstood.

When World War II began, the Japanese had already invaded China, Korea and Manchuria, slaughtering millions of civilians. America put on trade sanctions. But, says Pat, the Japanese would have "lost face" if they backed down. And so, on December 7, 1941, Japanese forces killed Americans and sank American battleships at Pearl Harbor. To further salve their wounded pride, they invaded the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, Thailand, Burma, the Dutch East Indies and many Pacific islands.

Hitler? Also misunderstood. In 1939, in cahoots with the Soviets, the Nazis invaded Poland, to the East. But, says Pat, Hitler probably never would have turned West. Alas, England and France had an alliance with Poland. World War II formally began. But there was no fighting in Western Europe until the misunderstood Nazis occupied Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, France and then the rest of the European mainland, as well as a good piece of North Africa. Three days after misunderstood Japan attacked America, misunderstood Hitler declared war on America and accelerated his nuclear weapons program.

As Buchanan sees it, the Nazis were "impelled" into such actions. Who did the impelling? A sneaky American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who "maneuver(ed) the United States into war." How? Pat complains that Roosevelt didn't tell the whole truth during an election year! (Buchanan worked for President Nixon for all of his one and a half terms.)

Why did it happen? Of course (all agree) there were blunders. But the real reason, says Buchanan, was that American elites were enthralled by "Wilsonianism," the view held by President Woodrow Wilson that the world would be a safer and better place, for America, if more people were more free.

Buchanan has never accepted the idea that the principal threat to humanity in the 20th century was the totalitarian forces of both right and left, and that, in opposition, the pursuit of democratic values has been in the American interest. (Such pursuit, he says, gets us into Kosovo.)

So, seeking the presidency, Buchanan purposefully takes on two of the most profound American ideas -- that we stand for something great and that our heroes fought for principle.

Not tactically smart. Does he think his views will not be challenged? Does he think his views do not tarnish the American experience? Does he think his views will not anger those who sacrificed for liberty, and their descendants who honor that sacrifice?

This is not a smart cookie. The needle is swinging toward crackpot.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may comment by clicking here.

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