In the weeks since President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, one question has consumed the news media, particularly conservatives in the media: Imagine what would happen if a white man had said the reverse of Sotomayor's famous (and famously distorted) "wise Latina" comment. Media commentators have insisted that such a white man would be denounced as a racist and run out of town on a rail.
That's nonsense. First of all, Sotomayor's actual comments were far more innocuous than the media's portrayal of them would suggest; she was merely noting the importance of judicial diversity in cases involving discrimination, a sentiment that is consistent with statements by numerous prominent conservatives. Second, as Reason magazine's Julian Sanchez has noted, "[I]t would be weird for a white man to say it because it's probably not true that the experience of growing up as a white male in the United States specifically enhances one's understanding of what it means to be a disfavored minority."
Finally, the media debate over Sotomayor has provided a depressing reminder of what does happen to prominent white men who make racist, sexist, and homophobic comments: MSNBC, among others, puts them on payroll and trots them out to opine on matters of race and gender.
MSNBC's history in this regard is well-known. The cable channel gave Michael Savage his own television show, and then had to fire him when he told a caller to "get AIDS and die." It gave Don Imus a television show, and then had to fire him when he called members of the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos." It gave Chris Matthews a television show on which he had to issue a bizarre apology after making one sexist comment too many. (No such apology has been forthcoming for his habit of suggesting minorities are not "regular" people.)
But through it all, MSNBC has continued to employ Pat Buchanan, despite a long record -- which he builds on frequently -- of bigoted speech. Throughout his time in public life, Buchanan has engaged in speech characteristic of an era in which open prejudice was the norm. And yet no one in the mainstream media bats an eye over the fact that he continues to enjoy a position of influence and prestige on what is increasingly -- though not convincingly -- described as a "liberal" cable channel.
Buchanan has used his position at MSNBC to lead the charge against Sotomayor with dishonest and often unhinged diatribes against the nominee. He even offered an ugly and misleading attack on her for doing exactly what he has always claimed to want non-native English speakers in America to do: practice their English language skills.
That MSNBC grants Buchanan such a platform is remarkable in light of the long history of bipartisan denunciation of him. In 1991, conservative icon William F. Buckley wrote in National Review that it was "impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he did and said during the period under examination, the military build-up for the Gulf War, amounted to anti-Semitism." During Buchanan's 1996 presidential campaign, he faced considerable media scrutiny of his views and statements, including an extremely contentious appearance on ABC that featured a grilling by conservative George Will and fellow Beltway insider Cokie Roberts. That same year, then-RNC chairman Rich Bond said Buchanan was "heading toward a low-road message of anger, hate and race-baiting." During Buchanan's 1999-2000 presidential campaign, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer said, "There's no doubt he makes subliminal appeals to prejudice."
Neither RNC chairs nor conservative columnists are known for their tendency to denounce their own in such strong terms. But Buchanan makes such assessments difficult to avoid. He has compiled a 40-year record of blatantly -- and, at times, seemingly gleefully -- bigoted statements.
Oddly, the more time goes by, and the further removed America is from the time when sentiments like those regularly expressed by Buchanan were widely accepted, the media increasingly give him a pass. During Buchanan's 2000 campaign, Jake Tapper examined the media's bizarre unwillingness to address Buchanan's history of racism and anti-Semitism. Tapper quoted journalists Michael Kinsley and Howard Kurtz suggesting that the media give Buchanan a pass because he is a "pal" and a "member of the fraternity."
That is certainly plausible -- and consistent with the kid-glove treatment Don Imus long enjoyed. But Buchanan was a member of the fraternity in 1996, too, when fellow fraternity members Cokie Roberts, George Will, and Sam Donaldson grilled him, and when the media as a whole took a close look at his track record. Buchanan's standing in The Village cannot, by itself, explain the media's current indifference to his rhetorical excesses. MSNBC's decade-long hospitality to prejudice and slur, combined with its growing influence over the chattering class, likely plays a role as well.
So, too, does the fact that many of Buchanan's most shocking statements seem to have disappeared down the memory hole. That, at least, is easy enough to fix.
In Nixonland, his definitive account of the era, historian Rick Perlstein notes that as an editorial writer for the far-right St. Louis Globe-Democrat in the 1960s, Buchanan specialized in "disseminating smears about civil rights leaders passed on by J. Edgar Hoover."
Buchanan then became a close aide to Richard Nixon, where, according to Tapper, he was a zealous advocate for segregation:
Even Richard Nixon found the views of his former speech writer, Buchanan, too extreme on the segregation issue. According to a John Ehrlichman memo referenced in Nicholas Lemann's "The Promised Land," Nixon characterized Buchanan's views as "segregation forever."
After Nixon was reelected, Buchanan warned his boss not to "fritter away his present high support in the nation for an ill-advised governmental effort to forcibly integrate races."
In a memo Buchanan wrote while working in the Nixon White House, he dismissed a massacre in which 67 blacks were shot to death by South African police as nothing more than "a few South African whites mistreating a couple of blacks." Concern over the shooting, Buchanan wrote, was "racist and ideological." That's right: Buchanan denounced concern over white South African police officers massacring 67 blacks, rather than the shootings themselves, as "racist." He peppered memos with the most offensive of slurs: Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko was "the house nigger of the Politburo" in Buchanan's memos, and according to Perlstein, Buchanan complained in a memo to the president that conservatives were the "niggers of the Nixon administration."
Buchanan urged Nixon not to visit Rev. Martin Luther King's widow, warning that such a visit would "outrage many, many people who believe Dr. King was a fraud and a demagogue and perhaps worse. ... Others consider him the Devil incarnate. Dr. King is one of the most divisive men in contemporary history."
Of course, there were a lot of similarly minded people in Nixon-era America, many of whom have seen the error of their ways. Buchanan is virtually unique among public proponents of segregation and purveyors of bigoted speech in that he alone has maintained a position of prominence in national politics while adding to, rather than repudiating, his record of bigoted rhetoric.
In 1983, Buchanan wrote that "homosexuals ... have declared war on nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution." (During his 1992 presidential campaign, he stood by that view, insisting "AIDS is nature's retribution for violating the laws of nature.") In his 1990 book, Right From the Beginning, Buchanan reminisced fondly about his childhood in segregated Washington, D.C.: "In the late 1940's and 1950's ... race was never a preoccupation with us, we rarely thought about it. ... There were no politics to polarize us then, to magnify every slight. The 'Negroes' of Washington had their public schools, restaurants, bars, movie houses, playgrounds and churches; and we had ours." That same year, he complained that the poor "Euro-Americans" just couldn't catch a break:
The Negroes of the '50s became the blacks of the '60's; now, the "African-Americans" of the 90's demand racial quotas and set-asides, as the Democrats eagerly assent and a pandering GOP prepares to go along.
Who speaks for the Euro-Americans, who founded the U.S.A.? ... Is it not time to take America back?
In a 1989 column, Buchanan argued in defense of men-only golf courses: "Who was injured, whose rights violated, because, for 67 years, men could take an afternoon off at Burning Tree to hit a golf ball around 18 holes and down a few martinis? What self-respecting woman would want to invade this men's club, when it was evident the men did not want her there?"
In the very next paragraph, Buchanan fondly remembered traipsing around an all-male golf course with the likes of Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower, oblivious to the fact that in hinting at the (men-only) networking that took place on such courses, he was answering his own question about why women would want to be there, and how they were injured by being kept out.
And in classic Buchanan style, those who wanted to end discrimination were portrayed as the real bigots: "[T]here is something truly mean-spirited in this relentless pursuit of Burning Tree by feminist ideologues. And it has a name: bigotry. Not the innocuous male chauvinism of the Burning Tree members, but the anti-white-male malevolence of their pursuers."
In that same 1989 column, Buchanan went on to defend Bob Jones University's ban on interracial dating.
In 1990, Buchanan managed to find a way to feel gloomy about the release of Nelson Mandela and the prospect of majority rule in South Africa:
[I]t is difficult to share the wild enthusiasm about the news that Nelson Mandela will be released, that South Africa, too, may soon enjoy the blessings of "majority rule."
Comes the answer: Because we stand for democracy! Because white rule of a black majority is inherently wrong!
But, where did we get that idea? The Founding Fathers did not believe this. They did not give the Indians, who were still living a tribal existence, the right to vote us out of North America. When they created the Republic, they restricted the franchise to property-owning males, believing that not every man was qualified to rule, nor every people prepared for self-government. If the past 30 years [of African history] taught us nothing else, it has surely taught us that.
In 1991, Buchanan had an astonishing complaint about a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan: "David Duke is busy stealing from me. I have a mind to go down there and sue that dude for intellectual property theft." Perhaps Duke was merely returning the favor; in 1989, Buchanan had urged the Republican Party to "[t]ake a hard look at Duke's portfolio of winning issues and expropriate those not in conflict with GOP principles, [such as] reverse discrimination against white folks."
At the Republican National Convention in 1992, he denounced "the amoral idea that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women." In that infamous speech, Buchanan also declared a "religious war ... a cultural war ... for the soul of America." It's a war Buchanan has been losing for decades, but one he shows no signs of abandoning.
During his 1996 presidential campaign, Buchanan chose as campaign co-chair a certain Larry Pratt, who the Southern Poverty Law Center says, "may well be the person who brought the concept of citizen militias to the radical right." When Pratt's associations with white supremacists surfaced, Buchanan defended him, though Pratt eventually had to step down.
Last year, Buchanan suggested that slavery worked out pretty well for "black folks":
First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.
Again, that was just last year. And Buchanan went on to argue that "no people anywhere has done more to lift up blacks than white Americans," an assertion he supported with a laundry list of government programs that, though he didn't mention this part, he spent his career opposing. Nor did he mention the inconvenient fact of his opposition to integration.
Instead, the man who once wrote in a memo to Richard Nixon that "integration of blacks and whites ... is less likely to result in accommodation than it is in perpetual friction, as the incapable are placed consciously by government side by side with the capable," now argues that African-Americans are insufficiently grateful for the gifts white America has given them, starting with slavery.
Buchanan has called Adolf Hitler an "individual of great courage." He also questioned whether World War II was "worth it" and wondered, "[W]hy destroy Hitler?" That wasn't 40 years ago; that was just four years ago. Just last year, he wrote that the Holocaust happened not because of Hitler, but because of Churchill.
That actually may demonstrate a hint of progress for Buchanan: At least he acknowledged the Holocaust did happen. In the past, he has peddled bizarre Holocaust denial claims, and as recently as two months ago, compared suspected Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk to Jesus Christ.
Defending an accused Nazi war criminal is one thing. Relying on the discredited arguments of Holocaust deniers in order to do so is quite another. And that's exactly what Buchanan has done.
In a 1990 column defending Demjanjuk, Buchanan wrote: "Reportedly, half of the 20,000 survivor testimonies in Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem are considered 'unreliable' " because of "Holocaust Survivor Syndrome," which involves "group fantasies of martyrdom and heroics." Buchanan didn't say who "reported" this claim, which would fit in nicely in the most extreme Holocaust denial literature. Nor did he identify a source for his claim that Jews could not have been killed at Treblinka because "[d]iesel engines do not emit enough carbon monoxide to kill anybody," a claim he purported to prove by noting that, in 1988, "97 kids, trapped 400 feet underground in a Washington, DC tunnel while two locomotives spewed diesel exhaust into the car, emerged unharmed after 45 minutes." Buchanan later refused to tell journalist Jacob Weisberg where he got that anecdote, saying only, "Somebody sent it to me." Evidence strongly suggests the claim came from a Holocaust denial newsletter. Regardless of where Buchanan got his theories about diesel engines, the mass graves at Treblinka are rather more persuasive.
Buchanan's bizarre comments about Nazis and the Holocaust kicked into high gear during his time as a columnist, but his questionable approach to the subject began earlier. As an aide to President Reagan, Buchanan successfully urged his boss to visit Germany's Bitburg cemetery, where Nazi troops are buried. Buchanan was reportedly responsible for Reagan's statement that the SS troops buried there were "victims just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps."
Buchanan's ability to identify real victims certainly hasn't improved. In 2007, after Don Imus was fired for his "nappy-headed hos" comment, Buchanan defended him as "more a victim of hatred than a perpetrator of hatred."
As a Nixon aide, Buchanan supported the nomination of Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court. Four years ago, he complained that Carswell's nomination failed because the nominee was "smeared" as a racist. Smeared? Really? Carswell gave a speech in which he boasted, "I believe that segregation of the races is proper ... and the only practical and correct way of life in our states. I yield to no man in the firm, vigorous belief in the principles of white supremacy and I shall always be so governed."
That's who Pat Buchanan defends: suspected Nazi war criminals and self-proclaimed white supremacists.
No wonder he's such a popular guest on "pro-White" radio shows that are streamed live on "White Nationalist" websites. And again: That's not something he did 30 years ago. That's something he did last year.
And whom does he attack? Immigrants. Gays (whom Buchanan compares to alcoholics). Women (whose ability to speak he compares with the ability of dogs to walk upright on their hind legs -- both tasks, according to Buchanan, are surprising but performed with limited success).
Incredibly, MSNBC trots him out to discuss race and gender issues, as though the views he represents are needed for "balance." And so MSNBC viewers are treated to the bizarre spectacle of Pat Buchanan loudly insisting that everyone else is a racist. Sonia Sotomayor? Racist. Harry Reid? Racist. Eric Holder? Displays "almost paralyzing stupidity" in talking about race.
If there is a consistent theme to Buchanan's rhetoric over the past four decades, it is that the real bigotry is displayed by women and minorities, and bigotry's real victims are white males. At this point, it would be surprising if he didn't call Sonia Sotomayor a racist.
But the most extraordinary thing about MSNBC's continued employment of Pat Buchanan is that all of this barely scratches the surface. Anyone willing to devote a few minutes can easily find dozens, if not hundreds, more examples of flagrantly over-the-top rhetoric targeting racial and ethnic minorities, women, gays, and immigrants, among others -- from the '60s through the present day.
Pat Buchanan's bigoted comments are not merely an aspect of his public persona; if they are not what he is best known for, they should be. MSNBC needs to explain why they are not disqualifying.
Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.