Published: Nov. 20, 2004, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
More than 12 years ago, Patrick J. Buchanan spoke these prophetic words during his speech at the Republican National Convention in Houston:
“My friends, this election is about much more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe. It is about what we stand for as Americans. “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.”
Immediately afterward, Buchanan was roundly denounced as a polemicist and even scorned by members of his own party. Some called it a hate speech; others groused about the political fallout and later blamed him for George H. W. Bush’s failure to win re-election in 1992. Whether or not you agree with his politics, Buchanan had the foresight and fortitude to call attention to philosophical warfare that was real then and remains so today.
Since Nov. 2, analysts all over the airwaves and in print are still scrambling to understand the so-called moral values phenomena that proved so pivotal in our recent election. Debate has centered on the phraseology used during exit polls and which voters actually espoused which values in their voting patterns. It is instructive, however, to go back to that summer evening in August 1992, and recall what Buchanan said about America’s moral values, and compare that to what happened at the polls this autumn:
“We stand with President Bush for right-to-life and for voluntary prayer in the public schools.”
Abortion and religious expression have not taken a back seat at the American kitchen table of debate, not even close. Neither has the topic of how American power is projected throughout the world. Although he opposed the invasion of Iraq, few people can turn a phrase on the subject of using America’s military might as effectively as Buchanan did that August evening in 1992:
“It is said that each president will be recalled by posterity - with but a single sentence. George Washington was the father of our country. Abraham Lincoln preserved the union. And Ronald Reagan won the Cold War.
And it is time my old colleagues, the columnists and commentators, looking down on us tonight from their anchor booths and sky boxes, gave Ronald Reagan the credit he deserves - for leading America to victory in the Cold War.”
I felt that the 2004 presidential candidates’ differing views on national security and the war on terror were among the most important factors in this election.
Everyone wants peace and freedom, but I often place it first on my punch list as a voter because without it, little else matters. Sen. John Kerry’s opposition to the 1990 Gulf War, his on-again, off-again support for the Iraq war, his disgraceful Senate Committee testimony as a Vietnam veteran and his disturbing “global test” to see a foreign show of hands before taking action scared me. But back to that Aug. 17, 1992, Buchanan speech:
“We stand with (the president) against the amoral idea that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women. “
More recently, on Nov. 2, 2004, voters in the 11 states containing a referendum on the issue of gay marriage agreed with Buchanan. Whether those votes constituted an actual plebiscite on the morality of gay marriage is less clear than the fact that 11 states uniformly rejected the concept, while Democrats remained oddly divided on the subject. Buchanan also made this observation in 1992:
“And we stand with President Bush in favor of the right of small towns and communities to control the raw sewage of pornography that pollutes our popular culture.”
In the old days, when conservatives would complain about overt sexuality in TV movies and programs, the standard liberal retort was, “If you don’t like it, just change the channel.” It worked, too, because if you argued with them, they’d cry censorship and take the debate to a new and wholly unrelated dimension. Now sexual images are so ubiquitous in advertisements that you can’t simply turn the channel or flip the page. These days, even the Super Bowl halftime show has become hazardous viewing for children.
Yet as the dust begins to settle from the harsh 2004 campaign, I am thinking as much about how we treated one another as the convictions we expressed during combat. How we debate our values is a value unto itself. This election season reminded me of how hard it could be to have civil disagreements with any measure of civility. Fortunately, personal attacks, racial or sexual slurs and cheap shots designed to maim the spirit did not win this election.
Unfortunately, in the heat of debate, it was harder to remember that value as easily as it is to write about it now. But Old Pugnacious Pat saw it coming all along.