Pat Buchanan's 1992 'Culture War' Speech Hits Even Harder Today: 'Greatest Man Who Never Became President'


Thirty-one years ago, Pat Buchanan was to Republicans what Ralph Nader was to Democrats in 2000: the man who cost his party the White House.

Buchanan, a former Nixon aide and political pundit, launched a long-shot primary challenge against sitting President George H.W. Bush on the grounds Bush was insufficiently culturally conservative and didn’t care enough about keeping American jobs in America. The campaign was initially considered a joke — until Buchanan scored 38 percent in the New Hampshire primary to Bush’s 53 percent.

While Buchanan didn’t win any of the primaries, he continued to poll respectably. He was already a pariah by the time he arrived at the Republican National Convention; any kind of primary challenge against an incumbent president that picks up some momentum is almost always the kiss of death for the incumbent: Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter lost their re-election bids after challenges from Ronald Reagan and Teddy Kennedy, respectively, and Lyndon Johnson simply threw in the towel after anti-Vietnam candidate Eugene McCarthy garnered a shockingly high 42 percent in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, announcing he was giving up his re-election bid.

And then, Buchanan delivered what became known as the “Culture War” speech at the Republican National Convention in Houston. For those watching at home, you could almost hear the jaws of the collective Republican establishment dropping to the floor inside the Astrodome.

And yet, the media tried to pretend it wasn’t important. Here was the coverage it got in The New York Times: “But it was Mr. Buchanan, in a speech Friday night, who most forcefully posed a Democratic victory as a personal threat to the audience here. Speaking of the rioting in Los Angeles last spring, he warned that ‘barbarians’ are taking over American cities. ‘Where did that mob come from?’ he asked. ‘It came out of public schools where God and the Ten Commandments and the Bible were long ago expelled.’ And, like many of the speakers, he blamed the Democrats in Congress for thwarting Mr. Reagan’s efforts to restore prayer in the public schools.”

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When Bush lost, mind you, more was made of the speech, blaming Buchanan for the loss and the Republicans sharp turn to the right: “It probably sounded better in the original German,” liberal journalist Molly Ivins said. According to The American Conservative, a Bush campaign operative by the name of George W. Bush — you may be familiar with his later work — was heard on the campaign floor saying “this is disastrous.” The address was labeled “hate speech” by some.

Almost 31 years later, Buchanan’s address on Aug. 17, 1992 — that disastrous hate-speech that Molly Ivins thought came across better when Goebbels wrote it — has become one of the most prescient speeches ever delivered.

Buchanan told the disappointed supporters of his Quixotic run — the “Buchanan brigades,” as he referred to them — that “we need to come home and stand beside George Bush.” But perhaps not for the reasons Bush would have had him outline.

“In these six months, campaigning from Concord, New Hampshire to California, I came to know our country better than ever before in my life, and I gathered up memories that are going to be with me for the rest of my days,” Buchanan said.

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“There was that day-long ride through the great state of Georgia in a bus Vice President Bush himself had used in 1988 – called Asphalt One. The ride ended in a 9:00 p.m. speech in a tiny town in Southern Georgia called Fitzgerald.

“There were those workers at the James River Paper Mill, in Northern New Hampshire in a town called Groveton – tough, hearty men. None of them would say a word to me as I came down the line, shaking their hands one by one. They were under a threat of losing their jobs at Christmas. And as I moved down the line, one tough fellow about my age just looked up and said to me, ‘Save our jobs.’ Then there was the legal secretary that I met at the Manchester airport on Christmas Day who came running up to me and said, ‘Mr. Buchanan, I’m going to vote for you.’ And then she broke down weeping, and she said, ‘I’ve lost my job; I don’t have any money, and they’re going to take away my little girl. What am I going to do?’”

It’s important to remember that, back then, these weren’t natural Republicans. They were people Richard Nixon had managed to score a slight connection with — the so-called “silent majority” — and Ronald Reagan had managed to turn into “Reagan Republicans.” But the general consensus was that these weren’t real Republicans, those who would stay conservative for the long haul. They were just hard-hat Democrats who couldn’t connect with Sixties radicals, Jimmy Carter or Walter Mondale.

They didn’t connect with George H.W. Bush, either. For all of his great qualities, Bush 41 was then the stereotypical Republican: country-club type, a bit of an egghead, a friend of big-business and socially elitist.

Yet, Buchanan told the GOP convention, the people he met “are our people. They don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke, but they come from the same schoolyards and the same playgrounds and towns as we come from. They share our beliefs and convictions, our hopes and our dreams. They are the conservatives of the heart.

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“They are our people. And we need to reconnect with them. We need to let them know we know how bad they’re hurting. They don’t expect miracles of us, but they need to know we care.”

Here’s the speech in full; the relevant portion begins at 24:15:

“There were the people of Hayfork, the tiny town up in California’s Trinity Alps, a town that is now under a sentence of death because a federal judge has set aside nine million acres for the habitat of the spotted owl, forgetting about the habitat of the men and women who live and work in Hayfork,” Buchanan continued.

“And there were the brave people of Koreatown who took the worst of those L.A. riots, but still live the family values we treasure, and who still deeply believe in the American Dream.”

Buchanan then went to recount the horrors of what liberals are now fond of recalling as the “L.A. uprising,” not the “L.A. riots.” He talked to two Army troopers who “had come into Los Angeles late in the evening of the second day, and the rioting was still going on.

“And two of them walked up a dark street, where the mob had burned and looted every single building on the block but one, a convalescent home for the aged. And the mob was headed in, to ransack and loot the apartments of the terrified old men and women inside.

“The troopers came up the street, M-16s at the ready. And the mob threatened and cursed, but the mob retreated because it had met the one thing that could stop it: force, rooted in justice, and backed by moral courage.

“Greater love than this hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friend. Here were 19-year-old boys ready to lay down their lives to stop a mob from molesting old people they did not even know. And as those boys took back the streets of Los Angeles, block by block, my friends, we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.”

“God bless you, and God bless America,” he concluded.

After Twitter user Gavin Sample uploaded the speech in full, many Twitter users remembered the speech and the campaign more fondly than the media (and most Republicans at the time) did, with one calling Buchanan the “greatest man who never became president.”

The speech isn’t just prescient, but it has an urgent message for conservatives today — too many of whom either want to go back to the weak-kneed conservatism of George H.W. Bush and refuse to engage in the culture war that surrounds us, or who want to find a way to effectively straddle what they see as populism and classical liberalism.

There may have been many in the convention hall that night that booed the speech and hated its contents — some conservative, some liberal, some conventioneers, some members of the press. But not a one would call the Los Angeles riots the Los Angeles “uprising,” as if there were some positive connotation to it.

Not a one, dropped down in the middle of a “fiery but mostly peaceful” protest during the summer of 2020 would find much laudable to say about it, tragic though George Floyd’s death may have been.

Not a one, magically transported to a Greta Thunberg harangue, would find her solutions to our environmental problems feasible, or even entertainable, to a serious mind.

Not a one, told where America’s manufacturing jobs had gone and how quickly they had been given away to our geopolitical rivals, would believe that was sound economic policy or the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith’s market doing its job.

Not a one would believe that, not only was illegal immigration the highest that had ever been recorded, some politicians actually thought it was net good — either to keep labor costs down or for the politically cynical belief that “demographics is destiny.”

Not a one, looking at the inflated cost of college and the massive debt our country had racked up, would think forgiving student loans was a sound idea, particularly when the burden would be borne by those who paid their debt or hadn’t gone to college in the first place.

Not a one would believe that the America Pat Buchanan said Bill Clinton and the Democrats wanted to see come to pass actually did come to pass, and then some. Not a one would believe that, all too often, they were aided by Republicans who gave up the ship too easily.

Conservatives must conserve. Period. Conserve our jobs, conserve our culture, conserve our country. Thirty-one years ago, Pat Buchanan sounded the alarm. It’s still ringing — and even louder than it ever did before.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture