The Magazine

Pat Buchanan Loses a Press Secretary

The strange hiring and firing of Neil Bernstein

Jun 26, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 39 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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PAT BUCHANAN likes to fight. But only on TV. Off the air, the bellicose talk-show-host-turned-third-party-presidential-candidate can be surprisingly meek, even timid, the sort of person who structures his life to avoid the mildest confrontation. This spring, Buchanan was booked for a live interview on Fox News Sunday. The day before the show, Buchanan learned that John McCain was scheduled to appear on the show as well. This presented a problem for Buchanan. Shortly before, McCain had attacked Buchanan's most recent book, A Republic, Not an Empire, for its depiction of Nazi Germany as the victim of American aggression. Buchanan didn't want to have to face McCain in the studio. So he came as late as possible, in the hope that McCain would be gone when he arrived. By the time Buchanan finally showed up, producers were panicked. "Where's Pat? Where's Pat?" barked one of them frantically.

Then there was the time Buchanan arrived early for an appearance on MSNBC. Rather than wait in the catered comfort of the green room, Buchanan drove around side streets on Capitol Hill until just before air time. Why would he do that? Because he feared running into Chris Matthews in the hallway. Matthews, it turns out, had also criticized Buchanan's book.

You can learn a lot about Pat Buchanan by talking to his campaign staff, particularly the ones who have quit or been fired. There are many to choose from. "The turnover at the Buchanan campaign is worse than that at Burger King," says Neil Bernstein, who until recently was Buchanan's press secretary. Bernstein was dismissed on June 9 after nine months on the job. He's still not sure why he was fired. Talking to him, you get the sense that working on the Buchanan campaign must be a bewildering experience. But at least you leave with good stories.

Bernstein, who is 33, grew up in suburban Maryland, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, then came to Washington to become a talk radio producer. In 1996, he went back to school to get a law degree. By last summer, he was living in New York and planning to take the bar exam. One day, while flipping through a talk radio trade magazine, Bernstein saw a listing of the fax numbers of various presidential campaigns. As a "lark," he says, he sent resumes to almost all of them, including Bill Bradley's. The Buchanan campaign called back. Bernstein decided to delay the bar and return to Washington. Within days Neil Bernstein was Pat Buchanan's press secretary. From the beginning it was an odd fit. For one thing, Bernstein doesn't share Buchanan's views on a number of significant issues, beginning with abortion and homosexuality. (Bernstein says he has "no opinion" on either topic.) For another, Bernstein is Jewish.

This fact put him in a fundamentally uncomfortable position. Pat Buchanan has written and said a number of things that are widely understood to be hostile to Jews and to Israel. (Which, a cynic might conclude, could be one of the reasons he was interested in hiring Bernstein in the first place.) Bernstein doesn't think Buchanan is a bigot. Bernstein's parents aren't so sure. They weren't impressed by their son's new job. "They had a problem with it," Bernstein says. "Absolutely."

So did many of Bernstein's friends. ("Gee, what a surprise," one of them e-mailed him after Bernstein was fired, "the Buchanan campaign making the Jew the scapegoat.") Bernstein received menacing anonymous phone calls at work. At some point, he concluded there was a chance that someone might become angry enough to shoot him. He met with Buchanan to discuss the possibility. "I told him I did not want to be an on-camera spokesman for the campaign," Bernstein says. "I told him I did not want to place myself in danger from groups like the JDL." Buchanan's response? "He totally understood that -- totally understood."

According to Bernstein, Pat Buchanan is an understanding guy. A bit of a loner, Buchanan, when he's not traveling, prefers to stay home all day by himself reading. During Bernstein's nine months on the job, the candidate made only three appearances at headquarters. Senior staff meetings were held at his house. Once, he confided to Bernstein that he didn't like going to the office when there were other people around. In Bernstein's telling, Buchanan comes off as flaccid and shy, a man for whom all the talk of pitchforks and culture war is more a Walter Mitty fantasy than a political platform.