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.

And then there is Bay. Bay Buchanan is Pat Buchanan's sister. She runs her brother's campaigns. She is not shy or flaccid. She is, according to Neil Bernstein (and others), a monster -- a paranoid, emotionally unstable incompetent who flies into rages for no apparent reason and frequently fires people. Like Neil Bernstein. After he was canned, Bernstein says he called Buchanan for an explanation. Buchanan didn't have one, though according to Bernstein he was very apologetic: "I told him that Bay fired me, and he said, 'Yeah, she told me she was going to do that. I don't understand.'" Bernstein says Buchanan sounded sad.

Bay, by contrast, was rarely sad, Bernstein says. Just enraged. And suspicious. Bernstein says that Bay had an unusually hostile attitude toward reporters, most of whom she viewed as "enemies." Journalists were not invited to the office. Staff members were actively discouraged from talking to them if they did come. (Not that many could find the place; there is no sign in the lobby of the building to indicate that Buchanan 2000 maintains an office there.) Though he was officially the press secretary, Bernstein says he was all but forbidden by Bay to be quoted by reporters, or to give them any but the most useless information.

It sounds like a thankless job, and it was probably inevitable that Bernstein's tenure at the Buchanan campaign would not end on a perky note. Bernstein says he was fired for trying to bring innovation and fresh thinking to the campaign. For instance, he wanted Buchanan to appear, preferably with his elderly cat, the Gipper, on The Late Show with David Letterman. He also had a plan -- a far-fetched one, he admits -- for winning the White House: "In 2004 you get Reform party congressmen elected in the states that have only one, two, or three electoral votes. You get control of the House, and in theory the Reform party candidate could win."

The rest of the senior staff at Buchanan 2000 weren't impressed by Bernstein's theories. "I've offered up all of these ideas, thinking outside the box," Bernstein says, sounding frustrated. Every time, they were "shot down by all these people who have no creativity, no imagination." Buchanan himself, Bernstein says, was receptive to creative, imaginative thinking. And that, he explains, was part of the problem. "I was becoming too influential. Pat was listening to me too much."

Bernstein's former employers, not surprisingly, have a different explanation for his departure. The campaign's official position seems to be that Bernstein didn't return press calls quickly enough. Off the record, a senior Buchanan staffer accuses Bernstein of a pattern of unacceptable behavior toward female reporters, including calling them at home after work. Several reporters and their superiors complained to the campaign about Bernstein, the staffer says. Ultimately it was journalists who "basically demanded" that he be fired.

Reached at the hotel in suburban Virginia where he is still living, Bernstein sounds genuinely surprised by the claims the campaign has made about him. "This is the first I've heard of this," he sputters. Yes, he says, there was one female journalist who became irritated when he called her at home. But for the most part, reporters, male and female, welcomed his efforts to get back to them, even at night. Maybe, Bernstein says, his coworkers on the campaign misunderstood what he was doing. "I don't mind telling you there are a lot of uptight people around the office."

Bernstein calls back a short while later. He's angry. Now that I think about it, he says, there's a certain irony in being accused of sexual harassment by the Buchanan campaign. In fact, he claims, it was other male members of the staff who had trouble relating professionally to women. According to Bernstein, almost every man in the office made sexually derogatory remarks about one attractive female journalist who was covering the campaign. "At least 9 guys have made gratuitously rude comments about her," he says. "Actually, I could name 11 names. They crossed the line."

Come to think of it, Bernstein says, calling back again, Pat Buchanan didn't frown on his staff dating journalists. Once he tried to facilitate it: "There was a point about two months ago when Pat wanted to set me up with a former producer of his. He encouraged me to call her. I did and we talked on the phone."

It's hard to know what to make of any of this. Bernstein himself doesn't seem sure. For now, he is in his hotel room writing e-mails and trying to figure out what to do next. Apart from going on unemployment, Bernstein says he sees two obvious options. He could take the bar and become a talk radio agent. Or he could continue to work as a press secretary in some other branch of the Reform party. He has heard there are openings.

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.