LOS ANGELES When that list of the 100 funniest movies came out recently, Some Like It Hot was at the top. The final line was memorable. Tony Curtis, impersonating a member of an all-girl orchestra, tells his ardent suitor, old comedian Joe E. Brown, that hes really a male. Brown, unfazed, replies: Nobodys perfect!
That was like the response of one of the two split Reform Partys presidential nominees, Pat Buchanan, on being informed that Ezola Foster, his handpicked choice to be his running mate, is a member of the John Birch Society. Buchanan shrugged off the news, saying he was not bothered because the Birch Society, which verbally terrorized Dwight D. Eisenhower and other moderate Republicans nearly half a century ago, was now just another conservative organization.
While its true that the political clout went out of the Birch Society eons ago, the very fact that someone professing to be a serious politician would still belong to that political dinosaur mocked Buchanans claim that she was qualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Running for vice president on a ticket headed by Buchanan is itself laughable, because that ticket has about as much chance of getting anywhere near the Oval Office as Monica Lewinsky does these days. Yet the choice, even before the disclosure of her Birch Society tie, tells it all about what Buchanan has been about in his hijacking, legal or otherwise, of the party founded by Ross Perot.
His takeover is still being contested by old Perot forces who held their own convention and named little-known physicist John Hagelin as their nominee. But they are only a remnant of the old party now, with the self-styled Buchanan brigades in the van. Not all those now backing the Republican-in-exile are true believers; some have swallowed the takeover out of resignation or because they hope his celebrity will somehow prove to be a party builder.
You might have thought that simply to placate them, he might have tossed the meaningless bone of the vice-presidential nomination to one of them someone focused entirely on the old Perot reform agenda of smaller and cleaner government. Instead, he picked Foster, an ultraconservative like himself fiercely opposing the so-called social and cultural issues like abortion and gays in the military.
Whatever attention was paid to his choice of Foster noted that he was making her, as he put it, the first black woman to run for vice president on a major party ticket. More noteworthy was that Foster is an ideological clone of Buchanan. Her selection was another evidence that Buchanan is bent not only on taking over the Reform Party apparatus and getting the $12.6 million federal subsidy due its nominee but, equally important, converting its soul from reform to ultraconservative radicalism.
The very first point in his acceptance speech, at what he called the last red-meat convention in America, zeroed in on the forgotten Americans of Philadelphia . . . Americas unborn children, another million of whom will die this year without ever seeing the light of day. The old Perot party had steered clear of this and other social issues as divisive of its drive for government reform. Buchanan brought it front and center, as he had openly vowed to do.
To be sure, he didnt ignore the old party concerns, voicing the protectionist complaint that old steel workers were being sacrificed to the gods of the Global Economy, calling for a ban on soft money in campaigns and the imposition of term limits. The targets he chose were not surprising. If eight years was enough for George Washington and Ronald Reagan, he said, it is long enough for Teddy Kennedy and Barney Frank.
The chief political beneficiary of all this may well be the Republican nominee, Gov. George W. Bush. Not long ago, the conventional wisdom suggested that Green Party nominee Ralph Naders inroads into Democratic nominee Al Gores vote would be offset by Buchanans erosion of Bushs GOP vote. Now it seems clear Bush has little to worry about from Buchanan and the splintered Reform Party, while Nader continues to pose a threat to Gore in key battleground states like California.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover are columnists for Tribune Media Services.