Varnish Remover

Back in the Line of Fire

Pat’s Back, produced by Jonathan Schipp and Mike Hessing for CNN’s Crossfire.

Martial music and an outrider-flagged motorcade herald Pat Buchanan’s return to Crossfire, the show that gave him enough currency in households across the United States to take not one, but two stabs at the presidency.

The motorcade circles the Capitol building in the opening shot, creating an immediate association between the spot’s principals and that bully pulpit. We assume we’re seeing a presidential motorcade–complete with police escort–returning from the Hill, the drumbeat-punctuated music enhancing the weight of the scene.

Is this a promotional for a report on the Clinton presidency? Apparently not. The subject of the ad, the narrator tells us, is “a champion of the conservative right”–a description that doesn’t fit Clinton, even at his most vacillatory. But the helmeted riders around the limousine, the fluttering flags atop it, the stoplights freezing oncoming traffic–all create an undeniable sense of moment. Which important conservative ideologue are we talking about here? Ronald Reagan?

Wrong again. This person “served” in the Nixon and Reagan administrations, and did so “with distinction.” The Nixon mention is our first hint that the spot might be promoting unreconstructed Watergate defender Pat Buchanan. The narrator dispels any suspicions of a George Bush revival by telling us that the man in question challenged Bush in his second bid for the presidency, and himself ran “twice … for the highest office in the land.” Bingo, says the politically literate CNN audience–it’s Pat! (So what if he isn’t overwhelmingly presidential? Surely he’s controversial enough to need that Secret Service battlewagon we now see behind the limo? And so what if the next campaign is too far away to warrant a motorcade …. well, there must be some explanation.)

A spit-and-polish cop waves the procession onward (the in-joke here is that it now seems headed toward the CNN building four blocks from the Capitol). The road clear, the policeman swivels to allow a man to cross the street. It’s Buchanan, almost regal in his acknowledgment of the cop’s attentiveness. But wait–wasn’t Pat in that limo? Was he at the street corner all along, watching the pretentious parade go by?

As Buchanan moves to join Crossfire co-hosts John Sununu, Bill Press, and Geraldine Ferraro, the voice-over tells us that he’s “back, and working for a living.” Pat’s dropped out of the presidential motorcade for now–as of March 3, he’s back at that desk at CNN, pummeling liberals every night of every other week. Though the buildup is sharply amusing in retrospect, it has succeeded in making Pat’s return to television an event. A markedly different “inauguration” from the one he’d reached for, no doubt, but worth a drumroll all the same.

–Robert Shrum