The Sex Scandal That Put Bush in the White House
Pat Buchanan is on the tube again, co-hosting a Crossfire facsimile on MSNBC. Just a celebrity commentator now, he changed the face of American politics in 2000unnoticed by a recount-focused media. First, he seized control of the most successful third party in half a century, the Reform Party, whose founder, Ross Perot, cost Bush I the presidency in 1992. Once Buchanan became the party's presidential nominee, he mysteriously disappeared, getting 2.4 million votes less than Ralph Nader, 80,000 less in Florida alone. The Buchanan saga remains important not only because it reveals the seamy underside of Bush II's ascent to power, but because it shows how the GOP virtually eliminated a national centrist party that could've altered the 2004 race.
Alive now in only seven states, the party's remnants just offered their ballot line to Nader, which could also wind up benefiting Bush. The saga begins with a baby, allegedly born more than four decades ago. Incredibly, just as Bush backers in 2000 used an illegitimate-child scandal in South Carolina to smear John McCain, longtime Republican dirty-tricks operative Roger Stone was simultaneously using just such a scandal to undermine Buchanan.
Stone, who also spearheaded the pro-Bush mob shutdown of the Miami/Dade recount in 2000, says now that he "has no specific recollection" of strategically employing the Buchanan baby story. But a Voice investigation reveals that he pushed it aggressively on reporters early in the 2000 campaign, then just let it hover over Buchanan, who was nose-diving so badly toward November that no explicit threat of a scandal story was even needed.
"Everyone who worked for Nixon knew about" the alleged Buchanan baby, says Stone, adding that he "lived with it through two Reagan campaigns." Stone and Buchanan were aides to Nixon and Reagan, and Stone, also a Bush I campaign veteran, was rewarded for his subterranean 2000 efforts with an appointment to the Department of Interior transition team, which he parlayed into a multimillion dollar business as an Indian gaming consultant (see Voice, April 19).
The Stone-inspired Reform infighting served multiple Bush interests: It killed any possibility of a third Perot run, blocked the candidacy of former Connecticut governor Lowell Weicker, and forced out the party's only elected official, Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura. Buchanan's vanishing actafter Stone cajoled him to run Reformleft nearly a dozen party leaders contacted by the Voice convinced that he and Stone were conscious agents of doom.
The trail starts in June 1999 at a lunch at The Palm in Washington. Bay Buchanan, the sister who ran all three of Buchanan's presidential runs, brought her mentor from the Reagan days, Lyn Nofziger, to a lunch requested by Stone, the scheme-a-day consultant who used to rent her his summer beach home. The Buchanans had already started another Republican run, but "it was Roger's brilliant idea," recalls Nofziger, "that Pat ought to leave the party and become the candidate of the Reform Party." Stone talked about the $13 million in automatic federal matching funds that came with the Reform nomination and "said he knew what to do to get it," says Nofziger.
Stone also began talking to William Von Raab, the customs commissioner under Reagan who'd been co-finance chair of the 1992 Buchanan campaign. Stone had already recruited Von Raab as a partner in a small Washington-based lobbying and consulting firm, Ikon Holdings, that listed Stone as its president and Von Raab as its chairman. "Roger asked me if I wanted to go to the Reform convention in July and try to promote a Buchanan candidacy," Von Raab recalls. Stone told Von Raab that Donald Trump, Stone's longtime top client, was thinking about seeking the Reform line and that Von Raab's efforts for Buchanan would help Stone "see what the makeup of the convention was."
Incredibly, Von Raab says, his "Buchanan hospitality suite" at the Dearborn, Michigan, convention hotelwith soda and hamburgers and occasional champagne"was paid for by Roger, who, in turn, said he was covering it with Trump's money." Stone insists the suite was not just for Buchanan, but for "a committee seeking an alternative" to Perota contention Von Raab dismisses. News stories noted that Von Raab was also circulating flyers attacking Weicker that Stone takes credit for now.
At the same time, Michael Niebauer, a New York Independence Party activist tied to the Reform Party, who arrived in a rented Trumpmobile, says he collected campaign posters from Stone, set up a Trump hospitality suite at Stone's behest, and met secretly with Stone in his hotel war room. "Stone asked me not to say anything. He didn't want his presence known," says Niebauer.
Buchanan, who says he did not know about Von Raab's ties to Stone, did well in an unofficial convention tally, but decided to continue on the Republican primary trail. He was demolished, though, in the August 14 Iowa straw poll, coming in behind Gary Bauer. The next day, Washington pollster Robert Schroth started doing a poll for Stone that showed Buchanan running strongly on the Reform line. Bay Buchanan says Stone sent her the results, which he also dropped in a September news story. Schroth would later do another poll for Stone trumpeting Trump, who, like Buchanan, announced on October 25 that he was changing his registration to Reform and seeking the party's nod.
Buchanan says that when he ran for president in 1992, 1996, and 2000, he was dogged by "an unsubstantiated rumor" that he had an illegitimate child while a Georgetown undergrad between 1957 and 1961. "I don't know who ginned it up," says Buchanan. "Do I have suspicions? Sure. Reporters realized these people were doing something to damage me and decided not to write it. The same kind of thing was used against McCain." But in the 2000 campaign, a new allegation was added to the tale that made it more damaging and more likely to see print. Ex-aides were telling reporters that Buchanan had made payments to the mother to kill the story. One reputed 1992 money trail, albeit perfectly legal, involved an intricate chain of personal checksfrom Buchanan to his sister to an aide, who then delivered cashier checks to a Washington lawyer. Asked about the child and these payments, Pat Buchanan told the Voice: "I'm not going to go into that. I don't know the details of anything. It deals with a private matter. We did nothing wrong."
Bay Buchanan, who goes further than her brother and calls the baby allegation "false," concedes that in fact she did "make some payments," delivered by an aide, to the lawyer "because Pat was out of town campaigning for 10 weeks" in New Hampshire and elsewhere in early 1992. She says Pat either prepaid or "reimbursed" her and that she "thinks" the lawyer had "done some legal work for Pat." She confirmed that the lawyer was once married to a woman Pat had dated during his Georgetown years. Saying that "our opponents were pushing" the story "every time we did well," Bay Buchanan said she had not heard Stone's name associated with it, but knew "people close to Roger" were. Stone minced no words when asked about the charges: "There's no doubt this illegitimate child story is true. My understanding is that Buchanan supported the child and made educational payments. It would be honorable."
But Stone also cited "a controversy about hush money," contending that a top Buchanan aide, Scott Mackenzie, "quit because of it." Reporters in fact contacted Mackenzie in 1999 shortly after Stone discussed the Buchanan issues with him. "I have no specific memory of being one of the people who suggested this story to reporters," insists Stone now, "but this is widely known information and it's not inconceivable that someone did." Stone recalled that the story was "heavily peddled in 1996 by Phil Gramm's people," referring to the former Texas senator who was running against Buchanan that February. Stone's longtime partner Charles Black was running Gramm's campaign and concedes it "did come up," though he says he told the staff not to answer press questions about it. John Weaver, however, another top Gramm aide, says he "got reports that phone calls were being made" by the campaign. Black also concedes that he "heard about it in 1992," when he was running the Bush I campaign, but says he got it from a reporter whose name he could not recall, and that he "shut down" the Bush staff "from discussing it." Black says he doesn't "remember discussing it with Roger," but "wouldn't be surprised" if Stone was circulating it.
After Gramm dropped out in 1996, "the Dole campaign was trying to tar and feather Buchanan with allegations of a love child," says Keith Appell, a Buchanan spokesman then. A top Dole official told the Voice that Stone, who was unofficially advising the campaign, began "talking about planting the story" after Buchanan won New Hampshire and other early contests. "Roger was in touch directly or through someone else with the woman," said the official. "He would find out about it unsolicited and bring it to you. But he said the woman went cold." While Stone can't recall such efforts, he says he did hear about a second round of payments that year.
Both Buchanans say that the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne was the first reporter to chase the story at the beginning of 1992 (Dionne said he does not discuss stories he did not write). A week before Buchanan's 37 percent showing against a sitting Bush president in New Hampshire, Bay Buchanan asked Mackenzie to bring the 4 a.m. edition of the Post to her house. Relieved that no story about the child appeared, Buchanan, who says now that "the Bush campaign was pushing it," told aides about her fears. Within days, an aide was asked to make the deliveries to the lawyerin five $10,000 chunks between February and April. The Buchanans also confirmed that Associated Press reporter John Solomon "was on the story" in late 1999 and early 2000, just as Trump and Stone were in mortal combat with Buchanan. Jay Townsend and Stephen Marks, two ex-Buchanan staffers, recalled being questioned about the child by AP reporters. Ex-AP reporter Jonathan Salant remembers looking "at all the Buchanan campaign filings to see if there were any funny payments" that might be connected to a child cover-up. Bay Buchanan, who talked to Solomon "at length," says he pressed her about the payments.
While Solomon will not discuss Stone's possible role in the story, Mattie Lolavar, a consultant with the Lichfield Group who was then on retainer for Stone, says he actively worked at "planting the story in 1999." Lolavar says she talked to and e-mailed Solomon at Stone's behest. While Stone blasts Lolavar as a "biased source" because she is now suing him in a breach of contract dispute, every reporter she initially identified as having ever been on the story was independently confirmed.
In addition to Dionne and Solomon, Lolavar said the Star's Richard Gooding, who broke the Dick Morris sex scandal, was contacted by an aide working for her. While Gooding would not confirm the source, he said he was tipped to the story and chased it unsuccessfully. Lolavar also said Insight, a publication of The Washington Times, talked to her about it, and a reporter there said he called Lolavar on a tip "via a third party who made it clear to us that this was a story Stone was pushing." Stone, says Lolavar, "kept telling me it's coming out Monday, it's coming out Friday," but Solomon eventually told her his sources "clammed up." Lolavar says Stone proudly told her that, beyond the press outreach, he "got a union to put flyers under the hotel doors" of Reform officials at one party meeting that said: "Ask Pat about the kid."
Lolavar could not specify when that pink and blue flyer might have been distributed, but party officials like press secretary Donna Donavan and ex vice-chair Patricia Benjamin recall it. Bay Buchanan says: "I remember getting a call or two saying this stuff was out there." Stone says "if there was a flyer, it wasn't from Roger Stone." By mid February, with the story in limbo, Trump quit the race and Buchanan's Pat Choate became party chair. Choate now says the Trump/Stone operation was "a Republican dirty trick," designed "to disgust people and drive them away from the Reform Party. They were doing everything in their power to make a mess. You had Ventura leaving and Trump all over TV saying that Buchanan loved Hitler, ignorant statements." Bay Buchanan, who stopped talking to Stone during the campaign, says she still "doesn't understand why he would want us in the Reform Party in the first place" and then assail Buchanan as a Nazi.
This circus ended any possibility of Perot belatedly entering the racealways a major Bush concern. Russell Verney, the first national chair of the party and Perot's closest ally in it, says Buchanan launched a state-by-state delegate war, purging the Perot leadership "to make sure Perot didn't come in." Bay Buchanan agrees, saying an unusual party rule would've permitted a last-minute convention switch to Perot. The bloody battle led to a convention walkout, legal challenges that cost Buchanan ballot status in states like Michigan, and a Perot endorsement of Bush. Buchanan says he just "played out the hand" after that. He raised $7.1 million before his nomination and less than half a million afterward. He handpicked a John Birch Society vice-presidential candidate who'd claimed workers compensation for a mental disorder. He dumped $10 million of his matching funds into an invisible media buy by a Texas company that did mattress commercials. In the final week he spent two days in Alaska. He went from blasting Bush as "the Prince of Wales," unequipped for the presidency, to declaring after the election: "I'm glad we didn't take Bush down with us." He assured the Voice that he did in fact vote for himself, adding: "It didn't make any difference in Virginia."
Buchanan adamantly rejects any notion that the implicit threat of the child story had anything to do with what even old friends like Lyn Nofziger see now as his "nonexistent" campaign. "If you've got Roger trying to smear me," says Buchanan, referring to the Voice findings, "it had no influence over what I did. I wasn't intimidated into backing off the campaign by anyone or anything." Indeed, with Buchanan "staying out of the way of the Bush campaign in the battleground states," as Verney put it, the child story needed no pre-November revival. It had only ever surfaced when Buchanan did well, and aides like Townsend say he trimmed his sails in those races as well. Stone told Von Raab that his Buchanan maneuvers were a "tactical exercise"an accurate description of his ironic orchestration of Al Sharpton's campaign this year. The master of convoluted chaos, double agent Stone has left his mark in the dark alleys of presidential politics since Watergate, but the sacking of the Reform Party may be his lasting legacy.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.