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Dark Horse on the Third Ballot
The Libertarian Party nominates a candidate without knowing his views or knowing about his brushes with the law.
By now, most libertarians know that the Libertarian Party chose as its presidential nominee Michael Badnarik, the darkest of dark horses, and a figure hardly known within the party and virtually unknown to non-LP libertarians. Badnarik is a self-taught constitutional scholar whose views were scarcely known to most LP members and delegates prior to the nomination.
Coming into the convention, the favorite for the nomination was Gary Nolan, a talk-radio personality who had raised the most money, won all five LP primaries, and put together a professional campaign staff. Nolan proposed the same electoral strategy that the LP candidate had employed in the previous two elections: he'd try to appeal primarily to conservatives, reaching out to them on talk radio.
Badnarik was different. He had embarked on a quixotic quest, traveling from state to state in a 1999 Kia Sephia, visiting state party conventions, speaking wherever he could, staying in the guest rooms of supporters whenever he could arrange it, hitting cheap motels when he couldn't. In late 2003, he interrupted his campaign to take a job in telemarketing to earn some much needed cash.
Badnarik believes that the federal income tax has no legal authority and that people are justified in refusing to file a tax return until such time as the IRS provides them with an explanation of its authority to collect the tax. He hadn't filed income tax returns for several years. He moved from California to Texas because of Texas' more liberal gun laws, but he refused to obtain a Texas driver's license because the state requires drivers to provide their fingerprints and Social Security numbers. He has been ticketed several times for driving without a license; sometimes he has gotten off for various technical legal reasons, but on three occasions he has been convicted and paid a fine. He also refused to use postal ZIP codes, seeing them as "federal territories."
He has written a book on the Constitution for students in his one-day, $50 seminar on the Constitution, but it is available elsewhere, including on Amazon.com. It features an introduction by Congressman Ron Paul and Badnarik's theory about taxes. His campaign website included a potpourri of right-wing constitutional positions, as well as some very unorthodox views on various issues. He proposed that convicted felons serve the first month of their sentence in bed so that their muscles would atrophy and they'd be less trouble for prison guards and to blow up the U.N. building on the eighth day of his administration, after giving the building's occupants a chance to evacuate. In one especially picturesque proposal, he wrote:
I would announce a special one-week session of Congress where all 535 members would be required to sit through a special version of my Constitution class. Once I was convinced that every member of Congress understood my interpretation of their very limited powers, I would insist that they restate their oath of office while being videotaped.
One assumes, although one cannot prove, that none of this is an exercise in irony. At any rate, these opinions were removed from the website shortly after he won the nomination, and they didn't come up when he visited state party conventions. Nor did his refusal to file tax returns, thereby risking federal indictment and felony arrest. While many of his closest supporters were aware of these issues, they were unknown to most LP members.
The favorite for the nomination was Gary Nolan, a talk-radio personality who proposed the same strategy that the LP candidate had employed in the previous two elections: he'd try to appeal primarily to conservatives, reaching out to them on talk radio.
During the first year of the campaign, Nolan and Badnarik met each other on the campaign trail. They made an agreement not to criticize each other, and became "close friends," in the words of Gary Nolan. Both expected that Nolan would win the nomination easily.
In mid-January, former Hollywood producer Aaron Russo, who staged a brief independent campaign for the presidency in 1996 and ran for the Republican nomination for governor of Nevada in 1998, announced his candidacy for the Libertarian nomination. He put together an all-volunteer staff, began to visit state conventions, and put up a very impressive website. He was worried about the prospect of another campaign like the past two, in which LP nominee Harry Browne had spent millions of dollars but had gotten .50% and .36% of the vote. Russo thinks Browne is a "disgrace to the Libertarian Party" because Browne promised to spend the money he raised during the campaign on advertising, but spent it instead on personal travel, generous salaries for his staff, and building a fundraising base for future use. (Browne had spent only $8,840 of $1.4 million on advertising in his first campaign, and about $117,000 of $2.7 million on advertising in his second.)
Russo quickly gained considerable support, more than enough to worry front-runner Nolan. Part of the reason Russo gained ground so fast was Nolan's association with Browne, in addition to proposing to repeat Browne's obviously failed strategy. This impression was reinforced when Browne publicly endorsed Nolan's candidacy.
In 1996, Browne hired Perry Willis, the party's national director, and Bill Winter, editor of the party's newspaper, to work for his nomination. This violated party rules and the terms of both employees' contracts. When exposed, Browne, Willis, and Winter all agreed to end their business relationship. Five years later, copies of invoices for services rendered were found among files archived on Willis' computer at LP headquarters, revealing that he and Browne had conspired to continue their illicit relationship and, with other members of Browne's staff, had conspired to pay Willis by a process of laundering the funds through another legal entity. Willis admitted that he had done this, arguing that his work for Browne's candidacy, though in violation of his employment contract and LP rules, was of such vital importance to the party that it justified his and Browne's lying and defrauding the party. Browne at first told supporters that he could explain everything in a way they'd find acceptable, but as the evidence mounted, he simply refused to say anything on the subject, not even responding to the National Committee's investigation.
The party's National Committee passed a resolution banning the party from doing further business with Willis or any entity with which he was involved, and condemning Browne and the other members of his management team who were implicated in the scheme.
But one of Browne's conspirators remained in charge of the party's publications and, not surprisingly, chose not to report very much about the episode, and other party officials presumably were reluctant to publicize Browne's misdeeds out of fear of hurting their ability to raise funds. Despite the lack of publicity within the party about Browne's malfeasance, a substantial number of party activists learned about it and were disgusted with Browne.
Nor did it help Nolan to have Steve Dasbach as his campaign manager. Dasbach was not directly implicated in Browne's scandal, but he was the party's chair and then its executive director during the period of Browne's hegemony, and had proved extraordinarily cooperative with Browne and extraordinarily unvigilant about Browne's fraud. Furthermore, Dasbach had mismanaged the party during his tenure at its national office, bringing it near bankruptcy, even as paid staffers gave each other "outstanding" performance reviews.
Although Nolan's association with Browne and Dasbach undoubtedly helped him with fundraising, it left a very bad taste in a great many delegates' mouths. From my informal canvasses of delegates, it seemed quite apparent that had Nolan not been associated with Browne and Dasbach, he would have easily won the party's nomination.
Michael Badnarik seemed to most in the party a right-wing sideshow. He campaigned tirelessly, and was a sincere and attractive spokesman for his interpretation of the Constitution, but that was all.
Badnarik seemed a right-wing sideshow. He campaigned tirelessly, and was a sincere and attractive spokesman for his interpretation of the Constitution, but that was all.
Russo, on the other hand, proved an extremely attractive candidate: he had enjoyed considerable success in business, including the production of a handful of Hollywood movies, and had garnered 26% of the vote in the Republican primary for governor of Nevada in 1998. In 1996, he had declared his candidacy for president as the candidate of the Constitution Party. He had caused considerable worry among Browne and his supporters before he dropped out of the race well before the election.
Russo also offered a very different style of libertarianism from Browne and Co.: he was a fiery speaker who appealed to people's emotions. His passions sometimes took him in strange directions, mostly of a far-right character, especially in his views of the IRS and the Federal Reserve System, but also toward some environmentalist positions that did not resonate well with LPers. He is believed to be wealthy and to have wealthy friends, and many LP members believed he might invest substantially in his campaign and raise significant funds from his friends. As Russo campaigned for the nomination on the Internet and at LP state conventions, what had looked like a cakewalk to the nomination for Nolan quickly became a real horse race.
Russo is convinced that the only way an LP presidential candidate can gain real visibility is to advertise on television, and promised to spend half the money he raised to air television advertisements. He wanted to assure delegates and potential supporters that he was serious about his campaign having real impact. He also hoped to goad Nolan into making the same promise, so that whichever candidate was nominated, the campaign would not repeat the Browne debacles in which virtually no money was spent to purchase advertising, despite the candidate's promises. To drive his point home, he produced a number of hard-hitting television spots, which were aired on Atlanta television during the convention.
Aaron Russo proved to be an extremely attractive candidate. What had looked like a cakewalk to the nomination for Nolan quickly became a real horse race.
Russo also promised to engage in civil disobedience at any presidential debate from which he was excluded, if he was showing up at any reasonable level in the polls. And he hired a pollster to survey Americans on a number of issues that the LP might use to gain public support. He was plainly a new kind of candidate for the LP nomination, offering a new kind of strategy.
I've known Aaron Russo for ten years, and had been lobbied long and hard by a supporter of Gary Nolan, the front-runner. I had heard Nolan's performance on a Seattle talk radio program, and had been very favorably impressed. I knew little of Badnarik aside from what I'd picked up in a brief look at his website, where I had learned that, like Russo, he believed that the Federal Reserve System is privately owned. (I couldn't find anything about this on Nolan's website. Out of curiosity, I called Nolan and discovered that he shared this goofy belief, which I mentioned in the June Liberty in a brief comment about the upcoming convention.)
But there's only so much you can learn from candidate websites, blogs, and telephone conversations with activists. To get a real feel for the nomination, I had to talk with the candidates, their managers, and, most importantly, with the convention delegates.
* * *
Thanks to the LP's refusal to grant press credentials to Liberty (see sidebar, page 37), I wasn't able to arrange transportation until the last moment, and didn't arrive at the Marquis Marriott Hotel, where the convention took place, until 1:15 a.m. Friday. The convention's usual Thursday night party had disappeared without a trace by the time I arrived.
I was up early the next morning, hoping to find out how the convention was sizing up. I very quickly ran into the affable Steve Dasbach, front-runner Nolan's campaign manager. He confidently predicted that his man would win the nomination, probably on the second ballot. He told me that his campaign had polled delegates and found that Nolan was favored by 51%, Russo by 39%, Badnarik by "about 5%" with the remaining 5% undecided.1 He also told me that according to many observers, Aaron Russo had acted in ways that were inappropriate at various LP state conventions, and was widely regarded as a "loose cannon," whose behavior was sometimes inappropriate. This was the first, but not the last, time a Nolan staffer would impugn Russo's character.
I then went looking for Steve Gordon, the campaign manager for Aaron Russo, who told me that the Russo campaign had also surveyed delegates. Not surprisingly, their survey showed a slightly different outcome: it showed Russo with the support of about 50%, Nolan with about 40%, and Badnarik with 10%.
I had doubts about both surveys: this was the fourth LP nominating convention I'd covered for Liberty, and I could not recall a convention where under 25% of delegates were undecided. It seemed unlikely to me that the Nolan camp's estimate of just 5% undecided could be remotely accurate, not to mention the Russo campaign's estimate of 0%.
So I did what I always do at conventions: I began to talk to delegates and the heads of delegations. My doubts were quickly confirmed: it was obvious that at least a quarter of delegates were undecided. I showed Nolan and Russo in a dead heat with support from around 30% of delegates, Badnarik getting about 15%, and the remainder undecided. It looked like a very open convention.
I also interviewed Russo and Nolan. I found Nolan to be as articulate and personable in the flesh as he had been on the radio. Russo was his usual outrageous self: alarmed at the decline of freedom in America and full of bombast and emotion.
I spent most of the day continuing to canvass delegates and talking with campaign staffers. Every time I ran into a Nolan staffer, I was lobbied about what a bad candidate Russo would be. The main theme was the anti-Russo stuff Dasbach had spun, though told in more lurid language: Russo was crazy, he acted in ways that would embarrass the party, he was a loose cannon. Some added another charge: that Russo's health was bad, that he had cancer and would not be able to finish the campaign. It was the most intense lobbying, and the most negative, that I'd ever encountered at an LP convention.
One Nolan staffer asked me for my impression of the convention, and I told him that my most salient impression was the anti-Russo spinning I got from every Nolan operative I'd run into. He asked me what sort of stuff I'd heard, and I told him about the crazy-loose-cannon stuff, to which he confessed, "Yes, I think I've been doing that." I added that I'd also heard a lot of allegations that Russo's health was too poor to enable him to campaign. "You haven't heard that from me or any Nolan staffer. You must have heard that from Carol Moore!" (Moore was a Nolan supporter who was not directly affiliated with the campaign.) Then he added, "But he has missed half the state conventions that he had said he was going to." At a press conference later that day, I asked Russo how many state conventions he had missed. "Two," he answered.
Russo promised to spend half the money he raised to air television advertisements. He hoped to goad Nolan into promising the same, so that the nominee would not repeat the Browne debacles.
Russo staffers engaged in no such personal attacks, at least in my contact with them. In fact, they didn't say anything unfavorable about Nolan at all. I have no idea why. Perhaps they were inclined to keep such personal matters out of the campaign. Perhaps they were too amateur to engage in such spinning to the press.
The Nolan campaign was bitter about an earlier attack that it believed had its origin within the Russo campaign. On May 21, Russo speechwriter Tom Knapp circulated an email that contained substantial negative information about Nolan: it quoted him as saying something that could be interpreted as hostile to gays and something that was definitely hostile to Native Americans, and denouncing a student who did not want to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school. It also reported that Nolan had worked for a conservative Republican organization that financed GOP candidates in races against LP candidates.
Shortly thereafter, Knapp discovered that the comments about Native Americans had actually been made by someone else (he'd picked up the information from a Native American website that had attributed them to Nolan) and emailed a correction to those who had gotten the original email. Whether this was an action of the Russo campaign is in dispute: Knapp was a volunteer speechwriter for Russo, but he had begun the email with a warning that it was "not written on behalf of, at the behest of, or with the knowledge or permission of, Aaron Russo's presidential campaign, on which I am a volunteer. As a matter of fact, I rather expect to be dismissed from that campaign for writing it." That the Russo campaign did not dismiss him was interpreted by Nolan's people as evidence that he had in fact sent the email on behalf of the campaign.
Russo simply looked at the delegate briefly and walked away, uttering the words, "You're a fool!"
While many people, including me, find Russo's bluster and boisterousness charming, it also sometimes rubbed people the wrong way. Longtime LP activist and National Committee member Steve Trinward described his encounter with Russo at the opening night reception: "I walked up to him, shook his hand, and began talking about the time we had met once before, which he clearly did not recall. He then asked me point-blank, 'Do I have your vote?' When I pulled back my lapel to show the Badnarik button and said, 'Not on the first ballot,' he immediately changed his tone to a dismissive one. His only concern was that Gary Nolan not win on the first ballot, and when I told him that was even less likely if Badnarik got any support on the first ballot, he simply looked at me briefly and walked away, uttering the words, 'You're a fool!'"
Obviously, Russo's people skills were less than perfect.
Russo had scheduled a couple of speeches in his headquarters suite to introduce himself to delegates who hadn't yet seen his act. I attended both. They were fiery speeches, partly scripted and partly extemporaneous. It was apparent that Russo was troubled by the charges about his health. About 15 minutes into his speeches, he directly responded to the accusation that he still had cancer:
I have no more cancer. I am very, very healthy, although other people are trying to say that I am not. If I wasn't healthy, believe me I wouldn't be running, I promise you that. But other people want to are trying to find any reason they can to stop me in this race, and there's stuff going out over the website that I am sick, that I am this, that I had blood in my urine, which is true. But it came because I was taking too many aspirin, not because there was anything wrong, you know, you take one aspirin a day, a little baby aspirin. Me, being an idiot, I took a big one every day and I got an irritation in the lining of my stomach and I bled in my urine all day. There's nothing wrong with me. I'm totally healthy.
A few minutes later, he returned to the subject:
"Me, being an idiot," Russo confessed, "I took a big aspirin every day and I bled in my urine all day."
What's radical is the FDA thinking they have the right to limit your options of what medicine you can take when you are sick. What arrogance that is. When I had cancer, the FDA under their rules said I could only have chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery to kill my cancer. That's what they say, that's the law. So I went to the surgeon, and he said, well, after I passed all the initial part of it, the ugly part, well Mr. Russo, I need to take out your bladder and your prostate. I said, really, what's wrong with my prostate. He said, nothin', but, but if I examine you later after I take out your bladder, I can see you better if I take out your prostate. I said wait a second are you telling me that you want to take out my prostate so you can see better later and that there is no cancer? He said that's right. I said what are the consequences if you take out my prostate. "Well the downside is you can't have orgasms anymore." I said, "Doc, I'd rather be dead. Kill me now, kill me now. [By now, he is playing to his audience.] Put a dagger in my heart. What are you, kidding me? What do I wanna be alive for? I have this beautiful wife over here, I love her to death. I mean it's crazy."
It was plain that the Nolan camp's drive to portray Russo as a sick man was having at least one effect: it was getting Russo to get defensive. It was the strangest political speech I've ever heard.
The afternoon's business was a consideration of changes in the platform. The changes seemed sensible and the platform committee's report was well prepared. The delegates accepted most of the changes.
When I returned to my room Friday night, it still looked like a close race between Nolan and Russo. I thought Nolan was the most likely nominee because I judged his staff to be superior to Russo's. But his advantage was small. Delegates to LP conventions tend to remain open-minded and their choice of candidate can change quickly.
Of course, I didn't yet know that the Nolan campaign had good reason to be confident. Unbeknownst to anyone but Nolan and Badnarik and their closest staffers, a deal had been made that Nolan and his staff felt assured him the nomination. Badnarik and Nolan had very early made an agreement not to "go negative" with each other during the campaign. Somewhere along the line, they arrived at an understanding: after Badnarik was eliminated, he would support Nolan; when it came time to nominate a vice presidential candidate, Nolan would endorse Badnarik and his staff would work on Badnarik's behalf. Russo had cut badly into support for Nolan, but the Nolan campaign was still confident that with Badnarik's support, they would easily capture the nomination.
I learned of this deal only after the convention was over, when Barbara Goushaw-Collins, Badnarik's post-nomination campaign manager, mentioned it in passing in a conversation about the Badnarik campaign. I interviewed Badnarik three days later, and he told me, without prompting, that no deal had been made. The next day, a high level staffer with the Nolan campaign speaking with me on condition of anonymity told me about the deal in considerable detail. I called Dasbach and asked him about it, and he denied that any deal had been made. But his boss, Gary Nolan, acknowledged to me that there was a deal, and two people present at a meeting between Badnarik and Russo confirmed that the Nolan- Badnarik deal was discussed in Badnarik's presence without his protest. It's pretty obvious that both Badnarik and Dasbach had lied to me.
* * *
Saturday began with a breakfast with Neal Boortz, an Atlanta talk-show host who is syndicated in other markets. Boortz's support for Harry Browne in the 2000 race probably accounted for as much as a quarter of Browne's total national vote, preventing an even worse electoral disaster for the LP. But Boortz's appearance was nevertheless controversial, because he was a strong supporter of the Iraq war and had advocated FBI investigation of war critics, a group of people that included many LP activists. Republican Congressman Ron Paul addressed the convention in a morning session, and the luncheon speaker was journalist James Bovard.
It's pretty obvious that both Michael Badnarik and Nolan's campaign manager, Steve Dasbach, lied to me about the deal that Badnarik and Nolan had made.
But the main event of the day was the presidential candidates' debate, held at 5:00 p.m. and televised nationally on C-Span. With the large number of uncommitted delegates, and the willingness of many LPers to change their minds when impressed with a new alternative, the debate was the single most important event in any of the candidates' campaigns.
Before the debate, longtime LP activist Mary Ruwart got Nolan and Russo together in the LP's luxurious suite on the 47th floor. She asked them both to agree to support the LP ticket, whichever of them won the nomination. They agreed, presumably with some reluctance.
Russo tried to use his time for opening remarks to effect the reconciliation. "There's been a lot of scuttlebutt going on here between my campaign and Gary Nolan's campaign, and I think it's very, very important, that we . . ." he began. "Gary, would you come up here a second, please?" He turned to Nolan, standing slightly off stage to Russo's right, and gestured him to come on stage. Nolan shook his head "no," and Russo continued. "Anyway, the point was that Gary and I had a meeting the other day arranged by Miss Mary Ruwart, and we agreed that no matter who wins the nomination that we're going to support the other person, and that . . ." The crowd applauded, and Russo walked over to Nolan, who shook his hand. Russo returned to the stage, and continued, ". . . all bickering and silly stuff and character assassination is going to stop."
Party officials had chosen a debate format designed to make the debate a showcase for the LP, rather than an attempt to air differences among the candidates. At first, they proposed Harry Browne be moderator and questioner, but Russo objected on grounds that Browne was a supporter of Nolan. As a compromise, an Atlanta newspaper reporter was chosen.
The moderator asked all three candidates a series of prewritten questions about their positions on several issues. There were no questions about how their campaigns would be conducted, and candidates were not allowed to ask each other questions.
Not surprisingly, the candidates agreed on almost every issue. The few divergences from LP orthodoxy that became evident came from Russo. For example, when asked what he would have done if he were president on 9/11, Russo responded:
If I were president on 9/11, I would have gotten the evidence of who did it, shown it to the people. I would not have gone to Congress to declare war. I would have gone, no matter where they were, whoever did it, I would have gone to any border with a police action and not declare war and gotten the SOBs who did that no matter where they were in the world. [Here he sensed disagreement from the audience.] Okay? I don't think that war against some force that we don't know who it is is a war. It's a police action and the president doesn't have to ask Congress for [permission to conduct] a police action. And I certainly would not have removed the Taliban from Afghanistan or invaded Afghanistan with our troops. The Taliban had nothing to do with what happened. And as a matter of fact, the Taliban said to George Bush, "Give us the evidence of what happened and we'll give you Osama bin Laden." And what George Bush did was he said, "I don't have to give it to you, I've already given it to Tony Blair," as if that matters. So I would not have invaded Afghanistan, but I would have gotten the people who did it by a police action and I would not have declared war.
For many, Russo sounded another discordant note when he responded to a question about the Bush administration's use of private contractors to conduct the occupation of Iraq:
America has become a fascist country and by fascist I mean the government and the corporations working together to stifle the people . . . when you talk about the mercenaries and private enterprise, private enterprise in my view does not belong in war.
He diverged from the Libertarian consensus again when he responded to Gary Nolan's call for the U.S. to respond to high oil prices by allowing oil production in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.
I believe that we have to protect our environment. And I believe that the oil up in Alaska is I know to be a six-week supply. That's it. What we have to do in America is build alternative means of energy.
I personally don't want to see more drilling off the coasts. I don't. [Audience boos.] You can boo me, it's okay. I don't want to see more drilling off the coasts. There are better ways of doing it. I'm not here . . . I don't like the oil companies, I think they're part of the fascist government that we have today. We're in Iraq for oil and I don't think giving them the right to build more ref they should build refineries, but the right to explore more and take out from our oceans and take out from Alaska and destroy our environment, I don't think is a wise way to go. I think the Libertarian Party has never had a good policy on the environment. I've never heard a good one, and I've been looking for one for months, and I'm open to find new ideas on how we can handle the environment. On this issue, to tell the truth, there is a bit of confusion in my mind, but the stock answer that I've been hearing on the environment is not good in my view. Sue your neighbor, and sue this one and sue that one, those aren't good answers for me. And I say let's find alternative means of energy: build wind power, build sun power. There's other ways to go.
"If you were in prison," Badnarik argued, "and you had a 50% chance of lethal injection, a 45% chance of going to the electric chair, and only a 5% chance of escape, are you likely to vote for lethal injection because that is your most likely outcome?" The crowd went wild.
When asked "how to get the economy back to what it was in the '90s," Badnarik called for eliminating the income tax, thus "giving everybody in America a 35% pay increase immediately, instead of a $300 rebate of your own money," and abolishing the Federal Reserve and returning to sound money. Russo responded that he wasn't so sure that he wanted to go back to the '90s, "an era when the economy was pushed by massive injections of liquidity by the Fed . . . I'm not sure you want an economy like the 1990s with the stock market mania and a [stock market] bubble. What we need in this country is a stable currency, a stable environment, where people know from year to year what their money's going to be worth." He also denounced widespread consumer debt and called for sound, non-inflationary money.
Then Nolan walked to the podium. "Just to be sure," he said, "could you give me the question one more time?" The moderator could not remember the question, hunted through his notes, muttered a little bit, then found it and read it again. Nolan responded:
Mr. Russo and Mr. Badnarik are both right. We do need to get rid of the Federal Reserve and get rid of the fiat currency. But we also, what we also have to do is to quit punishing Americans for working hard. [Applause.] Let's reduce the power of the federal government to its constitutionally mandated limits, get rid of the IRS, quit punishing people for working, quit punishing them more for saving and investing, and allow them to go out and buy the goods and services that they need to protect and raise their families. Because when they've got that money in their hands and they go out and buy a safer car for their children to drive to school in, when they use that money to put their children into a private school, they create a demand for labor. That puts people to work, that creates a hot economy. That's what we need to do. Thank you.
The star of the debate was the dark horse, Michael Badnarik. He saw the debate as the end of his campaign; after it was over, he would inevitably finish third in the balloting and drop from the race, perhaps to be nominated for vice president. He decided to forget that he was in a debate at all, and rather than address the delegates whose votes he ostensibly sought, speak directly to the television audience. He seemed relaxed and ready with intelligent answers, even showing sparks of wit. When asked what he thought about the problem of a manpower shortage for the occupation of Iraq, he responded, "Imagine. People are not willing to go to foreign countries and die the way they used to. Imagine that." He lacked Russo's energy and emotion, while still showing intelligence and passion. He lacked Nolan's grim demeanor, but still had a certain amount of gravitas.
The debate concluded with each candidate making a fiveminute closing statement. Nolan's was obviously written in advance, and was well-rehearsed, right down to the gestures.
Badnarik briefly reiterated his constitutional theme, then told his television viewers why they should support the LP:
The preamble of the Constitution establishes some of the reasons why that document was drafted. In part to establish justice, promote domestic tranquility, and to provide for the common defense. The Constitution establishes the principles for peace and tranquility. Every time we abide by the Constitution, we get peace and tranquility. Violating the supreme law of the land gets the opposite. It destroys our economy, gets us entangled into foreign wars. It is principles sent down to us by our Founding Fathers.
As a Libertarian candidate, I frequently face the "wasted vote" syndrome. People tell me that I'm a good candidate. They believe in what I stand for, but they can't bring themselves to vote for me because they don't want to waste their vote. If you were in prison, and you had a 50% chance of lethal injection, a 45% chance of going to the electric chair, and only a 5% chance of escape, are you likely to vote for lethal injection because that is your most likely outcome? Your survival depends on voting for escape even if that's only a 5% chance. If you continue to vote for the Democrats or the Republicans, you are committing political suicide. The only chance we have of saving our constitutional republic is to vote Libertarian, even if that's only a 5% probability of getting into office. We have to demonstrate that we are not satisfied with the status quo. Voting for the lesser of two evils and your candidate wins and you still get evil.
The Libertarian Party is the party of principle. We have candidates in every state, in every county, that are principled, passionate, and articulate. Please vote Libertarian and help us restore a free country.
Badnarik's argument made no sense at all, but it was very well-received by the delegates, who interrupted it with enthusiastic applause five times and gave him a standing ovation. Ironically, they were not the audience he was addressing.
Then came Russo, and five minutes of fire-and-brimstone libertarianism. He shouted out a litany of government crimes against people and their liberties. Then he turned to 19th-century oratory:
I asked Badnarik for the first interview after the nomination. He immediately agreed, adding the astonishing statement that no one had ever before asked him for an interview.
The real question is, "What are you going to tell your children when they ask you, 'How did America get like this?' I know that I'm doing everything in my power, I'm using every fiber of my being, to fight these people, to do anything I can to win and stop this government from doing what it's doing to us. I want to get up and look in the mirror every day and say, you know Aaron, you did everything you could possibly do, and when I tell my children that, I want to be proud to be an American. And when I die, and I have my tombstone, I want it to say, "Freedom Fighter."
Then he returned to his emotional commitment to radical action:
We must no longer be a debating society, worrying about the freedom of an ant or a flea. We have to fight and get active. I will do civil disobedience. If they don't let us in the debates, we'll get thousands of people to go there and stop the debates from happening! That's what I stand for! And remember, we are not the property of government. Government is the property of the people! All your freedoms all the time! All your freedoms all the time! Keep it going! All your freedoms all the time!
Immediately after the debate was over, I began asking delegates who they thought had won the debate. To my surprise, all responded that Badnarik had won. Part of it, I suspect, was his concluding speech. Part of it was that his answers reflected the views of the delegates very closely. But a major reason that so many thought he had won the debate was that so many delegates were unhappy with both Nolan and Russo: Nolan seemed like a martinet, and many delegates were unhappy with the prospects of another Harry Browne campaign. Russo's emotionalism didn't resonate with Libertarians who came from a rationalist background. And while the Nolan campaign's attacks on Russo's character and health were not necessarily considered credible, they did raise questions about Russo and left Nolan looking, well, a little like a dirty politician. And here was Michael Badnarik, to whom most delegates had paid little or no attention, articulating their beliefs and using the time for his concluding speech, not to boost his own candidacy, but to boost the LP.
* * *
My main priority Saturday night was to find Badnarik. I'd never spoken with him, but now it appeared that he had an excellent chance to win the nomination. Plainly his support was greater than anyone had anticipated. And the bad blood between Nolan and Russo meant that if either fell behind Badnarik in the balloting, that person would be eliminated from consideration and most of his support would go to Badnarik.
So I went to Badnarik's hospitality suite, an impromptu affair in an ordinary guest room. Badnarik was talking with some delegates, and as I waited to speak with him, his mother introduced herself to me and offered me a drink. I explained that as a journalist, I do not accept anything but access from subjects I'm writing about, and that I was here to talk to her son. She was immensely proud of him and quickly charmed me. After a few minutes I spoke with the candidate. I told him that he'd moved from dark horse to contender, and that I thought he was now the favorite. I asked him for the first interview after the nomination. He immediately agreed, adding the astonishing statement that no one had ever before asked him for an interview.
* * *
Sunday morning, it was time for delegates to choose the LP nominee, in front of a national C-Span audience. The nominating speeches were pretty predictable, and delegates for the most part paid little attention. Fifteen minutes before the nominations began, Badnarik ran into Fred Collins, a city councilman from Berkley, Mich., and asked Collins to second his nomination from the dais. Collins agreed and went up to his room to change into a suit, and returned to second Badnarik's nomination, telling delegates that Badnarik had demonstrated his dedication to the party by his willingness, unlike the other candidates, to accept a vice presidential nomination. He concluded with praise for Badnarik's goofy answer to the wasted-vote argument: "This moved me more than anything I've heard this weekend. Has anyone, in all these years that we have been doing this, heard a better answer to the wasted-vote argument than the one Michael Badnarik gave yesterday at the debate?"
The Russo camp used the first part of its 16 minutes to run its television commercials. One of Russo's seconders brought up, for the first time at the convention, one of Russo's main selling points, the fact that he promised a campaign different from the failed campaigns of the recent past: "What's the difference between a rerun and an original episode?" asked John Clifton. "The difference is we know the outcome of a rerun. Two of our three leading candidates today are reruns. I admit that they are extremely strong reruns that I'd like to go to again sometime. But not this year. This year I want a new episode, and a new outcome. If you want the same outcome go with the rerun. Only one of these fine contenders presents the best possibility of a different outcome."
As the delegates began balloting, I again encountered Steve Dasbach, Nolan's campaign manager, who told me with supreme confidence that the only question coming into the convention was whether Nolan would win on the second or third ballot. He was now quite certain that Nolan would take it on the second. A few minutes later, I ran into Nolan himself, and he expressed the same opinion with the same confidence.
Obviously, Nolan and Badnarik's secret deal was no longer operative. Very quickly a new deal was made: if either finished third, he'd endorse the the other.
As the states read off their votes, it quickly became evident that, contrary to what everyone had thought only 24 hours before, it was a three-way race, and a very close one. Whether it was Badnarik's debate performance or merely the fact that he was an alternative to Nolan and Russo, both of whom had substantial negatives, he was running neck and neck with the two main candidates. The first round of balloting was a virtual tie:
None of the Above
LP rules specify that after the second ballot, the candidate with the least votes must be dropped from consideration. A motion was made to drop the hopeless Diket and Hollist and requiring the candidate who finished third in the next round to be eliminated as well.
Nolan was worried about his deal to endorse Badnarik. He feared Badnarik may already have been indicted.
The bad blood between Nolan and Russo and their respective campaign staffs meant that if one of them finished third, most of their supporters would go to Badnarik, who would easily win the nomination. Only if Badnarik finished third would there be any doubt about the outcome of the third ballot.
Obviously, Nolan and Badnarik's secret deal that neither would criticize the other, and that after Nolan won, he'd gently support Badnarik for the vice presidential nod was no longer operative. Very quickly a new deal was made: if either finished third, he'd endorse the other.
The situation on the floor was confusing: the chair had called for the second ballot, and the nominating session was recessed for delegates to get lunch. Many left without realizing that they were supposed to vote before going to lunch. Outside the convention hall, people were running about asking delegates whether they'd voted, and sending them back into the hall to do so.
Inside the convention hall, two Russo supporters, unaware of the Nolan-Badnarik deal, tried to talk Russo into approaching Badnarik and telling him that Russo would consider him a fine vice presidential candidate, in hopes of getting Badnarik's support if he finished third. Russo was reluctant, but finally approached Badnarik with his good wishes. Of course, Badnarik had already made a deal with Nolan, so Russo's sentiment went for naught.
The Marriott's restaurants were not prepared to handle the crowds, and many delegates were still at lunch when the convention reconvened and the results of the second ballot were announced:
As the votes were being read off by state party chairs, the Nolan staff began to read the writing on the wall, and Nolan was worried about his promise to endorse Badnarik. Unlike the great majority of the delegates who were voting for Badnarik, Nolan knew that Badnarik had not filed income tax returns for some years. He was afraid that Badnarik might actually have been indicted by the federal government, and thought it would look very bad for Nolan if he were to endorse an indicted man. A Nolan staffer met with Badnarik, asking him for his "word of honor" that he had not been indicted. Badnarik swore that he hadn't, and Nolan began to prepare his endorsement of Badnarik.
Meanwhile, word of Nolan's defeat spread throughout the public areas of the hotel. In the sports bar, two middleaged white guys did a high five. Harry Browne's candidate had been defeated, and the party would at last try a new strategy: the radical, emotional approach of Aaron Russo or the right-wing constitutionalist approach of Michael Badnarik.
Party chair Geoffrey Neale asked the convention to suspend the rules so that Nolan could address them for five minutes, and the convention agreed. Nolan took the podium and smiled for the first time I'd noticed during the convention. Nolan then kept his word:
I heard a commotion from across the lobby. It was outgoing National Chair Geoff Neale screaming at a man, "You have no right to talk to me. I have a right to privacy!"
Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, please. I would like to take an opportunity and a moment to thank my campaign staff. They were so dedicated and they worked so hard and they did such a terrific job: Steve Dasbach, Justin Kemp, Erika Brown, Mary Ann Volke, the list goes on and on. Terrific people. Thank you so much for your hard work and devotion.
What I'd like to do now, ladies and gentlemen, is offer up my support and ask my delegates to support Michael Badnarik. [Cheers.] Michael Badnarik, Michael Badnarik has shown more heart, more dedication, more belief in the Libertarian Party and in the principles [A heckler says something inaudible] I would expect a little courtesy from the Russo people for just a moment, thank you [Cheers] Michael Badnarik has worked tirelessly, working on a shoestring budget, he's gone from state to state, I've met him at every convention and he's fought every day. He deserves your support. Michael Badnarik, carpe diem. Go Libertarians. Thank you.
The entire speech took about a minute and a half, including the pause for cheering from Badnarik's and his own supporters and the interruption to demand courtesy from "the Russo people," by which he meant the sole person heckling from the audience.
Then the states began to caucus to vote. Even without Nolan's endorsement, Badnarik's nomination was a virtual certainty, and with it Russo was simply dead meat. The final vote:
Again, the rules were suspended so that a defeated candidate could address the convention, presumably to endorse the winner. Russo walked to the stage and did what was expected except that he added, "I wasn't so sure [whether] I was in this race so I could lead this party, or just to make sure that Gary Nolan didn't," thereby equalling Nolan's ungraciousness when he refused to join Russo on the stage at the beginning of the debate or his strange response to a heckler during his concession speech.
The nomination process was over. LP delegates had chosen as their standard-bearer a man who had willfully refused to file his federal tax return for years, refused to get a driver's license but continued to drive his car despite having been ticketed so many times that he couldn't recall the exact number, proposed to blow up the United Nations building, wanted to force criminals in prisons to stay in bed until their muscles atrophied, and planned to force Congress to take a "special version" of his class on the Constitution. And the overwhelming majority of delegates didn't know any of this about their nominee.
Shortly after Badnarik made his acceptance speech, Larry Fullmer, an Idaho delegate and Russo supporter, learned from an Oregon delegate that Badnarik hadn't been filing his income tax returns. Fullmer, he later recalled, "freaked" at the news. "From early afternoon until 5:00 a.m. Monday, I spent every second telling folks about Badnarik and the IRS." Fullmer spoke to more than a hundred delegates, and didn't find a single delegate who knew that Badnarik hadn't been filing returns. Most were "shocked" at the news.
Among others, Fullmer spoke with Mary Ruwart, who responded, "Larry, ya gotta get the election reconsidered," and proceeded to tell him that Robert's Rules required that a motion to reconsider the nomination was in order only if it was made by someone who had voted for the nominee. Fullmer also approached Judge Jim Gray, the LP senate candidate in California, and told him about Badnarik's not filing his tax returns. "You are running on a ticket headed up by a constitutional nutcase who has refused to pay his taxes for years. What do you think about that?" Gray responded, according to Fullmer, in these words: "Larry, if what you say is true . . . you already know what I think."
Fullmer argued that Badnarik had committed fraud when, in response to a question at a candidates' debate at the Florida LP convention, he said that there was nothing in his background that could embarrass the party. When I asked Badnarik about this, he responded that he wasn't ashamed of his refusal to file tax returns. I reminded him the question (from Janet Hawkins, secretary of the Florida LP) was "Is there anything in your background that would embarrass you or the LP?" He responded that he had misunderstood the question.
Fullmer is an abrasive and intemperate person, and some of those whom Fullmer talked with did not take him seriously. One person whom he spoke with described him as a "nutcase," and simply didn't believe him.
Immediately after Badnarik's acceptance speech, I located him in the lobby. He was now surrounded by a coterie of well-wishers and new campaign volunteers, and his handlers clamored for him to do other interviews and to second the nomination of Michael Dixon, a candidate for national chair. His staffers urged him to finish the radio interviews and go to his motel and rest for the important appearance he would make at the banquet that evening. But he graciously remembered his commitment to me for an interview and excused himself from his staff. We found a quiet place and I interviewed him for about 20 minutes. Despite the fact that he was obviously tired and under considerable stress, he responded to my questions with considerable intelligence and a good deal of grace. But he needed to rest, so I cut the interview short after he promised to make himself available for a telephone interview later in the week. (See "An Interview with Michael Badnarik," page 50.)
That night I again made the rounds of the convention area. I visited the Russo suite, where the candidate was delivering his last talk, and then spoke informally with supporters about his future plans. Walking down the hall toward the lobby, I noticed a meeting going on in a board room, so I walked in. Seated around a large table were the new nominee and a number of supporters. Fred Collins, who only a few hours earlier had been asked to nominate Badnarik, was in charge of the meeting, giving everyone else explicit orders.
LP delegates had chosen as their standardbearer a man who had willfully refused to file his federal tax return for years, refused to get a driver's license but continued to drive, and proposed to blow up the U.N. building.
I ran into LNC member George Squyres, whose intervention had secured press credentials for Liberty. He told me that LP Executive Director Joe Seehusen wanted to meet me and had invited me to the LP staff's suite. So I went up to the 47th floor and knocked on the door. Seehusen greeted me in a friendly fashion and offered me a drink. I refused, explaining that reporters for Liberty do not accept food or drink from candidates or parties that they write about. I fear this may have gotten me off on the wrong foot, as he then apologized for the luxurious suite, complete with grand piano, liquor, and fine wines, a sharp contrast to the hospitality suites with their spreads of bottled beer, boxed wines and taco chips. (He explained that the hotel had given the party the suite for free, and had refused to exchange it for smaller sleeping rooms that could have saved the party money.) We discussed the party's financial plight it's still saddled with a $100,000 per year lease for 3,000 feet of basement office space and his and Geoffrey Neale's efforts to put the party on a sound financial basis. Seehusen impressed me as a bright and capable manager.
I returned to the convention area. While talking with friends, I heard a commotion from across the lobby. It was outgoing National Chair Geoff Neale screaming at a man, "You have no right to talk to me. I have a right to privacy!" causing the sort of disturbance one seldom sees in the lobby of a fine hotel. The man was Larry Fullmer, who was telling Neale about Badnarik's not having filed income tax returns. According to Fullmer, Neale later apologized and thanked him for telling him about the problem.
"Judge Gray, you are running on a ticket headed up by a constitutional nutcase who has refused to pay his taxes for years. What do you think about that?"
The convention was still in session. It hadn't yet elected a party secretary, treasurer, National Committee, or Judicial Committee. Word about Badnarik's refusal to file tax returns or get a driver's license was circulating, and Fullmer had, at Mary Ruwart's suggestion, found a delegate who had voted for Badnarik and was willing to make a motion for reconsideration. To Fullmer's extreme disappointment, the person failed to make the motion.
After the convention elected a new National Committee, Fred Collins was given an opportunity to address the convention. He explained that, yes, Badnarik had some "minor" issues regarding his tax returns, and that these would be corrected, and that Badnarik did not have a driver's license, but that he hadn't been driving lately. The announcement was so low-key that many delegates hardly noticed it. In the half dozen other detailed reports on the convention I've read, it was not even mentioned.
Later, at the first meeting of the newly elected National Committee, Collins said, regarding Badnarik's refusal to file tax returns, "I will fix this or I will walk away from the campaign. . . . If Michael Badnarik refuses to follow my directions about this problem, and you know what it is, I will walk away." Even this announcement was low key: I've read several accounts of the LNC meeting, and only one mentions it at all, and it notes that "LNC members were reticent to name the concerns." One LNC member told me that they were "trying to talk about the problem at the same time not saying what it was."
Collins, along with his wife, Barbara Goushaw-Collins, an experienced campaign manager, and Greg Dirasian, who were in control of Badnarik's campaign, were moving quickly to minimize what they perceived as Badnarik's problems. Dirasian removed from the campaign website Badnarik's promise to blow up the United Nations building, his proposal to confine prisoners in bed until their muscles atrophy, and other eccentric items.2 When Fox News asked Badnarik for his views on same-sex marriage, immigration, the economy, abortion, freedom of speech, the war in Iraq, drug legalization, and gun control, he answered all by simply stating the LP's position. To the question, "Where do you stand on gun control?" Badnarik answered, "The Libertarian Party is strongly in favor of the 2nd Amendment and all other amendments in the Bill of Rights." Even to a question about the separation of church and state, a subject about which, as a constitutional scholar, he certainly had intelligent and pungent opinions, he answered simply, "I don't know that the Libertarian Party has an official position on the separation of church and state."
When I interviewed Badnarik four days later, he seemed like a different person than the man I'd spoken with at the convention. He couldn't remember why he had answered Fox News' questions so perfunctorily. He brought up the subject of his agreement with Nolan only to deny that any such agreement had existed, a claim that contradicted the claims of his own campaign managers, Nolan, and at least one high level Nolan staffer. He confirmed that he had agreed to settle with the IRS with all due speed to avoid the possible embarrassment of a federal indictment and arrest, and no longer to drive without a license.
* * *
When I left home for the LP convention, one of Liberty's staffers reminded me that "conventions are all about sex," something that I had not observed at past conventions of the Libertarian Party. But this convention did have a certain similarity to a certain kind of sex. Thanks to the odd concatenation of events that I have described here, the LP had metaphorically gone to bed with someone it barely knew, and it had awakened in the morning with troubling second thoughts. Some members wanted to end the relationship right then, but most were probably too embarrassed to make such a public confession, and a few were pretty happy about the relationship.
The LP had metaphorically gone to bed with someone it barely knew, and it had awakened in the morning with troubling second thoughts.
It wouldn't have happened if Russo and Nolan hadn't hated each other so much. It wouldn't have happened if everyone including Badnarik himself hadn't dismissed Badnarik as a fringe candidate with no chance. It wouldn't have happened if Nolan hadn't hated Russo so much that he preferred to endorse a man he feared might be under indictment rather than allow Russo to win the nomination. Most importantly, it wouldn't have happened if party members had bothered to read Badnarik's website or his book on the Constitution.
But it did happen, and the party had to figure out what to do. Should it decide that it had a lemon and make lemonade? That is, should it figure that if its candidate were arrested by federal authorities, the LP would have solved its problem about getting media attention? Should it play on Badnarik's strengths, his knowledge of the Constitution and articulateness, and try to appeal to the radical right-wing constitutional movement of which Badnarik was a spokesman?
It seems apparent that the party leadership has decided against that course. Instead, it seems to be striving to remake Badnarik into a conventional LP nominee, a gray man of the moderate right. The delegates may have voted for a radical constitutionalist, but what they got was a clone of Gary Nolan and Harry Browne.
The two middle-aged white guys who did high fives upon learning of Nolan's defeat will, I suspect, soon be having second thoughts.
|1 ||When I spoke to Dasbach two weeks after the convention, he denied that he had told me these numbers. When I asked him what results the Nolan campaign's survey had at the time, he told me he didn't remember. At my request he later emailed me the numbers that the campaign had as the convention opened: Nolan 45%, Russo 16%, Badnarik 8%, others 2%, undecided 29%.|
|2 ||If he hoped to keep these eccentric proposals from reaching the press, he was too late: The Economist included these exotic details in a report on the LP in its June 5 issue.|
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