On Memorial Day weekend, former four-term Republican Rep. Bob Barr took the stage at the Sheraton Denver and asked a skeptical Libertarian Party to make him its nominee for president. Hundreds of party delegates were dead set against his nomination. Anonymous flyers claimed the Georgian wanted to turn the Libertarians into "the New Republican Party." Barr's record in the House of Representatives, particularly his hostility toward medical marijuana and his support for President Bush's anti-terrorism policies, were widely seen as deal breakers.
"Many of you have come up to me and asked, ‘Bob, why did you author the Defense of Marriage Act?' " Barr told wary delegates. " ‘If you're so set against the PATRIOT Act, why did you vote for it?' Well, let me tell you: I have made mistakes. But the only way you make mistakes, the only way you get things done, is by getting out there in the arena and making those mistakes, and then realizing, as things go on, the mistakes that you've made. And I apologize for that."
That dramatic confession drew a burst of surprised applause from the ballroom. Hours later, Barr became the ninth man to lead the Libertarian Party into a general election.
Bob Barr is easily the most famous politician to represent the party. When Ron Paul won the nomination in 1988, the then-former Texas congressman was far from the national figure he is today. Barr's comparative notoriety, however, stems from some of the very activities he was atoning for in Denver, in addition to his aggressive role in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. His unlikely journey from drug warrior to Libertarian standard-bearer speaks volumes about how his views have changed, and also about how the conditions for Libertarian politics have changed—for the better.
Barr's public career began in 1986, when he was appointed the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. There he prosecuted members of Pablo Escobar's drug cartel, jailed a Republican congressman for perjury, and consulted for the pro-market Southeastern Legal Foundation. In 1994 Barr was elected to Congress as part of the Newt Gingrich Revolution and became a dogged opponent of Clinton-era executive power. As a legislator, the staunchly anti-abortion, pro-drug war politician also wrote bills to limit the government's ability to tap phones and intercept cell phone calls, tighten the laws governing civil asset forfeitures, and shrink the duration of firearm background checks. In most of those cases both parties opposed him.
When Georgia Democrats redrew their state congressional map in 2002, they sliced up Barr's district and left him scrambling to run in a different one. The Libertarian Party, angered by Barr's opposition to medical marijuana, ran ads against him in the Republican primary, helping ensure his defeat. Barr then rebuilt his career as a lawyer, consultant, and pundit with a jaundiced eye on the Bush administration's post-9/11 abuses of civil liberties. He endorsed Libertarian presidential nominee Michael Badnarik in 2004, and in 2006 he officially joined the party as a regional representative. At the time he denied interest in a presidential run. But he entered this year's race shortly before the Libertarian convention, started building a staff, and is now aiming to be on 48 state ballots as a "viable third option" for the presidency.
Associate Editor David Weigel spoke to Bob Barr in May, just before the convention, and again in August. For a video interview with the candidate, go to reason.tv/barr.
reason: In 2006, when you joined the Libertarian Party, you told reason that you were not interested in running for anything else. What changed?
Bob Barr: A couple of things. First of all, since 2006 civil liberties have continued to be under assault by this administration and by Washington generally. At the national level—in both the Congress, with very few exceptions, and in the administration, with no exception—the assault on the right to privacy and other civil liberties, the assault on the notion that we are a nation that lives by the rule of law, not by the rule of men, continues to move forward at an accelerating pace.
There's a very interesting quote by Dante Alighieri: "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis remain neutral." So even though continuing to work as a member of the Libertarian National Committee certainly provided an appropriate forum and an opportunity to work to restore liberty and freedom in America, the process has accelerated so greatly that it was absolutely essential to enter the fray.
reason: Some of what you're talking about, though, you supported in Congress. You voted for the Iraq war.
Bob Barr: The Iraq war was presented as something that was based on sound intelligence: a clear and present danger, an immediate threat targeting the United States by the Saddam Hussein regime. We now know that the intelligence was not there to support those arguments. Many of us, including myself, gave the administration the benefit of the doubt, presumed that this would be an operation that was well founded, well thought-out, well strategized, when in fact it wasn't. There was no clear strategy, and we've paid a very, very heavy price for that.
After five years our government is spending humongous amounts of U.S. taxpayer dollars, somewhere upwards of $400 million every single day, to do something that the president said we should never do and would never do, and that is to build a nation. That's not the appropriate role for our military. It's not the appropriate role or goal for a legitimate national defense policy if the emphasis is on defense.
reason: What do you think about the claim by people on the right that radical Islam is a threat similar to communism?
Bob Barr: The Soviet Union and other communist nations, such as China, very clearly were adversarial to us. The entire thrust of their policies was anti-United States, and they created problems for us in a number of areas around the world. That has nothing to do with what's going on in Iraq. The occupation of Iraq should rise or fall on its own. I think it's a very bad foreign policy, a very inappropriate use of our military and a huge number of taxpayer dollars. I would as president begin immediately extricating ourselves, both economically and militarily, from Iraq. It is a bad policy, and it is a counterproductive policy.