The Real Convention


The Reform Party prides itself as the voice of "citizen politics," the kind we had before conventions were bland, scripted spectacles, when decisions that mattered were made (so we're told) in caucus rooms by ordinary Americans. In Long Beach last weekend, what once was merely rose-tinted nostalgia became a vivid reality, with no rose-colored covering in sight. This was politics: recriminations, faction wars, opportunistic coalitions, and even a rump convention around the corner, where the party's dissidents met in a half-empty theater to anoint a rival ticket for the presidency. It was Capra crossed with Moliere, a circus attached to a revolution.

That sounds like a put-down, but I like circuses: They're a sign that things are still unpredictable, still lively. All kinds of characters came to Long Beach, from New York Marxists to California Birchers to a Scottish Nationalist from Florida. The latter's name was George Bashure, and the TV crews seemed to love his hat: Four flags were attached to it, one American, one Confederate, one Scottish, and one Scottish Nationalist. He treated me to a short history lesson, which soon evolved into a long diatribe against the English.

Former Sex Pistol frontman Johnny Rotten was in Long Beach, too, covering the convention for VH1. As he passed, some older delegates took note.

"I think that's Sid Vicious," said one.

"I thought Sid Vicious was dead," another replied.

Time to put my years as a college DJ to use. "It's Johnny Rotten," I said.

"Who?" asked an old man.

"Johnny Rotten. He was a Sex Pistol."

"A what?"

Back in the day, the Sex Pistols sometimes adorned themselves with swastikas, and there are those who see some sort of incipient fascism in Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign. It's a silly charge–the closest I heard to a racially charged remark was when a delegate said that the husband of Ezola Foster, the African-American woman Buchanan chose for his VP, looks like Shaft. I'm pretty sure it was meant as a compliment.

That said, it'd be remiss not to note that there was at least one crypto-Nazi in attendance. Willis Carto, founder of the anti-Semitic weekly The Spotlight, had a table, where he distributed copies of a paper published by one of his front groups, "Americans for Buchanan."

And yes, I was a little uncomfortable when Bill Grutzmacher, Nevada's Reform candidate for the Senate, addressed the crowd. I enjoyed his Gary Cooperish voice, but was surprised at his views on World War II. Grutzmacher's no isolationist: He thinks we should've armed the Germans and Italians to drive the Russians out of Europe.

Still, the war question is where Buchanan is best, at least for libertarians: He plans to get out of the Balkans, get out of NATO, and stop the sanctions against Iraq. Others, of course, have their own reasons for backing Buchanan. A Maryland Reformer told me he liked Pat's stance against immigration. A couple from West Virginia dug his views on trade: They worked for Weirton Steel, whose employee-owners had laid off much of the workforce in recent years, thanks to competition to cheap imports. Their union local had endorsed Buchanan, to the embarrassment of their higher-ups. (The couple was also Serb-American, so they also liked Buchanan's views on the last war.)

And then, of course, there's abortion. The crowd cheered lustily every time a speaker promised to save the fetal masses, but it wasn't until Saturday night that I met someone for whom abortion was the issue. Our exchange didn't rise to the level of a conversation, as that would imply I got a word in edgewise. I'm still not sure why she decided I needed to hear a self-righteous pro-life harangue, since I never did get a chance to tell her my position on the issue. I guess I must have a baby-killing face.

Her name was Karen, or maybe Kelly, and she was part of the Michigan delegation. Another Michigander, though friendlier, seemed upset at me because I was part of the media. We were avoiding key issues, he told me. Like all those school shootings, he said: Why didn't any reporters suggest that they might be caused by the Holt Health Book?

"The what?" I asked.

The Holt Health Book. They were using this book in classrooms around the country, he explained; it told teenagers that the best way to get to know someone was to have sex with them. And that's not all: In classrooms using the Holt book, instructors actually demonstrated techniques for getting people into bed. I promised him I'd look into it.

* * * * *

I'll say this for the Buchananites: They have a clear point of view. The splinter Reform Party bore no such burden: Never before had I seen such a naked alliance of convenience. There was the Natural Law Party, a group of New Age technocrats whose standard-bearer, John Hagelin, had through a series of flukes and missed chances become the only alternative for delegates opposed to Buchanan. There were the old Perot loyalists, led by Russ Verney, whose address to the rump convention touched on all the hot issues of 1992, from congressional perks to the line-item veto. There was Charles Collins, a perennial presidential candidate of the ultra-right, who threw his hat into the ring at both conventions. There was Lenora Fulani, a black Marxist who some say leads a cult.

What do these people have in common? They accuse the Buchanan forces of stealing the party through illegal political tactics. And they'd like to get their hands on the $12.6 million in federal money that the Reform nominee has coming to him.

I was walking through the alternate convention's lobby when I heard a voice say, "Excuse me–is your name Jesse?"

The man addressing me looked vaguely familiar. "I went to college with you," he explained. "My name's J.B."

Instantly, I remembered him. He was John Opdyke: We'd taken Spanish together, and had both DJed at the campus radio station. Around 1991, he had joined the New Alliance Party, a now-defunct group led by Fulani. I'd assumed it was a passing fancy, but evidently it wasn't: Right after graduation, he told me, he'd driven east to New York and gone to work for Lenora. He was now development director of the Committee for a Unified Political Party–which, according to the last article I'd read on the topic, was somewhere near the heart of the Fulani labyrinth.

We caught up, and, later, he asked me what the theme of my story was going to be. I dunno, I told him; what did he think the story was?

"It's whether third-party politics is going to be a bottom-up, grassroots movement or one of top-down control." The Buchanan Brigades were merely shock troops for a leader, he explained, and would dissolve if the leader ever left. (This was, incidentally, the same thing Fulani's foes say about her faction.) "The other issue is more practical," he added. "We've been trying to push the idea that for third-party politics to grow, you have to build infrastructure at the state level. People here complain about Buchanan taking over their party, but you need infrastructure to fend off takeovers. Politics is about takeovers."

"There's a lot of points of view represented in this room," I commented. "Do you really think they can be weaved together into a party?"

"I don't think the coalition has to be programmatically based," he replied. "It can be based on process–on democracy."

The dissident delegates nominated Hagelin, but it wasn't clear to me that they all planned to vote for him in November. One confessed that he preferred Nader, while another said he'd taken a quiz once that purported to reveal that he was a Libertarian, "so maybe I'll vote for their boy."

But there were some Hagelin loyalists–mostly imported from the Natural Law Party, of course, but not all of them. At least two were actually Republicans, including Anne from Atlanta, who liked Hagelin because he'd called for labeling genetically modified food.

* * * * *

There were those who regretted the split. One was carrying a sign on the convention's first day: "NOMINATE JIMMY CARTER TO UNITE THE REFORM PARTY."

And Doris Haddock spoke to both conventions, giving followers of Buchanan and Hagelin alike a chance to catch up on their sleep. Haddock, a 90-year-old folk-hero wannabe better known by the pretentious sobriquet "Granny D," is famous for walking across America to promote campaign finance reform. I don't know what she told that Hagelin convention, but her speech to the Buchananites was a semi-coherent ramble through American history, focusing mostly on Theodore Roosevelt, who Haddock imagines was a defender of small business and farmers. Granny D also described the Reform Party as "the consciousness [sic] of America" and defended the pro-choice cause, albeit in language so abstruse that it gathered applause from people I also saw clapping at another speaker's denunciations of abortion. Haddock's voice bears a strong resemblance to Margaret Dumont's, but no Groucho was willing to climb onstage and puncture her balloon.

Well, no matter: Haddock was treated respectfully, but is as irrelevant to the future of the Reform Party as (FEC willing) the Hagelinites. This is Buchanan's party now, and it's devoted itself to Buchananism.

There may, however, be some room for compromise left in Pat's camp. At the Buchanan forces' Saturday night party, the band played a set that ranged from Hank Williams to the Grateful Dead…to "La Bamba."

The intrusion of Mexican music didn't seem to disturb the nativists. Some started dancing; some clapped in time. And I clutched the elastic instrument the party had given me to hold my press badge in place, fingering a little tag attached to it. MADE IN CHINA, it read.