Barrwatch: Back in the New Yorker Groove


For months, I'd been running into the New Yorker's Raffi Khatchadourian at Bob Barr events. His piece is finally out, and it's good. He analogizes Barr's skedaddle from the GOP to "a man removing his tie at the end of a night of overindulgence: first he loosened the knot, then he undid it, and finally the thing came off completely." He hashes out Barr's biography in a compelling way, and with sympathy.

Before Panama, Barr's family lived in Peru, where, as a teen-ager, he learned Spanish. He went to parties, drank, and smoked. A friend of his recalled, "Really, there were no rules, and we didn't like rules, and the few rules that there were we really didn't follow." On expeditions into the Amazon, Barr fished for piranhas, and hunted alligators at night. "You would take a .22 rifle and creep along the riverbank with a flashlight," he told me. "The light would catch their eyes, and you would see these two glowing points of red, and you would shoot for that." Barr learned to adapt. "You make friends quickly," he told me. "But you don't become too attached, because you know you're not going to be with them for that long." His hobby was astronomy—the single geographic constant in his life at the time was the sky.

The drama comes in the second half of the story, as Khatchadourian explains why, exactly, Barr got into the race, and why he had so much trouble with Paul voters (whom pollster Frank Luntz compares to "crabgrass"):

Barr began to court Paulites, telling them that the Texas Republican was "a very good friend of mine." However, it soon became obvious that an imbalance of power separated the two politicians. Paul's supporters could not vote for him in the Presidential election, but they were committed to him nonetheless; Barr was the only libertarian on the ballot, but he lacked a wide base of support. There was also a difference in style. Paul can assert a policy of radical change, but his Texas lilt makes it sound innocuous, and he often yokes disparate issues—the war in Iraq, the behavior of the Federal Reserve, the right to bear arms—into a single failing, the erosion of a great "moral imperative": individual liberty. Barr shares most of Paul's political beliefs but not his record, and he talks in PowerPoint.

I think this gets at the paradox of why media-savvy, witty, point-scoring Barr hasn't lit a fire like Paul did. (That's just objectively speaking. Paul wanted to raise a few million dollars and raised $35 million; Barr wanted to raise $30 million and will raise at most one-twentieth of that.) Paul's rambling style of speaking sounds unlike anything else you hear from politicians. Someone else would be instructed not to keep running on ("and so we've got all of these problems, and the economy is a mess, and the dollar is going down, and…"). Paul is un-trainable. Nine out of 10 people will find it crazy, but that one in 10 thinks it's the greatest thing he's ever heard.

Also, here's more background on the bizarre third party press conference that cemented the Barr-Paul split.

In mid-September, Ron Paul decided to hold a press conference at the National Press Club, in Washington, to encourage his supporters to vote for a third party, and he invited the Green, Libertarian, and Constitution candidates to participate. All of them attended except Barr, whose campaign advisers decided that he shouldn't be "reduced to their level." Ralph Nader, who is running as an independent, told me, "He got Ron Paul so angry. I was right in the greenroom"—at the National Press Club—"and Ron Paul was pacing, and it was ten-oh-two, ten-oh-three, and then he heard that Bob Barr was not going to show up, and he went furious. He said, 'I can't believe he let me down like this. I was about to say a good word for him.' " Two hours later, Barr arrived at the National Press Club and invited Ron Paul to be his running mate; the theatrical gesture only further angered Paul's supporters, and some libertarians circulated a petition demanding that Barr withdraw his candidacy. (Two weeks later, Paul endorsed the Constitution Party candidate, Chuck Baldwin.)

The fallout from that day has settled, but think back four or five months: What if Paul had decided a little bit earlier that he wanted his supporters to go third party? Would he have lost any more face at the Republican convention? (They treated him like dirt anyway.) Would he have started off vocally supporting Barr and pumping up his campaign account? It was a huge missed opportunity.

Speaking of missed opportunities: the Boston Tea Party, which exists this year mostly as a safety valve for anti-Barr libertarians, is imploding in a rather spectacular manner.