Ordinarily I'm fond of cranks, maybe excessively so. You say extremist; I say charmingly kooky freethinker. You say cult; I say fascinating young religion. You say lunatic conspiracy theory; I say spooky new addition to America's homegrown mythology. But even my tolerance has its limits, and one of those limits is Lyndon LaRouche.
LaRouche, who died Tuesday at age 96, was a despicable old fraud, and the warmest feeling I've ever been able to conjure for his devotees is pity. Fiercely authoritarian in both his political ideals and his personal life, LaRouche fed his followers a stream of lies, psychological abuse, and paranoid fantasies. Those fantasies featured a big cast of villains, from the queen of England to Aristotle to "Dope, Inc." to gay people, not to mention whichever follower or ex-follower was the designated scapegoat of the moment. One such scapegoat, Ken Kronberg, committed suicide after the denunciations turned his way.
LaRouche didn't limit his abuse to the people who chose to cast their lot with him. He aimed it outwards too—most infamously during "Operation Mop-Up," when his followers in several cities used fists, bats, chains, and nunchuks to attack members of the Communist Party and other leftist groups. When those assaults began in 1973, LaRouche considered himself a part of the radical left; Operation Mop-Up, he hoped, would establish his "hegemony" over the competition. But a few years later he was aligning himself with Klansmen and the far-right Liberty Lobby. He had a habit of flipping positions like that.
He also had a habit of running for president—first as the 1976 nominee of the U.S. Labor Party, then as a recurring contender for the Democratic nomination. His biggest successes came in the North Dakota primary of 1992 and the Michigan primary of 2000, when he managed to outpoll everyone else on the ballot. This sounds less impressive when you learn that (a) in both cases, for quirky reasons, none of the major candidates were actually on the ballot, and (b) LaRouche still managed to lose both primaries. In North Dakota he was beaten handily by some write-in votes for Ross Perot, and in Michigan he was outvoted by "uncommitted."
Most people's direct encounters with LaRouchism came in one of two ways. The first was to stumble on one of the candidate's prime-time infomercials, in which he'd inform viewers that Walter Mondale is a Soviet agent, that the government should "quarantine" people with AIDS, or whatever other idea had caught his fancy at the moment. (LaRouche pushed his AIDS idea with a front group called—I swear I am not making this up—PANIC, for the Prevent AIDS Now Initiative Committee.) The second was to run into his followers as they handed out literature in public places. My most memorable encounter with LaRouchie leafletters was in Ann Arbor in the early '90s, where they had made a big sign that said "EATING ARAB BABIES ISN'T KOSHER." (I've heard people call LaRouche a "coded" anti-Semite. In that case you didn't have to work hard to crack the code.)
Yet LaRouche and his circle occasionally entered, or at least wandered near, places of power. Dixy Lee Ray, Democratic governor of Washington from 1977 to 1981, later took to touting the LaRouchite magazine 21st Century Science & Technology. ("I'm not interested in their politics," she told environmental writer David Helvarg, "but they're doing some of the best work on cold fusion and other technologies frozen out by the science establishment.") And in the '80s they hung around the edges of the Reagan administration, trying to find ways to build influence. In 1984, Dennis King and Ronald Radosh reported in The New Republic that LaRouche's people had "gained repeated access to a wide range of Administration officials—including high-level aides at the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency." (LaRouche himself scored a meeting with Interior Secretary James Watt, though he apparently didn't make a good impession. Watt told The New Republic that LaRouche "used all the right words, but you instinctively felt something was off.") Former National Security Council staffer Norman Bailey insisted to NBC that LaRouche had "one of the best private intelligence services in the world"; he later reiterated the thought to The Washington Post, declaring that LaRouche's operatives "can operate more freely and openly than official agencies." They also operated more freely when it came to making shit up, but I guess they told Bailey what he wanted to hear.
In 1989 LaRouche went to prison for fraud, and he spent five years behind bars before he was paroled. After that, he and his followers were less likely to get meetings with Washington officials (though Roger Stone was flirting with him recently—and another ex-governor, Jesse Ventura, became a LaRouche fan). But his former followers sometimes did well for themselves. Matthew Sweet's recent book Operation CHAOS notes that a fellow named Clifford Gaddy managed to hop from the LaRouche world to the Brookings Institution, where he co-wrote a book on Putin with future Trump advisor Fiona Hill. (I should probably note that Sweet thinks it possible that Gaddy had been spying on the LaRouchies for the feds all along.) And there are journalists on both the left (Robert Dreyfuss) and the right (David "Spengler" Goldman) who spent time in LaRouche's orbit before heading off in their own directions.
Below I've embedded one of LaRouche's half-hour campaign broadcasts. It's from March 1988. The opening strives mightily to present the LaRouche movement as a rising tide, and the man who introduces the candidate hits such familiar LaRouchie notes as accusing the British royal family of "involvement in dope trafficking" and claiming that Moscow has declared LaRouche "Soviet enemy #1." When LaRouche himself comes on, about halfway through the program, he rambles through his economic proposals before presenting his ideas about AIDS. "You've been told that AIDS is a venereal disease," he warns. "I tell you without quibbling that what most of you heard from official sources is an outright lie….All the talk about safe sex is simply a propaganda stunt."
There are LaRouche TV specials that consist of nothing but LaRouche himself talking, but I didn't want to inflict one of those on you. You know why? Because when he's not saying something utterly crazy, the man is boring. Lyndon LaRouche was a child of the American Weird, but he was too dull to excel even at raving like a lunatic.
Bonus video: If you don't have the patience to sit through that, here's a quick snippet from the '84 campaign where LaRouche lays out the mysterious forces manipulating Mondale: