Photo by Jack GouldAfter two days of internecine bickering and behind-the-scenes backstabbing, the Reform Party 2000 Convention in Long Beach, which started on Aug. 10, is finally approaching its familiar rhythm: total anarchy.
At its center is acting chairman Gerald Moan. Gripping the podium with the sweaty resolve of a fat guy on an exercise bike, he strains for control of Aug. 10's proceedings.
"You're out of order!" Moan yells at a delegate.
"I'm out of order? No, you're out of order!" the delegate shouts back.
"I can't be out of order," Moan thunders. "I'm the chair!"
Moan is one of several "new" Reform Party leaders backing ex-Republican Pat Buchanan's presidential bid. They're working quickly to lock out the competition, which, at present, numbering in their angry dozens, is in the lobby outside wrestling with the Buchananites. The delay works: through a floor vote, Buchanan's supporters lock out the 14-member New York delegation, led by demogogue Lenora Fulani. That accomplished, it's safe to figure the Reform Party is now a vehicle for Buchanan's presidential campaign —not to mention his unique and frightening brand of right-wing American ultranationalism.
Buchanan's takeover means more than just winning the Reform Party name: he's banking on the fact that his campaign will now collect the $12.6 million in federal campaign funds due to a party he joined a few months ago.
That kind of cash draws a crowd—which may explain why Buchanan (too far Right for the Republicans), Fulani (something of a socialist) and physicist John Hagelin (a leader of the Natural Law Party, a group whose inchoate politics are difficult to describe without references to the Grateful Dead, Ram Dass and crystals) are here as well.
Ross Perot created this party, but it was never clear what for. So, in the vacuum created by his apolitical politics, Perot's idiosyncratic personality—his kick-butt, take-no-prisoners, can-do businessman's rhetorical style—became the what for; in his absence, Reform Party followers have turned his party into a Rorschach ink blot, projecting onto it their own ideas of what it ought to have become.
An hour after her delegation was kicked out of the party, Fulani and a handful of dreadlocked, locked-out delegates—who make up the majority of the African-Americans inside the Long Beach Convention Center— are still furious.
"I'm really mad at those people up there," she fumes. "What I feel is outrage; we're talking about 172,000 registered voters from New York who have just been disenfranchised by Pat Buchanan."
The mood is only slightly better in a remote meeting hall a few blocks down the street, where Hagelin and the rest of the Reform Party's vastly-outnumbered anti-Pat Buchanan faction are busily engaged in a sparsely attended "alternative" convention.
"We really thought people would be big enough to listen to one another," complains Robin Juhasz, a Hagelin supporter from Sacramento who staffs the Natural Law Party's lonely looking information table just outside the convention center's lobby. "They're only letting Buchanan people in there," she says as she points inside the building. "It's crazy!"
No, crazy is the convention center, now flooded with a red tide of Buchanan supporters, an army of people decked out in red T-shirts and Western-style denim jackets emblazoned with "Buchanan for President" and "Go Pat Go!" logos. Competing for their attention is a host of "nonpartisan" organizations that have set up shop in Long Beach. One of them belongs to Orange County's California Coalition for Immigration Reform, the Huntington Beach-based group that helped author Proposition 187 (the controversial 1994 California ballot initiative that sought to deny medical and social services to undocumented residents). Manning a nearby table are two middle-aged members of the John Birch Society, the semisecret organization that only a few decades ago shared many ideals (and members) with the Ku Klux Klan. (On Aug. 14, Reuters reported that Buchanan's vice presidential nominee, Ezola Foster—a conservative African-American—is a member of the Birch Society.) Splayed out on the group's table are stacks of outdated anti-communist literature, including "Nicaragua Betrayed," the autobiography of Anastasio Somoza, the hated dictator whose reign ended with the 1979 Sandinista uprising. There are also copies of The New American, the group's glossy magazine dedicated to uncovering the links between the Chinese communist World Conspiracy and President Bill Clinton's White House.
The day's main event begins a few hours later inside the largest room in the building. Several hundred delegates sit transfixed, staring at a giant movie screen above the stage inside the main convention hall. They're watching a videotaped history of the Reform Party, beginning with its sudden birth eight years ago inside the brain of pint-sized Perot and moving through the party's two consecutive wacky—and failed—presidential bids.
That film ends with a hagiography of Buchanan, a film produced by Buchanan for his last failed attempt at the Republican presidential nomination four years ago. The voice-over says Buchanan is the "conscience of American conservatism." The voice-over's evidence: according to the film, Buchanan refused to criticize his boss, Richard Nixon, in the wake of the Watergate scandal and led President Ronald Reagan's public defense of his illegal policy in support of the Nicaraguan contras. As the movie ends, the crowd hyperventilates with a rousing chorus of "Go, Pat, Go!"
The anti-Buchanan Reformers have their own highlight, an "acceptance speech" by rival nominee John Hagelin. Hagelin's people like to talk about how smart he is, but his 35-minute word-ramble rails against everything from pork-barrel federal spending to the dangers of genetically engineered foods without ever really saying what the hell the Reform Party is. Instead, throughout his talk Hagelin makes repeated references to the "powerful ideas" that make up the Natural Law Party. He never explains what those powerful ideas are, either, ending his remarks by inviting Fulani onto the stage to thank her for her "inspirational and organizational genius."
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It's the most concrete moment in an otherwise fuzzy address, and it speaks volumes about Hagelin's politics. Either he's unaware of the notorious, well-documented history of Fulani's now-defunct New Alliance Party—a political and therapeutic movement that allegedly manipulated people into signing over their savings as down payments for membership.
As he ends his speech, Hagelin beams down at the meager crowd below him with the benevolent gaze of a Hindu scholar or a New Age motivational speaker. For a moment, it's almost possible to forget the fact that the Reform Party, whatever diversity of ideals it once represented, is gone, crushed under Buchanan's leaden rhetoric about the culture war and his years as a brass-knuckled political strategist.
"It's time to take our part in history as the party that broke the two-party death grip!" Hagelin shouts to a half-empty room. "Let's make history!"
Or maybe that should have been, "We're history."