Our Correspondant Examines the Many-Headed Reform Party Convention

Reform. Who’s not in favor of reform? I can think of six, seven, things off the top of my head ripe for reform. Few oppose reform.

It's the substance of reform, though, where the tripping-up occurs; the little details of means and ends that meddle so monstrously, that detract from the overall cleanness of the idea of reform.

The Reform Party, a party divided, without a platform but with a $12.5 million check from the US Treasury, needs to figure out what it stands for. It needs to figure out what it means by “reform.”

Like the Greens with Ralph Nader, the Reformers have found their party hijacked this electoral cycle by an impresario, Pat Buchanan, whose thrust isn't necessarily so well aligned with the party's. Buchanan and his supporters, ostracized by the new “big-tent” Republican party, joined-up en masse, swords at the ready, to raid the Reformers' booty, and that they will likely do, having already stolen the convention and driven out all dissidents from the party's million dollar Go-Pat-Go love-fest in Long Beach, California.

Until very recently, few were quite sure what the Reform Party stood for, or what its agenda was, other than decidedly fuzzy feel-good idea of “reform.” Recent events, leading to the splitting of the party into Buchanan and Perotista camps, have resolved the party's ideological malaise, solidifying the Reform platform.

On one end, some Reformer rhetoric rings federalist and libertarian, stressing states' rights, individual liberty, and, as a means, a sizably shrunk federal government. Certainly, one way to eliminate bureaucratic corruption is to just eliminate bureaucracy. Reformers seem to have a well-fed distaste for government, and especially for the two-party political system that they feel cuts them out of the process (the 12.5 million taxpayer dollars the party is receiving notwithstanding).

Yet, a good number of the new Reformers are, for lack of a better term, Naderites, preaching the ills of global corporations, global trade, and the like. While Nader labors hard to keep his xenophobia compassionate, the Reform Party expends no such effort, sponsoring speeches against immigration, bilingual education, and homosexuality.

Under Buchanan, both types of distasteful rhetoric have flourished — xenophobia combined with Marxist economic and social discourse. The Party has become a catch-all for those expelled from the Democrats for taboo socialism and from the Republicans for unseemly right-wing extremism. Binding them together is the urge to “reform.” And, of course, the Party's only moderates have been purged, forced to hold their own sparsely attended convention across town and claw feebly at the new Reform in the courts and through the FEC.

As distasteful and absurd as the Reform Party's very visible internal struggles have become, the Party's actual convention is even more so. If the Republican and Democratic Conventions are scripted infomercials, the Reform Convention is a train-wreck in slow-motion, cars piling up behind, smashing, and ultimately over-turning the disabled engine. That said, it made for great rubber-necking.

The longest speech at the convention, its length exceeding even Buchanan's, was birthed by Granny D, known for her cross-country walk to focus attention on campaign finance reform. D should probably be given credit for being alive to speak at all, given her ninety years and the state of America's highways, but there my praise ends.

She began with a Teddy Roosevelt quote, from a speech the ex-President had delivered on the campaign trail, minutes after being shot in the shoulder. TR’s speech, history tells us, rambled on for several hours, touching on every topic of the day, from trusts to labor to conservation. After spinning the story of Roosevelt's speech, replete with long-winded politician jokes, D went on to read a lengthy excerpt of it, shocking the audience, who'd been expecting…well, I don't know what they'd been expecting, but it wasn't this. It was something much shorter — a quick word and a wave and off the stage you go.

But Granny D was only getting warmed up. We must fight, she urged, “to defend the human scale of things….An overscaled monster is stalking the land,” a monster of “multinational corporations” and “government itself.” And the root of this evil: “special interest campaign donations.” Ralph Nader would have been shocked: “They've stolen my enemies!”

For D, the problems plaguing Americans are simply of scale; institutions need to be trimmed down to some human magnitude. What that magnitude might be, D was unable to say but was sure that, working together with the smartest people (maybe Noam Chomsky?), we could figure such details out, no problem.

At this point she was running about an hour. The crowd, which earlier had sagged, now applauded wildly at each pause, a desperate hope alive in their hearts: Maybe if we clap loud enough so she can hear it, she'll be satisfied and go home, go away, go somewhere, anywhere, else.

The delegates and other Reform Party miscreants had little to fear on that score: it was only telecast, after all, on C-SPAN, limiting the audience to “better than sex” political junkies and insomniacs.

Finally, blessedly, after rambling incoherently for a seeming eternity, Granny D abruptly halted her speech, without any kind of closing or conclusion, and, unable to find the exit, allowed herself to be led offstage. Replacing her at the podium was Reform Party acting chairman Gerald Moan, who introduced John Anthony, Founder and President of the Free Democracy Network, which had sponsored a portion of Granny D's walk. The crowd was apprehensive and rightfully so: Anthony spoke in a monotone as if he might continue interminably, never once looking up from his notes or varying his pubescent voice. His applause lines, real crowd-pleasers about the K Street bandits and congressional junkets, were met with angered cries of “We Want Pat” and “Go Pat Go.” Whether he'd gotten the message or not, Anthony's delivered speech was blessedly short — upsetting Buchananites, especially when their Savior waits in the wings, is a foolish enterprise.

A note now on the crowd, which numbered perhaps one thousand, a hundred and fifty or so having left in a rebellious snit to support Maharishi University professor Larry Hagelin at the “alternative” convention. Hagelin is a Harvard educated physicist who thinks all we need to do to solve the country’s problems is to meditate. A lot. Hagelin was the Natural Law Party’s standard bearer in 1996. He did not win.

The average age of the Reformer is 60, the average sex male, and average facial hair quite extensive. Reformers, like the Populists before them, strike one as the busybodies who cause the rest of us such grief on co-op boards, homeowners' associations, PTAs and school boards, and so forth. Had they been alive at the start of the last century, Reformers would have been in full support of, if not leading, the Prohibition movement. Reformers know what's best for America and, even worse, they're willing, eager, to take the time to act on it while the rest of us work, watch television, and drink too much.

Moan returned to the stage. Having never run a convention before, and having seemingly never spoken before a crowd before, Moan relied extensively on notes and advisors, who conspired with him onstage and from the front rows. Even with notes, Moan appeared unsure of what to say or do, whom to introduce and, if he had that down, how actually to give an introduction, besides repeating the introductee's name. While Moan's energy, intelligence, and ability may have been exhausted, his vault of self-deprecating humor was not, rendering further pithy comment superfluous.

Justin Raimondo, about whom Moan knew very little, delivered a rousing testimonial for Buchanan. At least, that's what the editor of the isolationist web-site was probably supposed to do. Instead, he inveighed against CNN and the New York Post and termed the media's coverage of Buchanan's campaign “a model of media bias.” He had launched himself into what promised, by his bulging veins and wild gesticulations, to be a lengthy diatribe on the conspiracy that got the US involved in Kosovo when Moan mercifully cut him short, citing time constraints.

Next behind the podium was Mark Forton, a Reform candidate for the Senate from Michigan. That might not have been his name — neither Moan nor C-SPAN was completely sure and the candidate said nothing to illuminate the issue. Being from Michigan, Forton is against NAFTA, GATT, the WTO, and imported brie. Forton warns that “the language of the global economy is not our language.” At the conclusion of his speech, Forsten's standing ovation was led by a burley gentleman, placard in hand: “Stand Up For Steel.”

The torch was thrown to Terry Anderson, black and, as identified by C-SPAN, “small business owner,” who eloquently put his party's new-found isolationism in less economic, more personal, terms. Anderson and the whole minority community have been “decimated by illegal immigration.” He has watched his city, Los Angeles, “being overrun by illegal immigration” to the point that unskilled workers can no longer find employment at McDonald's without Spanish-speaking ability. Worse, illegal immigrants “work for one third of what an American worker will work for.” Stealing from the GOP Convention in Philadelphia, not to mention the stock Democratic rhetorical arsenal, Anderson reveals the real victim of illegal immigration: “The American child.”

Next came women's advocate Jennifer Gireaux, a Buchanan supporter for nearly ten years, and the evening’s final scheduled speaker. Her task: transition smoothly from Forton and Anderson to the sublime, yet awe-inspiring, Pat Buchanan.

For the confused and xenophobic, the Bush Presidency was the harbinger of the “New World Order,” which, in years since that phrase emerged, has come to be called among some of the truly nutty the Omega Conspiracy. Bush, Oliver North, and other Omegas will assume absolute control of the country and, soon thereafter, the world, at the onset of the nation's next crisis, conspiracy buffs say. To them, a Bush is a Bush, and George W.'s patrimony is to be fought and feared. Referring indirectly to the Republican candidate, Gireaux warns, “The New World Order is that nightmare that's well in progress right now.” And only one man can halt that progress: Pitchfork Pat.

Gireaux also admitted that Buchanan “speaks to the heart of a woman.”

Before Buchanan's appearance, one mere formality remained: the roll of the states. In the grand tradition of political conventions, each delegation usually boasts about its state’s virtues. At the Buchanan Reform Party Convention, each delegation listed its grievances: Nevada was against the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository; North Dakota denounced the endangered species act; Texas cautioned that “we must stop appeasing the Chinese dragon.”

The vote was tallied and the candidate announced amidst a downpour of confetti and a blazing, blaring rock soundtrack: “I am a real American; fight for the rights of every man; fight for your life.” The scene was intoxicating; the delegates twirling like dervishes, sending entire rows of chairs skidding across the convention hall floor, heaving “Go Pat Go” signs arrhythmically into the air. Buchanan, somber, interrupting the music and festivities only briefly, announced, to awed silence, that he would give his speech on Saturday. The music and dancing resumed: “He's American made”.

Buchanan's victory — which he may still lose in court — is quixotic, and he likely knows this. Having severed all ties to the mainstream right, Buchanan has condemned himself to the margins; he is a captain on a tiny, forgotten ship. Populism isn't what it once was. Who, on the dawn of the new millennium, amidst the Internet and a globe-gripping economy, thinks that we can practically sever the tentacles of globalization? Moreover, who wants to? Out of that group, who fears multinational corporations? Who espouses grandiose government conspiracies when low-rent pols can't even traffic in minor scheming like Travelgate unscathed?

The new Reformers are rural. They are agrarian. They are the remnant of our nation as it once was, and as they would like to be again. The nation's discourse has moved beyond them, socially, economically, paradigmatically. Theirs is a small-scale lifestyle antithetical to the great society we've become and are selling the world over, and Pat Buchanan plays to their fears and insecurities, promising an America that will never, can never, be again.

But at least it makes for an interesting convention.


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