Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Wizard of Odd

By Carl Kozlowski

You've probably seen his followers manning tables on college campuses, outside post offices and on street corners - handing out pamphlets urging voters to oppose the California recall (especially Schwarzenegger's ascendance to power), the electrical deregulation mess in California, or even calling Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney "children of Satan."

No, we're not talking about Howard Dean, John Kerry or even Dennis Kucinich. We're talking about Lyndon LaRouche, the man often derided as a political joke for his perennial presidential campaigns and status as a convicted felon for mail fraud and income tax evasion.

Dean laid claim to having passionate youth followers who signed up by the tens of thousands on the Internet, but they abandoned him when it came time to vote in Iowa and left him yapping like a prairie dog during his post-primary meltdown. But, LaRouche's kids - called the "Youth Movement" by the campaign and "LaRouchies" by detractors - are notorious for marching across campuses nationwide, disrupting classes with bullhorns, impeding the progress of students who try to sidestep their brochures, and working up to 15-hour days for what they consider a "revolution."

It seems odd, but odder still is the fact that the man in charge rarely even makes a campaign stop or public appearance in America, the country he supposedly seeks to lead - preferring to globetrot to conferences overseas or stay on his heavily guarded estate in rural Virginia. Granted, Lyndon LaRouche is 81 years old, but even so. his campaign seems to be classic example of the phrase "running to stand still.

So when there was a noticeable up-tick in activity by his local followers and word leaked out that LaRouche was actually coming to Los Angeles to deliver a body-slamming speech against Schwarzenegger last September 11, the mix of timing and events was worth investigating. At least the old guy was more interesting than the blow-dried personalities offered up by the parties' major candidates.

"We can't just be concerned that people have life and a home, but about their conditions on their way home. How many hours a day do people commute? How many jobs do they commute to? And what does this do to the quality of their family life and their neighborhoods and the fabric of our society?"

If I didn't tell you these words came from Lyndon LaRouche in that September 11 speech, you might think they came from the lips of President Bush in his State of the Union address. Yet while Bush conquers the Middle East in pursuit of oil, LaRouche speaks and writes about ideas like establishing high-speed railways within and between major population centers that can generate millions of jobs in New Deal fashion. Hear the words alone and you might think any other progressive, environmentalist politician - even Al Gore - is talking. In fact, from that end of the spectrum, he sounds downright normal.

The problem is, Lyndon LaRouche doesn't have a normal background at all.

"Lyndon LaRouche comes from a quasi-Quaker, fundamentalist family who were anti-Semitic, and he reacted against his parents by joining the Socialist Workers Party in the 1940s," said Dennis King, author of the 1989 Doubleday book Lyndon LaRouche and the New American Fascism. "He was too smart for that group, so he started his own group in Manhattan around 1968.

"Eventually he turned from a guru into a cult leader, and when the antiwar movement wound down after Vietnam, he saw he could get bigger gate receipts on the right," King continued. "He returned to the views of his parents, though he uses coded anti-Semitism."

King believes that LaRouche's views are fascist, because fascism centers on a cult of personality and can shift politically between aspects of the left and the right. Yet LaRouche's press spokesman and right-hand man for the western United States, Harley Schlanger, is Jewish, -- rendering King's claims of LaRouche's anti-Semitism curious.

"Instead of addressing the ideas that he raises, what people do is attack him. You hear he's an anti-Semite, but we have members of all religions here, and I'm Jewish myself," said Schlanger. "If you oppose the practices of Ariel Sharon, does that make you anti-Semitic? People can't find where they say he attacks the Jews, and they used to say we skinned cats and left them with our enemies, but no one ever showed evidence of a cat or DNA. If people just listened to LaRouche and there was no war, what would that mean? A lot of people who get money out of this war would be out."

So how has the LaRouche organization managed to maintain strength for so long?

"The answer is simple. There's 280 million people in the United States, and every year in every state, fringe candidates get on the ballot, and raise enough signatures to get on the ballot," said Bob Secter, the Illinois Political Editor for the Chicago Tribune. "People don't even realize what they're doing when they sign the ballot petitions."

But King's explanation for why the LaRouche campaign is growing on college campuses is interesting, nonetheless. Believing that the current antiwar movement is rooted in more anti-Semitism than past antiwar movements, because of anger over Israel's treatment of Palestinians, King said LaRouche can appear to "tilt leftward" while actually drawing college kids into his movement for anti-Semitic viewpoints and activities.

"I was told by the editor of 'Chronicle of Higher Education' that LaRouche has 1,000 new college-age recruits nationwide, and 1,000 fully committed young people can cause problems," said King. "He has strong intelligence ties all over the world and visited Iraq back in the 1970s, so it's natural that he would be antiwar now."

LaRouche's notoriously aggressive fundraising has enabled his team to raise more than $5 million nationally and as a result earn more than $800,000 in federal matching funds in 2003. That's a figure bigger than that raised by fellow present and former Democratic presidential candidates Al Sharpton, Carole Moseley Braun, and even Dennis Kucinich. Yet despite these fundraising successes - and landing spots on primary ballots in 13 states and the District of Columbia - so far, he's been kept out of every debate in every election cycle he's ever run in.

"We can't control who wants to call themselves a Democrat or qualify themselves for the ballot," said Tony Welch, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. "But we're not obligated to turn the stage over to everyone who comes along."

The official reason the Democratic National Committee is eager to keep him out of debates is that LaRouche was sentenced in 1989 to 15 years in prison for mail fraud conspiracy. He and his organization were convicted on illegal and manipulative fund-raising practices, and he was released in 1994.

But it's his outrageous comments that draw the hearts and minds of young people like the two guys who drove me to LaRouche's speech, whose identities I will protect for fear that their comments might earn them retribution from within the organization.

"Nobody else [other campaigns] ever asked us to join them. Have they tried?" asked Tony. "Nobody says 'Bush is a bipolar idiot controlled like a puppet, help me stop him.'"

"The so-called leading nine candidates don't know how to fight his fascist nature," added Marco. "They're not qualified to take risks."

Those kinds of impassioned sentiments worry people like Oscar-winning author/filmmaker Michael Moore, who noticed the LaRouche movement's presence during the tour for his book "Dude, Where's My Country?" in October.

"It does seem that there's something going on here in California with LaRouche more than anywhere else I've traveled," said Moore, when asked about the campaign. "I think it shows that there's young people really hungry for leadership alternatives, and the traditional Democratic candidates are leaving them with a vacuum of passionate leadership to get behind."

My entrée into the world of the LaRouche campaign was a college student named Wesley, who had come down from Seattle to help in the anti-recall drive. He was manning a table outside the Borders bookstore in Glendale on September 4th.

Wesley was young, clean-cut, and seemed sane, so I stopped. .And when I told him I was a reporter and curious enough to give the LaRouchies a chance to tell their side of the story, he told me that LaRouche was having a top-secret campaign rally for his L.A. supporters on September 11, and I could be in on the otherwise-private affair.

Seven nights later, I was off to a ballroom at the Burbank Hilton. My escorts seemed like fairly normal guys, college-age chaps who dressed in normal college-age clothes and had boisterous college-style laughs and senses of humor.

Arriving at the hotel, the idea that this would be a lily-white gathering of racists was rendered absurd by the crowd of 500 who were easily the most diverse group of people I'd ever seen at a political gathering. And anyone who needed Spanish translation of the night's proceedings was provided with headphones that gave an instant live feed from an interpreter.

Suddenly a door at the front of the hall opened and an old guy came barreling in faster than a speeding bullet to the stage. There was no announced intro, but the entire crowd was on their feet as one, in a standing ovation. Lyndon LaRouche was in the building. But instead of talking right away, he took a seat as a young Latino student introduced a student chorus from a LaRouche-funded school called the Schiller Institute. They took the stage and sang "O Freedom," a Negro spiritual that was described as "the theme song of the LaRouche Movement on the West Coast." The tune was an old slave song about deliverance to the Lord after death - not the most optimistic view I've ever heard from a campaign. Or the most pertinent. Or frankly, youthful. Then again, LaRouche is 81.

Finally, it was time for the main man to speak, and he was certainly colorful.

Wonder what he thinks of this Bush? "The dumbest man in America was seated as President." How about Cheney? "Cheney and his ilk are man-beasts and Satans. Cheney is an intrinsically evil person. If he were more intelligent, he would be Satanic. But he is only a thug for Satan."

In more practical, current terms, LaRouche and his people had proven their stripes to the Democratic cause by printing up and distributing 500,000 copies of a magazine entitled "Who Robbed California?" which purported to tell the story of the energy deregulation disaster in California and their claim that Schwarzenegger's rise was part of a conspiracy tied into that. . Things were fairly routine until Hollywood liberal legend Ed Asner walked into the room and sat down in front of me. It was my turn to pounce, and Ed's turn to look stunned.

"I just [came] because I had heard contradicting rumors of him and had dismissed him because of it, but I found him very enjoyable," said Asner. "Everything I've heard from him is in the progressive agenda that I entertain.

"All too often Democrats play go-along to get-along, and LaRouche shows that it's more than the head of the pimple that's gotta be squeezed," Asner continued. "I support Kucinich really, and I can't make a judgment on the time LaRouche spent [in jail] because he will not be the first person to be placed there and silenced that way in America. I am certainly aware that he is controversial, but in this case, that attracts me because I tend to be seen as controversial in the same way."

LaRouche ran out the door of the Burbank Hilton as quickly as he had come in, after leaving his followers with this directive: "Have fun!" True to his command, the fun was just beginning.

It was 11:30 p.m. and I was starving, but more than that, I was eager to get my young LaRouchie hosts to hang out in a normal, outside-the-campaign setting. They already said they were tired, so my goal was to keep them up 'til 2 or 3 a.m. and see if I could get them to dish out some answers to tough questions.

But I should have known we were headed for trouble when they said they needed to find a gas station "right away." Pasadena was only 15 or 20 minutes away, I figured, how bad could it be? The only time I'd ever seen someone run out of gas was in a movie.

But two blocks later, it happened to us. Boom, out. All she wrote. No gas station in sight. And I was the only one with a AAA card. I wound up having to pay for the $5 in gas the tow-truck guy provided. So not only did these "campaign workers" not have enough cash to keep their gas tank above "E" while escorting a reporter at midnight, they didn't have the money to pay the guy who was saving their ass. The AAA man looked at our "LaRouche in '04" badges, tried not to snicker, and headed into the night.

I was determined to get my secrets. However, more importantly, I wanted to get breakfast. Denny's awaited.

Hours later, we finally pulled into Denny's, and as the LaRouchies devoured their meals, the conversation turned a little more casual and a lot more revealing. They were stressing out about getting home and asleep because they had to be up for work the next morning, but I asked if driving a reporter around counted as racking up some hours on the job. Marco, said they might get to sleep in for an hour, meaning they could get started at 8:30 instead of the usual 7:30 a.m.

"7:30?!" I spat out. "So what time do you finish? 3:30 or 4 p.m.?"
"No!" they laughed, like the 8-hour workday was the silliest concept in the world.

"We work until 10 usually," said Tony.

But if you thought they'd be done after a grueling 15 hour work day, you'd be wrong.

"We teach each other classes in history or science or other topics 'til midnight most nights," said Marco. "Then we go to bed and start over the next day."

I asked them how they have time to have normal lives, how their schedules possibly jive with Lyndon's own speech about the social fabric and being able to have a balanced life with family. That they seemed like hip, young, good-looking guys who could do well with the ladies and aren't they missing out? I had heard that one big motive of the current recruiting wave was because the members weren't allowed to date and marry, and the original members had grown old or drifted off and the movement needed to recruit fresh blood just to keep going.

Tony's voice started to tremble with feeling.

"If you knew you had the chance to change the world, really make a difference, would any of the rest of that, anything else, matter to you, or wouldn't it seem silly and trivial?" he asked.

"Sure," I said. "But come on, I like some of what he has to say, but Lyndon is 81 and has been running for president for 27 years. I don't mean to be mean, but you have to know that he can't win."

He was silent for a moment. Then he leaned forward and pounded his arm on the table.

"OK, it's not about winning the presidency!" he nearly shouted. "It's about a revolution!" Thankfully, it was now approaching 3 a.m. and people expected odd behavior in Denny's.

"Like violent?!" I was freaking now.

"No, it's about turning society back to true culture - Renaissance culture. That's why we learn to sing chorale music when we join, and have reading days on the classics, and teach each other classes," said Marco.

"Popular culture is disposable, and wasteful and will die out. The classics will not. If it takes us 500 years, it doesn't matter. We will win!" said Tony, his fury back and his forearm pounding the table again. "We're revolutionaries!"

They may have been revolutionaries, but they weren't particularly well-funded ones. Even Marco revealed that he was broke and had to stiff me on the Last Meal Surprise at Denny's. Denny's is dirt-cheap, but I walked out the door footing a $45 bill.

So how does the campaign convince such bright young minds to get involved so thoroughly? First off, they play to the vanity of passersby.
"They convince you of your intellectual superiority," recalled one former follower from LaRouche's early-70s Manhattan era. "They tell you you know more than Einstein."

But if you ignore LaRouche recruiters, say officials at both UCLA and Pasadena City College, their efforts can get progressively more forceful. According to Burky Nelson, Director of Student Programming at UCLA, "The LaRouche people tend to be anti-authoritarian and use amplified bullhorns any time of day, disrupting classes and only backing down when we call in actual police."

Nelson has worked at UCLA since 1981, and said that "they've become much more vociferous the past few years." He gave several examples of how students are "aggressively followed and called names" to the point that they sometimes even call upon the campus police for help. Nelson singled out a particularly egregious disruption by a "LaRouchie" at an appearance last March by conservative heavy-hitters William Bennett, former CIA head James Woolsey, and Iraq reconstruction head James Bremer.

"There was an opportunity for the audience to talk, and the person for LaRouche asked a question but refused to get off the microphone and went into a diatribe that went against the principles that the question and answer session was about," said Nelson.

That's putting it mildly, according to UCLA student Robert Burgess, a fifth-year major in classics and history who was the recipient of some first-hand harassment by a "LaRouchie" on the day after the recall. After stopping by the LaRouche table and unwittingly commenting favorably about its nuclear energy pamphlets, the "LaRouchie" recruiter - a male whom I'll call Trucker Shades because of his enormous '70s-style trucker sunglasses - said "thanks" but was unable to contain himself from delivering an anti-Arnold diatribe.

"Did you know that if you'd donated to LaRouche we could have stopped the Nazi man-beast?" asked Trucker Shades, whose table signs also referred to the new governor by the same unflattering term. He apparently was unaware of the previous night's election results having reflected the state electorate's overwhelming desire to turn Gov. Davis out of office and willingness to put Ahnold in.

"He then said 'You know Arnold is a Nazi pig,'" said Burgess moments after he and Trucker Shades' heated verbal exchange nearly erupted into on-campus fisticuffs. "I said I didn't think that was fair because he's never had time to do anything in office, and he just kept repeating himself. He got so into my face I finally recognized him from the Woolsey event, and I remembered he was so full of shit then that people were ready to kick his ass."

When Burgess finally managed to break Trucker Shades' mind-melding force field, the unbowed recruiter immediately set his darkened sights on a group of Latino students, whom he proceeded to debate across several blocks of campus for the next hour before they finally begged him to let them study.

"It's kind of odd, really, because they try to make a lot of noise and draw attention to themselves but then they never seem to even take it far enough to collect information from people to get them to sign up for the group," said Burky Nelson. "I've never seen what happens when you say, 'I believe what you're saying and I want to get involved.'"

Meanwhile, over at Pasadena City College, the PCC Courier newspaper staff learned the hard way 18 months ago about what happens when a college paper dares to question the LaRouche campaign's on-campus recruiting. (The campaign, while cooperative in providing interviews with Schlanger, did not allow us to photograph their recruitment efforts anywhere). A former Courier editor wrote an unfavorable story about the organization, setting off a string of bizarre retributions that - according to current Courier Sports Editor Jaynita Carney - included LaRouche followers bringing a video camera to the Courier office many times and attempting to force staffers to comment on tape about their editor and their opinions about the LaRouche campaign.

"Once a week one of them would come up to visit us, and they would say if we were truly intelligent we would understand what LaRouche was about," said Carney. "[One] day they were talking about building a land bridge - from Russia to Alaska. After we changed editors it kind of died off, other than trying to film us for no apparent reason until we'd call in the campus police."

The now-retired chief of the PCC police, Phil Mullendorf, had plenty of run-ins with the LaRouchies during his 22 years on campus, with an increase in problems "for at least the last 10 years." Like Nelson at UCLA, he notes that as a public campus the school has to allow the LaRouche recruiters on their "haven for free expression of ideas," officials had to be wary for when their "annoying" conduct crossed over the line - and when he did take action, Mullendorf found that the LaRouchies retaliated in their own disturbing way.

"They retaliate in their own newspapers, and bring them on campus. They'll preach to kids not to go to school but to sign up for LaRouche and say that he'll take care of all your needs and in effect brainwash these kids," said Mullendorf. "So when we chased them off, they came out with a headline nationally saying 'Campus Nazis Are Smoked Out at Pasadena City College,' quoting our exchange, which led me to believe they had a little tape recorder going. Then they went online and found stuff like 'Mullendorf is part of the Campus Security Insitute, trying to intimidate me. The LaRouche people published defamatory information and some personal information in their paper," Mullendorf continued. "We got lots of complaints about harassment and intimidation, and [we] arrested one of them - for refusing to leave and trespassing - and when we arrested him we found he was carrying a knife on him."

In the end, the question of how to keep politically curious and committed students within the productive political mainstream rests upon giving them more than, as Michael Moore puts it, "passionate leadership to get behind." It lies in the Democrats or even Republicans or Greens reaching out to provide the same answers that Schlanger claims the LaRouchies find. "Five years ago, young people thought if I get a computer degree I can be a millionaire in 15 years. Now many young people see they have no future. Many in our group see that they're the 'no -future' generation," said Schlanger. "LaRouche says don't be an existentialist, fight for a future not just of money and comfort but [one that] addresses real problems that threaten mankind. That's what's different about this."

Until the other candidates can hit campuses with the same message as convincingly, more bright young minds will find themselves working 15 hour days for not enough money to eat at Denny's.

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