The town of Round Hill, Virginia, (population 500, more cows thanpeople) is probably not the right place to build a global politicalempire. But Lyndon LaRouche--conspiracy theorist, convicted felon,international cult leader, and eight-time failed presidentialcandidate--has selected it nonetheless. Pinched between a hayfield,a bison farm, and--locals brag--the fishing pond where a residentcaught the largest smallmouth bass in the county, lies thethree-story farmhouse set on the few dozen acres that LaRouchecalls home. It's a place that feels like a cross between a pastoralpoem and an outpost on the Maginot Line: The long gravel path thatleads up to the house is lined by blossoming and well-groomeddogwoods--a welcoming sight, until you see the two securitycameras, in green and red, attached to branches near the gate.Neighbors say that LaRouche, always on the lookout for brainwashedassassins, still has armed guards watching over the property, dayand night.
Predictably, LaRouche doesn't do interviews in person. His staffsays the security risks are too great. But he did agree to atelephone interview, and, after speaking with him, the Round Hillfarm takes on a different feel: that of a retirement estate--aregular Mount Vernon for a man who has always ranked himself withthe heavyweights of U.S. history. ("Oh, there's no question aboutit," he told The Washington Post in 1980. "I am the leadingeconomist of the century.") After running in every presidentialelection since 1976--and supporting everything from colonizingMars, to bringing back the gold standard, to building a giant landbridge across the Bering Strait--LaRouche has decided not to go infor a ninth bid in 2008. "I've stepped out of the presidentialcampaign," he grumbles with an unexpected New England lilt. "Afterall, I'm close to eighty-five now. And a candidate should have atleast eight years [left] before running for the presidency of theUnited States."
The timing might seem strange, since, if there's one thing the 2008election has attracted, it's an apparently infinite supply ofoddball (and long-shot) candidates. There is Ron Paul, a Texasrepresentative nicknamed "Dr. No" for his habit of voting againstalmost every spending bill that crosses his desk. And there is MikeGravel, a 77-year-old former Alaskan senator who hasn't held anelected office since 1981. (Asked after the first Democratic debatewhere he's been for the last 25 years, Gravel replied, "Under arock.") But, for LaRouche, it seems fitting that his strangepolitical tale should have a plot twist in the final chapter. Theelection in which everyone is getting in is the one in whichLaRouche is finally, after a three-decade presidential marathon,getting out.
Not that everything has changed. Politics is the very first thingLaRouche brings up in conversation, although his politics are notso much left or right as they are a conspiratorial mishmash ofanxieties and accusations. His enemies list has had a large anddistinguished membership--it's probably the only one to includeHenry Kissinger, Harry Truman, Queen Elizabeth II, Jane Fonda, andmost nineteenth-century British empiricists--but lately it's focusedalmost exclusively on Al Gore, whose anti-global warming crusade hetreats with special contempt. LaRouche, his colleagues say, isunambiguously "pro- civilization" and regards anything that hindersgrowth as a threat to life as we know it. "If you do what [Gore]says you should do, or even approximate it, you're going to destroythe possibility of civilization," LaRouche warns. "We could go intoa dark age."
The prospect of darker times is a subject LaRouche brings up a lot.In the course of an hour-long conversation, he warns that "theworst financial crisis in modern history [is] in the process ofhitting" and "the world financial monetary system" is"disintegrating very rapidly"; that "civilization may not be herewhen we come to our senses"; and, rather cryptically, that we areapproaching a "Tower of Babel." And, just as he has done fordecades, LaRouche maintains that he is the only one with thequalifications to save us from an unappealing fate. "My personalidentification will go back to ancient Greece, to Plato and soforth, but more immediately to Franklin Roosevelt's tradition,which was essentially to save civilization from a nightmare."
But, with electoral options now off the table, LaRouche is fendingoff the nightmare by pouring his inimitable skills into somethingnew: nurturing the eponymous LaRouche Youth Movement (LYM), aneffort to enlist the support of college-age men and women that hestarted in the late '90s. After being released from prison in1994--five years earlier, he was convicted of running a massivemail-fraud scheme--LaRouche found that many of his originalassociates had abandoned him. Most of the turncoats werebaby-boomers, so LaRouche began writing off the entire generationas "generally crazy" and saving his affection for the young, whomhe sees as filled with revolutionary promise. Of course, it doesn'thurt that most of the impressionable college students LaRoucherecruits are too young to remember that he spent five years inprison for mail fraud.
For some observers, the LYM is a hilarious failure. The most pressthe group received was for repeatedly harassing Joe Lieberman onthe campaign trail in 2006 (a role that LaRouche describes as"historically significant"), and the most contact the averageAmerican will ever have with the organization is seeing a group ofkids singing on a street corner or distributing pamphlets,sometimes with racy titles like "Children of Satan III: The SexualCongress for Cultural Fascism." But the relative success ofrecruiting--most estimates put membership at a few thousand--hasworried others more than any of his legal infractions from the'80s. Many of the LaRouche youth drop out of college to work forthe movement full-time, and most move into crowded and filthy grouphousing, where they work long hours distributing literature andmaking fund- raising phone calls. A number of colleges now warnincoming students about the group.
Given this less than flattering press, it's not easy to see howLaRouche keeps recruiting members and raising dollars. But somehow,despite age and the odds, he does. During the 2004 election, heraised close to $9 million--far more than the comparativelymainstream Dennis Kucinich or Al Sharpton--and former followers alldescribe the same weirdly hypnotic power. "He's a very tall guy,very imposing, and he can drop so many names--Plato, Leibniz,Kepler, on and on," says one former devotee. "You have no idea whatthe fuck he's talking about, yet you think he's a genius."
It's a description LaRouche is perfectly happy to cultivate,especially since he is now hard at work on a new "educationalprogram" for the LYM--which, he says, starts with "questions of thePythagoreans," then dips into "[Carl Friedrich] Gauss's 1799doctoral dissertation," and then moves on to the work ofnineteenth-century German mathematician Bernhard Riemann. "If youdon't understand Riemannian dynamics," intones LaRouche, "you don'tknow how economies work." He chose the curriculum based on "thekind of things that a leading cadre of economists"--likehimself--"should have mastered."
But, despite escaping the rigamarole of electoral politics, the 2008election is never far from LaRouche's mind, and he claims to be in"close consultation" with a number of Democratic presidentialcampaigns. (As in past years, every Democratic campaign deniesthis: The party has never recognized LaRouche, and a 2004 DNCletter cited his "explicitly racist and anti-Semitic" beliefs as areason.) But LaRouche--who has, despite the restrained reception,called himself a Democrat for almost 30 years--isn't ready to committo one candidate just yet. John Edwards? "Too shallow." BarackObama? "He's owned by the Chicago Board of Trade." Hillary Clinton?"Hillary Clinton is a very intelligent person who I like, but Iwouldn't pick her for president. She's too fly-off-the-handle." Isthere anyone worth backing?
LaRouche pauses. "I would probably end up being stuck with HillaryClinton, who I do not think is qualified to be president," headmits. There is, in the end, only one person who can do the job."I have the qualities," he sighs. "But I'm a bit old. ... My job isto create the image of what that president should be," and, hesays, "have somebody step into those shoes." LaRouche is prettysure he can deliver. "I'm likely to be around, unless somebody killsme."
By Conor Clarke; Conor Clarke is an editor in the Guardian's Washingtonbureau.