It's May 23, 2008, and eleven presidential candidates are crowding the dais on a tiny stage in the Columbine Meeting Room. We're in the bowels of a Sheraton in downtown Denver, at the Libertarian National Convention some 70 miles from the party's birthplace in Colorado Springs. Many delegates expect that Colorado is about to become the location of the party's demise as well—in, oh, about 48 hours.
The would-be culprit, the twelfth candidate, is absent. He is the former representative Bob Barr, Republican of Georgia (1995-2003), who entered the race less than two weeks before the convention and the party less than two years prior, and who has skipped tonight's informal debate to host a meet-and- greet with his supporters. A central-casting Southern pol with a neat mustache and a terrifying caffeine habit (his drink of choice is a latte with five espresso shots), Barr arrives lugging some heavy baggage. In the 1990s, he was the public face of the Republican drive to impeach Bill Clinton—before the Lewinsky scandal broke. He introduced the Defense of Marriage Act and later signed off on the Patriot Act, two of the least beloved pieces of recent legislation among Libertarians. His PAC, the Bob Barr Leadership Fund, raised $4.3 million for Republican campaigns between 2003 and 2008—some of it while Bob was already an ostensible Libertarian. More than $4 million of that money went toward further fund-raising and "administrative" costs—including a salary for Barr's son, Derek. He says he now regrets much of this resumé. Some take him at his word. "Bob saw the light," says Aleq Boyle of Chickamauga, Georgia, a Barr lieutenant and a former Republican himself. (Libertarians use this terminology quite a bit--revelation, conversion, epiphany.) The rest suspect a Republican Trojan horse.
I call Barr aide Audrey Mullen and ask why Barr skipped the debate. "Bob wants to discuss real issues with real candidates," she says. Cold as the Rockies, but one can see her point. The eleven onstage look more like community- theater auditionees than presidential applicants. In the audience, there is a man in a Guy Fawkes mask; Starchild, a California masseur dressed as a pirate; and the Sumerian Libertarian, a white-mohawked older gentleman with saucer-size hoops in grotesquely distended earlobes and several bonelike objects piercing his septum.
As Brian Doherty writes in his definitive 741-page tome, Radicals for Capitalism, being a libertarian means "sailing on seas of opposition and indifference with an often bizarre and difficult bunch of shipmates." The movement's embrace of personal freedom is wide enough to welcome a Wall Street wing concerned mostly with deregulation; a sci-fi contingent dreaming of space colonies and immortality; a sizable anarchist (or "minarchist") faction preaching dissolution of almost all federal agencies; and, in the last few years, a steady, surly influx of 9/11 "truthers."
All and more of these groups are on proud display in Denver. Vendor booths trumpet Native American mysticism, the "inflation-proof Liberty Dollar," and, perhaps inevitably, Shotgun Willie's, a local strip club. One group is raffling off a motorcycle, with a disclaimer of opposition to helmet laws ("Those who ride should decide"). Another is showing The Matrix on mute, with custom subtitles. "Purity? You mean Rothbardianism?" says Keanu Reeves. Come to think of it, it's not too far from the film's original dialogue.
Barr's gamble is that enough Libertarians are fed up with this sideshow pageantry and would like some votes for a change. Since the party's foundation in 1971, the apogee of its electoral success remains 1980, when Ed Clark ran in all 50 states and captured close to a million votes. Eight years later, Ron Paul took less than half that. Paul's current run, of course, is a national phenomenon—except one unfolding outside the Libertarians' reach, a fact that imbues the convention with strange, twitchy pathos. Almost all of the delegates are Paul fans, but, because their hero is running as a GOP candidate (switching back would cost Paul his House seniority), Libertarians, come November, will have to choose between their own party and a write-in for Paul. His absence has created a gaping vacancy, and every single candidate here is trying to fill the vacuum.
With Barr otherwise engaged, the biggest name on the debate dais is former Alaska senator Mike Gravel. Another neophyte, he joined the party nearly three months ago after bowing out of a run for the Democratic nomination. Gravel used his time in the national spotlight to tape ornery cable appearances and inscrutable YouTube promos, all of which are now running on a loop at his booth (including a seasonal one that informs us, in song, that he's "running for president, and he's filled with Christmas cheer"). Gravel is candid about his motives and expectations. He's mostly mad at the Democrats—who, he says, pushed him out of the race for criticizing the U.S. stance on Iran—and would enjoy a platform from which to dish out some mild payback. His floor team includes Neal, a long-haired Wiccan who has a beef with Barr "because he tried to stop Wiccans from worshiping in the military" and granddaughter Renee, 20 years old and in full Goth regalia featuring a spiky dog collar. "He's the kind of grandpa you see on TV," she says of Gravel, tongue stud flickering between her teeth. "The one who comes to visit for Christmas, opens the presents. You know?" (I do, in fact--I've seen the video.) "This will either end my career, or give me a boost for the next six months," Gravel tells me. "I'll take either. "
Most of the assembled purists save their loudest cheers for "Dr. Mary" Ruwart, a party veteran with a soft, hypnotic voice that doesn't break its motherly cadence even when she explains how the right to carry concealed weapons could have prevented September 11. (She's also on the record suggesting that children should have a right to consent to sex with adults.) Her mostly male fans have come equipped with posters that say "Mary" inside a red heart. Another old-school favorite is Steve Kubby, a cancer-battling marijuana activist who drives a 1984 Mercedes that runs on cooking oil. The Mary-Kubby people are fast congealing into an anti-Barr alliance. From my informal survey of signs and pins and hats and paddles and T-shirts, Mary has the ears of about 25 percent of the delegates and Kubby another 20 percent: enough to make Barr nervous. Ruwart suggests that she would pick up Hillary Clinton supporters, who "can't wait to vote for a woman," and the heart-Mary signs fly up.
A few doomed dabblers march across the stage, serving up a glimpse into the party's various now-endangered constituencies. Christine Smith, a New Age-y redhead with a musical twang, says things like "Ah see freedom in the ahhs of wild creatures." Alden Link is an older gentleman who talks exactly like Truman Capote, except about the Second Amendment.
And then something electrifying happens. A man from Las Vegas named Wayne Allyn Root saunters to the podium. A ruddy bookmaker and TV sports handicapper who once co-hosted a show with Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, Root looks like a cross between "SNL"'s Darrell Hammond-as-Bill Clinton and Biff from Back To the Future. He's been itching to diversify from odds-making and TV appearances, and recently wrote the book Millionaire Republican, about "creating personal wealth in the GOP-dominated era." (It came out in 2006.) Soon after, he had his own "Libertarian awakening," as he calls it. Root's brochure baldly paints his candidacy as a pure p.r. project. His detailed "sixteen-year plan" for the party has such milestones as "Wayne hits a local college nightspot and dances with the younger set. The video makes U Tube" and "Wayne becomes a frequent guest on 'This Week with George Stephanopoulos,' Wayne's Columbia University classmate." (Stephanopoulos on Root: "I definitely didn't know him.") His other Columbia classmate? "Barrack [sic] Obama." P.r. gold.
Root grabs the mic, leaves the podium, and begins to prowl the stage like a motivational speaker, crossing back and forth in front of his frozen competitors. "I am the anti-politician! I am an s.o.b.—son of a butcher! America needs a son of a butcher! I know how to manipulate the media! First Jewish-American to run for president! First small businessman! First home- school dad! This is an opportunity of a lifetime!" His speech is all disembodied applause lines, and Root flogs and teases and massages each one for maximum impact.
Root leaves a definite mark. Compared to the low-boil Gravel, the literally and figuratively absent Barr, and the parade of amateurs that preceded him, he is the only one who seems to really enjoy being here. An impressed follower of Kubby, the pot activist, jokingly floats a "Grass-Root ticket." "I had a feeling that he was going to sell me some Ginsu knives," says another delegate when it's over. "But ... I don't know—maybe this is what we need right now?"
Saturday's big event is another debate, a formal one, nationally televised (on C-span). Since there are no primaries, all delegates have arrived officially uncommitted, and many—given microscopic variation between most contestants' platforms—may not settle on a favorite until after tonight's performance. To thin the crowded field, this year's rules require the candidates to collect 57 "tokens" each (actually paper strips) to participate in the debate and 30 more to earn a nominating speech. Soon, a rumor spreads that the threshold is going to be raised to 80 tokens at the last moment. "This is backstage dealings by the Candidate That Shall Remain Nameless," snipes Christina, Mike Gravel's (non-Wiccan) aide. Other delegates hint at coming disruptions and havoc. The mood in the room is like a high-school battle of the bands rocked by a whisper that there's a major-label rep in the audience: Instead of rehearsing, the musicians are running around backstage snipping each other's guitar strings.
In a possible preview of tomorrow's election, Ruwart and Barr are neck and neck, having amassed 94 "debate tokens" each. Barr, in a gesture his campaign trumpets as one of selflessness, gives some of his to Gravel: ostensibly to raise the level of discussion, possibly to secure Gravel's delegates later on. Gravel, surely grinning on the inside, then gives the excess of his tokens to Kubby.
Barr gets to speak first and uses the opening statement to sound every note he thinks the audience wants to hear. He delivers a forceful apology for much of his legislative record. The Patriot Act? "Shoot it, burn it, scatter the ashes." The Kyoto Protocol? "Don't force a Kyoto anything on the American people." Favorite thinker? Why, "the best philosopher of the twentieth century, Ayn Rand."
Wayne Allyn Root's favorite philosopher, by contrast, is Yogi Berra. Root replays his pitch from last night, louder, punchier, hoarser, adding a promise to deliver "twelve million of online poker enthusiasts, to whom I am a celebrity" to the party. This time, there can be no doubt this stuff works. A few men have found and adopted a barking chant—"Root! Root! Root!" "I noise- metered it," says Stephen Gordon, Barr's rail-thin, gloomy adviser, when the debate is over. He's staring at the convention hall's floor as he speaks. "Root won. Personally, it frustrates the hell out of me." Indeed, after a few hours of reflection, Root's offering of himself as an effective empty vessel for the party's message—no history, no baggage, just moxie—begins to seem brilliant.
By Sunday morning, all nerves are fraying. There's another persistent rumor—cheerful to some, frightening to others—that a last-minute busload of pissed- off anti-Barr anarchists, summoned by Kubby, is on its way to the Sheraton. Pacing in the elevator on the way from his suite to the battlefield, Steve Dasbach, the party's former national chairman who will be giving a speech nominating Barr, sourly predicts at least three ballots. "Don't cast me aside because I'm a latecomer," pleads Barr. The incantation of "Root! Root! Root!" briefly surfaces during his speech. It genuinely looks like Wayne Allyn Root's moment. He works the floor, furiously pressing flesh. Sixteen-year plan. Son of a butcher. Classmates with Obama.
There's a total of 660 delegates present, well short of the thousand predicted; the winner needs a simple majority (331) to get the nomination. At noon, the carnage begins. The first ballot has eight candidates and brings Barr 153 votes, with Mary Ruwart trailing him by one vote and Root in third place with 123, with Kubby in sixth. Gravel is a distant fourth. Two long-shots have collected less than 5 percent each and are thus cast out. Ron Paul gets six write-in votes.
Everyone takes note that not a single person from Nevada, Wayne Allyn Root's home state, voted for him. "Perhaps they know him," deadpans a delegate. The second ballot gets rid of Kubby, who, as expected, endorses Dr. Mary. On the third ballot, Barr and Mary Ruwart, her delegate haul now beefed up with Kubby supporters, are tied with 186 votes each.
The next vote is cast in ominous near-silence. No Libertarian convention had ever gone over three ballots. Even more disturbingly, the total number of voters keeps dwindling. "You know, Libertarians," sighs a California delegate. "Always off doing their own thing." When the results come in, there's a collective gasp. Barr and Dr. Mary are again in a tie, with 202 votes each. Gravel is out, and briefly becomes the most popular man in the room--until he professes no intention to endorse anyone and simply leaves.
Wayne Allyn Root's moment has passed; he has 149 delegates and no bequeathals from the now-departed second tier. His only plausible option is to parlay his third place into a vice-presidential nod from Barr, except Libertarians don't let their presidential nominees pick v.p.s at will: There's a separate nomination process. All the same, Root lunges for Barr and buttonholes him in the aisle. Their respective teams briefly form a tight circle enclosing the two men. "Now what?" Root asks Barr, brusquely—and, in the next moment, is brushed away. Shaken and ashen-faced, he storms outside and huddles with his aides, hissing something about Mary Ruwart. He is genuinely hard to look at.
On the fifth ballot, Dr. Mary pulls ahead of Barr, 229 to 223. Revolution is in the air; the room is thrumming with adrenaline. The purists—now comprehensively condensed into Mary's camp—are beginning to grin. So are Root's aides: Now Barr needs him and his 165 delegates. Root swallows his pride, walks up to Barr once again, and the two men disappear behind closed doors for about a minute. Pure politics, in miniature, on speed.
At three o'clock, Wayne Allyn Root emerges and gravely announces that he'll be Barr's v.p. His 16-year plan has now mutated into a plan "to spend sixteen years at the side of Bob Barr, learning how to be a successful politician." The purists are in shock: This is their nightmare arriviste ticket. A man named Ray jumps on a chair and yells that Barr will destroy the party in two months. The sixth ballot is cast amid criss-crossing chants of "Mary" and "Barr-Root! Barr-Root!" Then it's all over. Barr has 324 delegates, 54 percent of the remaining voters.
Down at the Capitol Bar, Christine Smith is sobbing. "Everything the Libertarian Party stood for is gone," she says. Back in the hall, a few purists stage a desperate drive for Kubby as the v.p. The idea—to stick Barr with the least compatible Number Two—has a perverse, fuck-everything, drive-this-thing- off-a-cliff tinge, but Root squeaks through on the second ballot.
Inside the hall, a hushed pandemonium breaks out. The Libertarian Party seems to be ungluing before my very eyes. After more than a few people loudly declare their intention to defect on the spot, Steve Kubby goes onstage and pleads with them to stay. Boston Tea Party, a fast-swelling offshoot composed of frustrated anarchists, has put together an alternative nominating convention around the corner, for "serious, radical, Libertarians only." Neal, Mike Gravel's Wiccan aide, says he's going to start his own Wiccan-Libertarian caucus back in Michigan. "The values are virtually identical," he says.
Three hours later, in the Barr victory suite, the winner is shaking hands with the Sumerian Libertarian, who he had visibly recoiled from earlier. This is his constituency now. Barr's aide Aleq Boyle is ecstatic: "They let the Georgia cracker in! Yeehaw!" He flicks the rim of his cowboy hat. "I have a feeling this one is going to go late. There will be splinter parties in other rooms, womanizing ... guy-a-nizing or whatever you call it. You know what to call it. They know what to call it!" Around ten p.m., several Gravel and Mary people, their heads down, their pins and buttons largely stripped, make their way into Barr's shindig. The cause is dead. Free beer is free beer.
The last time I see Gravel himself is a few blocks away, with wife Whitney and a few friends. They are mingling at Marlowe's, a bar and grill with a flashing neon martini above the entrance, outdoor seating, and an all-right ribeye. He looks perfectly happy.
Michael Idov is a contributing editor at NEW YORK magazine and the editor-in- chief of RUSSIA! magazine.