Here is a history lesson, on the past LP conventions I attended (part 1):
Well let’s start with 1975 in New York City, my first Libertarian Party National Convention. The thing I remember most about it a low-tech multimedia presentation, using The Who’s recently released Won’t Get Fooled Again alongside a slide show, illustrating politics as we know it, and as it continues to be. My favorite part each time they showed it was Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss… Sometimes it showed the current POTUS, preceded by the previous throne-sitter; sometimes it was the current president (at that time Ford, who had become Nixon’s successor) and King George the Third, which was hilarious.
The thing I most remember beyond that is the challenge to the anointed POTUS nominee, Roger Lea MacBride, by a woman from Ohio named Kaye Harroff. The thing that was most amazing about her was that she was coming off an almost-successful campaign run (as an independent with libertarian labels); I believe it was for city council somewhere in Ohio; I don’t have all the details anymore, It’s been way too long. But she was best known for “the Speech,” which was about a three-to-five-minute presentation, on libertarianism and the issues pertaining to it, building from a very grassroots bottom-up perspective.
I immediately supported her wholeheartedly as a valid challenger. I also already understood the concept of “let’s make sure that the delegates and the convention choose the person they want, rather than just rewarding someone for a single moment of conscience.” Clearly, Roger MacBride, for all his positives, was still a conservative Republican from Virginia, who had been an elector in the 1972 presidential election, but had broken ranks, refusing to cast his electoral vote for Richard Nixon, and instead had voted for John Hospers and Tonie Nathan, the fledgling Libertarian Party ticket.
From about the day after that happened, [MacBride] had become the presumed next nominee of the party, because he actually had something resembling name recognition. And his past had also been quite impressive: he had been responsible for getting Rose Wilder Lane’s memoirs and recollections published, and been instrumental in getting the “Little House on the Prairie” series off the ground. So he had some pretty good credentials around Liberty; Rose had been his mentor in many ways, and had essentially almost raised him.
So anyway, we went ahead with the convention and it got to the first ballot and McBride defeated Kay Harroff with a clear majority, which was and is how the rules are set up in the bylaws. So he got the nomination; there were balloons falling from the ceiling and “Happy Days Are Here Again” was playing and all three major networks at the time (CBS, NBC and ABC) covered the now nomination. It was both rewarding and a bit unsettling, maybe way too reminiscent of Democrat and Republican similar shows. But at the time we mostly thought, “Oh my goodness, we’ve gotten coverage! And we’ve gotten recognition and all this kind of thing.”
Well now it came to choosing his running mate. The convention in its pre-polling had essentially shown a strong preference for a Californian by the name of Jim Trotter. He was a John Lennon-glasses bespectacled, work-shirt and overalls wearing, bearded activist, very left-appearing. His recent life had been spent protecting draft- and tax-resisters, doing some gold smuggling, and otherwise engaging in and supporting victimless “criminal” activity. All of this was only alleged but had been fairly well documented.
He was seen as a really good balance to this conservative ex-Republican who would be at the head of the ticket. (I always noticed that Roger had a rather Baby Huey aspect to his appearance, smaller but same roundness. He also sounded a bit like the cartoon character Herbie with the time-lollipops series from my childhood. It was another one of those kids’ cartoons that said more to adults than it claimed to. But I digress…)
On the first ballot Jim Trotter was still the favorite, with a strong plurality; he fell just short of a clear majority, but was definitely the choice of the convention. At this point Roger declared that he could not run with someone for whom this would become a “one-issue campaign” about Trotter’s left activism and drug smuggling and protection of political prisoners, and so on.
We delegates (most of us actually) kind of stepped back from that, thinking, “Well, if we nominate a teacher, it’ll be all about education. If we nominate a doctor, that will be all about healthcare – again a one-issue campaign. Now we were getting a little concerned, when somebody brought up the name of a man from Oklahoma named John Vernon. He was a restauranteur who had run for city council in Oklahoma City the year before, and had nearly gotten elected, despite being just a local businessman, with no political background, Republican or Democrat.
Anyway, we moved on to presenting John Vernon as a potential nominee. There was only one catch: John was also openly gay, and Roger was not interested in having that one-issue campaign saddling his campaign. He simply would not have anything to do with it. The convention adjourned without choosing a vice presidential running mate.
NOTE: There were later rumors that I can’t substantiate, but will present as possible alternatives for why Roger was so reluctant: that he himself might have been a closeted homosexual. I don’t have any proof of that, but it has been said by more than one source. He might’ve had feared that he could be “outed” in the process of running with a gay running mate. Again it was only a rumor. . .
So we gathered for dinner and then, over the course of the early evening, a bunch of us ended up in a caucus room. Most were from the Massachusetts Libertarian Party; others had been Massachusetts libertarians and then moved to other states, and some were simply concerned about what was happening. The fear was that we were getting off on the wrong footing in our first big major national convention, by being cowed by the nominee into not choosing who we wanted as a running mate. (As we know this would not be the last time that happened.) It was not only about balancing the ticket; we needed some assurance that hardcore-libertarian issues would be presented. So we caucused through the evening into the wee hours and then all through those wee hours. A number of us didn’t get any sleep at all that night.
Now and then, throughout the early stages, people came in and out, thinking they could lobby us for them or their preferred candidate. In one case, Manny Klausner (the editor/publisher of Reason magazine in its early days) came in to lobby us. He was among those ones in the running when Trotter had been rejected. We listened to his pitch and said, “Okay, thank you and you can leave now.” And we went back to arguing about what we were going to do in general.
At one point, Murray Rothbard came in hoping that he could sway us, either to Klausner or to some other option. When he found out what we were actually considering, he left the room in a rage of disgust, and never come back. Because what he had found out was this: we were then at the point considering not just who we might put up for nomination for vice president, but whether we might first call for the resignation and removal of the presidential nominee. We had already chosen Roger McBride, before three national network news gangs and with much pomp and circumstance, but we were mulling over upsetting the whole applecart.
When we finally got through the whole night of discussion, it was actually a very peaceful energy; not an awful lot of raving and screaming from any of our people, just from the folks who came in and heard what we were doing. We came out with the plan: three people would stand up and then nominate and second the nomination of John Vernon. And we chose Robert Nozick, Harvard professor and author of Anarchy, State & Utopia, to deliver the nomination speech, with Rich Kenney (from Washington, formerly of Massachusetts) and Bill Howell from Texas (who actually had known Vernon for a bit) to do the seconding.
So the convention was reconvened and opened for nominations; Nozick got up from our Massachusetts delegation. I will always recall his opening words: “I rise to place in nomination the name of a man I barely know and only met last evening . . .” (Note: I used to have, and I wish I knew where it went, an audio tape of that day’s proceedings, along with a lot of other things from that convention. I have no idea where it went, but it has disappeared.) He went on to eloquently nominate John Vernon, with a presentation of the deeper issues at hand, and then Rich Kenney and Bill Howell seconded with briefer speeches.
And we moved forth, to great applause from a lot of the convention, but definitely a deference (even some anger) from others. We nominated John Vernon, at which point Roger MacBride asked to speak to the convention. “I am not going to stand against whomever the convention chooses to give me for a running mate.” And we applauded and now let that go. At this point, another nomination came to the floor: David Bergland, a lawyer from California (who would go on to be among the most noted people in the Libertarian Party, for many, many reasons).
At the time, he was a leisure-suited, gold-chains wearing California beach boy with an Afro haircut, a hip-looking guy who also happened to be a lawyer from California. He appeared to be just what we were looking for: somebody to balance the ticket. He spoke pretty eloquently and presented himself as if he’d been a libertarian activist for a while in California; he seemed like a really good choice. And so with that, the convention made the choice of adding David Bergland to the ticket and went forward. And that was New York.
Let’s next try 1977 (the off year, so to speak). Back then we were having them pretty much every year, but this was also a Congressional election year, though not a presidential one. This one was in San Francisco. I flew out as a delegate for Massachusetts again, on a Supersaver flight (which meant 3 days of stayover at the end, but that’s another story).
At the time I was the managing editor in name (and pretty much editor in reality) of a gay-themed, biweekly tabloid newspaper published out of Boston and called Esplanade. And one of the things I came to California with as part of my agenda was to get the Libertarian Party to endorse a very strongly worded gay-rights resolution (back when it was called “gay rights” instead of LGBTQ etc., as it is now.) We were presenting a truly civil libertarian approach to the whole issue, not taking the overstep had been done with the 1964 Civil Rights Act: denying freedom of association to private enterprise or personal property owners. We were not saying you could not choose who to associate with or who you had to do business with. We were saying that the government should stop standing in the way of equality, and should stop persecuting and prosecuting people for their consensual adult preferences, sexual or otherwise. At any rate, I went out there with that in mind.
At the same time, uh, I became involved in the efforts to put forth in the platform more clarity on other issues. There was already a good solid pro-equality plank there, one that had been adopted in the founding convention as an essential part of it. But we were trying to clarify and firm up a little bit on that. We were also trying to pass something called a “children’s rights” plank, affirming the idea that regardless of age, it was possible for someone to assert and affirm his or her own right to make decisions about one’s own life. (And of course, that has since led to all kinds of controversy and calumny and slander and outright lies, involving everybody from Dr. Mary Ruwart to . . . so many others.)
Anyway, back to the story. I was involved in those three efforts essentially. We also had a great speaker list; even Timothy Leary was on the podium at one point. I even got a chance to interview him (I do still have that tape, which I may release soon as well.) Another thing that happened during the course of the convention was a march by the just-formed Association of Libertarian Feminists (ALF) across the floor of that convention. ALF had been formed by, Tonie Nathan, our 1972 vice-presidential nominee, Sharon Presley and Joan Kennedy Taylor, among others.
At any rate there was a protest march in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, which disrupted the convention only in its timeframe for a few minutes. I’m quite proud to say that I was one of, as it turned out, two men who joined that march. The other was a fellow by the name of Robert Anton Wilson, who many people know (those who don’t, should go find the Illuminatus Trilogy and Cosmic Trigger, and a number of other brilliantly anarchistic and chaos-versus-order parables allegories in some cases, memoirs of his colorful life when he was on the planet. But anyway, I’ve always been proud of the fact that in that same convention, I interviewed Leary and marched Bob Wilson and worked with L Neil Smith and a number of others on the children’s rights plank and other issues. (There are also some personal things that happened during that convention that I will just go so far as to say that I . . . kind of fell in love, which led to, uh, some interesting aftermath, but is definitely not part of this story.)
Let’s do 1978. This was not only an off-year convention, but an off, off-year convention. Back in those days, we tried to get together every year just to hang out together, and this one took place in Boston. The most interesting thing about this convention was maybe the lead up to it. I was on the organizing committee, actually the press and media relations chief, frankly as a solo act mostly. Close to the convention, Eric Garris flew in from California and joined me to help with what he could. He ended up as exasperated as I was when he got there. But we’ll get to that.
The interesting thing was our attempt as, you know, good radical Massachusetts (Massholes as some called us) libertarians hosting the thing, to shake the box a bit. We sought to present a really hardcore, grassroots-based libertarian event. So we had speakers on South African apartheid. We had speakers on, not only gay rights, but even intergenerational sexual rights, and sexual freedom in general (I recall at least one sex worker who spoke).
We also chose among the breakfast speakers a fellow by the name of Murray Bookchin, seemingly a left “progressive,” but really just a hardcore true anarchist activist from New York. He was coming to speak on the topic of “Non Hierarchical Forms of Organization”: basically, bottom-up and anti-crony corporatist ways of decision-making. Well, that seemed harmless enough, except Murray Rothbard had been sort of his rival anarchist activist (from a more right-wing perspective) back in their days in Brooklyn, New York.
When Rothbard found out his rival (who had actually been a bit more, uh, popular with his living room discussion groups back when MR was doing the same thing?) was actually going to speak at a Libertarian Party convention? To say he was horrified is an understatement. He pressured the National Committee, and then its chair, who was then . . . David Bergland. He pressured David to the point where he basically called us bunch of communists! And now the party hero from 1975 had to fly in from California to Boston, to meet with our convention committee, to determine whether we were subverting the cause of the Libertarian Party, with some of the controversial speakers we were having and some of the topics we were going to be bringing up.
And we were stunned, but we had the meeting. Within about 10 minutes, David was pretty clear that we were not a threat to the party, in any way, shape or form. Our intention was merely to present varying viewpoints, all within the lens of Liberty. I think we probably met for half an hour, maybe a full hour, just to get all the details figured out. But he left quite satisfied that everything was fine, and so we went forward and had our convention.
The convention was held at the Copley Plaza Hotel in downtown Boston. The first day of the convention, the evening before we actually opened formal ceremonies, there was a Candidates Cocktail Party for all the people running as Libertarians around the country (Independents, in some cases, since they were states where the LP was not recognized, and would not be for some time, but running as libertarians in whatever sense.), at all kinds of levels to meet for at a cocktail party, where they get to speak a little bit about their campaigns.
[Digression: At the time, I was actually running for State Senate in several Boston areas and suburbs (Brighton, Allston, Cambridge, Watertown, Arlington and Belmont). It was a fairly large district, and a very liberal Democrat one, whose incumbent was just awful on liberty (anti-civil liberties though half-decent on economics — thank God he didn’t have to make any decisions about war!) He was essentially an authoritarian creep who happened to be a Democrat; he controlled the police and firemen’s unions and had the senior citizens voting for him; he basically did nothing in office but take up space, and was hated largely by the people around him, but was always getting re-elected, because he’d always win in the primary since it was a democratic district. So, so much for that. Well, in this case, I was his only opposition in the final election, and running a campaign with nothing but a little volunteer help and a cut-rate on printing costs and a few other things donated. I put out leaflets and posters and spoke at a few locations and came away with about 16% of the vote, 6,000-odd votes. For years afterward, people would run into me, and we’d be talking and they’d hear my name and say, “boy, that sounds familiar!” And they usually figured out they must’ve voted for me! [end Digression]
Anyway, we had this cocktail party and I got then-State House representative, later-Congressman Barney Frank to speak, partly because of my connections through the gay community, and my position with Esplanade (see previous file). I knew Barney, because I’d actually interviewed him a couple of times and even worked with him on a couple of local issues.
Barney came as the most libertarian-like elected official I could find in . . . well, at that point almost anywhere! During his speech, he presented the fact that we agreed on civil liberties, pretty much 100%. He had a little bit of a blind spot on gun issues, but he was not a, you know, take the guns away kind of person, just thought there were some things that needed to be considered. Like most Democrats (at least back then?), he was with us on peace and bringing home troops, and not starting wars. And although his economics was funky, he was even, as he said in the speech, “starting to believe what you do about the destructiveness of the regulatory system,” noting how the overreach was missing the point, and the one-size-fits-all nature of many of them. So he actually gave a very nice speech and it was well received.
We did not know this at the time, but that same weekend we were holding our convention, Anita Bryant was in town to speak on behalf of a GOP Senatorial candidate name of Howard Phillips. Worse yet, she would be speaking at the same hotel we were in, the Copley Plaza (on the same day and almost the same time as Murray Bookchin was holding forth on anarchist thought at breakfast!). Phillips, a nasty little troll who later went on to form (and run as their 1996 Presidential nominee) the Taxpayer’s Party (since renamed as the Constitution Party, in neither case representing the reality of their right-wing theocratic crackpotism). And Anita Bryant was in town that weekend to speak on behalf of Phillips and his run for Senate.
And so, somewhat on an impromptu basis we, libertarians organized a gay-rights rally the next night of the convention. Whereas the candidates’ cocktail party the night before had gotten almost zero press coverage, the rally and its signs were featured on all three local news channels. However, the next day, when both Bookchin and Bryant were speaking, almost one after the other in separate rooms of the same hotel, the press/media types came in . . . to cover only Bryant’s rant!
Bear in mind these were largely people I had known and worked with during my days as a journalist, and who had gotten repeated invitations and press releases regarding the upcoming LP convention. I had also pitched several of them specifically on the Murray Bookchin speech, thinking it would appeal to a lot of them, particularly the more left-leaning ones (which was then most of the media as it still is).
Instead what I witnessed that morning was none of them attending the Bookchin speech, but trooping in just as I was coming out from that, and one by one going by (some of them almost nodding), but nobody’s saying a word. They walked right by our registration table, ignoring the literature thereon, going straight into the adjoining room, where Ms. Bryant was about to make her misanthropic, horrific, racist, homophobic, you name it, um, presentation. And then, when she was done, after the press conference and such, they wandered back out, walking right back by the table. Nobody stopped, even to pick up a brochure, or talk to anybody; they never acknowledged anybody was even there, let alone acknowledging me.
Eric Garris I believe was as stunned as I was; except I wasn’t so stunned, since I had almost expected it, given how little response I’d gotten. And they wandered back out and went back about their business. I actually confronted a couple of them who said, “No, my assignment editor said, don’t bother with any of that crap. Just cover Anita and go, and don’t come back.” So apparently, the word was out, even then: the media was instructed to do everything they could to ignore us and keep us out of the picture. And, as we know, that has continued to this day, except in very rare circumstances.
I’m not sure what else I have to say about that convention, except that it was disheartening in many ways that we could not get media to notice us in any way. Otherwise it was pretty good week.
In 1981 the Libertarian Party met in Denver, Colorado at the Denver Hilton. I went out there as the East Coast coordinator for John Mason for national chair. John was a local Coloradan, from Denver, in fact, who was running as a hardcore libertarian, pledging to promote principled activism on all issues pertaining thereto. Meanwhile, the East Coast coordinator for Kent Guida, the “pragmatic” choice” was woman named Freda Lee Nason, a long-time friend and colleague of mine from Massachusetts (and a veteran of the 1975 overnight caucus in New York). That group was the nuts-and-bolts/get-people-elected faction, thinking that was the direction the party had to take.
Then, shortly before the convention, Alicia Clark (wife of our 1980 presidential nominee, Ed Clark) announced herself as a contender for the position. Her East Coast coordinator was Norm McConnell, another good friend and colleague in the LP of Massachusetts, who had either just stepped down as state chair, or was still in the middle of his term. Alicia was running as the ‘party-unity” candidate, since the Mason/Guida battle had become . . . well, let’s say a bit rancorous.
[A funny early-convention event then happened. The three of us were out having a beer and some food at a local Mexican restaurant. Several people saw us sitting there, happily sharing jokes and in good spirits with each other, wearing the three different campaign buttons. Many were absolutely horrified and shocked that we could even be talking to each other! At that point, the hard factions were already forming, as they tend to do at libertarian conventions.]
Anyway, we went forward with the process. I don’t remember a lot about that convention, because it happened in back-to-back weeks at the same hotel with the Worldcon science fiction convention. And I was out there for both. I do recall dancing at the Gala (though we didn’t call it that then) with a lovely lady from . . . I think it was Oregon. Anyway, things went forward and (as could have been predicted given the rancor between the Mason and Guida camps) Alicia Clark was elected national chair. Once the three of them were up against each other, and one got knocked out, she then won over the remainder. (I believe John was the other finalist.)
As conventions go it was okay I guess. Then there was the interim, when I actually spent one or two nights in the guest bedroom of John Mason and his lovely wife, Sally. And from there it was the night I spent in a tent under a downpour in the mountains of Colorado, at “Camp Illuminatus” (but that’s another story). And then Worldcon happened, where I met a lot more fascinating people, and crashed on the floor of Sam Konkin’s Agorist suite, and hung out with Victor Koman … but that is also another tale…
1983 in New York city was the last convention I attended, until after I moved to Tennessee in the early ‘90s. In many ways it was a watershed for a lot of people who were there, and for others who weren’t. You see, prior to the convention, there had been a strong push, with a willing candidate, a fellow by the name of Gene Burns, then a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, with pretty definite libertarian leanings. Up until convention time, it was assumed that he would be the overwhelming consensus candidate for the party, and we could just plan on partying a lot.
But the weekend before the convention began, he was informed that, unlike Ed Clark in 1980, he was not going to have David Koch as a running mate, funneling millions of dollars into the campaign. And he summarily announced that he didn’t want to play, because it would be a waste of his time and energy. He could go back to being a radio host and do much better and so on.
As a result, a lot of us showed up at the convention with no idea about this, but those who did know had already been mounting two rival groups. (If this sounds familiar, think back to two years earlier in Denver in 1981). One group attempted to present the principled hardcore libertarian stance, and brought David Bergland back to the fore the same guy who had bailed us out two or three times already (and would later do so at least a couple more times, including agreeing to be national chair at times when either nobody else wanted the job or couldn’t get enough votes to hold it).
David was the radical candidate supposedly, while the more fix- and-improve-it, nuts-and-bolts people were backing a fellow by the name of Earl Ravenal. He had been a Carter foreign policy advisor, but had quit that position when Carter had in early 1979 refused to listen to him when he said, “Get those people out of that embassy!” And sure enough, within a couple of months after he resigned, the Iranian students took the embassy and held as hostage 52 diplomats and other deep-staters; this had resulted in losing Jimmy Carter a reelection effort because of the manipulation of Ronald Reagan’s people to make sure the issue was not resolved before election day.
At any rate, Ravenal had run a piece in Penthouse, outlining his stance on all of this, including what he had said to Carter and his people and how they had ignored him and how he’d walked away. He was considered, at least on that issue of foreign policy, to be about as libertarian-understanding as you could get. He had also always been a non-interventionist in Middle East and other conflicts. So he was put up as the other alternative.
Well, contrary to my actions of two years earlier (and all my other years in the LP), I joined the “non-radical” Ravenal forces, and for the first time ever found myself on the same side of an issue as Murray Rothbard and Bill Evers. Instead of going for the principled hardcore side, Murray now believed it was time to bring somebody into the picture with some name recognition outside of our little frog pond. Ravenal didn’t have much, but his Penthouse article had at least gained some notoriety. It might also bring in some anti-war left people to the movement perhaps, maybe getting them to understand that the answer to foreign aggression is not to create a bigger government, but to scale it down and bring things back to the local level. This was before the Green Party actually existed, so they didn’t really have another place to go.
Anyway, those two squared off. Alongside of this was a movement involving lapel buttons and flyers called the Aloha Caucus, which was led by Ben and Sylvia Olsen, a couple from Iowa. Sylvia (nee Sanders), prior to marrying Ben and helping to raise their kids and run their farm together, had been a Massachusetts libertarian for many years and was a good friend of mine. She had also been present back in the ‘75 show down in New York in our overnight caucus, mentioned in a previous post, as well a fellow “Camp Illuminatus” traveler in 1981 in Denver. Anyway, the Aloha Caucus was all about restoring love and peace and fellowship and harmony and all those good qualities. (If I could find the button, I could quote all of them. Maybe if I figure out where the button went.) So that was going on alongside this battle.
And then it was coming down to a day or so before the two would be squaring off, with nobody else really running except good old NOTA. And a young Mary Ruwart, at the time pre-doctorate, but a student and professor IIRC, stepped up from her Michigan roots to be the peacemaker candidate. She became the third alternative, just as Alicia Clark had been two years earlier in the national chair’s race in Denver, which she had then won.
I has seen enough mudslinging going on between the Ravenal and Bergland folks, so that I now chose to join Mary’s efforts and started campaigning for her. I did so right up to — I believe it went to the fifth ballot — wherein a whole lot of minor challengers were knocked out, and it was down to the three of them, and NOTA as always. Then Mary suddenly announced without much preface that she was withdrawing, moving her support to David Bergland and asking her supporters to vote for him. I was kind of outraged, because I thought that we were on the verge of tipping the scales and knocking one of the other two out of the picture. At that point, Mary would have gotten the nomination, as we had seen happen in Denver in 1981 and would again in Atlanta in 2004 (when the Gary Nolan and Aaron Russo forces were at loggerheads and Michael Badnarik became our nominee).
That didn’t happen because Mary dropped out. My vote went back to NOTA, because at the time I could not tolerate either of the other two. However, the vote went forward, not enough people went to NOTA, and enough went for Bergland to give him the majority by, if I recall correctly, one vote! He was our nominee, with 50-point-whatever percent of the vote, out of several hundred delegate. (LP conventions back then were not quite as big as they are now, I believe we had 500 delegates at that one, but it might’ve been closer to 300 or 350.)
At any rate, it went down that way, and that was that; the party went on to nominate Jim Lewis, a tax-resister from Connecticut as the running mate, and then attempted to stick to hardcore issues. (Jim later served some jail time for his resistance, before passing on about 10 years later I believe.) That ticket ended up doing very little electorally, or in fundraising wise. This was really one of the low points in the party, because a lot of people left in disgust over the whole thing. I was one of them, although I did come back later. But that’s another story.
– end of part 1 –