"It was really a treat . . . to follow the perplexity and helplessness of our adversaries in their perpetually vacillating tactics. . . .They called on their adherents to take no notice of us and to avoid our meetings. And on the whole this advice was followed."—ADOLF HITLER on the rise of the Nazi Party
In the mid-1970s the LaRouchians started to build a nationwide election machine. At first it grew slowly, hampered by their rhetoric about Rockefeller-CIA conspiracies and their hesitancy to run candidates in major-party primaries. But their percentage of the vote grew dramatically once they began to participate in Democratic primaries. They gained the financial support and even the organizational allegiance of thousands of discontented Americans. Like earlier far-right groups such as the John Birch Society, they attracted many senior citizens and economically troubled farmers and small businessmen. They also reached out to blue-collar workers and inner-city blacks. By 1984 the LaRouchians were fielding more candidates, gaining more votes, and raising vastly more money than any other extremist sect in America.
The LaRouche election machine contested almost 4,000 Democratic primaries and general elections in over 30 states between 1982 and 1988. Its fund raisers brought in tens of millions of dollars while its candidates attracted over 4 million votes, including voting percentages above 10 percent in hundreds of contests. In at least 70 statewide, congressional, or state legislative races, LaRouche candidates polled over 20 percent of the vote. At least 25 appeared on the general election ballot as Democratic nominees, either by defeating a regular Democratic opponent or by running in the primary unopposed. Although none was actually elected to any public office higher than a local school board, hundreds won Democratic Party posts (mostly county committee seats) across the country.
This election machine grew out of the U.S. Labor Party, an NCLC electoral arm founded in 1971 and disbanded when the LaRouchians entered the Democratic Party in 1979. Most of the USLP's youthful candidates and campaign workers were NCLC cadre with few ties to outsiders. They often sounded ludicrous with their warnings of imminent nuclear war, famine, and plague. But occasionally a USLP candidate would impress reporters with what appeared to be a sober grasp of economics. Paul Gallagher, who ran for governor of New York in 1978, issued a position paper on how the New York business community could take the lead in a "national export boom." He promised that if elected he would "defend the dollar."
In 1974 the USLP ran 33 candidates for major public office in 11 states, receiving 65,000 votes. In 1976 it sponsored 140 candidates in 21 states. Many were knocked off the ballot, but the number remaining was still greater than all other small leftist parties combined and greater than any single right-wing minor party. Although LaRouche received only 40,000 votes for President, the total vote that year for all USLP candidates running for major public office (Congress and up) was 154,000—more than any party of the radical left but less than the right-wing American Party. In 1978 the USLP ran 72 candidates in 17 states, taking the total number of USLP candidates between 1974 and 1979 (including those knocked off the ballot) well over 300.
Most of this was the work of fewer than 500 NCLC local and regional cadres. In some cities virtually every NCLC member ran for office, year after year. Their compulsive electioneering was a source of amusement to other radical sects, yet the LaRouchians were gaining invaluable experience: They learned how to fill up nominating petitions rapidly, efficiently, and with a minimum of invalid signatures. They learned how to fend off petition challenges and, conversely, how to kick rivals like the Communist Party off the ballot. Their in-house lawyers and paralegals learned how to challenge local authorities over such issues as access to shopping malls and the right to use bullhorns on street corners. The USLP candidates mastered the tricks of campaigning on a shoestring budget. For instance, they submitted letters and op-ed pieces to local dailies and cadged invitations to appear on radio talk shows and cable TV. They also staged small but noisy demonstrations claiming that local police were persecuting them. When daily newspapers still ignored them, they went to neighborhood or ethnic weeklies, whose reporters sometimes were more desperate for a story or simply more gullible.
USLP candidates also met with local trade union officials to request endorsements, something that most other radical groups rarely bothered to do.
In the 1970s radical sects such as the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party ran candidates chiefly for propaganda purposes, concentrating on the higher offices such as governor or mayor. Knowing they could not win, they rarely did much campaigning. But the USLP filed for minor public offices and campaigned seriously, A 1977 report from the Richmond, Virginia, USLP local claimed that its City Council slate had scheduled more than a dozen meetings with community groups and trade union officials, as well as appearances on three radio talk shows. The memo urged party members in other cities to field City Council candidates, since such contests furnish "virtually pre-set meetings for exposure of the USLP program."
Most USLP candidates were lucky to get 1 or 2 percent of the vote. Although voters will often give the benefit of the doubt to an outsider in the Democratic or Republican primary, they are reluctant to throw away their vote on a fringe party in the general election. Still the USLP did better than most fringe parties. A 1979 survey by the Manhattan weekly Our Town identified over two dozen races in seven states and the District of Columbia where USLP candidates picked up between 8 percent and 31 percent of the vote for everything from local school board to U.S. Congress. One Virginia USLP congressional candidate received over 10 percent in three successive elections.
These results did not reflect any groundswell of support for the USLP's politics. In most of the congressional races in which USLP candidates edged beyond the usual minor-party totals, their opponent was a Democratic incumbent with no Republican opponent. They would thus pick up the knee-jerk protest vote. Also they were often listed on the ballot as "Independents" rather than "USLP." The municipal and school board elections in which they did well were usually nonpartisan contests in which all names on the ballot were listed without party affiliation. Nobody told the voters who the USLP candidates were, or that they were extremists. Many voters pulled the lever for them at random.
In some cities the USLP attempted to exploit emotional public issues. During Boston's intense white ethnic opposition to school busing in 1974, the USLP fielded a congressional candidate in a district that included the anti-busing stronghold of South Boston. After denouncing busing as a Ford Foundation plot, he received 10.7 percent of the vote. Two years later the son of a former Ford Foundation vice president ran as the USLP's senatorial candidate in Massachusetts. Although he received fewer than 5,000 votes, New Solidarity boasted that he had done well in South Boston.
In Baltimore, USLP candidate Debra Freeman appealed openly to racist and anti-Semitic sentiments in her 1978 campaign against incumbent Congressman Parren Mitchell, chairman of the Black Congressional Caucus. Freeman, who is white, described Mitchell as a "house nigger" for Baltimore's "Zionists" and an example of "bestiality" in politics. Her campaign literature carried headlines like "End 200 Years of Zionist Slave Trading in Black Commodities." She won more than 11 percent of the vote, doing especially well in several white precincts.
In early 1979, LaRouche announced his second run for the presidency. He called himself the "candidate more American than apple pie" and toured the Midwest, speaking before chambers of commerce and civic clubs. He attempted to keep his rhetoric low-key, but his real views sometimes erupted. "If I had been President in 1973, and they had tried to do that [Watergate] to me . . . I would have smashed them," he told the Government Relations Roundtable of the Detroit Chamber of Commerce.
LaRouche began his campaign under the U.S. Labor Party banner, but by mid-1979 he recognized the futility of fringe-party electioneering and announced he would enter the New Hampshire presidential primary to appeal to the "silent Republican majority." Although he had not lived in New Hampshire since the age of ten, he called himself a "native son" candidate.
LaRouche's plan centered on his greatest asset—a devoted band of disciples who could be deployed anywhere in the United States on short notice to work sixteen hours a day without salaries while being housed and fed at minimal cost. Their legwork would compensate for his initial lack of a New Hampshire political base. To overcome his lack of name recognition he would start campaigning early, crisscrossing the state and holding "town meetings" in even the smallest villages. He would emphasize his French-Canadian descent, thus winning the sympathy of the state's largest ethnic minority. He would flood the state with campaign literature produced at low cost by the NCLC's in-house printing and typesetting facilities in Manhattan. The sum total of these efforts would invest the campaign with enough excitement—and the appearance of enough legitimacy—to attract local volunteers. Then, in the final weeks, LaRouche would bring in hundreds of NCLC members, including the entire national office staff. The result might not be as dramatic as Senator Eugene McCarthy's New Hampshire crusade in 1968, but LaRouche figured he could win 10 or 15 percent of the vote—enough to gain celebrity status and a chance for financial backing from Texas oilmen.
In August, LaRouche sent in an advance team to open his Manchester headquarters. He made his first campaign tour in early September. At this point, most observers assumed he would enter the Republican primary, traditional magnet for right-wingers. Instead LaRouche declared himself a Democrat.
The decision was shrewd on both tactical and strategic grounds. The far right of the Republican Party was crowded with people who mostly disliked LaRouche. The Birchers in particular regarded him as a dangerous poacher and had repeatedly raised questions about his Trotskyist past. Most of the radical right in any case was supporting Ronald Reagan, and would have perceived LaRouche as an annoying diversion if not a spoiler. For his own part, LaRouche had no desire to harm Reagan's campaign. He already believed Reagan would be the next President, and hoped to gain influence with him.
By contrast, the Democratic Party lacked an organized right wing. LaRouche could have the territory all to himself—a domain of millions of conservative-minded voters seething with anger. These were conservatives of modest income and status, which is why they stayed in the Democratic Party rather than joining their more prosperous Republican brethren. They were the ones hardest hit by high interest rates, unemployment, and street crime. They had already revolted once to support George Wallace in 1968. Although most had returned grudgingly to the fold, the party leadership had lost touch with them during the following years. Nothing revealed this more clearly than the fact that all three major primary candidates in 1980—President Carter, Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, and California governor Jerry Brown—stood to the left of center. LaRouche thus could present himself as the voice of the party's forgotten wing, the proverbial common man. He could also use this guise to reach out to the mass of Democrats who were neither conservative nor liberal—the trade union members, small farmers, and churchgoing inner-city blacks that the USLP had courted for years. By addressing their social problems in stark, angry rhetoric, he could perhaps nudge some of them into a new formation—a LaRouche wing of the party.
In New Hampshire, LaRouche attacked the liberals with gusto. The Democratic primary, he said, was a "Mad Hatter's tea party" dominated by Jane Fonda and her "antinuclear bacchanal" and by "Zen Buddhist governor Jerry Brown." LaRouche appealed to those sturdy "nation builders," the construction workers at the Seabrook nuclear power site. Vote for me, he said, and I'll build 2,500 nuclear plants by the year 2000. He also presented himself as a champion of "traditional" American values. "No one is going to grow a field of marijuana" in a LaRouche America, he said. "We'll spot it down to one stalk, and the next day we'll be in there with paraquat. . . .We can put this country on cold turkey."
LaRouche exchanged the academic bow-tie look he had affected during his 1976 campaign for three-piece business suits, yellow-tinted designer glasses, and a Texas Stetson. He dropped in at local VFW posts, spoke at Rotary and Kiwanis luncheons, met with leaders of the Franco-American community's Richelieu clubs. By November he had the second-largest campaign staff among Democratic candidates, with offices in eight towns. He bought newspaper, broadcast, and billboard advertising on the scale of a major candidate. His campaign events drew respectable crowds.
But the scheme had a major problem: The LaRouche organization was as cultish as ever, and LaRouche's personality continued to be volatile. To expect either the organization or LaRouche to maintain a strictly pragmatic stance even for a few weeks, to say nothing of an entire campaign season, was not realistic. Things began to unravel when New England newspapers picked up on a New York Times series about LaRouche's anti-Semitism and links to the Ku Klux Klan. Most articles reported this information in a low-key manner and without much detail. LaRouche could have simply ignored the charges and gone on campaigning for nuclear power. Or he could have issued a statement pointing out that many of his campaign aides were Jewish and that his contacts with the Klan were a legitimate part of his work as publisher of a political intelligence newsmagazine. Instead, his followers went into a frenzy, claiming that a Zionist disinformation campaign was afoot—the first stage of a plot to assassinate LaRouche. He marched into the Manchester Union Leader with armed bodyguards and threatened to "make it very painful" for a reporter. His guards took the hubcaps off his car as a precaution against bombs. His campaign workers made hundreds of harassing phone calls to New Hampshire state officials and Democratic Party leaders at all hours of day and night.
The LaRouchians also alienated public opinion by their almost gleeful exploitation of loopholes in the state's election law—including the absentee ballot provisions. LaRouche organizers rounded up low-income senior citizens in the industrial towns of southern New Hampshire and took them to the city clerk's office. There, they had the seniors fill out voter registration forms, get the forms properly certified, and then request and fill out absentee ballots on the spot. According to Manchester city clerk Joan Walsh, the LaRouchians even helped the seniors mark the ballots. Newspaper articles suggested that many who filled out the absentee ballots did so out of fear. Local police received several complaints about LaRouchian canvassers harassing and intimidating seniors. Meanwhile a LaRouche aide appeared at the office of the New Hampshire secretary of state to ask blithely for 3,000 absentee registration forms. When the request was refused, the LaRouchians printed their own forms.
By primary day LaRouche's Grand Design for New Hampshire was in disarray. After spending over a million dollars, he received only 2,300 votes, about 2 percent of the Democratic primary total. Although this was a larger vote than either Senator Bob Dole or former Texas governor John Connally received in the Republican primary, it devastated LaRouche's followers, who had actually expected him to win. They charged that election officials had tampered with the voting machines to erase tens of thousands of LaRouche votes. Leaflets referred to New Hampshire as "Peyton State," the center of Yankee blueblood scandal and corruption. LaRouche went to court to demand a recount. When it was performed, he gained only 19 votes.
By mid-March, the LaRouchians had calmed down and were ready for more primaries. With the help of Teamster officials, LaRouche campaigned hard in Illinois and Wisconsin, sending Helga to Milwaukee to charm the German-American community. In Texas he held a press conference in front of the Alamo to call for a square deal for the nation's farmers. He told his followers to hang in there—he'd emerge as the dark horse at the national convention.
Most Democratic Party officials regarded the LaRouche campaign as a joke after New Hampshire. This view was not justified, for although LaRouche failed to gain a single convention delegate, he demonstrated his organization's electioneering skills and its potential for the future. He qualified for the primary ballot in fifteen states, including some with strict ballot access laws. He received 185,000 votes—over four times his 1976 total. In Connecticut he outpolled Jerry Brown by more than a thousand votes. He won endorsements and other campaign assistance from a number of trade union officials and farm leaders in the Midwest, Texas, and California. And, most important, he received over half a million dollars in federal matching funds—the first extremist candidate to get a penny.
LaRouche also gained name recognition. Millions of Americans viewed his half-hour network television ads in which he described himself as a Democrat in the mold of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Daily newspapers published scores of articles about him. People magazine ran a full-page picture of LaRouche with pipe smoke swirling around his head, and said he had mounted what was possibly the "best-organized" fringe campaign in American history. Most of the media portrayed LaRouche as a mysterious figure who borrowed ideas from both the left and the right to express his anger about current economic conditions and his hostility to the Eastern Establishment—not a bad image for a man who aspired to capture the attention of the old George Wallace constituency.
When LaRouche requested floor passes for the national convention in New York, the party leadership turned him down, concerned as it was about possible disruption. Otherwise, the party leadership showed very little concern over his invasion of the party. His nominating petitions went unchallenged in most states and no one objected strongly to his calling himself a Democrat. In Texas he was allowed to address the state convention. The media continued to be unsympathetic and the party leadership contemptuous, but this was something LaRouche had already prepared his followers to accept and take advantage of: "an intensive 'soft' containment that is not an effective containment." The way to handle such a situation, he said, is to just keep plugging away, building up an intangible cumulative influence "on the other side of the containment wall." At the convention this took the form of seminars for delegates, appearances before state caucuses, a flood of position papers, a daily convention newspaper, and a coalition with the American Agricultural Movement to publicize an anti-Carter "Open Convention" strategy. Lyndon LaRouche had grabbed hold of the Democratic donkey's tail, and he was not about to let go.
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