Will someone from the Reform Party please report to the office?

Sep 15, 1999 at 4:00 am
I'm having a little trouble localizing this one.

Please bear with me.

The breaking-news political story that has gripped America for the past 90 seconds or so is that Pitchfork Pat Buchanan is poised to bolt the Republican Party and seek to spread his gospel of fear, bigotry and xenophobia as the presidential candidate of Ross Perot's old Reform Party.

This potentially is a big deal, and not merely because it hands over $12.6 million in federal campaign funds for the noble purpose of bashing Jews, Mexicans, Asians, women and other Commie-sympathizing subversive groups. No, this might be a big deal because third-party mathematics could determine the outcome of the next presidential election.

Now, that's a national matter large enough to merit a local spin, so I contacted the St. Louis headquarters of the Missouri Reform Party.

Well, I tried to.

It seems that there is no phone listing for a "Reform Party" or a "Missouri Reform Party." And neither Perot nor the man who pinned him with a Flying Reverse Apolitical Sledgehammer, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, keeps a second home here.

I don't know any Reform Party members. I couldn't find any whom we had quoted. Ditto for the Post-Dispatch, which ran a locally generated story July 11 on the Reform Party, interviewing no one closer to home than a woman from Springfield, Mo.

So it was off to the Web site (www.missouri. reformparty.org) as a means of finding a local contact. Damn. The only four people listed — the state officers — are all from the Kansas City area. The only one I reached, a very polite lady named Jane Madewell, who is listed as secretary, said she didn't know of any specific St. Louis Reform Party members but that the state president, Bill Lewin, might.

Mr. Lewin and I missed connections, unfortunately, leaving me unable to include an indigenous St. Louis perspective in this important national story. What do Our Town's ultimate reformers think of Buchanan, or how stoked are they by the prospect of a President The Donald Trump?

Sorry, St. Louis, I came up empty. Where's a Reform Party representative when you need one?

I suppose we could connect to this story because Buchanan worked on the old Globe-Democrat for a few years in the '60s — first as an assistant on the financial page and then as an editorial writer — before going off to those glory days carving stonewalls as a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon. But that would be like fondly remembering, "Mussolini slept here."

Maybe we should just stay out of the story. Sadly, though, I don't think it's possible.

As faraway as the Reform Party appears, as nonexistent as it seems as a true political party, the fact remains that the entity that was started seven years ago as a monument to Perot's ego lives on as a real factor in the 2000 elections. At some point, real live people in places that don't begin with "www" will be lining up under a banner reading "Neither of the Above," and there's no telling how that will play out at the ballot box.

These are no ordinary third-party politics. In the past, independent candidacies have formed around the candidates, people like Gov. George Wallace, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, Rep. John Anderson or, yes, Perot. Or perhaps they've sprung from tight-knit ideological groups, such as the Socialists or Libertarians.

But the Reform Party sans Perot has been aptly described as car looking for a driver or, as the Weekly Standard suggested recently, an airplane looking for a hijacker. It starts with the stash of $12.6 million in federal campaign funds, earned through the party's showing in 1996, and embraces only the most general of principles, such as being for fiscal integrity and farmers and against Democrats, Republicans, NAFTA and immigration.

Even that description might be too specific, seeing as how this is more about Web sites than people at the moment. One minute the standardbearer could be Ventura or actor Warren Beatty. Then it might be Ralph Nader or Colin Powell. Then it might be Buchanan. Then it might be former Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker. Then it might be Trump.

Ideologically, the only certainty is that the Reform Party is dedicated to heading east, west, north or south, hopefully with a celebrity host or two at the head of the ticket. It is the wild card of American politics.

But that it isn't to say it won't matter. Time magazine this week cited a Republican poll showing that, in a three-way race, Buchanan would take 6 percent of the votes from Al Gore and George W. Bush but that two-thirds of those would come from Bush. So Bush is finding much love in his heart for the fellow who challenged his father — calling him "King George" — in 1992.

Those numbers could shift any which way. Or, if the Reform Party is attached to a more legitimate candidate, such as Weicker, who has a real track record as a centrist with a passion for government reform (and a matching distaste for the Washington establishment), the vote totals could be much higher.

Could a Reform Party candidate actually compete seriously for the presidency in 2000? Probably not, largely because of the gigantic treasuries of the Democrats and Republicans, and because the political system is so corrupted by big money.

Also, there is the matter of organization. Well intended as it might be, the Reform Party's passion for no structure and pure democracy may not work all that smoothly with regard to small details such as choosing a candidate.

Right now it's a free-for-all, with anyone able to obtain a ballot and Internet voting available. Some of the party's leaders fear it will run out of money trying to verify the eligibility of voters, the Boston Globe reported Tuesday.

"Whoever has the biggest mailing list can clearly stuff the ballot box," Jack Gargan, who takes over as party chairman Jan. 1, told the Globe with astonishing candor. "My personal concern is that someone who has either a pocket full of money or a very large personal following could stuff it. It could really be trouble. We are leaving ourselves open for mischief.

"We will have no way of knowing whether they (the Reform Party voters) are in an insane asylum or in prison or 13 years old."

Now that's reassuring stuff from the party chairman.

Still, with the American public so disaffected and disconnected from the political system — with the existing parties so justifiably scorned outside the Beltway — it may not be so long before the Reform Party, or some other independent group, makes a serious run for power.

That's why it would be nice if one could figure out what the Reform Party is all about, not only in ideological terms but with regard to constituencies and candidates and controls. Who are these people who want to reform our political system?

And why aren't they in the St. Louis phone book?