This Ain't No Party

Ross Perot launched the Reform Party as the voice of the American people. Eight years later, it's a shrill, staticky free-for-all, and the moderates can't get heard.

Jul 19, 2000 at 4:00 am
It was just after 8 a.m. on May 18, and the cubicled clerks in the St. Charles County Administration Building were still gulping that first necessary cup of coffee when they saw a genial stranger coming down the hall, his arms cradling a ream of paper. Richard Allen Kline, a little-known candidate for governor, had driven up from Gipsy, Mo., to shake hands and pass out fliers, and he figured he'd start with the employees. When County Assessor Gene Zimmerman asked him to repair to the lobby, Kline, a hefty 60-year-old with a history of heart trouble and a spirited disposition, refused. The building was paid for by taxpayers, he noted, and he'd stumped at 99 other courthouses and government buildings across the state. Drawing himself up, he continued through the work area, deliberately placing a flier on each desk he passed. An irritated Zimmerman followed right behind him, gathering up the fliers and throwing them away. Finally, Kline stepped into an elevator and challenged Zimmerman to follow him. Kline says Zimmerman came in and lunged -- so Kline slapped him.

That slap summed up the rage of the Reform Party.

A group of political outsiders, disenchanted Republicans and self-described "little guys," they're tired of being shooed away by bureaucrats, and they're furious with the entrenched two-party establishment -- its corruption, its taxes and bureaucratic waste, its disregard for The People. They want some old-fashioned grassroots access to the system, so they can reform it.

Just how they intend to reform it depends on whom you ask. When Ross Perot founded the national Reform Party, its priorities included fiscal integrity (no more political gifts or junkets), campaign-finance reform, America-first trade policy, environmental cleanup and consumer safety. The Perot reformers refused to even debate hot-button social issues, preferring a stance of social liberalism and economic conservatism. Their platform looked wide and sturdy, a good place for a right-center-left coalition of Americans in search of independent politics.

Then, in 1996, Perot lost his second presidential bid -- but won enough votes to guarantee the party an automatic spot on the 2000 ballot in 21 states, including Missouri. Hungry for viable candidates, the national party swallowed first the heretical free-trade policies of Jesse Ventura and Donald Trump and then the social conservatism of Patrick Buchanan. Now it's split at the seams, with warring factions, spitfights and legal battles in nearly every state.

As some of the old Reformer rage turns inward, the rest spills over to the edges, drawing far-right extremists with a different agenda entirely. Several longtime Missouri members have quit in disgust since an influx of Buchananites drew candidates whose views even state party chair Bill Lewin calls "objectionable and repugnant." He refused to screen or censor them, though; Missouri Reformers were so eager for ballot presence in 2000 that they welcomed any local candidate who'd carry even a splinter from one of their four planks (fiscal responsibility, campaign-finance reform, fair trade and U.S. sovereignty).

The result, from the voter's viewpoint, is pure chaos. Senate candidate Hugh Foley wants to decriminalize marijuana; gubernatorial candidate Joseph C. Keller wants the death penalty for anyone bringing illegal drugs into Missouri. Congressional candidate Richard Gimpelson feels so strongly about campaign-finance reform that he's instructed anyone who wants to donate to his campaign to give the money to charity instead; Keller wants no campaign-finance reform at all and even blacked out that section before signing the Missouri Reform Party membership application. The party's state officers, elected pre-Buchanan, are all pro-choice; Kline wants to amend the Constitution to make every embryo a state citizen at conception. All the current Reformers share is their anger, their distrust of the existing power structure and their alienation from its corridors.

The $1 Trillion Blackout

After the St. Charles fracas, Kline was hauled off to jail. "They brought in something for lunch -- it was a beef-and-noodle -- and it was great," he recalls. "The people were really decent, too. I could've left at noon if I'd paid them $50, but all I had was my debit card and a check, so one of the fellows who was released, he paid my bail. I'll never forget him."

His voice throbs with gratitude -- but at any minute it's liable to heat up. "We are at war, make no mistake about it, we are at war with a MORALLY BANKRUPT LIBERAL FEDERAL GOVERNMENT," Kline insists at every opportunity. Retired from the Coast Guard, he came onto the political battlefield in 1995 after suffering heart trouble he says the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) refused to treat. "I tried to put the doctor under citizen's arrest," he recalls, "and I got cited for creating a disturbance. Had to pay $450. That's when I said, 'Something is wrong here -- I gotta do something.' So I decided to run for Congress."

He ran as a Republican in the 8th District, although he says the state chair tried to dissuade both him and "E. Earl Durnell, a nice gentleman from Cabool, very impassioned. Evidently he thought we were unacceptable because we were our own people, didn't have any big PACs in our hip pockets. I spent about $2,500 of my own money and won the '96 primary, went to each and every county seat, courthouse and square in the district. But I lost the general election."

Furious with the Republicans, he ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1998 but lost the primary this time. "I told the wife, 'OK, that's it, no more.' The next thing I knew, I was getting calls from Reform Party people asking me to run. I talked it over with the wife -- she's a little bit irritated, she said, 'I will not go to any of these functions.' So I promised, this is the last time. If I lose, I'm gonna relax and finish out the rest of my life hunting and fishing."

A devout Christian, Kline closes political statements with the word "maranatha," Hebrew for "Jesus is coming." His favorite targets are the enemies of the homeowner: "Like Medicaid, that one just jerks my jaws," he exclaims. "You get old, you go on Medicare, you get slapped in a nursing home and you gotta go on Medicaid and spend down your assets and there goes your house." Next enemy: the personal-property tax, "an insidious tax that penalizes your accomplishments. You buy a little house, they tax you. You put a little picket fence around it, they tax you more. And if you don't pay, the state takes it away." He gropes for his own personal-property-tax receipt to read off percentages, then mutters, "Uh-oh. The wife said, 'Don't take that, or you'll lose it,' and I guess I did."

Regaining his composure, Kline warns of a "media blackout" on a "comprehensive annual financial report" that shows Missouri running a second set of books. "If you tell your editor you know something about the comprehensive annual financial report, he'll probably tell you not to print it, and that's a good test that he's been bought off," he warns. "Now, let's go to another subject, because people don't understand this and they'd never believe it. We are talking possibly a trillion dollars."

Big potatoes indeed, compared with his Reform campaign's finances. "I've got $1,700 in my campaign fund right now," confides Kline, "and I'm having to solicit donations, which I didn't want to do, because of the gas prices. It cost $95 just to drive in my van to Kansas City! So to win against Jim Talent and Don Holden (Democratic candidate Bob Holden), I'd have to pull a Ventura." Asked for any final remarks, Kline says, "Yeah, just a second," then recites, "If you want more taxes, more government and less freedom, then vote for Jimmy or Donny. If you want less taxes and less freedom ... wait a minute. Read that back." Offered a different formulation, he accepts it gladly. "Yeah, that's it. If you want less taxes and more freedom, vote for me." Pause. "Obviously I'm not as articulate as some of the other candidates. Mr. Keller, now, he is very much more subtle in his speaking. If he chases the rabbit (goes off on a tangent), listen close, because that man is going to enlighten you."

Have You Read Procopius?

Shunning media interviews, 44-year-old ophthalmologist Joseph Keller offers enlightenment mainly on his Web page and by circulating his slogan on hundreds of hand-printed, photocopied half-page fliers that promise "REAL REFORM -- REAL RESISTANCE." (He prepared two versions, a "strong" one with two crossed swords at the top and a milder one without.) Variously described as "quiet," "revolutionary" and "a weird duck," Keller only joined the Reform Party this spring, but he's been campaigning since 1996, when he ran for Congress in the 3rd District Democratic primary against incumbent Richard A. Gephardt. (Keller lived in Ballwin, in the 2nd District, but promised to move the minute he beat Gephardt.) The next year, he ran for a seat on the Parkway School Board, stapling his flyers onto old inverted U.S. Taxpayers Party signs. District parents grew alarmed when, asked whether he was a member of the Missouri Militia, Keller replied firmly, "Everyone is."

In 1998, Keller ran against Gephardt again, this time with the U.S. Taxpayers Party, and garnered 1 percent of the vote. This April, he lost the aldermanic race in Ballwin, then declared his candidacy for governor on the Reform Party ticket. "Stop enforcing the military rifle ('assault weapons') ban," insists his campaign platform. "Take the U.N. flag off Mizzou.... Abolish all 'campaign finance laws.' Only taxpaying men may vote or hold office.... Segregate the prisons. White men should not be raped by black men."

He doesn't say whether the converse is acceptable. But he wants all income tax abolished ("Not only is income tax stealing, it's robbery, slavery and genocide") and all fluoride drained from the water. He says it was unconstitutional to give women the vote. He thinks the feds suppressed Oklahoma City bombing evidence, and he'd like to see the U.S. Treasury coin gold and silver. For insights on taxation and divorce settlement, he recommends Procopius' Secret History, written by the secretary to Emperor Justinian. He wants fathers to have automatic custody if there's a dispute over child support.

"Nah, that's not a family," says Kline. "Do you suppose he has a personal agenda in there somewhere?" Keller doesn't say much about his personal life, but he was born in Cincinnati, graduated cum laude from Harvard with a bachelor's degree in mathematics and received his medical degree from the University of Nebraska. He was certified as an ophthalmologist in 1984, but his office address isn't listed in the White Pages, and the office phone is usually answered by a recording suggesting that, if patients have an emergency, they go to the nearest emergency room. He lives in Ballwin and mentions no family, but in the back of the court file from a 1999 appeal against the state of Missouri (which had sued him for unpaid income tax), there is record of an ex-wife and a child-custody battle in Kansas.

Keller nearly always loses in court, but he makes full use of the system he rages against. In the past few years, he's used St. Louis County's small-claims court to sue a developer, a car-repair company, a casino, a mortgage company, Blue Cross Blue Shield (over a $22.60 remittance, with a filed complaint about a 1-cent surcharge), three individuals, the state of Missouri and the U.S. Taxpayers Party. When he appealed the income tax, he was amazed that the court would not grant him a jury trial. In his motion to reconsider, he cited the U.S. Constitution, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, the Spitcaufsky opinion of 1944, ancient Greece, Richard the Lionhearted and the Doomsday Book. Then he showed up in court and, according to official records, "left courtroom as trial began."

In the end, the state garnisheed his earnings for more than $10,000 in back taxes -- but not before Keller had a chance to remind them that only "a few independent men remain, mostly skulking about, evading taxes in the underground economy, because income tax, with its unlawful audits and seizures, made it impossible for them to prosper as honest sole proprietors with no corporate overlord." Meanwhile, he continued, "American women's logical career move has been to join the harem in the glass-box tower, the gilded cage of our modern version of the Byzantine sultanate; there they are tended by corporate eunuchs."

Of Phosphorus and Smoke Alarms

The Reform Party's mildest gubernatorial candidate is Kent A. Benson, a Kansas City boy who took off his tie and moved to the Lake of the Ozarks in 1987. There he developed a liking for local politics, the kind where "you know all the players. I hung out last night with one of the county commissioners; he's not just an image on the TV screen. Washington, now, there's a reason they call it Disneyland. Nothing is real."

Benson used to lobby in D.C., and he still remembers watching a freshman congresswoman attend her first cocktail-party fundraiser: "She was there 27 minutes and walked away with $350,000 in PAC money." Then there was the time a VA broker sold a house down at the lake. Benson says that a few weeks after the new owner moved in, she received a parcel, postmarked Mexico, with $13 shipping fees -- and inside was a $7 smoke alarm provided by the VA.

"How many jobs did NAFTA cost the state of Missouri? Seventeen hundred in the first month," he exclaims. "We do have low unemployment, but people lost a $17-an-hour job for a $9-an-hour job, and they lost their dreams." He sighs heavily. "Somewhere along the line, 'protect' became a dirty word. If I ran as a protectionist, people would stone me. What is wrong with protecting what you should be protecting -- like jobs, or your family? When did it become socially irresponsible to take care of your own people?"

Benson thinks education in Missouri is a travesty; he'd like every child to be funded with the same amount of money, and he brought in motivational speaker Zig Ziglar to rev up Camdenton's schoolkids. He says the Missouri Highway Commission is inept and that the Department of Natural Resources needs overhaul -- "The James River is so full of phosphorus you can't eat anything out of it." He also wants a systematic reversal of the tax system and the elimination of the federal departments of education, housing and so on.

Like most of the Reform candidates, Benson's using all his own money to campaign, and like most of the Reform candidates, he doesn't expect to win. He enjoys the process -- "It's fun to debate career politicians; they get frazzled quick!" -- and he firmly believes that, elected or not, "anyone can make a difference. When you can get your message across, get people thinking, it will happen. It may not be with me, but it will happen."

Plucking the Imperial Vulture

In the Missouri Reform Party's August primary for U.S. Senate, Hugh Foley, a moderate, tolerant and temperate businessman eager to end political elitism and broaden economic opportunity, will face off against his two Reform Party opponents: quiet James M. Hall of Republic, Mo., who doesn't even list a Web page or show up at most candidates' forums, and Martin Lindstedt, who's anything but quiet.

Lindstedt lives on Rabbit Track Road in Granby, down in the southwest corner of the state. "I've always been interested in local politics," he says, "'cause most of 'em around here are just a pack of crooks. Their little police people were pretty mean to my dad, so I'm pretty much wantin' payback. My common-law wife, Roxie, I have her running for sheriff." He pauses to silence screaming children. "Someday this whole country's gonna go revolutionary civil war," he resumes, "and people like me's gonna get to settle old scores. It'll be a war of each against all, fought on racial, religious and class lines -- and it'll probably be fought with biological weaponry, too."

As a member of the U.S. Army's 42nd Field Artillery, Lindstedt says, he helped run a tactical-nuclear-missile system in Germany. Then he earned a business degree from Missouri Southern State College in Joplin. "Now I drive a truck, mainly," he says. "I've got a small inheritance, $7,000-$8,000 a year, and I've got a computer." He used these resources to run for state representative in 1994, governor in 1996 and U.S. senator in 1998 -- all with the Libertarians, whom he now calls "LibberToons" and vilifies as moral degenerates.

"It all started in January of '96," he recalls, sounding almost nostalgic. "This homosexual activist came to the LibberToons wanting the state to recognize same-sex marriages, and I like to have had a fit. 'This ain't gonna wash in the 7th District,' I told them. (By 1998) they were plotting to kick me out of the party, changin' their little bitty rules.

"Pat Buchanan brought me to the Reform Party," he continues. "Me and Pat pretty much look at things the same way: anti-immigrant, anti-New World Order." By running for the U.S. Senate with the Reform Party -- in a race he never expected to win -- Lindstedt hopes to "finish off the Republicans." Once a Ronald Reagan Republican himself, he says that in recent years, "They have done nothing but stab rural white Christian Americans right in the back. I'd rather have Al Gore and Mel Carnahan -- at least we openly know them and we hate them." In a formal statement to the League of Women Voters, he accused mainstream politicians of a "genocidal conspiracy" against white Christian America, predicting, "Once the right wing of the Imperial vulture is thoroughly plucked out, that bird will no longer fly." In other words, Republicans will be forced to join the Reform Party.

"I want Republicans where they either got the choice of joining the Aryan Nations or becoming some black boy's bitch," elaborates Lindstedt. "A few people in the Reform Party told me, 'Martin, you gotta tone down the racism,' but I said, 'You guys are trying to go after the moderates, who are gonna be the very last people in the world to vote for you. At least I got a strategy.'" He plans to join David Duke's National Organization for European-American Rights (NO FEAR) and push to close legal immigration to "all non-Europeans." "I'm not a white supremacist, I'm a white separatist," he explains carefully. "Whites need to have and maintain their own country, and blacks can go ahead and live like they do in Africa here." Other politicians don't dare say that, he adds, "but I notice that all of 'em are very, very careful not to live too close to the people they profess to love."

Lindstedt has filed several lawsuits for false arrest, including one instigated when he "said something about Waco to a visiting FBI agent back in '93 and they got their panties in a twirl." His "Jailhouse Papers" are on the Web, describing his struggle with justice after he was cited for a burned-out headlight 14 minutes before sunrise on U.S. Route 60. "There are thousands of Missourians behind bars resulting from illegal traffic stops," he wrote in a petition for writ of prohibition. "Relator considers himself a political prisoner kidnaped under color of law," he added in a plea handwritten from the Jasper County Jail.

Tom, Dick and Hugh

Foley and his wife raised their seven kids in a serene, spacious old white house off Conway Road. An American flag flies out front, above Hefty bags stuffed with donations for the American Kidney Foundation. Foley's upstairs office is lined with canisters of flour and spice; he manages export marketing for French's, the mustard makers. "As a businessman, I've sympathized with the Republicans all my life, but like a lot of people, by the early '90s I was a little ticked off at where America seemed to be heading," he explains. "Capitalism always tends toward creative destruction -- moving jobs south or, now, overseas -- and when there is no way to handle those transitions, people suffer pretty badly."

Foley senses not only a widening gap between rich and poor but increasing numbers of angry and misinformed Americans. "I've been in meetings where people will ascribe all of America's problems to the Federal Reserve!" he sighs. "Some have axes to grind; some are bitter toward authority and government; some put their faith in government only to see politicians do the exact opposite of what they promised. That's why I'm running, because of the total credibility loss of what I'd call career politicians."

His last political position was president of his senior class in high school, but when he grew disillusioned with Republican practices, he "started doing a lot of reading -- books like Who Will Tell the People?, about how government really functions. The more I read, the more I wanted to read." Finally he wrote a book of his own, taking Thomas Richard Harry (Tom, Dick and Harry) as his pseudonym and tracing the fault line in 1990s government.

"Balance exists," says Foley, "when the economic sector feels free to conduct business with minimal interference from the government, and government feels satisfied that the results of capitalism are equitably distributed among the people and the people agree and express that through their vote." Perfect balance isn't possible, he adds, but if we don't want to breed an underclass of disgruntled revolutionaries, we should at least head in the right direction. "Instead, the economic sector has learned to manipulate government at the people's expense."

There it was, his very own political platform, based on campaign-finance reform ("Be it mother's milk or grease, too much of a good thing is bad for you") and the need to provide a framework for sustainable, widespread economic opportunity. He decided to run for the U.S. Senate with the Reform Party because he was convinced that, "until we get at least half-a-dozen independents in the Senate, we are not going to go anywhere with campaign-finance reform, tax overhaul, fair trade or revamping Social Security. Half-a-dozen would tip the balance. But we need credible candidates, and under today's rules it is very, very hard for a third-party candidate who is not independently wealthy to make any real inroads."

Foley's only departure from the classic Reform Party platform is his support of international agreements, from the United Nations to the World Trade Organization. "They are concerned about the U.S. losing its sovereignty," he says. "But in a world that is increasingly interconnected, you can't be an isolationist, or the world will pass you by."

Every time Foley talks like that, frothing e-mails demand his expulsion from the Reform Party and Lindstedt chalks up another vote from the Buchananites. "I don't know what it is about Hugh Foley," Lindstedt chortles, recalling a recent candidates' forum in Kansas City. "He was a lot smoother than I was, 'cause I was pretty tired, but I spoke everything people wanted to hear, whereas Foley, he goes ahead and puts on his campaign literature that he's a retired international bankster! Everybody knows the Jews run cartels, and there he is talking about globalization being inevitable. I cannot believe the character is running for office."

Boob Bait for the Bubbas

A Georgia good ol' boy in a pale-yellow suit, red shirt and star-spangled top hat introduced Reform Party presidential candidate Pat Buchanan to C-SPAN on the Fourth of July. They were barbecuing in East Ellijay, and Buchanan reminded the crowd how, in the '96 presidential campaign, "We carried Ellijay against the president of the United States." He told his fans he'd soon have the Reform Party nomination and the $12.6 million in federal campaign funding that comes with it. "When we took over or moved into -- strike that 'takeover,' that's what they're accusin' me of," he chuckled. "We're mergin' with the Reform Party."

Buchanan made common cause with the Reformers by emphasizing fair (as opposed to free) trade, so he was quick to mention the WTO "Battle in Seattle" demonstrations: "You know how they threw that big metal trash can through the Starbucks window? That wasn't me -- I was disguised as a sea turtle. That was (Ralph) Nader.

"Look at that deal on Communist China," he continued. "They sell us $6 in goods for every $1 we sell them, and they take all that money, and what are they doin' with it? They're persecutin' Christians. They're usin' that money to target missiles on the United States of America. If I get elected, we will call in that Chinese ambassador and sit him down and say, 'You boys are gonna stop persecutin' Christians -- or you boys have sold your last pair of chopsticks in any mall in America." He also wants to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts ("What is the federal government doin' subsidizing dirty pictures in New York City?") and curtail the federal Department of Education ("We don't need some guy in sandals and beads telling us how to teach our kids"). Above all, he wants to seal the country's "bleeding" borders against illegal immigrants. "Ronald Reagan said a country that can't or won't defend its borders isn't even a country anymore. So instead of sending soldiers over to Kosovo and Bosnia and Kuwait, places we never heard of, I'll send them to our own borders.

"When my right hand goes up to take that oath of office," he concluded, "their New World Order comes crashin' down."

Missing from the fireworks was Lenora Fulani, a psychologist who ran for U.S. president as an independent in 1988 and became the first woman and the first African-American to appear on the ballot in all 50 states. Buchanan invited her to join his campaign as co-chair last fall, and she shocked the country by accepting. On Nov. 11, at the National Press Club, she said, "In traditional political terms, Pat Buchanan stands for all the things that black progressives such as myself revile ... so, how did we get to be standing here together with me endorsing his candidacy? Because we have a common interest in overthrowing the traditional political terms." At that point, she insisted that Buchanan was not a fascist, a racist or a anti-gay bigot, he just couldn't stand hypocrisy.

She's changed her mind.

"He pandered to the most right-wing element in his brigade, and they gained control on the ground, at the local conventions," remarks Fulani, interviewed by phone from New York. "I met with him in May to say, 'Pat, we have to have a signal that you are still interested in coalition politics, and when you get on TV and say you're building a party in Buchanan's image, it doesn't indicate that." She challenged him to prove an open mind by naming her national chair of the Reform Party. He declined. "What Bay Buchanan (his sister and campaign manager) told me was that they could not get their supporters to support me," reports Fulani, who promptly withdrew her support of Buchanan and resigned as co-chair. "I'm still a member of Reform," she adds. "I'm going to go to the convention and see if what I'm concerned about has actually happened, see what the party looks like."

See, in other words, whether it looks like Lindstedt, who called Buchanan's Missouri staff last fall and asked, "'What is it with this lesbian Marxist Negress here?' They said, 'Oh, it's just a marriage of convenience,'" reports Lindstedt. "I said, 'Well, what does she get out of it?' and they said, 'Hopefully, nothin.'" He chuckles for a minute, satisfied. "We recognize that Pat has to go ahead and do a little boob bait for the bubbas. Well, maybe not so much for the bubbas. But throw a few pinches of himself on the altar of political correctness."

The Snowball in Hell

The 1999 Missouri Reform Party convention drew about two dozen people. The 2000 Missouri Reform Party convention, held April 29 in Columbia, drew more than 100 -- about 80 of whom party regulars had never seen before. "It took us a while to check everyone's party membership, and the delay added a lot of drama to the event," recalls party chair Lewin of Kansas City. "There was a brief effort to impeach me before they got into the building," he adds, "but then things settled down."

Lewin is one of the old-style Reformers, a handful of Missourians who've spent the past few years tugging and smoothing the clay of reform, modeling their ideal, socially liberal, economically conservative country. Now Buchanan has punched his fist into its dense center, thwacking a new shape entirely. "The people Buchanan brought with him were the most conservative fringe, the abortion-rescue crowd and the gun nuts," explains a former party member. "They were people to the right of Buchanan! And because Missouri's party was so small to begin with, it made them a supermajority."

At the convention, Kline watched, with mounting fury, "some sort of leader within the Buchanan group telling people how to vote for delegates. Then they asked, before the vote, would we or would we not support Pat Buchanan? At the time I was noncommitted, but because he irritated me, I flat-out told him exactly how I was going to vote. Charles Collins (one of two other Reform Party contenders) would make an excellent president. He's a Christian, and he's been to five of our party functions, and Mr. Buchanan has not been to anything."

Still, Missouri is Buchanan country. It's the only state in which he entered a presidential primary, and it's the state where he launched his career. (As the youngest editorial writer the St. Louis Globe-Democrat had ever hired, he met Richard M. Nixon, the president he served right through Watergate.) By the time the lights went down, eight of Missouri's 12 delegates to the national convention were pledged to vote for Buchanan. (One supports Charles Collins; three haven't decided.)

Of course, there's a general election, too: On July 4, the Reform Party USA mailed presidential ballots to all party members, as well as any registered voter who requested one. But even if the popular vote elects Collins or the other Reform Party presidential candidate, John Hagelin, the convention delegates can override that choice with a two-thirds majority. (Already concerned about tantrums, fisticuffs and outright violence, convention organizers have increased the security budget by 15 percent.)

Missouri's delegates might back Buchanan, but the state's more moderate candidates can't even keep a straight face when somebody mentions his name. "Let's face it: The Republicans didn't want him to represent them," says Foley. "He went to the Reform Party because he could. But I don't think he's got the chance of a snowball in hell." Gimpelson, asked his opinion, bursts out laughing: "Well, I think he has some good ideas, and some funny ones. I'm not necessarily really endorsing a presidential candidate at this point." Terry Frank, the Reform candidate for Missouri treasurer, says he's "just trying to stay below that mess. Buchanan's getting us national attention, and if he gets into the debates (he's suing to do so), it will be a great thing for the party -- as long as he controls himself. What the party really needs, though, is a Reagan/Clinton type, somebody who can play the media a little better instead of always being an angry male."

Even Kline is wary. "I have yet to read or hear anything that Pat has said that I disagree with," he admits. "But he put his own people in and stripped out the old-timers." He chuckles at his own term. "Old-timers! What's it been, eight years? Still, I'm getting mental whiplash, between the Buchanan group and the Perot group. When Buchanan announced that he wanted to run with the Reform Party, everybody, including me, said, 'Attaboy! We'll support you.' But then there was this bullish takeover. My bottom line on Pat Buchanan: He's either a Republican mole and the Republican Party has decided to destroy the Reform Party -- and they're doing a good job -- or Pat Buchanan views this as a vehicle, a last straw to save the country. It's one or the other."

Under the Big Top

More than 20 candidates are running for office with the Missouri Reform Party this year, and part of the delight is their variety. There's Gimpelson, a respected gynecologist who lives in Ladue but speaks fluent populist, describing himself as "a solo practitioner, just a little guy working for a living. I face the federal government every day by myself." There's George "Boots" Weber -- a former corrections officer, licensed pilot and Missouri Flying Farmer who once transported an elk herd to Lone Elk Park -- running simultaneously for lieutenant governor of Missouri and president of the U.S. One of seven candidates for state representative is Rob Penningroth, a 27-year-old North County schoolteacher who lifeguarded at the YMCA for 12 years and believes that "all the issues that face our country are important ones that must be dealt with." Another is Anthony J. Windisch, a former Department of Agriculture computer specialist who filed a whistleblower's complaint about the government's "gross waste and mismanagement of federal computers" and then wrote a book about it. As one party insider put it, "He thinks he's grabbed onto the issue that will change the world -- and it's a yawner."

Some of these candidates are true believers in the founding Reform principles; some are Buchananites eager to stamp out the New World Order; some just want their own brand of change. Many have campaigned unsuccessfully in the past as Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, U.S. Taxpayers or all of the above. What draws them to the Reform Party now is expediency, not ideology.

Frank, for example, grew disillusioned with the Republicans' $100-a-plate dinners and exclusive power. He'd been interested in politics since age 12, when he met Nelson Rockefeller at the Republican National Convention. Then he graduated from St. Louis Country Day School and Loyola University, worked for large national brokerage firms, started a picture-perfect family and became, at 28, the youngest alderman in Frontenac's history. But when he watched John McCain suffer the slings and arrows hurled by good ol' boys supporting George W. Bush, he says, it "soured" him. So he turned to the Reform Party, but not because he embraced their central tenets. "I'm a free-trader," he shrugs. "Probably the only place I agree with the Reform Party is campaign-finance reform."

If the Missouri Reform Party is anything, it's tolerant of disagreement. You don't even have to belong to the party to run on their ticket. When Kline accepted their invitation, he "didn't even know their platform." Benson "met Perot years and years ago at a party. He wouldn't remember me. But it was a good year to run as an outsider. If I go in with the Reform Party, I can do things that Republicans and Democrats can't, and if I have to embarrass the General Assembly into acting, I can."

Foley calls himself "an independent running as a Reform Party candidate. I can look at myself in the mirror shaving and say, 'That's OK, because it's an open party -- just about anybody can run.'" Pause. "That's a weakness in the party."

Ah, but third parties can't afford weakness. They have to revolutionize the voters, amuse the masses and steal the show away from the mainstream parties, whether that means standing on stilts, clown-fighting or swallowing flaming torches. "Americans like circuses," remarks Wayne Fields, co-director of the American-culture-studies program at Washington University and a scholar of American political rhetoric. "In the big parties, you're never sure what's really going on, but all the clowns are out in the open when they're running their own campaign. It's entertainment, it's spectacle, it's the central drama of whether we can endure as a people so divided in opinion."

Besides, we're so bored with bejeweled elephants lumbering in circles -- and the earnest donkeys who imitate them in the second ring -- that we do look over occasionally, diverted but unconvinced. Some of the performers refresh our jaded eyes with their old-fashioned enthusiasm. Others look more like exiles from the Island of Misfit Toys, and their extremism places the rest of us in an awkward position.

"I don't think the future of the party is very bright," admits Foley. "It's fractured at the top, and it has no spokespeople to push its platform, which is reasonable and moderate, even though it can be interpreted in other ways. I would hope that, should there be debates for the senatorial candidates, the Reform and Libertarian candidates would be invited. It might be embarrassing, depending on how we comport," he adds wryly. "But if access is denied, we'll continue to have the problems I'm running to change."

Asked his opinion of his Reform Party rival, Foley tries hard: "Martin Lindstedt is a 42-year-old man with some very definitive political ideas on the kind of America he believes we should have. Whether you would call him a racist or a separatist, I suppose, depends on your definition of those terms. But he will have appeal ..." He breaks off, pushes his yellow legal pad aside and abandons the calm, measured rhetoric altogether.

"This is what will hurt the Reform Party," he blurts. "Guilt by association."

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