By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
In his career in public service, Bob Barr has performed many important roles.
As a Republican candidate for the House in 1994, he rose to national attention when reports alleged that he had licked whipped cream off the breasts of two women at a charity event.
As a congressman from Georgia, the thrice-married Barr returned attention to the whipped-cream episode when, speaking in support of the Defense of Marriage Act, he argued that "the flames of self-centered morality are licking at the very foundations of our society."
As one of the managers of Bill Clinton's impeachment, Barr gained enough prominence to attempt a run for the Senate in 2002. But that effort fell apart at about the time Barr accidentally fired a .38-caliber pistol through a glass door at a fundraising reception.
As an elder statesmen, Barr returned to the public eye when, appearing in the film "Borat," he made a pinched expression after being told that the cheese he had just sampled came from a woman's breast milk.
Now beyond whipped cream and cheese, Barr is taking on his next role: John McCain's spoiler.
He made his debut in the role yesterday at the National Press Club, where he announced that he would run for president on the Libertarian Party ticket. And he made no secret about his disdain for the presumptive Republican nominee, who would probably suffer most from Barr's entry in the race.
"What's your problem with McCain?" one of the reporters asked after Barr's announcement speech.
Barr turned to his campaign manager, former Ross Perot adviser Russ Verney. "How long do we have here, Russ?"
Time enough, evidently.
Barr took issue with McCain's Iran policy. "I'm not going to go around making up songs about such a serious matter as going to war with a sovereign nation, as Senator McCain did," the former congressman said, tut-tutting McCain's "Barbara Ann/Bomb Iran" episode.
He quarreled with McCain's Iraq policy. "These troops need to be brought home," he offered.
He ridiculed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which, he said, means McCain "cannot ever lay legitimate claim, at least with a straight face, to . . . being labeled as a conservative."
He put down McCain's plan to do away with pet-project earmarks, claiming it "would make barely a drop in the bucket with regard to the national debt, the deficit."
And he disparaged McCain's fiscal policy, saying "there are some legitimate questions that have been raised over whether Senator McCain is simply a Johnny-come-lately to the modest tax cuts."
If this makes Barr a spoiler, he doesn't seem to mind. "I daresay that those people who would be inclined . . . to vote for Bob Barr as president would not likely fall into the category of people who would be enthused about voting for John McCain -- if such exists," he said with relish.
This could be bitter cheese for McCain -- assuming Barr has any sort of following. Ron Paul (himself a former Libertarian presidential candidate) found during the primary battle that there are passionate libertarians within the Republican Party. But Paul's former House colleague hasn't yet caught that wave.
One of the reporters at the press club pointed out to Barr that there were only 30 or 40 people at his kickoff announcement (and half of those were reporters). "Why are we going to believe your candidacy would be met with anything besides . . . universal apathy?" the questioner needled.
Barr answered with an unexpected paean to the media. "I think it is very important to bring together in our nation's capital a group of men and women who, indeed, are looked to by the American people . . . as caring deeply about the future of the country."
Praising the press? Conservatives will lap that right up.
Barr had been coy about his intentions; the advisory said he planned to "discuss his future plans." But there was little surprise when those arriving at the event were greeted by five "Barr for President '08" posters, and a banner imprinted with "bobbarr2008.com" -- 72 times. The candidate, wearing a pinstriped shirt reminiscent of a New York Yankees uniform, posed the obvious question to himself: "Bob Barr, why are you running for president?"
He listed his grievances: government eavesdropping, suspending habeas corpus, runaway spending. Americans "deserve better," he said. "I believe they deserve better. And the Libertarian Party deserves they believe better."
Deserves they believe better?
Barr could be forgiven the slip-up, and problems with subject-verb agreement throughout his speech. He could also be forgiven for going on too long, to the point that his wife consulted her watch and Verney studied the campaign banner. His flushed face and gyrating body made it clear that he was fired up -- and ready to exploit McCain's troubled relations with conservatives.
If McCain loses, he said, "it will be not because of Bob Barr, not because of Senator Obama. It will be because Senator McCain did not present, and his party did not present, a vision, an agenda, a platform and a series of programs that actually resonated positively with the American people."
If Barr is right, McCain won't just be beaten, he'll be licked.