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Bob Barr, the Master of a Curious Universe

Third-Party Politics

The ideal third-party presidential candidate should be the kind of guy who relishes a fight even when it's him against everyone else. Especially when it's him against everyone else.

Someone like Bob Barr. In the '70s, he worked for the CIA as an analyst and lawyer. In the '80s, he was a Reagan-appointed U.S. attorney. He came to Congress during the GOP takeover in 1994, and before anyone had heard of Monica Lewinsky, he began calling for an impeachment inquiry of Bill Clinton for campaign finance issues. Then Lewinsky materialized and Barr kept up the steady pounding, warning of "a cancer on the American presidency" and "the smoldering ruins of a great democracy."

During his eight years in Congress representing a district in Georgia, Barr was the staunch conservative's dream. Among his accomplishments: renaming National Airport for Ronald Reagan; blocking the District's efforts to approve marijuana use for seriously ill patients; making the public aware of the scourge of Wicca being practiced on military bases. And the big enchilada: authoring the Defense of Marriage Act, which restricted the federal government from recognizing gay marriage -- what he called "the flames of hedonism . . . licking at the very foundation of our society."

Critics, meanwhile, questioned Barr's moral authority, pointing out that he'd been married three times, and that once, according to a news story from the early '90s, he "ended up licking whipped cream from the chests of two buxom women" at a charity event. (Two people who observed the act say it wasn't exactly a bosom lick but more like a neckline lick, at the sort of event where business and civic leaders perform dares to raise money. Barr was cajoled into it precisely because he was, well, Bob Barr. "Not exactly Mr. Effusive," says Matt Towery, the former chairman of Newt Gingrich's political organization, who observed the brief and awkward licking. "You can hardly get the guy to smile.")

And then 9/11 happened. In its wake, Barr says, he became increasingly disenchanted with George W. Bush. He came to see his own party as having moved 180 degrees from the small-government philosophy that was at the core of the Republicans' 1994 "Contract With America."

Or, "if not 180 degrees from that, about 178 1/2 ," Barr says, with Barrlike precision.

In 2002 Barr lost his seat after redistricting. In an ironic twist, the national Libertarian Party was involved in the race, mounting a campaign against Barr because of his stand against medical marijuana.

In time, Barr concluded that the biggest threat to the nation was government power. The seeds of libertarianism long had been in him. At the University of Southern California, he briefly joined a group of campus Democrats, at which point his Republican parents threatened to pull him out of school; shortly after, at their suggestion, he read Rand's "Atlas Shrugged."

Looking back on his congressional career, he began to wish he hadn't voted for the Patriot Act. He decided that even Wiccan soldiers should be able to do their Wiccan thing. He concluded that both gay marriage and drug legalization should be left up to the states, even though, personally, he is still against both. Working as a consultant and lobbyist, he started to do work on behalf of civil liberties and privacy rights. He worked with the American Civil Liberties Union and, in the most bizarre twist, with a pro-pot group called the Marijuana Policy Project.

Aaron Houston, a lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project, remembers the time in 2006 when a libertarian ally told him, "Hey, I got this friend -- you'll never believe who it is. I think he might be coming around on your issues."

Barr registered as a Libertarian in 2006, and this February or March decided to run for president on the party's ticket. At which point, people who knew him were -- well, some of them weren't so surprised.

"I think it's fair to say that Bob has never been afraid to embrace controversial issues or positions and always had a knack for turning his actions into ink," says Towery, who now runs a polling firm out of Atlanta. Towery says he thinks Barr is quite sincere in his positions -- but he also knows how to milk his time on the podium.

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