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Bob Barr, the Master of a Curious Universe

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 2008

ATLANTA

"I still plan someday to do a book on Bob Barr's laws of the universe," says Bob Barr, the Libertarian candidate for president.

The rules of Bob Barr's universe are many and fascinating. Several have to do with his libertarian principles, like "No matter how much power government has, it never has enough." Others are more holistic, like "The world is full of idiots." There are deeply personal ones: "The most difficult thing about politics is dealing with people with really bad breath."

Really?

"You wouldn't believe," Barr explains in his deathly serious way. "Some people -- just awful halitosis."

Is there any human being on the planet more committed to his seriousness than Bob Barr? The 59-year-old Barr is so into the Founding Fathers that most of his phone numbers, including his cellphone, end in "1-7-7-6." He only reads weighty books, his wife says, like "George Washington on Leadership." He talks about himself in the third person. In his office, he keeps a photo of himself as a Republican congressman -- calling for the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Even Bob Barr's mustache is serious.

Bob Barr's law: "Never run a 100-yard dash in a 90-yard room."

What does that mean?

"It doesn't mean anything," he says, and then adds, sternly, "It's a joke."

And yet, every once in a while, the strangest thing happens. He does something surprising, like announces he really likes Bob Marley. Or says he kind of liked that Borat movie, except for the part where he was unwittingly in it as the butt of a joke, eating cheese purportedly made from human breast milk. He's still Bob Barr the bulldog, but in person he can be quite solicitous. And every so often, he smiles. Like now, during a discussion of the staying power of government institutions.

"That's one of Bob Barr's laws of the universe!" he says triumphantly. He is seated beneath a painting of Ayn Rand, who appears beautiful and all-knowing. "Once you create a bureaucracy, it is near to impossible to ever get rid of it." He's grinning broadly and -- look! The most unexpected thing in the world. Bob Barr's dimples . Sighted ever so briefly, like some fragile, exotic bird.

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.

"The curse is that people view him as being this bombastic character -- who really is more thoughtful and has a greater degree of moderation," he says.

If they think of him at all. Here's the thing: Many Americans don't even know Barr is running. He polls in the low single digits.

So why run? The third-party candidate is in an existential conundrum. All his efforts are devoted to achieving something that -- oh, let's say it, angry letter-writers be damned -- is never going to happen. Unless, of course, becoming president isn't really the goal. As Barr's wife, Jeri, points out, running for president is a powerful way to "change the nature of the debate and raise the issue in the public's eye."

And, as Towery points out, a presidential run is itself a great podium.

"It could enhance the things he enjoys doing -- speaking, pontificating, writing," he says.

You Can't Say He Panders

Bob Barr allows that a Bob Barr presidency is "unlikely," but he sketches his dream nonetheless. Bob Barr as president would not sign any bills appropriating money to the United Nations. Bob Barr as president would advocate against a Department of Education. And, because the United States is not a "charity," Bob Barr as president would attempt to stop the practices of hospitals offering medical care to illegal immigrants and schools educating illegal immigrants' children. Most of all, he'd shrink government and taxes.

"Whatever step would be required for Bob Barr as president to cut back by 10 percent the executive office of the president would be done," he says, with Barrlike formality.

"What is the position about the poor and helping the poor?" asks a woman in the studio audience when Barr makes an appearance on NPR's "Talk of the Nation." "If we have no government or little government, who's going to administrate over these different programs? Let's say food stamps. . . . What is the view on things like that?"

"Abolish them," Barr says.

Afterward, a reporter asks Barr if he thinks he was taken more seriously during his eight years in the House than he is now, as a presidential candidate for a fringe party with a tiny staff and paltry funds.

"It never enters my mind," he says, not breaking his stride. "I don't know. I don't care."

Well, surely Barr's campaign manager is concerned about inoculating his candidate against charges that he's a flip-flopper?

"I would like somebody to accuse us of being flip-floppers," says Russ Verney, who worked on both of Ross Perot's runs. He chuckles ruefully. "At least we're being accused of something."

A Spoiler?

Actually, Barr does get accused of something. He gets accused of being a potential spoiler for John McCain. If he were to shave a few points off McCain -- even in just one state, such as Georgia --it could make a difference.

Barr says he's no spoiler; if McCain can't win over the nation with a compelling message, it's not Bob Barr's fault. Barr's running mate, Wayne Allyn Root, puts it somewhat differently:

"Let's say that Barack Obama is elected president of the United States and let's just say it's because of Bob Barr and Wayne Root," says Root, a sports betting prognosticator, motivational speaker, infomercial star and 100-pill-a-day vitamin enthusiast who has written a book called "The Zen of Gambling" and has never held elective office. In that case, Root says, "four years of Karl Marx" could "so screw up the American economy" that it would lead to an "uprising," bringing the nation back to its small-government senses. Problem solved!

Gingrich has warned that Barr could make it easier for Obama to become president. Likewise, Sean Hannity berated Barr on Fox News in April, interrupting his guest and quizzing him incredulously about his reversal on the war on drugs. And then:

"You're not gonna feel guilty the morning after election night?" he asked Barr.

No, Bob Barr would not feel guilty, but Bob Barr does seem wounded by the memory of that interview. "He was being downright unpleasant, as I recall," he says, his voice rising a little. "There's never an excuse to not be pleasant and civil."

In fact, over the course of two days of interviews, Barr is almost unfailingly polite and surprisingly self-deprecating. He jokes that he's Rodney Dangerfield -- gets no respect, wife won't even let him smoke a cigar in his own home! He is loath to rush conversations with strangers who approach -- even when they've stopped him at the airport en route to the security line with only 15 minutes before his flight takes off.

He is especially liked by children and older ladies, says wife Jeri. She says it's because he doesn't talk down to them.

"Older women just love him -- they come up and pinch his little cheeks," she says. "Most people would think Bob is rude, and he's not. . . . He's a bulldog, but he's a gentlemanly bulldog."

Office Report

The campaign office is an optimistic place. It's big, with a whole extra room to move into once the campaign adds more people. The place only recently got phone lines and data lines and air conditioning, and still, every once in a while, Verney says, "some phone in here rings and we have no idea where it is."

One day recently, Verney takes out the office trash himself. He has only 11 people working for him, "including three interns," he says, prompting Barr's receptionist to chirp, "I'm getting you more interns, though!"

After a conference call with some libertarian-leaning bloggers, Barr stands in a cubicle, near his deputy campaign manager, Shane Cory, talking about how much he loves Bob Marley, whom he discovered in 1978 after getting out of the CIA. Oh, and Pink Floyd. He talks about the shoes he's wearing -- black boots that go up to his ankles.

"I wear half-boots, and Shane doesn't -- it's the free market!" he says.

Jeri Barr, who is the CEO of a social services agency, comes into the headquarters after getting off work. She leans over the cubicle wall.

"I have a question for you," she says. "I have an opportunity to get reasonably priced tickets to 'Wicked.' "

"To what?" Bob asks.

" 'Wicked.' "

"Oh, I thought you said 'Wicca,' " Barr says, chuckling. Look! Bob Barr's dimples.

"Do you want me to just pass over you and just take Heidi?" Jeri asks, referring to her daughter from a previous marriage.

"I probably would," Barr says.

Jeri goes to work on her BlackBerry. Barr begins a discussion with staffers about what tie to wear for the filming of a Web video. Red? Turquoise? He treats the topic with Barrlike seriousness, advocating for the turquoise.

"Okay," Jeri says, looking up from her BlackBerry. "I just put it on my calendar to do 'Wicked' on the 15th of October and -- that's one of the presidential debates. You really think you'll be doing a debate?"

"I hope so!" Barr says.

"Sorry, honey, can't come to the debate. We're going to 'Wicked,' " Jeri teases.

"I think it would be better, 'Sorry, Heidi, I can't come to "Wicked," I'm going to the presidential debate,' " Barr says. He means this playfully, although even Bob Barr's playful sounds a little bit stern. He walks off to do his thing for the camera.

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