While the orthodox politicians wre sweating through Iowa last night, the Libertarians held a big party. In Washington, a good 900 miles from the nearest caucus. With champagne, pickles and a sense of delight that they, a group that seeks to abolish taxes as well most of the government, had picked their presidential candidate ages ago in September.
He is Ed Clark, a 49-year-old Los Angeles lawyer who has been called an "eminently reasonable radical" but looks as wholesome as Beaver Cleaver's father. Last night, he was in town to celebrate the opening of his party's national headquarters above a Wisconsin Avenue plant store.
"It's not probable that I will win," said Clark, the 1980 candidate of a partly that got 171,627 or .21 percent of the vote in 1976. 'But I'm going to get several million votes."
The Libertarian Party, created by a zealous handful of government- (and Nixon-) haters in a Colorado Springs beamed living room eight years ago, attracts SDS leftovers as well as disillusioned Buckleyites. It is an odd mixture, in the words of columnist Nicholas las von Hoffman, of "classic laissez faire economics" and "left-wing permissiveness."
They would like to legalize marijuana. They would like to abolish:
The draft, the Federal Reserve System, the CIA, the FBI, compulsory education, government regulation of utilities, anti-gun laws. And more, much more.
But most of all, they would like to become a respected third party with an image to match.
"In the beginning" said Chris Hocker, national coordinator of Clark's campaign, "we had our share of people who, ah, who didn't have both oars in the water. But now, the percentage of crazies is really down to nothing." He stopped his champagne sipping for a moment. "I don't know how we got into this conversation," he said.
Hocker, who once sold buses in California, wore a three-piece blue suit and carefully sprayed hairdo that made him look like an earnest Young Republican. Come to think of it, so did lost of the hundred or so others who converged under the fluorescent office lights and political poster that proclaimed the gathering a "New Dawn in politics."
Political hopefuls included Craig Franklin, who introduced himself as president of a computer company, candidate for North Carolina lieutenant governor, and willing supplier of Libertarian one-liners. Actually, most were three-liners plus, and most were of the political sort you weren't supposed to laugh at. But here's one anyway:
"A liberal is someone who's very liberal with other people's tax money," he said. "A conservative is a guy who's conservative with other people's freedom. A libertarian is somebody who's liberal with your freedom and conservation with your money.
"Let me put it this way. As small as the Libertarian movement is today, is already has more brains and more talent than the entire Republican party."
"That's most saying much," came a voice from the crowd.
The Democratic Party didn't do too well, either. Particularly Jimmy Carter.
"I think he is leading us to the brink of war," said candidate Clark, adding that if he were president, he would have condemned the Afghanistan invasion, but nothing more.
In general, the gathering had a festive feel, a feeling that finally, perhaps we've arrived. A reporter or two and an NBC camera crew added a bit of importance to the event.
The media attention seemed odd to some. "I've been with the movement since 1972," said Jeff Friedman, a Brown University sophomore who claims he's been a Libertarian in spritit since the age of 12, "and it was lonely back then. We aren't used to getting press."
The rest of the group was sprinkled with a few folks from NORML, the marijuana lobby, as well as one independently wealthy business investor, one accountant, one assistant to the treasurer for the National Rifle Association's PAC, one adverstising executive and one woman who does printing for the Libertarians and was just having some champagne and checking things out.
And then there was Paddy O'Brien, a man who looks like his name. Which is, big, red-faced, a laugher. He introduced himself as a "visiting scholar" with the Heritage Foundation, here to observe America. Normally, he's a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Western Australia.
Here's his observation on the Libertarians:
"They're a part of the disillusionment of the welfare state in western society," he said. "They're just here to spice up the existing system. A ginger group."