Running for president is easier than you might think. All you have to do is fill out a form used for any federal office and file it with the Federal Election Commission. At last count the FEC had received 224 such statements of candidacy for 1984, including those of Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale.
"We don't know if these are all people," says an FEC spokesman, meaning some names have been filed that aren't attached to living human beings. "Anybody can walk in the door. We don't know who they are, and we're not going to ask."
Neither is any other federal agency, as long as the candidates don't raise or spend more than $5,000 on their campaigns, illusory or otherwise. (Campaigning is one thing, getting on the ballot is another. To do so you must submit a petition -- the District requires a minimum of 3,000 signatures.) Those candidates who do exist are as different as college professor, prison inmate and robot, and motivation varies from a desire for more political discussion to divine revelation to jokes.
Delores Wright, of Baltimore, filed on behalf of a robot named Rebecca. "We have Coke machines that talk back," Wright told People magazine. "Why not have a robot president that does the same?"
Steven Livengood, a local public policy research consultant, filed on his 35th birthday as a joke, because he was depressed. "It gave me something to laugh about," he says. "The amazing thing is the number of contacts I have gotten just from filing. I was asked to audition for the Phil Donahue show. School kids in Spokane wrote asking for buttons. College students want copies of my platform."
Sonia Johnson, 48, another local entry, is the first alternate candidate to gain access to federal matching funds. "I always knew I couldn't win," she says, "but there are other victories. Alternate candidates have the opportunity to focus on principle, and say new things . . . My central message is that violence against women is connected to problems in the Middle East and Central America. If we can't stop rape, we can't have peace in the world."
Often the issue for alternate candidates is plain ol' common sense.
"The way I look at it," says Cyril Sagan, 57, a professor of chemistry at Slippery Rock State College in Pennsylvania, "90 percent of the people in this country have the potential to be as good or better a president than the two guys who have been nominated. I figure I'm one of those characters."
He wants politicians' salaries cut, and a revamping of the judicial and prison systems.
"Fifty-one percent of all inmates are nonviolent," says James Yager, who is waging his campaign from the Federal Correctional Institution at Talladega, Ala. "It's costing the taxpayers too much. Nonviolent prisoners should work and pay room and board, and repay the money they took. It would get them back in the mainstream."
He wants freedom of choice on abortion, more federal supervision of nursing homes, school lunches for the poor, better veterans' hospitals and a generally improved political climate. "Reagan has had 46 major scandals in his administration," he says. "What kind of people have we got in these high positions?"
Yager, 50, is serving time for bank fraud. He expects to be out of prison by the end of the year. "If elected, I could very definitely be sworn in." Campaigning from prison is not all that difficult. "I read all the newspapers and magazines," he says. And he gets briefings by telephone from friendly newspaper reporters. "Even though I've had some trouble with the law, I'm still pretty respected in some circles."
Yager addressed the Alternate Presidential Convention, held at the State University of New York at Stony Brook last month, by telephone. His liberal concerns were not always reflected in the speeches of others.
"About half of them were off the wall," says a spokesman for WUSB, the student radio station sponsoring the event. Three candidates claimed to have had their wallets stolen. One suggested that the United States and Russia were conspiring to control the weather in the Rio Grande Valley. Another belonged to the Magnetic Hydro Dynamic Party.
"Some of the ideas were kooky, and some were good," says Grady O'Cummings, a 52-year-old lobbyist who first ran for president as a Democrat back in 1964. He is a candidate again this year, as he has been every presidential election year since '64. In the event that he is not elected president, he plans to run for mayor of New York City.
"The candidates are all human people," he says. "We all have a common drive, we work together to weed out the good sic ideas."
Assistance for the poor and disarmament are recurring themes. One candidate advocates freeing all prisoners and putting them to work building bomb shelters for the coming Armageddon.
"The Bible speaks of the time of the end," says Elijah the Prophet, a k a Charles Stewart, formerly of West Virginia and now living in New York City, who attended the convention. "I'm concerned that we are at that time. Mr. Mondale and, of course, Mr. Reagan spend a lot of time talking about what is in fact easy to do -- stop the arms race."
A born-again Christian, Elijah the Prophet, 40, is director of the Church of Jesus, Inc. and a quality inspector for AT&T. He changed his name legally in 1975, after hearing the biblical story that God would raise up a prophet. "I heard the prophecy in Refuge Church of Christ," he says. "That's in New Rochelle."
He ran for president in 1980, too, as an independent in New Hampshire. "My speech called for a new beginning," he says. "When the Republicans had their convention, they used the slogan, 'Together -- A New Beginning.' I don't know whether or not I was an influence."
Divine intervention can be even more direct than that experienced by Elijah the Prophet. Last year Charles Doty, a 60-year-old real estate salesman in Tulsa, Okla., was working in the driveway on his daughter's '72 Chevy pickup when he received an absolute mandate to seek high public office.
"I just couldn't get that last spark plug to go in," he says. "It was right up against the fire wall. I had been working at it for more than an hour when a voice said, just as plain as I'm talking to you, 'File as a candidate for president.'
"Now then, when I heard that I backed out from under the hood and turned around, expecting to see somebody who had come up the block to talk, but there was nobody there. I had been in deep Bible study for years. I was dwelling on obedience. I stood there and thought about it. I said to myself, 'Chuck, there's only two voices you're going to hear -- the Holy Spirit, or the prince of this earth, the Devil.' I've been baptized, and I knew it was the Lord."
He wanted to make sure, though.
"The president has more problems than he knows what to do with," Doty says, "and here I couldn't even get a spark plug in. I went back to work, saying, 'Lord, if you want me to file as a candidate, you help me get this plug in.' Right then the threads caught, and in it went."
He borrowed $1,000 from his daughter and put up as much of his own money to run. He is fundamentally against the existence of nuclear weapons, but of the issues in general, he says, "I've got 'em all."
Charles Doty doesn't really expect to win.
However, "when God's on your team," he says, "you've already got a majority of One."