"Real weapons!" demanded Jeane Kirkpatrick.
Stormy applause erupted from thousands of black-tied movement conservatives. "Real helicopters!" she continued. "Real ground-to-air missiles!"
More stormy applause, and not merely for the former U.N. ambassador. The cheering was also for the international cast arrayed at the long table behind her. Here was the latest right-wing icon, Jonas Savimbi, the bearded Angolan rebel. Over there was the inexpressive Adolfo Calero, the contra commandante. The space between them was occupied by Vice President Bush, projecting a rapturous smile, and several grim Afghan mujaheddin, wrapped in turbans and captured Red Army belts. All were assembled in the Washington Hilton ballroom for the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year.
Roaming through the cavernous room, quietly passing among the 200 tables, mostly unacknowledged, was Jack Wheeler, a 42-year-old man of medium height and strong build, wearing a somewhat ill-fitting gray suit. His long, thinning hair is swept straight back; his close-set, clear blue eyes have a piercing gaze. "The Indiana Jones of the right," said a reverent young conservative. "That's him."
Wheeler, a professional adventurer, glowed in the presence of this tableau vivant of the Reagan Doctrine; for his incredible explorations made it possible. Perhaps above all, the Reagan Doctrine stands for handing "real weapons" over to such "freedom fighters," making the Cold War hot at the peripheries. It is an idea as real as today's scheduled House vote on the president's request for $100 million in military aid to Nicaraguan rebels.
"Jack Wheeler lives the dreams the rest of us talk and write about," says Bently Elliott, the director of presidential speech writing. From another perspective, Barricada, the official Sandinista newspaper, has ominously warned its readers of "Wheeler's shadow." "The concept of 'freedom fighters' as an organizational principle," reported Barricada, "emerged basically from the work of Jack Wheeler."
In the history of the Reagan Doctrine, between the idea and the reality falls "Wheeler's shadow." By his deeds he has animated the doctrine that has become the catechism of the moment, promulgated by the columnists of conservative ideology.
"Now it's our turn," says Wheeler. "In the 1960s, we had this endless succession of Marxist guerrilla heroes -- Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara; all the Che posters on all the college dorm walls in the 1960s. Now there are anti-Marxist guerrilla heroes . . . The whole anti-imperialist liberation struggle is just all shifted around, 180 degrees . . . That's the gestalt."
On his journey to the contra way of knowledge, Wheeler has traveled for much of the past three years to the front lines on three continents. He instructed Angolans, Nicaraguans and Afghans that they are allies in a united front. His voyages have not escaped notice in Izvestia, the Soviet newspaper, which featured him as an "ideological gangster."
When he returned from his first trip, in November 1983, he recounted his ideological adventure stories in the White House, where Ronald Reagan's speech writers were seized with enthusiasm. At last, someone was bringing the good news that a worldwide anti-Soviet insurgency was not a wish but a fact.
Wheeler was introduced to Lt. Col. Oliver North, the National Security Council's contact with the contras. Soon, Wheeler began advising his new friend. He also briefed William Casey, the CIA director, and he lectured Jeane Kirkpatrick in what might be called her metamorphosis from neoconservative into full-throated neocontra. The president's speeches began to ring with tributes to "freedom fighters."
Wheeler has been brought into the councils of the conservative elite, but he is not essentially a political animal. "I just do not like politics," he says. "I don't like the backstabbing, the game playing. It's just endemic to politics, and I just don't like it."
He prefers jungle adventures -- and his very name suggests a boy's hero. So does his 1980 "Dewar's Profile": "Past: Born in Los Angeles in 1943, Jack Wheeler climbed the Matterhorn, swam the Hellespont, slew the fabled Man Killing Tiger of Dalat and lived among Ecuadorian headhunters . . . Scotch: White Label."
Like Indiana Jones he seeks the treasure of wealth and power, but doesn't want to possess it; his is not so much the pursuit of happiness as the happiness of pursuit. "Because," says Wheeler, "ever since I could remember, I've had this sensation, a very intense awareness, that this is it. I mean, there will be only one me on this planet forever. You have one chance. One life. And some people collect stamps. Some collect rare china. I want to collect experiences."
bat10 Wheeler's quest began, he recalls, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, when he was 14 and opened Richard Halliburton's "Book of Marvels" -- "my initial inspiration."
Halliburton was an American adventurer and writer who died at the age of 39 in 1939, attempting to sail a Chinese junk through a typhoon. His travels were captured in a breathless, exclamatory style. "I wanted freedom, freedom to indulge in whatever caprice struck my fancy," he wrote in "The Royal Road to Romance."
"I'd never read anything like it," says Wheeler. "Place after place of romantic adventures. There was one chapter about Halliburton climbing the Matterhorn. I sat and stared at the picture, Halliburton on the Matterhorn. I just kind of found myself walking down the hall, finding my dad, putting the book down to the Matterhorn picture, and saying, 'Dad, I want to climb that mountain.' He saw that I was serious, not kidding around. 'Okay,' he said. 'Let's talk about it.' "
Jack Wheeler was a serious boy -- in fact, at age 12 the youngest Eagle Scout in the country, decorated by President Eisenhower at the White House. When his father, Jackson Wheeler, a popular Los Angeles television personality, took the family to Europe, he arranged for Jack to realize his dream. So, within months of reading Halliburton, Jack found himself triumphantly standing on the Matterhorn.
The Wheelers' grand tour included a brief stop in Moscow. "I remember a very oppressive atmosphere, like a very heavy wet wool blanket hung over the whole society," says Wheeler. He also remembers "a teen-age fantasy," antedating his Russian visit, "of going over there and forming a band of guerrillas. The Soviets could crush it, but not if the resistance spread."
Back home, he was elected student council president at the Hollywood Professional School (classmate: Annette Funicello, Mouseketeer). Beyond school, his life was a series of amazing stories. During one summer vacation he wandered deep into the Amazon jungle, befriending a band of headhunting Jivaro Indians. As a token of esteem, they presented him with a shrunken head. (In 1961, when the precocious Wheeler was featured on "This Is Your Life" at age 17, the chief headhunter appeared as a surprise from his past.)
At 16, Wheeler entered UCLA, majoring in anthropology. During his freshman year he took a weekend off to fly to Turkey, just to swim naked across the Hellespont. Several expeditions later, literally to Timbuktu and back, he acquired a master's degree from the University of Hawaii and a doctorate from the University of Southern California, writing his thesis on Greek ethics.
There was also a short political interlude, immediately after his UCLA graduation.
"Dad, you know Ronald Reagan, don't you?"
"Why, yes," replied Jackson Wheeler, who had known Reagan for years as a Hollywood fixture. Now, in the fall of 1965, Reagan was preparing to run for governor of California.
"Could I meet him, Dad?"
The Wheelers ventured to the candidate's Pacific Palisades home, where Jack was anointed the state chairman of Youth for Reagan. What he liked best about Reagan was that he was "not a professional politician."
By then, Wheeler had already dropped into the jungles of Vietnam, in 1963, wearing his UCLA varsity jacket. He was not tracking Viet Cong; his quarry was the Man Killing Tiger of Dalat. His rifle, a Weatherby big game gun, was a gift from Herb Klein, one of Richard Nixon's aides.
Wheeler's jungle guide knew not only where to find tigers. "He knew people who had cinnamon plantations." Jack wrote his father that "we might have a real opportunity here." The deal was struck, and Saigon Cinnamon International commenced exporting to spice brokers. Wheeler spent the mid-'60s shuttling between California and Vietnam. But as the business grew, the war escalated. He was not captivated by a Vietnam mystique; in 1967, feeling "very bitter," Wheeler simply withdrew.
"It was a war we had no intention of winning, and it was obscene," he says. "Vietnam was an obscenity, to murder 50,000 American kids for nothing . . . Why we stayed is a real mystery. I think if Bobby Kennedy had been elected in 1968 things would have been really different."
The only tangible remnant of Wheeler's Vietnam days is a solid gold ring, purchased in the Chinese district of Saigon. He has not removed it from his finger for more than two decades. Engraved on the ring are two dragons, flanking a Chinese character. "It is," he said, "the Chinese symbol for happiness and virility, which to a Chinese is exactly the same thing."
After Vietnam, he made a business of his obsession. Wheeler Adventures was incorporated in the early 1970s, and since then has taken would-be explorers on safari -- out of Africa and into Tibet, to the North Pole and the South Sea Islands. With his girlfriend, Jacqueline King, a former Las Vegas showgirl, he took four elephants along Hannibal's route across the Alps. "When you actually do it," he says, "actually take elephants over the Alps, the history becomes a part of your life. But I'd never do it again. Too risky, too risky for the elephants."
In 1976, Wheeler published "The Adventurer's Guide," a mixture of philosophy, memoir and how-to. ("Exploring Outer Mongolia . . . You start by taking a boat from Yokohama . . .") By chronicling his own feats of individual daring, he intended to stir the reader from his armchair with the call of the wild. "I want you to be a hero to yourself," he wrote. "To hell with the impossible dream!" To prove his point, in 1981 Wheeler made a daredevil parachute jump at the North Pole, a feat entered into the Guinness Book of World Records.
But Wheeler's personal dream shattered that year when Jacqueline King died of cancer. "She died in my arms," he says. "I didn't know whether I wanted to live or not. My life was pretty aimless. I became a hermit."
He secluded himself for a time on a California beach, mesmerized by the ocean. Back east, Ronald Reagan was moving into the White House. Wheeler felt himself pulled away from his grief and toward Washington.
He reached out to an old pal from the Youth for Reagan group, Dana Rohrabacher, a presidential speech writer. "He felt a little left out," says Rohrabacher. "He wanted to be part of this great tide of human events. He wanted to do his part, play his role. He was calling me in dismay. I said, 'You have to credential yourself, make yourself a specialist.' "
Wheeler was blocked. He stared at a huge map of the world mounted on his wall. "And I just saw the map differently," he says. "You know where there are these pictures that have a whole bunch of black and gray splotches, and there's a figure in there. And you look and look and all of a sudden the figure just pops out at you. And you never look at it the same."
What he saw was a world in flames, "a whole family of guerrilla wars that were taking place inside Soviet colonies." From this epiphany, he knew his mission. "I had heard about the contras and Afghanistan, of course, and I heard something about Angola . . . And all of a sudden I realized these were not isolated phenomena. I was witnessing a spontaneous worldwide rejectionsw, of Soviet imperialism, and nobody knew about it . . . And I realized the only way to actually find out about it was to go there."
For years, Wheeler had been testing his self-reliance and stoicism; he was discovering himself on solitary forays into the wilderness. His ordeals prepared him for the ultimate challenge with "evil," he says. "My background, going to all these remote places, getting to know different and remote people, my philosophy background, gave me whatever skills I have to get to these various counterrevolutionary groups, gain their confidence and be with them without much difficulty."
He made arrangements for his expedition by establishing the Freedom Research Foundation; eventually, he secured funds from the right-wing libertarian Reason Foundation. He opened a small office, overlooking the ocean, armed with computers and a wall-sized map to record the progress of the anti-Soviet guerrilla movements.
Ready for his global journey, his khaki fatigues and bulletproof underwear packed in a duffel bag, Wheeler stopped at the White House in June 1983, where Rohrabacher gave him a sendoff. Then he embarked on the Big Safari, his odyssey into "wars of liberation."
The first frontier he crossed was the border separating Honduras and Nicaragua. When he encountered communism, he knew he had arrived at the line between civilization and savagery.
Wheeler's guide was a lean contra named Charley, who led him on a night patrol into Nicaragua, "real Apache country." Suddenly, bullets started shredding the foliage. Charley grabbed Jack by the arm and dragged him out of harm's way. The next morning was the last time Wheeler saw him; Charley turned, raised a clenched fist in salute and shouted: "In Managua!"
Back at the base camp, Wheeler informed Col. Enrique Bermudez, the contras' military strongman, "You are not alone. There are thousands of people like you in Soviet colonies all over the world."
"It was," says Wheeler, "like a revelation to him. I remember just the wonder in Bermudez's eyes when I told him. Nobody had ever said anything like that before. But they certainly wanted it to be the case. Nobody wants to be alone."
The next frontier: Angola. Here Wheeler was the guest of Jonas Savimbi. For 2,500 kilometers, Wheeler traveled on the back of a captured Soviet truck through what he calls "Savimbi's Kingdom." At every village the entourage would stop for a charismatic Savimbi oration, preceded by a big band backed up by a chorus of 30 singers. "It's not like rock 'n' roll," says Wheeler, "but I mean it's some version of it. And they play on the electric guitar and everybody dances and pounds on their drums and has a hell of a time and yells, 'Savimbi!' "
And, again, Wheeler told them they were not alone. For Wheeler's farewell, Savimbi assembled the band, the singers and about 2,000 dancers. "Remember, Jack," Wheeler recalls Savimbi saying, "this is a high-stakes game." They embraced, and Wheeler departed for another destination.
"Afghanistan," he says, "just dwarfs everything else. It's just the size of the uprising and the fierceness of it. And we're going after the Soviets. I mean we're not up against the Cubans here. We're up against the Red Army . . . There's nothing like it on the face of the earth."
Wheeler slipped into Afghanistan with a small band of mujaheddin. He gained the trust of one by comparing him to Wild Bill Hickok. Even in barren and blasted Asia, Wheeler found the Wild West. There were good guys and bad guys and it was High Noon every day.
Wheeler and his mujaheddin staged a lightning raid. "Well, we had a great time," he says. "I mean it was night -- all activities happen at night -- and the Soviets started firing these rockets and recoilless rifles, and finally they hit the power station, and it was just like a movie, a war movie, the tracer bullets and explosions and bombs . . .
"But they were missing and we were racing around, all down these alleys, and mortars were exploding, and we're all laughing and doubled over laughing and tears were pouring down our faces. We were embracing each other and laughing so hard we could hardly run because they were missing. And it was quite a time, quite a time."
He has returned three times since. "Afghanistan is like a magnet," he said. "I don't know how to describe it . . . You dress like them and they make you part of them. It compels you to go back. And so I'll be back."
Afghanistan, however, did not complete his tour d'horizon. He recalls speeding through the thick jungles of Cambodia on a Yamaha DT-125 motorbike; witnessing the execution by decapitation of a "spy" in the camp of guerrillas in Mozambique; and trekking with the resistance in Ethiopia. And everywhere he went he said, "You are not alone."
bat10 When he stopped at the White House in November 1983, equipped with slides, the president's speech-writing staff -- the most concentrated collection of ideologically correct people in the administration -- gathered in a darkened room. Wheeler's message leaped beyond intractable budgets and congressional deadlocks, "the humdrum of government," according to a White House source. This was not some mundane realignment of the Republican Party; it was, rather, a cosmic realignment of the planet. Now, conservative ideology began at the barrel of a gun.
"Jack," says a White House source, "was the one who brought it all together. He took random struggles and crystallized the concept that they were part of the same historical movement." After hearing Wheeler, several Reagan speech writers say they filled the president's speeches with references to "freedom fighters." By 1985, the president himself was expounding the Reagan Doctrine in his State of the Union Address: " . . . we must not break faith with those who are risking their lives on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua, to defy Soviet-supported aggression."
To the friends of Jack Wheeler, Secretary of State George Shultz was also sounding a lot like Jack Wheeler. "You recognize some stuff in there," Wheeler says a National Security Council official told him. "You like that, don't you?" Yes, Wheeler did like it.
Wheeler started exhibiting his sound-and-light show to conservative groups, galvanizing a movement beginning to splinter in the penultimate phase of the Reagan presidency. "Wheeler, with his adventurous activity and his slides, which are gripping, really captured the imagination of a lot of people," says New Right leader Paul Weyrich. "The conservative movement is sometimes fractured by other kinds of issues. But the Reagan Doctrine unites it across the board."
Wheeler became a popular speaker at right-wing events, where he invariably exclaims, "We got rhythm, we got soul, we got freedom and rock 'n' roll!"
In 1985, he got the notion that all the guerrilla leaders he had met should convene "in liberated territory" -- a media event of the first magnitude. So he persuaded Lew Lehrman, the drugstore tycoon, former New York gubernatorial candidate and president of Citizens for America, to sponsor a happening.
Wheeler circled the world, assembling rebels. Last June, in Jamba, the provisional capital of "Savimbi's Kingdom," the leaders of four guerrilla movements awakened, literally, to a lion's roar and issued this declaration: "Our struggles are one struggle." A "Dear Lew" letter to Lehrman from Reagan was read: "Their goals are our goals." And Lehrman vouchsafed to each rebel a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence.
The organizer of this extraordinary conference remained in the background. But Wheeler surfaced at a 1985 Senate subcommittee hearing as a witness on anti-Soviet insurgencies, which he asserted were "the only hope for genuine and lasting peace."
This week, as military aid to the contras again comes to a vote, Wheeler is nowhere to be found. Perhaps he is leading another safari, which after all is his livelihood. His travel company (now called Wheeler-Blanchard Adventures) has advertised an "Expedition to Liberated Angola . . . plus a Halley's Comet Safari in Botswana (cost: $6,920, without airfare)." Those who signed up were promised "a parade of over a thousand guerrillas in their honor" and the chance to "personally meet Jonas Savimbi." The date of departure was declared "confidential."
His friends refused to reveal his whereabouts. "As we speak," said Rohrabacher, "he is in an unnamed foreign country, doing freedom's work."
It is expected, however, that he will return soon -- his wedding is scheduled for May. "Do you want to see her picture?" he asked recently. She is a beauty consultant with red hair, pearly teeth and ruddy cheeks. Her name -- her real name -- is Rebel Holiday.