On the fifth day of the new millennium, which was also the fifth day of his tumultuous reign as chairman of the Reform Party, Jack Gargan vowed that he would never again say anything nasty about his fellow Reformers. But that was yesterday and this is today, and Gargan is getting increasingly cranky.
"In the last three years since this party was formed, it's done nothing but lose members, lose delegates, lose influence," Gargan barks into the phone. "If these people would just get off my back and let me lead . . ."
He hangs up and starts complaining about how the phone won't stop ringing, but he's cut off by the ringing of the phone.
Gargan is going batty trying to run a major political party--well, sort of major--out of his little house here on the west coast of Florida. He has no secretary. His phone is in his office, his answering machine is in the living room, and his fax machine is in the bedroom. He runs from one room to the other, which probably isn't ideal for a 69-year-old guy who had a triple bypass 10 years ago. Meanwhile, he's working gratis--nobody in the party is paid--and he isn't even sure he can persuade the party to pay his phone bill because the Executive Committee is packed with his political enemies.
He hops up, scoots over to his answering machine and starts playing his messages. Beep. It's a reporter from the Dallas Morning News calling about the presidential debates. Beep. It's a party activist from West Virginia. Beep. It's the New York Times. Beep . . . Beep . . .
Gargan scribbles down the names and numbers. Hanging on a wall behind him is a "Gargan for Governor" poster, a souvenir of his unsuccessful 1994 run for the Florida Democratic gubernatorial nomination, a campaign in which he promised to electrocute everybody on death row--all 342 of them--on his first day in office.
Beep. It's somebody calling about broadcasting the Reform Party convention on the Web. Beep. It's an ad agency that wants the party account. Beep. It's Jim Mangia, the Reform Party's national secretary. Mangia has important news: Three Executive Committee members have requested a special meeting under Article 7, Section 2, Subsection C, of the party constitution.
Gargan stiffens. "That's bad news," he says. "That's really bad news. They want to throw me out."
A Wild Party
Throw him out? He hadn't even been in office for a week! But that's the way things go in the Reform Party, which has more factions than a Trotskyite sect and more infighting than a boxing match.
Born in the ill-fated presidential campaigns of Ross Perot, the Reform Party is a contentious collection of feisty mavericks from every conceivable spot on the political spectrum. It's the party of Pat Buchanan, the far-right pundit who thrice ran for the Republican presidential nomination and is now running for the Reform nomination. It's also the party of Lenora Fulani, a Marxist who twice ran for president on the New Alliance Party ticket and is now supporting Buchanan in what has to be the unlikeliest political pairing since the Hitler-Stalin pact.
It's also the party of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler who recently announced his desire to be reincarnated as a 38 double-D bra. And the party of egomaniac billionaire Donald Trump, who hasn't yet decided if he'll run for the Reform nomination but has announced that he doesn't want to shake voters' hands because he might catch germs. And it is, of course, the party of Perot, who briefly dropped out of the 1992 race over mysterious threats to his daughter's wedding, and who isn't saying what he will do this year.
Gargan's got a tough job trying to unite this eclectic collection of eccentrics. "Sometimes," says Russell Verney, who served as chairman before Gargan, "you feel like the shepherd of a flock of cats."
Reform Party members can--and frequently do--debate endlessly about issues like free trade, abortion and gay rights. But now the issue that has sparked a spit-spewing, no-holds-barred verbal brawl that threatens to destroy the party is a seemingly petty question: Should the party's 2000 convention be held in Long Beach, Calif., or in St. Paul, Minn.?
The Ventura faction supports St. Paul, for obvious reasons. The anti-Ventura faction--composed largely of old-guard Perot supporters--opted for Long Beach. The squabbling got so bad that in December the Minnesota Reform Party sued the national Reform Party, demanding that it hold the convention in St. Paul. The lawsuit was booted out of court but not before the national party spent $60,000--more than half its treasury--on lawyers.
Gargan, who was elected with Ventura's endorsement, is allied with the St. Paul faction. Which led the Long Beach faction--Gargan calls them "Perotbots" when he forgets his vow not to speak ill of fellow Reformers--to denounce him in scores of vicious e-mails on the party's computer bulletin boards.
Now, listening to his phone messages, Gargan concludes that the Perotbots are out to overthrow him.
"It's the palace guard attempting a coup," he says.
Putting Out Fires
The phone's ringing again. Gargan grabs it.
"This is Jack." He listens for a moment. "Terrible!" he bellows. "It's unfair, un-American and unethical!"
A reporter has asked for his reaction to a decision announced by the Commission on Presidential Debates. The commission, chaired by former heads of the Democratic and Republican parties, will require that any third party must have at least 15 percent support in national polls to be included in this year's debates. Gargan has been denouncing the rule all day in sound bites that are getting increasingly pugnacious, although not always completely grammatical.
"I'm asking for public opinion to get up and scream if they value their liberty!" he says.
He hangs up and thumbs through a FedEx package he just received--a lawsuit to prevent the Reform Party from getting $12.6 million in federal campaign funds that it earned when Perot won 8 percent of the presidential vote in 1996. It's just a nuisance suit, Gargan says, but he'll still have to find a lawyer to fight it, and he doesn't know if the party has enough money.
"It's just one fire after another," he says with a weary voice.
He tosses the legal papers on the desk and starts grumbling again about how the Perotbots are trying to overthrow him. It's a "sleazy political maneuver done because of greed and ego trips," and he vows that he'll fight it to the death.
"I'm a tough old bastard," he says. "The only way they can get me out is feet first."
He sighs and slumps back in his chair. "Oh, man," he says. "And I could be out on a cruise right now."
Rags to Riches
That's right! Jack Gargan used to make $500 an hour entertaining the swells with his handwriting analysis on cruise ships and in classy resorts, he says. And that's just one of his many trades.
He grew up poor in New Jersey in the Depression and he went to work early. He raised chickens. He set pins in a bowling alley. He was a barker on a beach boardwalk, enticing suckers into a horse-racing game. After a stint in the Army, he got married and worked his way through college selling Studebakers and life insurance. He became a financial planning consultant and he wrote five books on the subject. He founded a financial planning trade association and then embarrassed a rival association by publicizing the fact that he'd managed to enroll his dog as a member of the other group.
He had a flair for self-promotion and he made enough money to retire in the mid-'80s, when he was still in his fifties. He got divorced and then, in 1990, he charged into politics like a wild boar, becoming famous across America as the personification of voter anger.
He did it with a newspaper ad that was a masterpiece of artful outrage. At the top was a picture of Gargan looking fierce and the headline, "I'm Mad As Hell And I'm Not Going to Take It Any More." Every paragraph began with a statement of his state of mind: "I'm Appalled . . . I'm Bitter . . . I'm Outraged . . . I'm Angry . . . I'm Livid . . . I'm Furious . . . I'm Enraged . . . I'm Disgusted . . . I'm Fed Up . . . I'm Shocked . . . I'm Incensed."
What was he so ticked off about? The deficit. The national debt. Congressional pay raises. Political corruption. The S&L scandal.
What was his solution? Vote every incumbent out of office. Every one of them--the good, the bad and the ugly. He called his group "Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out."
He paid for the first few ads himself. After that, each ad brought in enough contributions to buy another. Between 1990 and 1992, he ran more than 500 ads, did thousands of interviews, and crisscrossed America in his Dodge van, holding scores of rallies.
In 1991 he persuaded Ross Perot to speak at a rally in Tampa, and the billionaire wowed the crowd. After that, Gargan started campaigning to draft Perot for president. In 1992 Perot jumped into the race, then withdrew, then jumped back in again. He ended up with 19 percent of the vote, the best showing by a third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt ran as a Progressive in 1912.
Gargan caught the political bug. In 1994 he ran in the Florida Democratic primary for governor. In 1998 he ran on the Reform Party ticket for Congress, and with no Republican in the race, he got 34 percent of the vote against incumbent Democrat Karen Thurman.
He campaigned with the same rhetorical flamboyance he'd exhibited in his ads. He promised to raffle off $50,000 of his congressional salary. He promised to reduce teenage crime by whacking the brats on the butt with a cane, as they do in Singapore. And he promised to reduce adult crime by subcontracting the Florida prison system to Mexico.
"When these people realize that their [butt] is going to be in a Mexican prison," he says, grinning, "they'll go up to Georgia when they want to rob a 7-Eleven."
Gargan picks up a file labeled "Pot Shots and Questionable Situations." It's a collection of vicious anti-Gargan e-mails he downloaded from the Reform Party's bulletin boards. It's more than an inch thick. He starts reading passages out loud.
One note accuses of him scheming to secretly take over the Florida state party. Another suggests he's planning to funnel party money to Fulani's lawyer as payback for her support in his campaign for chairman. Another urges that he be recalled from office--and that one was written before he'd taken office.
"It's unrelenting!" he says. "They're ruthless!"
The phone rings. It's one of Gargan's supporters on the Executive Committee, calling to find out about this emergency meeting. Gargan tells him that the meeting--which will be held via telephone conference call--is an attempt by the Perot faction to lock the convention into Long Beach, remove him as chairman and take over the party.
"I'm trying to decide whether to be there [in the meeting] or not," Gargan says, "because my vote won't mean crap anyway. . . . I'll tell you what: I'm ready to go to jail if it comes to that. . . . I just won't turn anything over to 'em and they can get an injunction and throw my [butt] in jail. You can bring me a CARE package because I don't know how good the food is in jail."
Then, before he hangs up, he says he's made his decision: He won't participate in this meeting. He won't dignify it with his presence.
The Chairman Rules
Actually, he ended up changing his mind about that.
When the meeting was held on Jan. 9, Gargan was there and he was stoked for battle. Right off the bat, he told the group that he was the chairman and he would run the meeting. He warned that anybody who disrupted it would be kicked off the conference call. Then he announced that the 151-member National Committee had voted to hold the convention in St. Paul and so the convention would be held in St. Paul, period, end of debate.
A motion to overrule Gargan's decision passed, 7 to 4, but Gargan ruled the motion out of order and announced that his decision was final.
"It got heated," says Michael Farris, one of the Executive Committee members who voted against Gargan. "It ended in disgust."
Gargan's edict touched off an insurrection. Within hours, Gerald Moan, the party's vice chairman, banged out a press release denouncing Gargan: "Any semblance of democracy in the Reform Party was utterly destroyed tonight by its own chairman."
Verney, the Perot lieutenant who served as the party's previous chairman, agreed. "We elect leaders, not kings," he says.
"Jack really blew it," says David Goldman, chairman of the Florida party and a former Gargan supporter. "He just went off the deep end."
In the midst of all this, Fulani was beginning to sound like the voice of sweet reason. "There are hundreds of activists," she said, "who could care less where the convention is held."
Maybe. But to the feuding factions, the convention issue symbolizes the utter wretchedness of the other side. To Gargan and the Ventura supporters, it's a case of the Perotbots desperately clinging to power. To the Perot side, it's evidence that the Ventura supporters want to control the convention so they can, as Verney puts it, "block the nomination of anybody they don't want."
Meanwhile, the party is sliding toward meltdown. This summer there could be two Reform Parties holding two conventions. Moan announced that the Executive Committee has rented a convention hall in Long Beach, while Gargan's faction has now hired a hall in St. Paul.
Now Gargan's enemies are calling for an emergency meeting of the National Committee so they can impeach him. That would take a two-thirds vote, and Moan, who supports the idea, is skeptical about the possibility.
"It's kind of tough," he says, "to get two-thirds of our people to agree on anything."
Glimpses of Royalty
Outside Gargan's window, the sky is black over the Gulf of Mexico. It's after 10 o'clock now and the relentless phone calls have finally tapered off.
Gargan's slumped back in his chair. His feet are propped up on his desk. He's tired of talking about the civil war in the Reform Party, so he's moved on to another of his favorite subjects--his genealogy.
"I'm a legitimate Irish chieftain," he says. "Fifty-nine generations ago, my ancestor was the High King of Ireland, and then he went over and conquered Wales and Scotland."
He pops out of his chair, rummages through his bookcase, pulls out a book on Irish genealogy. He flips through the pages until he finds his ancestor--Niall of the Nine Hostages, who reigned, Gargan says, from 377 to 404.
"If you want to go back 2,000 years," he says, "the Nile River is named after one of my forebears."
The Nile River? He's gotta be kidding.
He's not. He's serious. The Irish king Niall, he says, was descended from a Spanish family that was descended from the Pharaohs. "I've got two Pharaohs in my background," he says.
That royal blood, he adds, helps to explain his leadership abilities. "This all comes natural to me," he says, smiling, "because we're used to running things."
Maybe he's kidding. Maybe he's not. It's hard to tell. And now the phone rings. He picks it up.
"This is Jack." He listens for a minute. His body straightens, like he's getting ready for battle.
"To take over the party for crying out loud!" he yells. "Those bastards--no, I made a vow not to say anything bad about fellow Reformers. . . . It's like those terrorists in India! . . . I'll fight them if I have to go to jail!"
CAPTION: "It's just one fire after another," says Reform Party head Jack Gargan. The latest blaze involves supporters of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, left, who are at odds with Ross Perot devotees about where to hold the national convention.
CAPTION: "I'm a tough old bastard. The only way they can get me out is feet first," says Jack Gargan of his party adversaries.