People here in the epicenter of Southern California enlightenment say miracles can happen anywhere, at any time, so tonight we’ve come with hopeful heart to an unassuming Unitarian Universalist church across from a rain-slicked Rite Aid parking lot. The sanctuary overflows with graybeard activists, insistent young vegans and various dharma seekers fixed on the words of a New Age guru who prefers not to be called a New Age guru.
Marianne Williamson, 61, a self-help author and spiritual sage, now wants mainly to be viewed as a credible independent congressional candidate for the seat that powerful Democrat Henry Waxman is vacating after 40 years. But the two-party system and a mocking media have conspired to reduce her to a “footnote,” she tells a couple of hundred vociferous supporters packing pews and lining walls.
“The Democratic Party has simply decided that this is a Democratic seat,” she says. That constitutes “a serious force field,” but she vows to subvert it. “I feel metaphysically it is very important, because that’s a sort of the political elitism that we’re making a stand against here, a stand for democracy.”
Most politicians don’t talk metaphysics. Well, wait. There’s Dennis Kucinich — the former Ohio representative — and he’s up on the stage with Williamson, lending support and tutelage based on his years campaigning and on the Hill.
“We tend to think we can’t change things,” Kucinich says. “There is another reality that exists, that’s waiting to be called forward in every moment. . . . You are the ones who are calling forward a reality by the name of Marianne Williamson.”
At one point, the clapping, whooping and cheering sustain for a full 30 seconds. Somebody’s dog yips its approval.
“How about electing some officials into our governmental leadership who understand what it means to live from the inside out?” declares author John Robbins, a foe of “Frankenfoods” and GMO producers such as Monsanto. “Who understand what it means to access and express the spirit of life?”
“Wouldn’t that be a change?” he shouts.
Wouldn’t that be a miracle?
Capable of victory or not, Williamson is at least a plausible candidate, some analysts say. Helped by name recognition — she’s written 13 books since 1992, with sales of 3 million — Williamson is poised to exploit an open June primary that will see Democrats, Republicans and independents running against one another in an unpredictable free-for-all. The top two vote getters, no matter their parties, will face off in the November general election.
Among the issues that rile her: government spying, child poverty, global warming, the rich-poor gap, “mass incarceration” of minorities and what she calls a “permanent war machine.” On her campaign placard, doves take wing in front of an American flag.
Since the 1990s, Williamson has decried corporate influence peddling and the outsize impact of cash on politics. Campaign finance reform is a main plank of her campaign today; unfettered money is “the cancer that underlies all cancer” in Washington, she says.
“I just hope the public is ready for her,” says Williamson’s pal and fellow inner voyager Deepak Chopra, who has urged her to run for office for many years. “I think she speaks for an emerging consciousness.”
Other supporters include former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, himself an unorthodox independent; and, as of last week, former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm — a significant endorsement, coming as it does from a nationally prominent Democrat.
“She has been a friend and an inspiration,” says Granholm, who co-chairs Priorities USA Action, a super PAC that has urged support for Democrats in the midterm election. “I do know that she would bring something to Congress that’s not just there. She is sort of an anti-political figure. And Lord knows the same old, same old has not worked.”
Granholm came to know Williamson some 15 years ago when the latter was leading the Church of Today in Warren, Mich., and helping disadvantaged youth. “I’m a Catholic,” Granholm says in an interview, “but I do appreciate and value the inclusive and forgiving and welcoming nature of the type of God’s love that she preaches.”
She hastens to add: “This is a personal endorsement, not on behalf of Priorities.”
California’s 33rd District is wealthy, star-strewn, liberal terrain, encompassing Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Malibu. But it does include working and middle class enclaves, and redistricting has made it more conservative. Over the many years she has been based off and on in California, Williamson has lived near the district and officially moved there on March 1.
Two experienced Democratic politicians — former Los Angeles city controller Wendy Greuel and state Sen. Ted Lieu — are presumed to be front-runners. In the Los Angeles mayor’s race last year, former president Bill Clinton backed Greuel, who lost.
Williamson, a friend of Oprah Winfrey, has long been a spiritual fixture in Hollywood — in 1991 she officiated at Elizabeth Taylor’s final wedding. Today she can list actresses such as Frances Fisher and Jane Lynch and musicians Steven Tyler and Jason Mraz among her boosters. Her books offer prescriptives on everything from governance (“Healing the Soul of America”) to fat fighting (“A Course in Weight Loss”). She’s also well known as a philanthropist.
Williamson, who considered running in a different district in 2010, has a $500,000 war chest so far, she says, which includes some of her own dough. She relies on “grass-roots” contributions that average $61 per donor.
“It would be very easy to look at this as one more example of ‘those wacky Californians,’ but her opportunity comes less from geography than it does from a broader, anti-political attitude that exists in most places,” says Dan Schnur, a political scientist on leave from the University of Southern California. (Now running as an independent candidate for secretary of state, Schnur says he takes no side in the congressional fight.)
“Anyone who makes a confident prediction on the outcome of the primary is lying,” Schnur adds. “It would be a mistake to dismiss her.”
On the other hand, her writings and lectures invoking miracles, angels and the higher self strike some as “woo-woo,” a dismissive term here for the shamanistic set.
Waxman will leave a legacy of serious, persistent work; any would-be inheritor faces lofty expectations.
Williamson’s lack of service in elected office or public policy involvement will hurt her, says California Democratic political consultant Garry South, who is working with no candidate. “I do think there is a fair amount of froth going on with Williamson that doesn’t exactly comport with reality,” he says, noting that independent voters, although one-fifth of the state’s electorate, tend to vote along partisan lines and “just don’t vote in primaries.”
Then there’s this: “I think that Williamson’s background is going to come off to a lot of voters as flaky, to be perfectly blunt,” South adds.
Williamson’s latest writings tend toward bland devotionals — “Today I align myself with the will of a loving universe”; “I send my love to everyone today,” she says in her 2013 book, “A Year of Miracles” — but 20 years ago, she could be more colorful. Back then she described women as priestesses, healers and “sisters of a mysterious order.” She suggested that certain intimacies between a man and a woman could “add immeasurably to world peace.”
In late 1994, Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton invited Williamson and other motivational and spiritual types to Camp David for a secret weekend retreat that famously included sessions in which Hillary Clinton (working with a New Age psychologist named Jean Houston) held imaginary conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi.
Hillary Clinton, in a column, once confirmed seeking guidance from Roosevelt. Her advice, per Clinton: “Grow skin as thick as a rhinoceros.”
Has Williamson stayed in touch with the Clintons? “Not really,” she says. “But I’m very grateful for that moment in time. They were very gracious to me.”
The morning after her rousing appearance at the small, funky church, Williamson sits for a breakfast interview at one of the poshest hotels in town, the Beverly Wilshire, just off Rodeo Drive. But even discoursing over $19 crepes crowned with caramelized apples, there is no sense of hauteur.
“It’s a high class joint we got here,” she quips when a waiter delivers her guest a coffee cup smudged with lipstick.
The product of a middle-class Jewish family in Houston, Williamson, by her own account, would become a typical ’60s drifter. She lived in a commune, dabbled in drugs, worked as a cabaret singer and became a New Age bookstore owner. Eventually she discovered “A Course in Miracles,” a tome by an atheist psychology professor who believed she was channeling Jesus.
Williamson, after undergoing what she called “spiritual surrender,” began teaching the book’s tenets in the 1980s. Drawing on the course, she published “A Return to Love,” in 1992, and it sold more than a million copies, helped along by Oprah’s endorsement. Along the way, Williamson had a daughter, now 23, but she has never publicly identified the girl’s father, and her family life remains private.
She is more forthcoming on how miracles can happen.
“All that a miracle is is a shift in perception from fear to love,” she explains. “It’s simply the notion that when your world view changes, your behavior changes.”
Ah. By rejecting fear and embracing love, people can heal, in her view. But can that work politically? Love could save Washington’s dark, grasping soul?
“Exactly. Exactly,” she insists. “And that’s why humanitarian values should replace economic values as the ordering principle of our civilization.”
Outside the cafe window, shoppers in shiny Land Rovers and Mercedes glide by with their treasures from Prada, Gucci, Dior.
“Martin Luther King said it was time to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of human civilization,” she points out. “I don’t think anyone is calling Martin Luther King a New Age woo-woo.”
Until recently a fervid Democrat, Williamson faults President Obama on one score in particular: his support for a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act that civilian libertarians call alarming because it allows the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens. On this she finds common ground with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and other tea party conservatives. Both see the president as flouting the Constitution.
But should Williamson get to Congress, she brings a history of forgiving her political trespassers. For example, there was the time she watched with growing fury as Republicans waged impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. She turned off the television, she recounted in her 2000 book “Healing the Soul of America,” and began to pray.
“I drifted into a gentle meditation where, much to my surprise, I found myself washing Bob Barr’s feet!” she wrote, referring to the conservative Georgia congressman. Other GOP leaders took form in her mind.
“I saw angels ministering to Trent Lott!” she continued. “I found myself praying for Tom DeLay’s peace and happiness.”
Taking final sips of tea, she becomes a bit curt and put off when reminded of those reveries from the late 1990s. “I forgot I had written that,” she says. “I don’t think I’d say it on the campaign. That was a book.”
Then the candidate-guru brightens, recovering her poise: “I also see an angelic invasion of the board room at Monsanto. I close my eyes and spend five minutes . . . .”
Then an instruction: “You put, ‘She said wryly with a laugh.’ You make sure you do that.”
Consider it done.