FROM LEFT WING KOOK TO RIGHT WING CRANK

New York Post, May 7, 1989

By BILL McKIBBEN

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I spent the winter of 1980 in New Hampshire covering the presidential primary that marked, among other things, the mainstream emergence of right wing extremist Lyndon LaRouche. In fact, on the night that Ronald Reagan was reversing the course of the election by declaring "I paid for this microphone," I was sitting 40 miles away in a Manchester auditorium listening to the classical music that preceded LaRouche rallies. The LaRouche aide sitting next to me helpfully explained that listening to rock music--or even decadent composers like Chopin or Liszt--produced only "feelings" in a listener, not creative insights. When LaRouche became president, she added, he would institute "education at the local level" to combat rock 'n' roll.

I'd spent the afternoon with another exhausted-looking LaRouche worker in a grungy McDonald's. Support for the candidate was growing, he said, largely because of his stand on "the moral issues." The United Nations, he said, had "twice labeled marijuana as the most dangerous substance on Earth." The drug epidemic was the result of "government agents like Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and Ken Kesey."

That evening, when the concerto finally ended and the great man took to the stage, he delivered a very long address to a somewhat bewildered crowd of 600 Granite Staters, pledging to overthrow the government of Pakistan and charging that the energy crisis, then in its second flowering, was the work of the London oil cartel acting through the Rotterdam spot oil market.

And so I went back to my typewriter and tapped out a story poking gentle fun at the LaRouche campaign. It seemed vindicated a couple of days later when, despite his massive expenditures, LaRouche polled only about 2,000 votes.

But now Dennis King, in his lengthy (very lengthy) book on LaRouche, argues persuasively that this was precisely the wrong approach--that the media, the major parties and the rest of the democratic system failed to understand that LaRouche was not a harmless kook but rather a vicious, fascist kook with a strong organization. That Lyndon LaRouche was a most dangerous man.

At the moment, LaRouche and several of his followers are in prison for persuading elderly people to loan them money they had no intention of repaying. (Often these loans were made with credit cards, which the LaRouche financial staff was adept at abusing in endless ways--this book is the most compelling argument ever written for tearing up your carbons). They may well emerge from prison as martyrs, and their movement gain new strength. But even if LaRoucheism is dead, says King, "One thing seems certain: America is too violent and diverse--and too vulnerable to economic crisis--to avoid forever a major internal challenge from some form of totalitarian demagoguery. When that test comes, the story of Lyndon LaRouche may provide the key to an effective and timely response."

As it happens, I was in the right mood for this book--having just finished Simon Schama's Citizens, a magnificently chilling history of the French Revolution, the idea that brainy nuts could wind up as powerful leaders did not strike me as ludicrous. And LaRouche's story is only a little odder than those of men who ended up running the insane Terror.

LaRouche grew up as a lonely, bookish child (the high schoolers who tormented him were, he later decided, "unwitting followers of David Hume"). He found his first home on the American Left, where he labored as a Trotskyite through the Ď50s and '60s. He was no simple-minded proletarian--the students who came to his free evening classes had to read Leibnitz, Kant and Hegel before tackling Das Kapital.

He also developed an interest in computers after reading Norbert Wienerís Cybernetics, a popular text of the period that predicted that systems of information exchange would be all-important in the future. Soon he was working on software design and computer theory--but not to the same ends as your average hacker. He speculated, says King, about developing "total systems technology" to manage the entire U.S. economy, and announced once, after a day and a half without sleep, that he had solved "the particle-field paradox," a solution that he described as "on a relative scale of things . . . one of greatness."

These two strands of his life--sectarian politics and a sort of vague, messianic braininess--combined in the 1970s to start him on his real work, building the cult of LaRouche. It began with his hard-left followers from New York City, many of whom had been active in the 1968 Columbia strike.

The grand scope of his "intelligence" apparently appealed to them, and he soon managed to give the whole enterprise a paranoid edge, complete with repeated scares that the Rockefellers (or the CIA, as if there were any difference) were about to assassinate him. According to King, he brainwashed his followers, using techniques similar to those employed by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's cult and its many imitators.

But his partisans did not sell flowers in the airports, instead they sold their own magazines, such as the weekly Executive Intelligence Review. LaRouche put his troops to work obsessively gathering "intelligence," operating on the fringes of the journalistic, military, diplomatic and spy worlds. This information was often quite valid (later, for instance, they printed a lot of the Iran arms sales story before anyone else was onto it), and it enabled them to gain access to government circles. Usually it was presented fairly straight and gave the group a convincing patina, particularly among a certain stratum of scientist-bureaucrats grateful for their early defense of beam weapons and other high-tech research.

At the same time, however, LaRouche was adopting a new philosophy, weirder and more disconcerting than his futile Trotskyism. Apparently for opportunistic reasons, he turned from the extreme Left to the extreme Right, celebrating every excess of industrial capitalism and reviling liberals and environmentalists with endless slander ("More people have died in Ted Kennedy's car than in nuclear power plants" ran one bumper sticker). And it was not merely the rightwing ideology of, say, a Ronald Reagan. It was, King argues convincingly, genuine fascism, overflowing with anti-Semitism.

But not the crudest anti-Semitism. Instead, he employed a kind of coded hate-mongering. Sometimes he said he was anti-Zionist, but usually he railed about the British, which in his world meant Oppenheimer, Montefiore, Warburg and, of course, Rothschild. Britain was run by Jews, therefore, if you linked everything evil (such as the oil crisis) to London, you were in fact linking it to Jews. This is apparently the meaning of his most famous dictum, that Queen Elizabeth is a drug pusher. In America, Henry Kissinger was his chosen scapegoat.

King has no difficulty proving that LaRouche is an anti-Semite of the basest sort. He apparently believes that evil Jewish influence began with the Babylonians (another of his code-words); he disparages the Holocaust; he has a semi-mystical affection for swastikas.

But he not only chose to veil his hatred, he probably had no choice--to this country's credit, outright anti-Semitism is regarded by most of the population as a mental illness. (Just ask Louis Farrakhan). Even outright racism, a more natively American disease, is now publicly unacceptable, which leads to the odd sight of Klansmen contending that they have nothing against blacks but merely oppose affirmative action, and so on. An American fascist, in other words, must take care not to be seen as a fascist.

As a result, it is very hard to say how much of a danger LaRouche really posed. King makes a compelling case that the political races his followers won in the last decade--most notably the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in Illinois in 1986--were not flukes. In an awful lot of constituencies they have carried 10, 20, 30, 40 percent of the votes. But as his own reporting uncovers, at least some of the candidates on his slate seemed largely unaware of who LaRouche was and what he stood for--some even thought they were running as regular Democrats. Many others signed on believing him to be sincere in his campaigns against drugs or farm foreclosures, but they did not necessarily believe in his lunatic theories. The great weakness of King's book, in fact, is that we have virtually no idea who these people who ran for office on his ticket are, how they were recruited, what they actually think.

It seems almost inconceivable that a man like LaRouche, who according to King advises his followers to communicate in poetry because it "conjoins predicates ambiguously so that only the preconscious transfinite for such conjoined elements can be intended," could ever win a mass following in the United States. Like old time Stalinists, he is not using the language of Americans. Calling former Energy Secretary James Schlesinger an "imp of evil" just sounds stupid. He would have trouble stirring even hard-core bigots using his symbolic language about the queen of England (though they certainly understood what he was getting at with his plan to quarantine California AIDS victims, a proposal that came dangerously close to winning a referendum vote). In a way, LaRouche's necessary camouflage as a kook hindered him as much as it helped.

Still, it is no use denying that he gained more power than he ever should have--this book proves conclusively that his people have had access to the counsels of government not only in America but in Western Europe. (The CIA, for instance, acknowledges receiving a continuous "flow of materials" from the group.) He might have had more effect had not King and a few other journalists continually sounded the tocsin. If LaRouche's squalid career contains a lesson, then, it is that we need always to be shoring up our cultural defenses against ugliness--particularly against anti-Semitism, which invariably weakens the moral and political immune systems and invariably leads to horror.

And we need to improve our radar, so that it registers not just the villains that took like villains, but the villains that look like nerdy jerks.

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