Every four years a fellow appears on network television babbling about Queen Elizabeth's involvement in the drug trade, the international conspiracy run by Henry Kissinger and the K.G.B. contacts of Walter Mondale. He looks like he believes what he's saying. But his remarks leave viewers wondering: How much of a loon is this Lyndon LaRouche Jr.? It's a fair question. Does LaRouche deserve to be taken seriously, especially now that he's doing fifteen years in Federal prison for mail fraud and conspiracy to defraud the I.R.S.? If he is merely a loon who managed to attract a small cadre of similarly off-kilter souls, we don't have to worry. The burden that Dennis King has assumed as LaRouche's biographer is demonstrating that his subject is more than just a nut, that he indeed represents, as his book's title claims, a "new American fascism."
Anyone who starts to examine the misdeeds of LaRouche discovers King's phone number. A few years ago, I did. Within moments of exchanging greetings, I realized that King is among that special breed of reporters and researchers who know more about their subject than anyone else does. LaRouche has been King's obsession. There is no one better equipped to pierce LaRouche's weird world--where anti-Semites, self-styled spooks, labor thugs, former radical Marxists, con artists and a host of oddballs rub elbows while playing bizarre games of intrigue.
King does a first-rate job of tracing LaRouche's development. LaRouche was born in Rochester, New Hampshire, the son of French-Canadian immigrants. His parents were fundamentalist Quakers who accused their co-religionists of closet Bolshevism and financial embezzlement. Under a pseudonym, Lyndon LaRouche Sr. wrote an abusive, rambling tract packed with conspiratorial notions, which berated liberal Quakers for a variety of crimes, including the failure to respond positively to an anti-Jewish speech. He was forced out of the Lynn, Massachusetts meeting, and his wife and son resigned in protest.
LaRouche the younger entered the Army in 1944, after spending a year in a camp for conscientious objectors. He returned from his service in the China-Burma-India theater a Trotskyist. He joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1948 and embarked on a career of political sectarianism--the ins and outs of which King documents quite thoroughly. At the same time, LaRouche maintained a successful career in management consulting, actually helping corporations to reduce labor costs. In 1968, as a teacher of Marxism at a Columbia University fraternity turned liberation school, LaRouche attracted a group of student rebels who fancied his rigorous and demanding interpretations of Marxist texts. He came to lead a splinter group of the Students for a Democratic Society. By 1973, under the banner of the National Caucus of Labor Committees, he had collected more than 600 disciples in twenty-five cities. He also had a small following in Europe.
With the N.C.L.C., LaRouche swerved to the far right, as his Marxism became subjugated to a politics of paranoia. King very ably offers a detailed road map into the dense fantasies and doctrines of LaRouche, who produced "a conspiracy theory of politics quite different from anything in the Marxist tradition." In essence, the Rockefellers, through their control of the Central Intelligence Agency and other instruments, were running the planet and plotting nuclear holocaust. It was up to LaRouche to save the globe. In later years LaRouche's conspiracy would take on various convoluted shapes, often anti-Semitic. But the tone remained the same: The world was threatened by a small cabal of evil-doers that could only be thwarted by LaRouche and his adherents. Indeed, the struggle was "3,000 years old," pitting "Neo-Platonic humanists" (LaRouchians) against the "oligarchy" (Jews and others). The message was cloaked in sophisticated-sounding ideological terms that were constantly reframed depending on exigencies. But at its heart was fascism. "It is not necessary to call oneself a fascist," LaRouche observed in 1978. "It is simply necessary to be one."
Just what was it that attracted people to LaRouche's political cult? And what kept them there? In 1973, when the N.C.L.C. and the Communist Party clashed over organizing strategies, LaRouche ordered his followers to attack physically the members of rival political sects, and they obeyed. "I pissed blood for a month," one female N.C.L.C. member said, recalling the effects of one such assault. Those who began to doubt were subjected to what LaRouche calls "ego-stripping" sessions, which were brutal. By King's account, the tactic worked. Clearly King has spoken to numerous defectors. But he never fully captures what propelled them toward LaRouche. Given King's utterly thorough researches, this failure is the book's greatest frustration.
King returns to solid ground when he examines those mainstream politicians and policy-makers who formed alliances with the hate-monger, either accidentally or by design. In 1984 two Pentagon officials addressed a LaRouche rally in Virginia. A Defense Department spokesman noted at the time that the Pentagon regarded LaRouche's group, an early advocate of the Strategic Defense Initiative, as a "conservative group...very supportive of the administration." During the first term of the Reagan Administration, several members of the National Security Council met with LaRouche. When these meetings became public, the White House would not repudiate LaRouche. Spokesman Larry Speakes blathered that the Administration was "glad to talk to" all sorts of American citizens, including LaRouche.
In fact, the G.O.P. and LaRouche went back several years. On election eve in 1976, LaRouche aired one of his rambling half-hour speeches, viciously attacking Jimmy Carter on NBC. The money for this ad, the N.C.L.C. maintained, came in part from a group of conservative Republican businessmen. After the election, Ed Mahe, head of the Republican National Committee, worked with LaRouchians in their effort to challenge election returns on the ground of vote fraud. To the right, LaRouche has long been a useful fascist--perhaps never more so than last summer, when his agents planted the rumor that Michael Dukakis was mentally unbalanced.
Perhaps the most cynical alliance with LaRouche was forged by that crusader for freedom Mayor Edward Koch of New York, who is usually quick to spot anti-Semitism. In 1981, when Koch was being challenged by liberal Assemblyman Frank Barbaro, the Mayor encouraged the participation of a LaRouche candidate, Melvin Klenetsky, in public forums and debates. Koch's aim was to prevent Barbaro from confronting him one on one. Koch was also helped by Klenetsky's virulent Red-baiting of Barbaro. "Klenetsky, he's not as bad as his rhetoric," Koch said--this of a top lieutenant of an extremist, anti-Semitic organization.
In reporting all these episodes, King ends up revealing more about LaRouche’s partners than the man and his flock. The fundamental mystery remains: Who the hell are they? LaRouche and his band, who even developed their own intricate intelligence service, were very effective in slipping into the political system. They fielded candidates in elections across the country, collected $1.7 million in Federal matching funds (that's taxpayer dollars) for LaRouche’s presidential bids and convinced 2 million California voters to support a ballot initiative calling for the quarantining of AIDS patients. They stole more than $200 million, much of it through credit card and loan fraud, before the Feds finally nailed them.
Is LaRouche's current residence in the joint evidence that the system works? King, who with good reason believes we have not seen the last of the LaRouchites, argues persuasively that the powers that be turned a blind eye to LaRouche for too long, and that this neglect--either benign or malign--is worrisome. Imagine the outcry if a David Duke or a Louis Farrakhan had gotten as far as LaRouche did. King shows that it took the 1986 Democratic primary in Illinois--when two LaRouchians beat out the "real" Democrats--to wake most of the media, the Democratic Party and others. King's message, which rings true, is that a democratic system has to be ever alert and ready to confront all strains of fascism, even those that appear too nutty to worry about.