Inside Feature

With the New Hampshire primary behind us, and the March 10 Florida primary looming, you may find yourself stomping around in circles, bellowing (in the manner of James Earl Jones in Yellow Pages ads), "Choices! I NEED choices!" Because the choices you've gotten so far just don't cut it. The Democrats served up five men whose concept of a "race" was to Moonwalk backward from the starting gate. The Republicans offered two gents whose idea of enlightened racial politics was to point out, proudly and loudly, that unlike their shared opponent, David Duke, they have never been registered Nazis.

So you desperately need choices. Well, I think I can help.
Some people insist the U.S. government doesn't do anything worthwhile, but that isn't true. During every presidential season, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) releases a list of the names of people who have declared their intention to run for our highest office - including dozens and dozens of hopefuls whose names you rarely (or never) hear. The list inspires exciting daydreams. Hoist the hefty FEC printout (the most recent edition contains 202 names), close your eyes, riffle and sniff its pages, and you find yourself surrendering to visions of vital, compelling, and - well, yes - pathetic alternative campaigns. The sounds of the names themselves often bark for your attention. Among others in the edition I have (the list is updated regularly) is Billy Joe Clegg, a Christian Southerner who has established several campaign committees in Mississippi and Florida, including "Clegg (Won't Pull Your Leg) for President," "Just Kaus Committee" (that's country-spelling for Just Cause, a la Kountry Korner and Hair Kuttery), and "FDA (Foundation Drug Annilation [sic])." James "Bo" Gritz and "Curly" Thornton are running, as are The Messiah (a.k.a Fred Irvin Sitnick of Owings Mills, Maryland); Staten Island's favorite son, Moshe Friedman ("Kollel Chaverim for Moshe Friedman for President," "Shtier Holtz for Brains"); Frank Barela, an Arizonan who heads the People's Revolutionary Continental Army; Abraham Washington Bognuda; Tracy Allen "Hollywood" Hall; Lloyd "Alamo" Scott; Jeffrey "Flake" Marsh; and one whose name may cringe even you who fancy yourselves whimsy-invulnerable - Germantown, Maryland's George Alexander Muzyk.

By the way, the FEC wants to warn you against the persistent myth that it officially recognizes the people on this roster of declared "candidates" as candidates. Not true, says press spokesperson Sharon Snyder. Getting your name on the list only means that you mailed the FEC a letter announcing your intention to run. The government's definition of presidential candidate, says Snyder, is someone who meets the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971's standard of having "raised or spent $5000." By that measure, only 23 of the current 202 file-ees qualify.

OK, got it. Myth shattered. But for our purposes, we'll go with the more sophomoric definition: A candidate is anyone with the motivation to apply tongue liquor to envelope gum and mail a letter, card, or bar napkin announcing that he or she will fight for snoozing rights to the Lincoln Bedroom.

Every four years journalists take this list and roam through its pages to produce the familiar "kooky" round-ups of fringe presidential campaigns. The Boston Globe weighed in December 26, with a crisply done genre specimen that displayed both the strengths and weaknesses of such coverage. On the up side, there was fine raw information on quadrennial greats like Harold Stassen (at 84, he's just run in his eighth New Hampshire primary) and Lyndon LaRouche (fifth campaign, hampered this time by the fact that he's cooling his buns on federal cell-block concrete in Minnesota); and on exciting newcomers like Tom (Billy Jack) Laughlin and Charles Woods, a wealthy Nevada businessman who is running on a classical anti-Federal Reserve, extreme-right-wing platform. On the down side, daily newspapers have limited space, so surveys of a field this big have little room for analysis. What motivates subcultural politicians? Who are they?

Do they have the kind of small-d democratic goals and inspirational values that could change the way we elect presidents in this country?

We aren't told. The Globe writer plastered over these questions by quoting humorist Dave Barry (who is wackily running for president but did not wackily file with the FEC) on the question of motives. "Barry said he and the others all want the same thing - `a big free airplane and the chance to invite Julia Roberts to the White House.'" Heh heh.

It's easy to criticize, of course. When I began my own search - pausing for a moment to look at the telephone and dread it as the prickle-backed fiend it can become in these situations - the snickering ceased. I discovered, fast, that most people who lust after commander-in-chief powers don't list their telephone numbers, and that some who do probably shouldn't. My first "successful" call was to "Alamo" Scott, whose Lubbock, Texas, extension rang with that eerie, burpy rumble often produced by calls to The Outback - ample warning that one is entering uncharted turf. He picked up, listened to my spiel, calmly said, "Oh yes," like he expected this very call at this exact moment, then delivered the following rantatorial in a breathy growl.

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