In Search of the Fringe Prez Candidates

In February 1992 Reverend Rufus T. Higginbotham flew from Dallas to Manchester, N.H., bearing flyers urging the nation to "subdue the universe." He was running for president of the United States. Now, four years later, it's the Saturday before the New Hampshire primary and I'm on the road to Manchester myself. The question "Where's Higginbotham?" keeps running through my head.We're here on a shoestring, driving a borrowed van, shooting footage with a camera we can barely afford to rent. Brian, Matt, and Joyce have driven here from Minneapolis; I've flown in from Oakland. We're here to tape a documentary on fringe presidential candidates, the ones who show up in wintry New Hampshire every four years, who campaign tirelessly and get ignored by the media and voters alike.Research is useless. Fringe people are impossible to find through the usual channels. Most have no headquarters, no local coordinates, no press secretaries. We'll just go to events for major candidates and hope that some of the fringe people turn up around the edges.Day One. Lunch at Manchester's Puritan Backroom. Jack Germond, pundit from the TV news show The McLaughlin Group, eats alone at a nearby table. I ask him if he's encountered any fringe candidates in his travels. "I try not to encourage those people," he tells me.President Clinton is set to speak at Hampshire College in Manchester. It's a clear, frigid afternoon. There are throngs of happy Clinton supporters, but no oddballs, no freaks, no visionaries, no other candidates at all. For an hour we hang around this vast parking lot, waiting for something to happen. Nothing does. We are freezing our good parts off. Back in the van, the crew, still strung out from the road, is already despondent.Shooting this documentary was my scheme, for the most part, and I feel a responsibility to have it all work out. My crew grills me, asking me where all the fringe people are. I assure them that I was tripping over them when I was here in '92. We roll tape and I interview the crew about their shoes. If nothing happens, we'll make a damn video about how we went to New Hampshire and nothing happened.Back outside, I follow a paper trail of leaflets to a tall 70-ish man wearing a white cap and glasses. Pay dirt. Bob Drucker is handing out flyers from a Kinko's box. He's driven up from Pittsburgh for the weekend with a trunkful of campaign literature. He seems like a man you'd be pleased to have as a grandfather, if not as a president. And he's got a plan: withdraw all U.S. troops from foreign bases, and quit NATO and the United Nations, which he feels are completely illegitimate organizations. "When was the last time any of you voted for Boutros Boutros-Ghali?" he asks.President Clinton's field organization milling around Hampshire College consists of a legion of young people who look like a cross between the cast of The Bold and the Beautiful and the young master-racers doing jumping jacks in Triumph of the Will. They've been in power for three years, and it becomes them. They literally glow. We, on the other hand, are wrecks, consumed with exhaustion and anxiety.We have to talk our way into the college with press passes issued by an alternative rock station in Minneapolis. They read "Rev 105, Revolution Radio." So much for credibility. To our amazement we discover that any laminated photo I.D. will allow us to wrangle our way into nearly anywhere. Whenever people ask us who we are, we say we're with KREV in Minneapolis. The function organizers let us in, mistaking us for legitimate newshounds by jumping to the conclusion that we're a TV crew. I avoid telling anyone I'm from Berkeley, preferring to pass myself off as an American.Once inside, I space out, feeling completely empty as I watch the crowd go wild. Floating on a strange, palpable current, I feel alienated from the proceedings. These Clinton people are unnervingly upbeat and positively frothy in their unctuous exhortations to "get the president's message out." I try hard to glow too and finally succeed, feeling as if my body has been slicked down with Vaseline. For a moment, I am shiny and whole."Why are people our age so hopeless?" I ask George Stephanopolous. I'm the first person to collar him after Clinton's speech. Blah, blah, blah, he responds, jobs, education, you can make a difference, the usual crap. When he says he's gotta go, I throw in the real question: "Is the president willing to debate the other Democrats in the race?""There are no other Democrats in the race.""There certainly are," I say, and begin to rattle off a list.Stephanopolous stammers. "Look, for all intents and purposes, the president is unopposed." He gives me the nice-try arm squeeze as he blows me off for a reporter from CNN whose face is shellacked with enough greasepaint-style makeup to make Madame Tussaud wince.MILKO! "I'm already your president. I have no competition." Hillary M. Milko tends to pause for dramatic effect after statements like these. He pauses a lot during our conversation, flashing his what-me-worry? grin and waiting for a response. It's almost midnight now, and we've just begun an on-camera interview with Milko.Ten minutes ago we thought we were finished for the day, having shot hours of videotape of the melee surrounding the presidential race. We were having dinner at a late-night joint on Manchester's main drag when in waltzed Milko, a stocky man in his late 30s wearing a tan parka and a baseball cap bearing the word "GOP." He saw our idle video camera and announced that he was running for president. In exchange for a couple of cigarettes and a cup of tea he agreed to tell his story.Milko claims to be the grandson of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to climb Mt. Everest. Milko claims a lot of things during the course of his monologue: he's got the $1 trillion gambling industry behind him. The press knows he's going to win the presidency, but none of them will admit it. And the moon is one huge diamond, which is why John F. Kennedy decided we should go there.Milko's not interested in the diamonds on the moon, however. He's got a plan to stimulate our economy and neutralize the Chinese -- whom he views as our newly ascendant enemy -- by letting the nations of the world (including China) use NASA to shuttle nuclear waste to the moon and dump it there. This will create half a billion jobs, in his estimation. "You see the moon. I see a waste dump," he proclaims.THE GONG SHOW Day Two. We flip a U-turn and pull up alongside Steve Forbes's campaign bus at a traffic light. Milko told us he's been riding around with Forbes, and we decide to check. I wave down the driver, flashing my press credentials and a handwritten sign that says simply "Milko?" Neither the driver nor a campaign official have ever heard of Mr. Milko. We decide to follow the bus to its next stop anyway, pursuing our policy of conducting respectful interviews with minor candidates, but also trying to throw the majors off balance with unusual questions.A few minutes later I stand outside the Forbes behemoth in the frigid New England air, waiting for the billionaire to debus. A docile national press corps allows him to walk unhindered into a converted textile mill -- there's no crush, no shouting of questions, just the quiet hum of video cameras. I start chasing him and bark out his name. "Mr. Forbes!" I say. Surprised, he looks in my direction. "Isn't acquiring all that money really just stealing from the poor?"Pause. "You should live in the Soviet Union," he retorts awkwardly, his walk slowed, his demeanor flustered."The Soviet Union, sir? Does it still exist?"Longer pause. "It would if you had your way, I guess."I press him further, but he wisely chooses to ignore me. We follow him inside and I can hear members of the press corps chuckling at our impudence. We're rebuffed by a security guard and we hear a Forbes supporter call us "socialists," the fourth time in less than 24 hours that we've been so accused.Back outside, some guy shows up in a red plaid shirt. I pretend to mistake him for Lamar Alexander, to the further amusement of the surrounding press corps, who now view me as a robo-rube. The bemused Alexander supporter launches into a canned litany on jobs, vision, growth, blah, blah, blah. The only thing in the universe that I must do at this moment is listen to this man, but the sheer, intolerable tedium of his verbal effluvia makes this impossible.I suddenly feel as if my cranium is one large metal plate that's just been struck like a gong. All I can hear is this strange drone reverberating through my head, and the occasional buzzword flopping out of his mouth: growth, future, 21st century, vision.... I marvel at his ability to keep his mouth moving, never pausing for air, brushing off the possibility of an embarrassing question by rendering one impossible. Finally, I cut him off."When will the American economy be big enough?" I ask. I hear the sound of a mind being blown. He falls silent for a moment, then asks me what I mean.This is the day we discover that the line between major and minor candidates is arbitrary and strange. Self-made millionaire Morry Taylor, a major candidate for president, is like a white-trash version of Steve Forbes. He could play an evil landlord on Roseanne. Then there's Rep. Bob Dornan, also a major candidate, the notorious right-wing politician from Orange County. He cheerfully tells us that he'd shoot nuclear waste toward the sun, and jabbers good-naturedly until we ask him about Milko. A pained expression overtakes his face. "Milko should go back to his wife and son."Tabitha Soren and her MTV crew shiver by a snow bank. Having had a mild crush on her since I saw her mop the floor with Bob Dole in a recent interview, I want to go talk to her, but duty calls. A solitary man stands on a street corner, staring ahead military style. His name is Jack Mabardy, he's running for president, and he thinks it's outrageous that we give out "cawndoms" in the schools. We're turning the kids into pimps and "prawstitutes."LET THEM EAT 'CAKES Day Three. Bisquick has invited major Republican candidates to a pancake-flipping contest/straw poll/pancake breakfast for senior citizens. People are lining up to talk to us now; strange characters and offbeat candidates are everywhere. A former mayor of Buffalo, N.Y., is running and would just like to say how good Pillsbury was to the city of Buffalo. A guy who calls himself Vermin Supreme is dressed in Visigoth gear and wears a black boot upside down on his head. He proclaims himself a friendly fascist, a tyrant we can trust, and implores us to let him run our lives. I talk to Alan Keyes, who tells me my question about the minimum wage is "based on a lot of propaganda-slash-hype." I am dizzy and nauseous.Hundreds of reporters crush hundreds of seniors, looking for a story that isn't there. The story they're missing is the crush itself, the circus that they're fostering and promoting and partaking in and yet are oblivious to. I am becoming a parasite, I have no doubt. I have to get out of this room. "Where's Higginbotham?" I think again, as real oxygen hits my nostrils. I recall the image of the tall, imposing Texan, in Stetson and cowboy boots, standing on a porch in the chill New England air.Primary Day. The weirder things get, the more I say "Sir." Things are heating up, and our little corner of the world is an unconscious, unapologetic circus. Downtown Manchester has been taken over by media people, candidates, and hangers-on, an incestuous little house party with the same faces, the same tired stories. I look around these streets and I see conspiracy, intrigue, blue-faced raging, and existential agony. Then I watch the TV coverage: No freaks. No raging. No agony. The media screens out all but the earnest and sincere, omitting the paranoids, the clowns, and the mentally ill. This screen of normalcy does a great disservice to the public, giving it the fallacious impression that there is sanity, dignity, and order to this electoral madness. This bedlam is the only real news out here, and the mainstream media is negligent to ignore it. Welcome to American politics, where the bizarre is commonplace, the surreal nearly mandatory.Election night, at the Holiday Inn, we run into a visibly shaken Vermin Supreme out front. He's just been shown the door by the Secret Service; he's not allowed anywhere near the Dole celebration inside. "[Dole's] chickenshit, obviously -- and I don't mind saying so," he tells me.Supreme has dropped his peppy persona and is genuinely angry at the way he's just been treated. "He's invited to my party, but he won't let me into his."Inside, there's a crowd of thousands, but none of "our people" are anywhere to be found. Everyone here is strange to me. And everyone carries a sledgehammer, mercilessly banging away at the gong in my head. We suffer through Dole's speech, which sounds like he's declaring victory even though he lost to Buchanan: Blah, blah, blah, vision, heart and soul, we're going on, my friends, gong, gong, gong.HELLO, RUFUS The Day After. Some of our people got votes. The crew gets an arty shot of me reading election returns in the tub.Outside, I misdial once before I make the connection. "Hello, is this Rufus Higginbotham?" I actually have him on the line, this reverend who unknowingly led us down this strange trail. The camera is rolling but it's picking up only my side of the conversation, so I repeat as much as I can of the reverend's remarks. "You're not running this year ... you went to Iraq ... you met with the speaker of the Iraqi parliament ... partnerships for space exploration ... promoting world peace...." My heart warms as I imagine a lone minister from Texas flying to Baghdad to promote peace with the Iraqi people after the lopsided carnage of the Gulf War. Subduing the universe is beginning to sound more reasonable to me. A police car pulls up. My coproducer, Brian, has to explain to them what we're doing. Twelve hours ago we would have been ignored, but now we're the lone remaining camera crew in all of Manchester."The sound is useless," Brian tells me after I hang up with Higginbotham. Too much ambient noise, trucks going by, you can't make out a word I'm saying. We find an indoor pay phone and fake the whole interview for the camera.James E. Taylor is a writer and documentary filmmaker in Berkeley. For information about his project on presidential fringe candidates, contact Subdue the Universe, Intermedia Arts Minnesota, 2822 Lyndale Ave. South, Minneapolis, MN 55408. (612) 871-4444.


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