"This is a beer-hall putsch!" shouts New York Reform Party delegate Phil Goldstein right after a vote sent the 32-member New York delegation out of the party. "It's totalitarian! It's the same thing that Hitler did, the same thing that, that, that the Russians did when the Communists eradicated the Trotskyites, when Hitler got rid of Ernst Rohm in the Night of the Long Knives!"
Goldstein, a 67-year-old retired social studies teacher, quiets down a bit after one from his number shushes him; unofficial New York leader Lenora Fulani is trying to hold forth among a sea of reporters nearby. But Goldstein is excited, and a little too loud.
"I get very passionate about my politics," he explains to a supporter who pulls him aside for fear that he might have a stroke.
It was Thursday afternoon. Insanity and infighting had, as always, been hobbling the party's annual retreat. Last year it was Reform Party founder H. Ross Perot vs. Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. This year, it's levitatin' Natural Law man John Hagelin and his followers protesting what they call corrupt electioneering and balloting processes by those loyal to Pat Buchanan. The Hagelin forces broke apart from the Long Beach Convention Center gathering to hold their own meetings a stone's throw away.
And now, even though the 23 members here from the New York Independence Party, representing about 172,000 party members, had been approved by the Reform Party's credentials committee, a motion from the floor challenges whether they (Fulani, Goldstein et al.) can sit down after all. There is a show of hands from the 500 or so members seated. Two-thirds of them tell the New York delegation to am-scray.
"If there is a challenge, it goes to the body," explains Tom McLaughlin, the Reform Party's national treasurer. "And the body voted. I believe it was a mistake for the body to have voted that way, but it is their option to do that."
McLaughlin says the reason behind the challenge to the delegation was that Fulani had "said that they wouldn't put Pat on the ballot line, even before we've voted on whether he has the nomination." Fulani disputes this, however.
Would the outcome have been any different if Hagelin and his forces were present?
"Nah," says Jim Brown, the crew-cutted vice chairman for the Pennsylvania party. "The group that walked out wasn't numerically that big. It's just that their mouths are big."
Bay Buchanan, sister and senior advisor to the candidate who seems assured of the party's nomination, says the anti-Buchanan forces were, well, whiny. "We won fair and square," she says. "We were working on this for 10 months. Pat went state to state to state, winning convention after convention. That's where we picked up these delegates." Pat Buchanan has around 400 delegates, approximately 70 percent of the convention's voters, she says, while Hagelin "only has one."
So what's the big to-do? "The anti-Buchanan forces" -- namely Fulani and former Reform Party vice chair/Perot pal Russ Verney, she says -- "could not find a candidate. They went to Ventura; there were some people talking to Donald Trump, some people talking to [former Colorado Gov. Richard] Lamm. The bottom line is, they don't want to turn power over to anyone else."
Bay Buchanan says it's not a question of beer-hall putsching. They're just expert, old-school pols who know how to play the game. "We looked at their rule book," she says. "It's arcane and difficult and complicated, and I studied them and studied them and tried to figure all the different ways things could happen to us, because I knew that the day we were accepted into this party this was going to be a battle and nobody was going to hand us this nomination."
"They're going to say that we cheated somehow," Buchanan says. But she points out that the people in charge of the proceedings continue to be the original Perot supporters. "These are old-time Reformers, these are not Buchanan brigaders up there. These are Perotistas. It's just a fraction of the Perotistas that are unhappy. And the others have said that they'll live by the rules."
Fulani doesn't seem to disagree so much with the rules -- though of course she doesn't accept the legality of her delegation's disaffiliation. Rather, Fulani argues that "this is not what the Reform Party does." When four state groups had internal struggles at the 1999 convention in Dearborn, Mich., Fulani points out, the factions were told, New Age-parent style, to go into separate rooms and not return until they'd worked it all out.
"We are building a party based on reform," Fulani says, calmly sassy and enjoying being the nucleus of a media molecule. "We're not setting up a situation where we're at each other's throats. We're trying to create a party. This is not what the Reform Party does."
The New York delegation "fairly won their seats," she insists. "I don't know what party this is, honey. This is not the Reform Party that we founded and created." The challenge based on her opposition to Buchanan is bogus, she says. "We have two candidates running. There is no requirement that you have to come attached to one or the other candidate."
Fulani and Pat Buchanan had once hopped in bed together, a weird political marriage between a right-wing isolationist and a socialist-Marxist, both united in opposition to traditional politics, corporate America, the New World Order and NAFTA. It was, in fact, Fulani's support for Buchanan that helped encourage other Reformers to roll out the red carpet. After all, if the party's leftist accepted him, why shouldn't they?
So isn't she now filled with tremendous regret, the kind usually reserved for Vegas chapel hotels and Tijuana prisons?
"What he agreed to do was help create a left-right coalition as a way of further expanding what the Reform Party is all about," Fulani explains. "When it became clear that Pat had decided not to do this and was narrowing his campaign to his social conservative base, I met with him and I said, 'Pat, this isn't what we agreed to do. I'm not supporting this.' And I left the campaign."
Fulani remains convinced the original plan would have worked. "If Pat had run the campaign that he agreed to, it would have been a major campaign in this country today, because independent politics is booming and Ralph Nader is at 10 percent," she says. "The reason why Pat Buchanan is at 1 percent is that he's running a Republican Party campaign in the independent movement, and you know what the independents are saying? 'Take your campaign, and go home.'"
Well, that might be what Fulani's Independence Party members think. But Buchanan has brought hundreds of his fans into the Reform Party, and now he controls it, and they love him and don't want him or his campaign to go home. Amid a sea of chaos, he has founded an island of order.
"I think they have the right to vote," Fulani tells me. "But this is not what the Reform Party does."
Well, um, sorry -- it actually is now what the Reform Party does. Florida state chairman David Goldman acknowledges as much to me. What Buchanan pulled off is pretty much by the book.
In a way, the Reform Party Convention is an almost reassuring, if occasionally malodorous, exercise in democracy. Unlike last week's Republican and next week's Democratic infomercials, here there is fighting and factions, and everything ugly is hanging out.
Inside the convention center, the typical Reform Party animals gathered -- men with long white beards but no mustaches, women with mustaches, earnest government reformers, aliens from a parallel world, Future Assassins of America.
There were the hopeless electoral hopefuls, like Susan Ducey, who's challenging Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla. "He voted for permanent normal trade relations [with China] against the will of his constituents," she says. "Also, he said he was only going to serve three terms, but he's running for reelection again."
A bumper sticker for sale nearby reads: "CLINTON SNORTS COKE RAPES WOMEN TAKES BRIBES LAUNDERS MONEY STARTS WARS -- What's next?"
What, indeed? A John Birch Society coordinator, Mark Walsh of Santa Maria, Calif., tells me about the new multiethnic makeup of his group and tries to explain to me how "the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission have tremendous influence with the mass media. Members of the CFR include Dan Rather and Barbara Walters and -- what's that girl's name? -- [Diane] Sawyer? These type of people find it to their advantage to go with the New World Order crowd. The money's good."
He gives me some free magazines, though I would rather be given a copy of one of the books he sells: "America's Secret Establishment: An Introduction to the Order of Skull & Bones." Or at least "The Creature From Jekyll Island: A Second Look at the Federal Reserve."
Moving on. At one booth, a cardboard sign depicts 17 Latino professors and present and former officeholders -- Bill Richardson, Henry Cisneros -- along with Vice President Al Gore.
"Those are the people who are using illegal aliens to take over our country," says Barbara Coe, chairwoman of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, who says she was a coauthor of Proposition 187, which denied social services to illegal immigrants and their children.
At the Hagelin booth outside, the "G" in the "Hagelin" sign is red while the other letters are blue. No one seems to know why. "To get your attention," assesses Patricia Cox, from Atlanta. "To get you asking questions about Hagelin."
Like, "Why is the 'G' red?" Ah.
And this is Buchanan's competition.
But then, suddenly, in the midst of all the madness, as if in a dream, a tall, bald, mustached, cigar-chompin', shades-wearin' Adonis appears in the distance. Could it be?
He storms into the convention, the crowds parting like the Red Sea. Kids and cameras chase him -- as do I. But I know it isn't he. Too thin. A few inches too short. No entourage. And it isn't. It's Richard Carmichael, who goes by the name "Jesse Ventuna." A professional impersonator. A not-inappropriate symbol, a smartass might say, for a fledgling party desperately trying to impersonate a real one.