Saturday, April 14, 2007

Bob Barr, Renaissance man

The NRA is holding its national convention or some such in St. Louis this week, and that brought former Congressman Bob Barr (L-GA) to town. Congressman Barr graciously made himself available for a reception/speech/meet-and-greet with the Missouri Libertarian Party last night at the Renaissance Grand Hotel downtown.

I had my own reasons for attending, of course. Congressman Barr's decision to take out a life membership in the LP, and his subsequent elevation to a vacancy on the Libertarian National Committee, raised some eyebrows a few months back. Having never met the man, I wanted to "take his temperature" and decide for myself whether or not his conversion from GOP enfant terrible to Libertarian elder statesman is for real.

Short version: Yes, I believe it is.

Long version:

I didn't quite know what to expect. Libertarians have had a long-term love-hate relationship with Congressman Barr over several key issues, and for years he was one of the media's favorite Republican bogeymen. If I expected anything, I guess it was the pompous, insincere "snake-oil salesman" routine that I associate with televangelists and full-time pols, especially when they've recently taken a big turn in a new direction.

In real life, Barr is far from that. He's relaxed, cordial and friendly -- and he seems to mean what he's saying, without gimmicks or tactics designed to win over his audience. He passed the "kid test" with flying colors. My sons can spot a fake or a liar a mile away -- it's some kind of sixth sense that kids have -- and when they do, they won't have anything to do with the guy. They cozied right up to the Congressman, playing at his feet while he stood and chatted with a group of Libertarians after his speech. They posed with him for a photo, something they'd never do with someone they thought wasn't a good guy. Liam gave him a drawing ... and then sold him another one for two bucks. Barr is obviously on the opposite end from most politicians of the vacuum cleaner salesman routine.

At no point did I feel like Congressman Barr was being less than entirely candid about his motives in affiliating with the Libertarian Party. He wasn't trying to sell himself to us -- he really has decided that he's one of us. And no, I'm not addressing "ideological purity" matters here. We can argue those all we want, and I'm sure we will, but that just goes with the territory. I was mainly interested in the sincerity of his new self-identification, not in the details of his positions.

Some details of interest:

- Naturally, one of the big questions is on Barr's dramatic change of views with respect to drug policy. During the Q&A, I had the opportunity to ask him if there was any particular thing that changed his mind on that issue. His answer was straightforward: The attacks on liberty since 9/11 have been so many, so strong, and so intertwined with each other, he said, that he experienced an "epiphany" on the need for a total, rather than partial, defense of freedom. I hate to paraphrase rather than quote, but I wasn't recording or anything. All I can tell you is that the answer seemed to me to be honestly tendered.

- When asked if he had noticed any potentially credible presidential candidates in the LP, he was reasonably gentle, but not evasive. He noted that he'd met several of the nomination candidates at an LP event in Florida last month, and that while they were all very likeable, (quoted as best as I can remember) "none of them really rose to the level of impressive." [NB: I'm not sure exactly which candidates were at that event; I know that Christine Smith and Steve Kubby were not; Barr alluded to looking forward to meeting Smith, as someone in the audience had talked with him about her before the event; naturally, I put in a word for Kubby afterward as well.]

- When asked if he would consider running for president himself, his answer was, and I quote: "Next question, please." If you think that means what I think you probably think that means, I think that you and I are probably thinking it means the same thing. I would not cross Barr off the list of potential candidates.

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