Why LaRouche Was Not Fought

Following the LaRouchian victories in the March 1986 Illinois primaries, some observers argued that the Democratic Party's immune system had broken down. In fact, the problem went far beyond the Democrats. The major media had failed over the years to vigorously unmask LaRouche. Jewish and black organizations and the left had largely ignored his dramatic political inroads in the early 1980s, blithely allowing him to operate his international network of hate from midtown Manhattan with nary a protest. Reagan administration aides, GOP operatives, Teamster leaders, and others on the right had treated him as just another political ally, to be used as needed.

This see-no-evil attitude contrasted sharply with the opposition that both liberals and conservatives displayed toward traditional hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. The double standard was revealed most clearly in the 1984 presidential campaign. When the Klan endorsed President Reagan, it immediately received a blistering denunciation from him. But when NBC exposed the administration's ties to LaRouche (while also pointing out LaRouche's ties to the Klan), the White House response was that it would continue to meet with whomever it pleased. Not a single Jewish or black organization condemned this response, nor did the media take issue with Reagan. Yet the connection between Jesse Jackson and Farrakhan meanwhile became front-page news. Reagan and Bush used the Farrakhan issue to hound Walter Mondale, who was entirely innocent of any links to or sympathy with the Chicago radio preacher. Mondale and the Democratic Party, however, failed to make an issue of the administration's dealings with LaRouche, whose statements against the Jews over the years had been more extreme and much more systematic than Farrakhan's. Furthermore, the Democrats failed to take any steps against LaRouche's massive infiltration of the party primaries that year.

Fundamentally, the political structure's immune system against the ultra-right is geared only to oppose overt hate groups led by demagogues who speak their minds frankly. The LaRouchians, like a clever virus, evaded the immune system by mixing rightwing and leftwing ideologies and by using code words and a studied kookiness. These tactics made it difficult for the public—and for harried news reporters on deadline—to define LaRouchism. And if one cannot define some-thing, how can one fight it? The NCLC's anti-Semitism did become widely known, but it stirred up little visceral indignation because LaRouche often used Jewish aides to express it. (They would meet with reporters and Reagan administration officials to tell them the NCLC was really only "anti-Zionist," that LaRouche had been misinterpreted, and so on.) Whenever such methods stopped working, LaRouche fell back on his kook act, as if to suggest that even if he were a fascist and a bigot he was a singularly harmless one not worth fighting. This tactic turned out to be his strongest defense. When he came under media attack after the 1986 Illinois primaries, he gave a rambling speech before the National Press Club about assassination plots, and later announced on network television a plan to colonize Mars. The level of opposition to him dropped, enabling his followers to make further grassroots electoral inroads and to continue raising tens of millions of dollars a year.

The middle-class veneer of LaRouche’s movement also helped to shield him from serious criticism. The Klan easily elicits opposition because its members are perceived as ignorant "rednecks." Farrakhan, of course, is widely regarded as a gutter bigot, appealing mostly to low-income blacks. But LaRouche speaks on TV in a cultivated New England accent reminiscent of William F. Buckley's. His followers wear three-piece business suits and often sport degrees from major universities. Several are from prominent families. Thus they often are treated not as hate-mongers at all but as misguided idealists or as victims of cult brainwashing. Some media reports have implied that although a Klansman might deserve harsh condemnation, the proper response to a LaRouchian—even one convicted of felonies such as loan fraud—is to offer him psychotherapy and a scholarship to get back into graduate school. (In fact LaRouche's NCLC is no more or less cultish than Farrakhan's Nation of Islam or the Klan-linked Aryan Nation. Indeed, the LaRouchians, with their higher education levels, would seem to have even less excuse for anti-Semitism.)

The LaRouchians' ability to hide behind middle-class "educated" standards is best illustrated by what happened when their Humanist Academy rented a hall at Columbia University for a public gathering in 1980. If they had worn bed sheets and burned a cross, an uproar would have ensued. Instead, they staged Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, featuring a Jewish villain who strangles a friar, poisons several nuns, betrays his Christian neighbors to the Turks, and meets his end in a cauldron of boiling water. The audience, composed of NCLC members and friends, had been instructed that the play was a weapon in the fight against the international "oligarchy." They hissed and laughed when Barabas the "rich Jew" appeared on the stage. In essence, this was no different from a cross burning, but a university spokesman defended renting the hall to them. He explained that the LaRouchians, unlike the Klan, fell into a "gray area."

In spite of LaRouche's multileveled smoke screen, his movement would have found fewer allies and more opponents except for the array of positive and negative incentives he offered. This was intelligent fascism in action. Alone among American ultraright bigots, LaRouche could offer potential allies something of value: his prowess at intelligence gathering, his sophisticated dirty tricks, and the sometimes formidable efforts of his Fusion Energy Foundation/Executive Intelligence Review think tank. Furthermore, those who accepted his help ran almost no risk of being publicly embarrassed: Since LaRouche was not portrayed as especially sinister by the media, those who met with him could always explain it away. The LaRouchians were sensitive to the needs of their allies in this respect. If they had a relationship with a GOP operative, they kept it secret. If they ran a smear campaign against a particular political candidate, they would also throw a few harmless punches against the candidate who was being aided by their smears. For instance, when LaRouche spread rumors about George Bush and the Trilateral Commission during the 1980 New Hampshire primary, he also issued some pro forma criticisms of Reagan.

On the negative side, LaRouche demonstrated that he could make life miserable for powerful people if they crossed him. His smear campaigns against Henry Kissinger and Roy Cohn made this clear. Such prominent figures had always been beyond the reach of the traditional type of hate group, but LaRouche carried the battle to their doorsteps. As a result, other powerful people became extremely reluctant to tangle with him. This was not because they were all cowards at heart. Many of them would have denounced him if they had felt an important matter of principle was at stake. But the media's portrayal of LaRouche as a kook--and the silence of most Jewish organizations about him in spite of the massive quantity of anti-Semitic literature he was disseminating--sent a message that it simply wasn't worth the effort to oppose him seriously.

But even on the infrequent occasions when vigorous opposition to LaRouche did emerge, there was an astonishing ability on the part of many people to evade the issue of principle. When the Manhattan weekly Our Town published a series attacking LaRouche in 1979, NCLC members went around to advertisers and to stores that freely distributed the paper and threatened them with legal action. Four major banks, Consolidated Edison, and the New York Telephone Company gave in immediately and either canceled advertising in Our Town or withdrew permission for its circulation on their premises. (Four years later, the telephone company still banned Our Town.) Such was the response of the business community; what about the labor movement? In 1980 a top official of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers gave several donations to LaRouche's presidential campaign. When Jewish teachers urged the union's board to pass a resolution criticizing the official, the board—reacting to factional problems in the union—instead voted to commend him and later censured a union leader who had supported the original resolution.

In neither case were the people who caved in suffering under any great illusions about LaRouche. In the fall of 1979, his followers deluged the streets of New York with leaflets calling for the crushing of the "Zionists." In the PFT situation, the protesting teachers provided abundant documentation of LaRouche's anti-Semitism. As the LaRouchians developed their deceptive tactics to higher levels of sophistication, such incidents multiplied. Each time, the evasion of the issue of principle merely made similar evasions easier in the future. And for some politically astute people, the smoke screen became something they could hide behind along with LaRouche while they conducted their business with him. It provided the basis for them to pretend that they didn't know what he was about and pretend that they regarded him as a kook.

In fact the LaRouche movement's fascist character and its dangerous (non-kook) side were not really difficult to see. As early as 1976-77, recognition that LaRouche had gone fascist could be found in places as diverse as the newsletter of the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade and the Op-Ed page of The Washington Post. In 1980, Lionel Abel suggested in Dissent that LaRouche was America's "first serious fascist," while the Anti-Defamation League's Michigan spokesman, Richard Lobenthal, described the NCLC in 1981 as the "closest thing to an American fascist party that we've got." Several writers focused on the neo-Nazi elements in LaRouche's ideology.

If this viewpoint—easily proven by LaRouche's writings, his alliances with ex-Nazis and international neo-fascists, and a simple comparison of his tactics with those of classical fascism—had been adopted and widely publicized by the major media and other opinion makers, LaRouche would have been stopped dead in his tracks in the early 1980s. There would have been no chats with National Security Council officials, no alliance with top Teamsters, no deals with shadowy GOP operatives, no grassroots candidates' movement of significant proportions, no passive sufferance by the Democratic Party, and certainly no Illinois primary victories in 1986. All that was needed was for opinion leaders to draw the same clear line they had drawn against the Klan, name LaRouche for what he really was, and declare his movement beyond the bounds of decency.

The confusion on this point, and the inability to draw a clear line, is best illustrated by the role of the major media and especially the major daily newspapers. The media were certainly not the only lax institution, but their response both reflected and molded that of all other aspects of the political immune system. For instance, from the beginning of LaRouche's rise most major newspapers shied away from analyzing his organization in any but the most superficial terms. They avoided the terms "fascist" and "neo-Nazi," which alone could adequately express his aims and methods. The New York Times in its 1979 series on LaRouche at least kept the concept, expressing it through euphemisms and vivid examples, but soon even the euphemisms were dropped. In the early 1980s, some newspapers began to describe LaRouche as a "conservative Democrat" or to adopt other totally misleading labels.

The major media became silent about LaRouche's political actions as well as his ideology. The electoral breakthroughs of his followers were almost totally ignored in the early 1980s. No one in the media sought to find out where the two thousand LaRouche candidates in 1984 had come from. Major newspapers that normally jump on any scandal involving the Teamsters union ignored the LaRouche-Teamster connection even though it had been exhaustively documented in Our Town, the Village Voice, Mother Jones, and Teamster dissident publications. Prior to 1986, the Baltimore Sun was the only major paper to have probed LaRouche's finances, even though court cases involving LaRouche corporate shells offered an easy score for any investigative reporter.

One reason for the laxness was the fear of libel suits. In the late 1970s, LaRouche and his followers sued the Anti-Defamation League and Our Town for libel. At the time, religious and psychological cults were filing numerous libel suits, and many editors assumed LaRouche would be equally aggressive. Although the ADL suit was dismissed and LaRouche quietly dropped the Our Town suit (and filed no serious new libel suits until 1984), his followers maintained his litigious reputation by calling up reporters and editors at the drop of a hat to threaten legal action. A Catch-22 resulted: Newspapers toned down their coverage of LaRouche by using "soft" labels and avoiding mention of the nastier aspects of his movement. This soft approach then developed a life of its own. No longer was LaRouche perceived as the dangerous character portrayed by The New York Times in 1979. Hence there was no incentive for editors to call his bluff.

LaRouche made what turned out to be one of his shrewdest moves in early 1984. He learned that he would be the subject of an exposé on NBC's First Camera. This threatened to undermine his ties with the Reagan administration and the intelligence community. But LaRouche must have known that First Camera had relatively low national viewer ratings. If other media could be prevented from repeating the charges, the damage could possibly be contained. Thus he sued NBC for $150 million prior to the show. The result was that some NBC affiliates didn't air it and many newspapers didn't report on it. Most Americans never learned that the Reagan administration had been meeting with neo-Nazis who in turn were in bed with racketeers, and that the leader of these neo-Nazis had discussed assassinating Jimmy Carter and other government officials in 1977. Furthermore, the major media failed to follow up First Camera's work, even though it was a presidential election year in which the news value of the story was potentially very great.

One thing the national media did report was the outcome of the LaRouche v. NBC trial that fall. Finding that NBC had not libeled LaRouche, the jury awarded it $3 million on a counterclaim (later knocked down to $200,000 by the judge). On the surface, this appeared to be a major defeat for LaRouche, but it was arguably a victory for him on a deeper level. The suit had squelched negative media coverage of him earlier in the year that might have cost him millions of dollars in loans and donations. And in spite of the trial's outcome, the media remained super-cautious. For instance, the jury had found that the defendants were not liable for calling LaRouche a "small-time Hitler," but this did not loosen the taboo against hard labels for LaRouche. The Washington Post finally followed up the LaRouche-Reagan story (the only major paper to do so), but reporter John Mintz was apparently not allowed by his editors to deal forthrightly with LaRouche's political views. The result was that Mintz's excellent series was left with a gaping hole: who, what, when, but no why. This omission was seen in all subsequent major media coverage. LaRouche, it appeared, had established a state of affairs almost strange beyond belief: He was able to run for president of the United States, gain over a million dollars in matching funds, force TV networks to sell him millions of dollars of prime time for his scurrilous campaign ads—and meanwhile deny to the public the opportunity to hear strong criticisms of his policies and program.

After the 1986 Illinois primary, it was more important than ever to give the public accurate information about LaRouche. At first it appeared that blunt, accurate terms might become acceptable. The media did quote Adlai Stevenson III as calling the LaRouchians neo-Nazis. Senator Moynihan likewise used this designation in a Manhattan speech. Many journalists were aware of the truth, but the major media, Jewish organizations, and the Democratic Party decided to stick to soft terms that wouldn't disturb anyone (the Times went so far as to censor out the forbidden word in its coverage of Moynihan's speech). Some newspapers continued to call LaRouche a "rightist," but conservatives began to object. The Wall Street Journal published an editorial suggesting that LaRouche was really still leftwing (the evidence it cited was conspiracy theories that actually originated on the right). Suddenly the fact that U.S. and West German ultra-rightist networks had nurtured LaRouche and provided him with ideas, money, and allies (not to mention weapons training) for the previous ten years became too controversial to dwell on. Newspapers avoided giving offense to the right by adopting the neutral term "political extremist" or by saying LaRouche had a "mixed" philosophy. The New York Times called him "eccentric" and a "conspiracy theorist" while announcing that he somehow defied classification in conventional terms. Meanwhile most of the media promoted the kook theory, by reminding the public over and over that LaRouche believes the Queen of England pushes drugs. The only serious analysis of LaRouche appeared in smaller unorthodox weeklies such as the Chicago Reader, the Boston Phoenix and In These Times. LaRouche watcher Chip Berlet recalled his frustration at the time: "I talked with dozens of reporters. I'd send them LaRouche's writings. Then I'd lead them step-by-step through it on the phone, to show them it was classic fascism. I'd cite chapter and verse from Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism—how LaRouche fit like a glove. They'd say, 'That's nice,’ then turn to their word processors and crank out some quip about Queen Elizabeth."

But behind the media's "soft" view of LaRouche there was often the rankest hypocrisy. While newspapers portrayed him as a kook they made editorial judgments based on the assumption that he was indeed potentially dangerous—so dangerous that his activities must be concealed from the public lest the truth help his movement grow. Jerome Chasen of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, in a 1986 memorandum on LaRouche's Illinois electoral victories, raised questions about this bizarre "quarantine" policy. Inquiries by the NJCRC, he wrote, had uncovered that "the media in Illinois did know that [Democratic primary candidates] Fairchild and Hart were LaRouchites, and chose not to headline this information, based on a judgment that to do so would give LaRouche a platform in statewide politics he did not deserve."

This attitude—don't write about an important story because we, the journalists, believe the public can't handle it—would be regarded as downright unethical in every area of journalism except the coverage of extremists. Indeed, in other areas it would be called a cover-up. In this case it also involved an almost comical inconsistency: The Chicago and national media had shown no such restraint in the case of Farrakhan, the obscure Chicago preacher whom the Republican Party and the media transformed in 1984 into America's most celebrated anti-Semite.

The "quarantine" policy toward the LaRouchians persisted after the flap over the Illinois primaries. NDPC candidates continued to get high vote percentages in all parts of the country, yet none of the media reported on this in depth. In the fall of 1986, the ADL published a study of the LaRouche grassroots primary vote nationwide. Many reporters glanced at the figures, noted that the LaRouchians had not won any more major primaries, and declared them to be defeated. It was the double standard once again: If Farrakhan's Nation of Islam or the Ku Klux Klan had run 330 candidates of whom nearly 50 percent received over 10 percent of the vote (the actual statistics in the ADL report) both the ADL and the media would have sounded the alarm from the rooftops. For the media in this case, it was also part of the continuing lack of curiosity about anything beneath the surface relating to LaRouche. The Washington Journalism Review did a piece, "Letting LaRouche Off," which commented on the lack of vigorous reporting. It had no effect. When Senate hearings in 1988 unearthed LaRouche's ties to General Noriega, most of the media didn't mention it, much less follow it up, even though anything relating to Noriega was supposedly important news at the time. Again, when the LaRouchians were identified in the summer of 1988 as being behind the false rumors of Michael Dukakis's undergoing psychiatric treatment, no one in the media bothered to look at their antecedent political trickery, and the rumor was thus presented as an isolated incident.

The confusion and see-no-evil attitude toward LaRouche was often far worse in political circles than in the newsrooms. This spell was broken temporarily after the Illinois primary victories. Democrats in several states did vigorously oppose LaRouchian candidates, although they were not always successful in preventing them from receiving sizable votes. As we have seen, the two LaRouche AIDS referendums in California gained very large vote totals. But the issue of just how vulnerable to manipulation the electorate can be, and just how poorly society's early-warning system functions, never had to be seriously addressed. In October 1986, federal and state authorities raided the LaRouche organization's Virginia headquarters and the indictments began. Many observers figured that the downfall of LaRouche was not far off and that the NCLC would revert to nuisance status. A resurgence of high vote percentages for LaRouche candidates in 1988 was thus largely ignored, and when LaRouche was convicted of loan fraud that December it indeed appeared possible that the end was near for his remarkable political career.

If so, it will be a victory on the cheap. It will not have resulted in any sense from a strengthening of the grassroots resistance to his far-right extremism. On the contrary, it will be a direct result of the weakness of that resistance. LaRouche, facing so little opposition and attracting so many closet collaborators in the early and mid-1980s, came to regard himself as invulnerable. For this reason alone, he became reckless in his fundraising methods, eliciting massive complaints to the authorities from fraud victims. The result was deep legal trouble for his movement and a situation in which his opponents could tell themselves that it was no longer necessary to fight him politically. The problem of strengthening the political immune system was thus postponed until either the LaRouche movement refurbished itself and launched a counterattack or some new ultra-right organization emerged to ape LaRouche's brilliant political innovations while avoiding his financial mistakes and his excessive paranoia.

In the meantime, the relief with which the Democratic Party, Jewish organizations, the left, and the media resigned the problem of LaRouche into the hands of the FBI bore more than a touch of Weimar Republic decadence, all the more so since it was not political pressure that led to the indictments but simply LaRouche's out-of-control fundraising. One prosecutor in the LaRouche cases described his annoyance at calls from reporters asking such questions as "Do you think this will destroy LaRouche?" (as if it were the Justice Department's business to wage political battles rather than simply enforce the law).

Those who would project a political role onto law enforcement, hoping it will do what political leaders are unable or unwilling to do, only prove that the moral flabbiness on which demagogues thrive is still with us. Given this fact, the lessons of LaRouche's rise and apparent fall are important. If we study them seriously and act on them, it may turn out that the LaRouche phenomenon was a blessing in disguise—a dry run, under relatively safe conditions, that revealed our hitherto unsuspected weaknesses without our having to pay a heavy price for this knowledge. One thing seems certain: America is too violent and diverse—and too vulnerable to economic crisis—to avoid forever a major internal challenge from some form of totalitarian demagoguery. When that test comes, the story of Lyndon LaRouche may provide the key to an effective and timely response.