I expected a lot of things when I attended the Conservative Political Action Caucus (CPAC) last week. I was assigned to cover the conference for my day job. I'll admit some trepidation. Let's face it. I'm a lot of the things that I could reasonably expect most CPAC attendees to hate: a liberal, non-Christian, black, gay, legally married father of two.
I expected trouble, butI didn't have any problems. I guess because I my badge said "Media" rather than all of the above.
He wants his country to see that. He wants young gay people to see him run for president. He'd be the first-ever openly gay presidential candidate for a major party if he formally declares. He can see himself as the moderate voice in a debate crowded with hard-liners.
He has visited New Hampshire more than any other presidential prospector in this young election cycle. This skiddy late-night ride from a gathering in Keene to his Concord hotel is part of his 11th trip to the state in the past year. He's slingshotting around, hosting tiny town halls, collecting volunteers one by one and arranging coffee dates with policy experts, academics and state politicians.
This is not a stunt, Fred insists.
I wasn't aware of Fred Karger (here's his campaign website) until someone from his campaign wandered through the CPAC media room distributing a copy of the Washignton Post profile (above) along with an invitation to a reception. I made a mental note to check Karger out if I had the chance, and when I stepped out of the media room, there he was, being interviewed Joey Novick of NJ Politics Unusual.
I stopped and watched the interview, and while I didn't then interview Karger myself, I hung around to chat with him afterwards, because I found him genuinely likable. He's the kind of guy I'm sure I'd enjoy, if only because he's had a interesting life so far according to his resume and his Wikipedia entry.
Like his mentor, Ronald Reagan, Karger started out to be an actor, in the 1970s. His acting credits include appearances on "The Tonight Show" and "McMillan and Wife." But his political activism, starting with volunteering for Nelson Rockefeller's presidential campaign from 1964-68, paralleled his show-biz ambitions.
On April 10, 1972, Fred ganked a security badge, talked his way into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles and walked onstage with a herd of celebrities to salute Charlie Chaplin. Fred stood between Raquel Welch and Ann-Margret as the silent film star received an honorary Oscar.
Typical Fred. Fred likes a challenge, and the spotlight. He likes to find a way around the word "no," to network above his paygrade. As a high schooler growing up in Glencoe, Ill., Fred would dress up, take the train into Chicago, waltz into formal banquets and enjoy a fancy meal as if he belonged.
"He loved to be the center of attention, but also the engineer behind the scenes," says his good friend Gary Wolfson, who attended high school and the University of Denver with Fred. "He always tells people he was a class clown. I think of him more as the class instigator."
He wasn't a standout student or athlete, but his Eddie Haskell nature was a fit for politics. He phone-banked for Nelson Rockefeller's 1964 presidential campaign and worked for Charles Percy's 1966 and 1972 Senate campaigns. Intent on cloaking his sexuality from his Chicago life, he bought a red Cougar convertible at age 23 and drove it to Los Angeles under the guise of becoming an actor.
In a span of three years, he was a passenger in "Airport 1975? and a model for an Edge shaving cream commercial directed by John Hughes, and he won a recurring role on a "Welcome Back, Kotter" spinoff that never aired.
I'm sure I'd find stories from both his show-biz experience and his political experience fascinating. Combined with his likeability, I might even vote for him, given the opportunity. (The thought occurred to me that I'd cast a primary vote for Karger, if he was on the ballot, and I didn't have to change my voter registration to do it. I will not register as a Republican under any circumstances.) I'd have to check out his positions on the issues more closely, of course, as some of his political positions give me pause.
Of course, is stands to reason that the one Republican presidential candidate I like and would remotely consider voting for is, to put it mildly, a long shot.
Karger is a long-shot candidate by any sense of the term. He has never served in elected office, though he has had an extensive career in political consulting. He is also openly gay, and has worked as an activist to support efforts for same-sex marriage in California, and opposed that state's Proposition 8 measure.
After this year's midterm election resulted in three Iowa Supreme Court judges losing their retention vote for ruling to institute same-sex marriage in the state, the Republican Party of Iowa has entrenched itself as opposed to LGBT civil rights. As evidenced by the rhetoric at a gathering of state conservatives over the weekend, Republican activists plan to use the 2012 elections as grounds to push social issues.
It doesn't help that Karger's answers on the issues of the day aren't all that different from other politicians and candidates.
There is one small problem. When people ask Fred how he'd balance the budget, he smiles and steers the subject back to gay marriage and NOM and the Mormons. When people ask him how he'd fix health care, he says "I still need to look into it." There is something refreshing -- if entirely unpresidential -- about his in-progress grasp of issues. After a lifetime of faking it, he's finally not.
It's for voters to judge the merits of his gambit, to determine if it's worthy of the presidential nominating process, or if it's merely the brilliant tactic of a seasoned operative who's fixated on a single issue rather than a whole country.
Um. Yeah. Kind of important questions. The answers, of course, are likely to make one segment or another of voters unhappy. If nothing else, in shying away from them Karner isn't that different from the rest of the field.
I'd have to somewhat echo Donald Trump, and put Karger's chances of taking the White House as somewhat behind Ron Paul's. From what I saw at CPAC, it ain't gonna happen. There's an interesting split going on among conservatives right now. I'm far from the first to mention it, of course, but from what I saw at CPAC, it's not one that breaking in Karger's favor. At least not in terms of his candidacy. (It's not going to break in the GOP's favor either, but I'll say more about that later.)
The truth is, there's no way the conservative base of the GOP is going to go for an openly gay presidential candidate. Period. The Washington Post profile on Karger includes a poll asking participants if America is ready for a gay president. When I checked, the results were surprising: 60% - Yes, 40% - No.
It's a non-scientific poll, and can't be taken as a reflection of the general population. But I think it's one of many indicators that a shift is underway on gay and lesbian equality in the U.S. Another, I learned of today, is a 2010 poll by Equality Texas, indicating that 63% of Texans support civil unions for same-sex couples. Granted, civil unions are not marriage, but for Texas a majority support for civil unions is significant, and could signify a shift in favor of marriage equality.
Still, whether Americans are ready for a gay president or not, it's safe to say a majority of GOP voters are not. And I think Karger knows this. In fact, given how long he's been around politics, I'm sure he knows it.
Karger probably isn't really planning to to pack up and move to the White House. That's not the point of his campaign. The Washington Post profile says Karger compares himself to Shirley Chisholm -- who ran for president in 1972, as the first major-party black candidate for the oval office -- and citing her as the first step in a process culminating in the presidency of Barack Obama.
I think that's apt. At CPAC, the Karger campaign handed out buttons and cards emblazoned with the tongue-in-cheek campaign slogan "Fred Who?". But I think perhaps Karger should consider another slogan. "Because someone's gotta be first."
Who knows, maybe there will be a gay or lesbian president someday. Maybe by then we'll have figured out what to call his husband, or her wife. In the meantime, if someone has to be the first, why not Fred Karger?