I had very mixed feelings when I heard the news that Lyndon LaRouche had died at the age of 96. If people knew him at all, it would be because the political cult leader and far-Right extremist had run for president eight times, a record exceeded only by the legendary Harold Stassen. But Stassen never drew down millions of taxpayer dollars in federal campaign matching funds and bought blocks of TV prime time to promote his own peculiar brand of political lunacy. But after five years in the federal slam for mail fraud and tax evasion (where his one-time cellmate was naughty televangelist Jim Bakker; now THERE'S a play that somebody should write), LaRouche had been off the news radar for so long that most people's reaction might range somewhere between, "I didn't even know he was still alive," and "Who?"
Not me, though. As unbelievable as it seems today, there was a time when many of us thought LaRouche represented a genuine threat to American democracy. I did, because I was there and saw it first-hand.
When I was a journalism grad-school student at USC in 1980, I became intrigued by the strange group of people manning tables of political literature around campus (as well as at local post offices, malls, and airports), featuring utterly whacked-out conspiracy theories accusing the British royal family of running an international drug ring while a cabal of bankers and financiers were engineering a global economic collapse. They were also calling for a crash program to develop fusion nuclear power, demanding that schools promote German classical music, making scurrilous attacks on various political figures (Henry Kissinger, Jerry Brown, Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, Mayor Tom Bradley, and even my future boss, Councilmember Zev Yaroslavsky) and promoting the delusional ramblings of one Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr. In the autobiography his followers were peddling, "The Power of Reason," LaRouche bombastically declared himself "to have gained some degree of importance in respect to processes shaping current world history," and predicted that either he would become president in 1981, or "be in a position to significantly determine the selection and the policies of an appropriate alternative nominee."
The weirdest thing about it all was that instead of stapled mimeographs of crudely typed screeds, the materials were slickly and professionally published. Who was behind it all? Where did their money come from? How did smart and talented people end up cranking out such fundamentally incomprehensible drivel? To what end?
When i joined a local radio news department that fall, I made LaRouche my first investigative project. But after his 1980 Democratic primary campaign had fizzled as quickly as his previous two campaigns, the press turned away and forgot all about him. And I quickly discovered that apart from a tiny handful of articles years before in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, and a scattering of alternative outlets, little had been published and nothing had been broadcast about what I discovered was a lavishly, and fraudulently, funded political cult that was aggressively promoting an anti-Semitic fascist program. And it was hiding in plain sight.
As I pored through newspaper microfilm and scoured the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature for any magazine articles, my research eventually led me to a handful of progressive journalists and labor union researchers who had been reporting on, and warning about, the LaRouche movement. The reason was because LaRouche--in identifying the ideological and organizational disarray in the American Left and the Democratic Party in the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam Jimmy Carter era--had astutely set his sights on their violent disruption, co-optation, and takeover.
I spent months of research reading, scooping up copies of their publications (and infiltrating a truly wacky meeting of LaRouche's "Schiller Institute" with my classical musician brother, in which LaRouche's German wife Helga held forth on the sublime genius of Heinrich Schenker and Gottfried Leibniz, while cult members attempted a recital of German choral music). After a series of interviews with some of LaRouche's local targets, as well as experts on extremist movements, I finally felt prepared to interview an actual cult member. But nothing prepared me for the interview I finally scored with a top figure in LaRouche's Los Angeles headquarters, Khushro Gandhi.
He was a mini-LaRouche in every respect, spouting the same conspiratorial nonsense in LaRouche's familiar and distinctive cadences (members were constantly drilled with speeches and recordings of LaRouche propaganda). After softening him up with some consciously naïve and innocent questions, I started pressing: the numerous deceptive front groups, the boiler-room fundraising, the violent attacks on opponents, the anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia, the paranoid fantasies, the pivot from Marxism to fascism, the vilification of local politicians. Gandhi instantly turned aggressive and accusatory, launching into programmed rebuttals and character attacks. Then he turned sly. "So tell me," he asked conspiratorially, "who gave you the Bradley stuff?" I looked at him in astonishment. "You did," I said. "All your literature, signs, and flyers attack him and Zev and ACLU as terrorist drug-peddlers because they sued the LAPD over its secret political spy unit." I was eventually able to establish that the LAPD and the local LaRouche organization regularly traded information about "leftist agitators."
My half-hour investigative radio documentary aired a few months later, and went on to win my first Golden Mike from the local Radio-TV News Association. It formed the basis for a long two-part investigative article I co-authored with Chip Berlet, one of the foremost experts on extremism and fascist movements, which is still widely cited in the literature.
Yet LaRouche continued to make inroads, mounting another presidential campaign in 1984 (with federal matching funds), and cultivating contacts in the Reagan administration. In 1986, the LaRouche organization finally burst into the open after two of its members won Democratic nominations to statewide office in Illinois, and in California qualified the first of two AIDS initiatives that infuriated the medical establishment and panicked the gay community, which was targeted for mandatory testing and quarantine. Suddenly I found myself in demand as reporters from all over the country began calling me, and I guested on several local public affairs TV shows debating proponents of the AIDS quarantine, including an aide to Republican congressman William Dannemeyer. LaRouche had essentially called for identifying and relocating gay men into concentration camps in the name of disease control--and the initiative's official proponent and author was the same Khushro Gandhi that I'd interviewed for my program five years before.
Even "Saturday Night Live" got into the act, running a couple of LaRouche sketches featuring Al Franken, playing both Henry Kissinger and even LaRouche himself (right).
By 1988, it was all but over. LaRouche was convicted of conspiracy and mail fraud in 1988 and sent to federal prison along with some of his associates, but after his 1994 early release, the cult never regained the prominence it once had.
For many of us who worked the LaRouche story over the years, the rise of an extremist demagogue like Donald Trump has held a particularly fearful resonance. We tried to sound warnings back in 2016--here's what I previously wrote in this space, here's what Rachel Maddow broadcast, and here Dennis King, one of the earliest and most prominent LaRouche experts, weighed in--but too few were listening.
So we laugh at the comically deranged Lyndon LaRouche because "it can't happen here." But as we are brutally reminded, every single day, it already has.