By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
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By Albert Samaha
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By Erin Sherbert
Justin Raimondo is hunched in front of his computer, in the living room of his cramped one-bedroom Pacific Heights apartment, under a framed poster of the Ayn Rand commemorative postage stamp. A 52-year-old with the lithe body of a much younger man – the result of obsessive workouts – Raimondo has brown eyes cupped in dark circles, and a Vantage cigarette hangs from the corner of his scowling lips. It's his fifth in as many minutes. He throws back his head, lets out a stream of smoke, and howls, "Aaaaaaaagh!"
Raimondo is a libertarian political writer who pens a thrice-weekly column for Antiwar.com, an anti-U.S. foreign intervention Weblog he works on full time with his friend, Eric Garris. Raimondo's style is sarcastic and polemical; his targets are the evil "neocons" running the Bush administration – "Rummy," "Condi," and the rest, whose dastardly warmongering has led the country into blood-soaked ruin.
To get into the right caustic groove each morning, Raimondo pumps a little iron, smokes a joint, and checks what his archenemies are writing in the National Review and the Weekly Standard. Normally, at this time – 11 a.m. – he would be dashing off another screed about the neocons' former, pro-Stalinist sympathies, or asking important questions about what Israel really knew, beforehand, about 9/11.
Today, though, Raimondo is distracted. He's been asked to deliver two speeches for the annual gathering of the John Randolph Society, an obscure organization that unites right-wing libertarians and old-school isolationist Republicans in celebration of Randolph, a powerful Virginia legislator from the early 1800s who championed states' rights and individual liberty with fiery, flamboyant style. Raimondo is thrilled to be headed to the conference, held this year in New Orleans. But it starts in two days, and he has been too busy with Antiwar.com to prepare.
"Where am I going to find a suit jacket?" he wails, melodramatically, slumping in his desk chair.
"Shut up, Yoshi," groans Raimondo. "Oh GAWD." He lights another Vantage, sucks deeply, and exhales loudly with the kind of head-splitting exasperation usually reserved for doing taxes or visiting in-laws.
Raimondo's groaning is really a drama queen's victory cry. For decades, Raimondo and Garris have been trying hard to get political ideologues from the John Randolph Society – or, really, just about anybody – interested in them.
Garris and Raimondo are radical libertarians who fervently believe government should stay out of people's business. Their social program includes slashing taxes, ending war, legalizing dope, and scrapping social services like welfare. For 25 years they've tried to get these views heard through fruitless political activism. While their contemporaries mainstreamed their political views, started families, built careers, and bought houses, Garris and Raimondo continued their ideological mission. They campaigned for candidates who never won, published newsletters that few read, tried – and failed – to win prominence in the Republican Party, and even opened up a bookstore (which they were later forced to sell).
But when Garris started Antiwar.com, their luck turned around. With financial backing from their wealthy libertarian friend Colin Hunter, Garris and Raimondo dedicated themselves full time to blogging. Hunter let Garris move into a guesthouse on the grounds of his posh mansion in Menlo Park. Spurred by interest in the war in Iraq, thousands of people visit the blog every day.
For the first time in his career, Raimondo's opinions as a writer are being read, and sometimes even taken seriously. He's being asked to speak alongside real politics, policy, and media professionals. His name has appeared in the pages of the venerable conservative magazine National Review. As the site's Webmaster, Garris is getting hate mail, fan mail, and even donations, from around the world. In the way that one can go from being nobody to somebody on the Internet in a matter of minutes, Raimondo and Garris have achieved – in the nine months since the war started – a degree of semilegitimacy they've sought for nearly three decades.
But the legitimacy is, at best, incomplete. Whatever fame Raimondo and Garris can claim comes largely from criticizing a conservative Republican administration that took office extolling the virtues of limiting American military intervention around the world. It remains to be seen whether these two partners in advocacy – who consider themselves conservatives and hold membership in the Republican Party – are more than a novelty act on the national politics and policy stage.
"Oh GAWD," groans Raimondo again. He really will have to buy that sports jacket.
At first glance, Antiwar.com might seem the work of lefties. The site's amateurish front page, with its red headlines mashed together on a white background, links to stories from around the world, so long as they have an anti-war spin. On a typical day last month, it featured a USA Today story about a poll that indicated U.S. support for the war was dropping, and another, from the (London) Guardian, about former Defense Policy Board Chairman Richard Perle stating that the United States had broken international law by invading Iraq. Among Antiwar.com's columnists you'll find way-left Nation scribe Alexander Cockburn.
But peacenik liberals who come to the site expecting to commune with "Free Mumia!" soulmates are in for a shock. They'll find Raimondo dissing ANSWER – the Bay Area anti-war organization that held the big Civic Center peace rallies – calling it a collection of "eccentric commies" because of its affiliation with the Socialist Workers' World Party. And right-winger Pat Buchanan's syndicated anti-war column regularly appears on the site.
Garris, Raimondo, and Hunter don't care whether the writers they link to from their site are right- or left-wing; they care about their stances on war. "Didn't we found this country to get away from foreign quarrels, the intrigues of kings?" asks Raimondo. "So what is the rationale for intervention? I'd like to hear it. That we have to make the world safe for democracy? Didn't we do that in World War I? It didn't really work out that way. Or what about World War II, when we handed half of Europe to Stalin? Oh that was a great victory."
Viewing the state as a meddling and coercive force, libertarians oppose big government and foreign intervention and believe that individuals have a right to be left alone to make their own decisions. Garris and Raimondo like to point out that some of these ideals extend as far back as the Founding Fathers; the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, for instance, were written, in part, to safeguard individual liberty from an authoritarian state.
But libertarianism as a modern political movement got rolling in the late 1960s, when a young generation of peace-loving draft resisters, fed up with the two dominant parties that had supported the war, turned to pacifist libertarianism. That was when Garris, Raimondo, and Hunter got involved in the cause. In 1972, the newly formed Libertarian Party garnered enough supporters to get its own presidential candidate on the November ballot.
Libertarians' belief in extremely restricted government can wind up putting them on either the left or right side of current issues, depending. For instance, most libertarians believe drugs should be legalized, because criminalizing them is both expensive and an attack on civil liberties and personal choice. Under the same theory of limited government, they believe there should be no environmental regulations.
However, Garris, Raimondo, and their benefactor, Colin Hunter, consider themselves not just libertarians, but also so-called "Old Right" conservatives. In the 1980s, they dropped out of the Libertarian Party, and though they continued to hold libertarian ideals close to their hearts, they are now registered Republicans. They trace their brand of conservatism back to a group of Republican writer/activists in the 1930s and 1940s – among them, John T. Flynn and Garet Garrett – who vociferously spoke out against the big-government policies of Roosevelt's New Deal (to them it looked suspiciously like fascism) and opposed America's entry into World War II. Anti-intervention fell out of fashion for Republicans during the Cold War years, and now hardly anybody remembers a time when most Republicans weren't hawks. Garris, Raimondo, and Hunter like to think they are carrying forward the long-forgotten Old Right mantle.
They also see themselves at a watershed for libertarianism. As in the beginning days of America's involvement with Vietnam, neither Democrats nor Republicans are, on the whole, pacifist. Clinton bombed Iraq, and many Democrats in Congress voted to give Bush carte blanche to pre-emptively attack Iraq. The time is right, they believe, for a whole new generation to be turned on to the ideals of libertarianism, and the ideals of the Old Right. And the turning will happen at Antiwar.com, and through the writings of Raimondo, even if he is openly gay, which isn't usually appreciated by conservatives. Then again, as a libertarian, he believes the government should refrain from adopting laws that would prohibit discrimination against gays.
"I think gays should have the right to discriminate against straight people if they want. And I wouldn't want to be hired by someone who didn't accept me because I'm gay anyway!" Raimondo says.
Growing up in the 1960s in upstate New York, Raimondo created an identity for himself as a precocious right-winger. His middle-class, Archie Bunker-ish family didn't care about politics one way or another; it was Raimondo's own nerdy hobby. He dog-eared his high school library's subscription to the National Review and idolized its founder, William F. Buckley (whom Raimondo did not yet view as an evil neocon masquerading as a conservative libertarian). Raimondo joined the conservative youth movement group called the Young Americans for Freedom and volunteered for Barry Goldwater's 1968 presidential campaign.
Perhaps most attractive of all to Raimondo were the glamorous, egomaniacal heroes from the novels of Ayn Rand. Objectivism – Rand's personal philosophy – shares many concepts with libertarianism, including an every-man-for-himself hatred of state-funded services and a strong belief in a free market economy. Many early Randians, like Raimondo, went on to become libertarians (though later, the two camps would reject each other over minor differences).
When, at 16, Raimondo received a letter from Rand's lawyer, threatening to sue him because he'd "misrepresented the basic principles" of objectivism in a student newsletter, Raimondo ripped it up into tiny pieces. He sent the scraps back to the lawyer, with a note that said, "This is what I think of you and your threats."
A month later, Raimondo says, he introduced himself to Rand after a lecture in New York City, and she remembered his bold move. He explained to her that any misrepresentation of objectivism on his part was a result of his article having been cut, drastically, by his editors. Her "heart melted," Raimondo says. "'Sooooo. You vant to be a vriter!'" he remembers her saying in her Russian accent. It was one of the most important moments in Raimondo's life.
He dropped out of the experimental (and now defunct) Franconia College in New Hampshire, saying he found it not intellectually stimulating enough, and moved to San Francisco to experience the gay scene.
Eric Garris had also moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s. The son of a found-object sculptor who called herself a communist and a former Marine drill sergeant who made say-no-to-drugs films for the Los Angeles Police Department, Garris had been expelled from his L.A. high school in 1971 for staging a boycott of the cafeteria. He was protesting the school's dress codes (no pants for girls or long hair for boys).
Garris refused to register for the draft or go to college, plunging himself full time into the Vietnam protest movement. When he met some libertarians, he became a convert, convinced of the "relation between war and the welfare state – the way domestic intervention and foreign intervention fuel one another." He moved north to San Francisco to come work for the Libertarian Party.
The 1970s were good years for libertarianism. Funded by billionaire oil tycoon Charles Koch, a libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, set up shop in San Francisco in fancy offices near Fisherman's Wharf. It published a monthly magazine, Inquiry, and coordinated a college campus organizing group, Students for a Libertarian Society, or SLS.
Garris and Raimondo, then both in their 20s, met at the San Francisco Libertarian Party headquarters in 1976 and soon began working together for SLS. They also met Hunter, a young Stanford graduate, who, unlike them, had a life outside the Libertarian Party that included running his own computer software firm. The three formed a clique that one friend describes as "almost like a little cult."
The Libertarian Party had, until that point, attracted people whose chief concerns were legalizing marijuana and getting out of going to Vietnam. But the three friends were desperate to have libertarianism – and themselves – taken seriously. Together, they formed a faction called the Libertarian Radical Caucus and started writing their version of a platform. They called themselves radical because their ideas at the time were radical. Whereas some libertarians thought war might be justified in some cases, the Radical Caucus came out unequivocally against all war. "They were like the conscience of the Libertarian Party," says Burt Blumert, president of the Center for Libertarian Studies, a Burlingame-based nonprofit educational center.
There were some minor victories in the 1970s, notably Libertarian Party candidate Ed Clark winning 5 percent of the vote in his run for California governor in 1978. But in the 1980s, the Libertarian Party waned.
"People drop off of every movement unless there's a payoff, and being a libertarian, you get nothing," says Blumert. "We'd get six-tenths of 1 percent [in an election], and we'd celebrate! It's a hopeless kind of cause."
But for the "little cult," libertarianism was an obsession that just wouldn't die. In the late 1980s, Garris, Raimondo, and Hunter left the party altogether to join the Republicans.
"We thought, 'Well, let's go to one of the major parties, and fight for someone who might win!'" says Hunter.
They formed the Libertarian Republican Organizing Committee, or LROC – a faction within the Republican Party – and made Hunter its president. But even this minor attempt at organizing was a lost cause. Blumert remembers writing Garris and Raimondo a check to help them start a magazine for LROC and getting a phone call later that afternoon. Somebody walking down Mission Street had found the check on the sidewalk, where Garris or Raimondo had accidentally dropped it.
"It was so typical of them," says Blumert. "They were just not cut out for business."
At the 1988 Republican Convention, LROC was barred from the convention floor, and Garris had to fib his way into two press passes, which the core members of LROC ferried back and forth to one another the entire day. Nobody paid any attention to the painstakingly written pamphlet they handed out, which prophetically predicted the fall of communism.
"That was a low point for us," Garris admits.
Still, they stuck with it. After an antique doll business went under in the ground floor of an old Victorian on Market Street, they leased the location and started a libertarian bookstore. And in 1991, Pat Buchanan decided to run for president, and the members of LROC – especially Raimondo – nearly went crazy with glee.
"It was amazing," says Raimondo. "He's talking about this anti-war stuff, and sounding more like a libertarian than a conservative – the usual conservative – at least on foreign policy stuff."
Raimondo and a friend flew out to New Hampshire to watch Buchanan campaign in the primaries in the dead of winter, staying in Econo Lodges all the way.
"We followed Pat everywhere he went – like groupies!" says Raimondo. But after making waves by winning that much-watched primary, Buchanan lost the Republican nomination. Once again, Raimondo and Garris' hopes were dashed.
"Electoral politics is really maddening," says Garris, bitterly.
"It's BORING," says Raimondo.
"It seems like it should be interesting," says Garris. " But it's not."
Unable to keep up with the demands of bookkeeping, they sold their bookstore to some other libertarians. It was recently obliterated to make way for a new gay, bisexual, and transgendered community center.
Three times a week, a personal trainer comes to work out with Garris, Hunter, and Hunter's longtime partner, Alexia Gilmore, in the gym at the back of the property where they all live. Inside are shiny new Nautilus machines. And outside, there is a large pool surrounded by manicured lawns and topiary bushes being trained in the shape of horses.
While Garris and Raimondo were throwing all their energies into things like LROC, Hunter was busy getting rich. In 2000, Hunter's microprocessor start-up, Transmeta, went public to the tune of $273 million. He bought a Menlo Park nouveau Tudor mansion with an elevator, 11 bathrooms, and a two-story guesthouse at the back, where Garris now lives, rent-free.
"We have this enormous house, so it's kinda lonely when there's not a lot of people around," says Hunter, a brusque, gray-haired 52-year-old with wire-rimmed spectacles and a plain, button-down cotton shirt. "That's one of the reasons why Eric's over in the guesthouse. It's fun. It's kind of like a dorm."
Although the whole "family" is involved in Antiwar.com – Gilmore, the executive director of the site, helps find interns and fund-raises, and Hunter sometimes reads material before it's posted – only Garris and Raimondo work at it full time. Hunter pays their small salaries, and until the donations they're getting over the Internet make up the slack, he is paying for the rest of the site, too, including the phone bill, the ISP, and the salary of the part-time office manager who works downstairs from Garris. The total cost of the site works out to be $5,000 a month. The arrangement, which might seem uncomfortably paternalistic, doesn't bother Garris.
"Quite the opposite," says Garris, an elfin man with a curly brown mullet and a polite, serious manner. "The fact that I'm living here makes it kinda hard for him to say, 'Well, I'm not supporting [Antiwar.com] anymore.'"
Hunter has had this kind of relationship with Garris and Raimondo before; he'd give them donations for LROC and their libertarian newsletters. "I'm always, like, the CEO figure in these endeavors," he says.
But, they all agree, the Antiwar.com project is their best yet. Garris says the site gets 300,000 visitors a day – a number that's hard to verify, because the large Web measurement firms like Nielson don't track it. Garris and Raimondo certainly feel like they're making waves. Garris can see in the site's tracking software that some of their readers are coming from White House and other governmental domains. Last quarter, they got $30,000 in donations – solicited over the Internet – from their readers.
One of the site's fans and donors is none other than Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, who is a liberal Democrat. "I like the collection of news stories and columns from all over the world," says Ellsberg. He also liked Raimondo's "flamboyant" column so much that he insisted on meeting him in person.
"He's been a fan of Buchanan right along, and that has a crazy aspect to it," says Ellsberg. "But if I've learned one thing at 72 years old, I've learned that nobody's perfect."
Raimondo's columns are also being read by the dreaded neocons.
"I'm getting 30,000 readers a day – sometimes more," cackles Raimondo. "And the damned Weekly Standard isn't even selling that on the newsstands. So suddenly people are reading meinstead of [Standard Editor] Bill Kristol."
David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter who coined the phrase "Axis of Evil," has mentioned the site twice in his column for the conservative journal National Review – once in a piece titled "The Loonies Are Heard," the other in a column titled "Unpatriotic Conservatives." Both characterized Antiwar.com, and Raimondo, as being fringe and crackpot. (Frum declined to be interviewed about his feelings toward Raimondo.)
"The very fact that Frum chooses to talk about Antiwar.com is in itself significant," says Jim Lobe, a columnist for Antiwar.com. "You're talking about the top levels of the neocon network."
This year, a college student interning for Antiwar.com helped put together a university speaking tour for Raimondo. Every room was packed, and though he had some heated run-ins with liberals who seemed "confused about economics," the trip was a roaring success.
"At Berkeley, I was like a GOD," Raimondo says.
Antiwar.com is the best thing that ever happened to [Raimondo]," says the Center for Libertarian Studies' Blumert. "He's floundered ever since I met him; he was always starving, never knew where to get money to buy his next pack of cigarettes, would forget about meals."
Now, thanks to renewed interest in Raimondo's work, a book he wrote in 1993 about the "lost legacy" of the conservative movement is coming back into print. He's been asked to speak at political symposiums. Last March, a column he wrote for Antiwar.com was anthologized in a book on American foreign policy, which paired up pieces from opposing perspectives, in a point/counterpoint format. Included among the contributors were Bill Clinton, Colin Powell, and writers for the respected journal Foreign Policy. Raimondo was paired with Pulitzer Prize-winning Weekly Standard scribe Charles Krauthammer on the issue of "Has President Bush created a new U.S. Foreign Policy Direction?"
All the same, the buzz created by Raimondo, Garris, and Antiwar.com is anything but deafening. Although writer and editor Tom Englehardt, who runs the popular political blog TomDispatch.com, says he reads Antiwar.com every day, Slate.com's William Saletan had never heard of it. Neither had UC Berkeley journalism professor and political columnist Susan Rasky. National Review editor Rich Lowry also claimed ignorance, despite Frum's coverage, as did the Weekly Standard's Kristol.
"I've only logged on to Antiwar.com a few times," writes Salon.com columnist Joe Conason in an e-mail. "I also can't say that I know anyone who reads it regularly, although people sometimes send links to it in email. I would say that I don't think the anti-war movement in general has done much to advance the cause of libertarian conservatism (or vice versa)."
But if there are doubts about the longevity of the Antiwar.com phenomenon, Raimondo hasn't had them. "People know me now," says Raimondo. "I'm a contender."
On the outside wall of the guesthouse, near its front door, is a bronze and dark green metal sign that reads "Randolph Bourne Institute." Bourne, a writer in the early 1900s, is now a libertarian hero because he opposed big government and entry into World War I. The institute named after him represents the highest ambitions of Garris and Raimondo.
In 2001, they incorporated the institute as a nonprofit parent company for Antiwar.com; as Garris describes it, the institute will be an "educational think tank-type thing." It will allow them to apply for grants, so they can break free of Hunter's patronage. They also have big plans for an institute summer school where "young cadre," as Raimondo says, would come to live (in Hunter's house), to lounge around the pool listening to distinguished speakers, and to do assigned reading in the evenings.
The Randolph Bourne Institute feels – on many levels – like a kid's playhouse. When Hunter, Gilmore, Garris, and Raimondo refer to their bookshelves in the downstairs part of the guesthouse as "the library" and talk importantly about having "scope," "outreach," and "symposiums," the institute seems a grown-up fantasy. You can't help but imagine the "young cadre" showing up for summer school and being surprised – and maybe even creeped out – when the imposing-sounding Randolph Bourne Institute turns out to be some rich couple's guesthouse.
Still, Garris is confident that the institute is the start of something big. "It gives us, in terms of being in the world of opinion-making, something beyond just the Web site," he says one day while Raimondo is visiting.
"But we're not really an organization, Eric," says Raimondo, more realistically. "We're a conspiracy, pushing ideas out into cyberspace."
"We're not really an organization," agrees Garris. "We're a pre-organization."
One recent afternoon, Raimondo is visiting Garris at Antiwar.com's headquarters. Gilmore has gone to pick up her daughter at karate practice, and Hunter is at work, which leaves Garris and Raimondo sitting outside by the pool, so Raimondo can smoke. They drink coffee from a matching service a maid brings out to them. A small army of groundskeepers meanders over the property, clipping hedges and blowing leaves.
Garris and Raimondo talk to each other constantly on the phone, and often they bicker. Now, reflecting on their activist history, they can't quite agree on their degree of ineffectiveness.
"Looking at, say, LROC – the amount of time we spent at the 1988 Republican Convention! And look what we got out of it! Very little," fumes Garris.
"It's not TRUE, Eric," whines Raimondo. "Because the long term ..."
"There's long term, and there's ...," interrupts Garris.
"But what we handed out at the convention ..."
"I totally understand," says Garris.
"Our platform – we predicted the END of the Soviet Union!" says Raimondo.
"That's not my point."
"The END of communism," adds Raimondo.
"I'm not saying we didn't have ANY effect," says Garris. "I'm just saying we didn't see any immediate effect. With Antiwar.com, we have ..."
Raimondo slams both hands down on the wooden table, jiggling the coffee service. "POWER!"
Garris cracks up and nods.
"POWER!" Raimondo says again. "And we're using it for good.
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