Tom Knapp is Managing Editor of Free-Market.Net and publisher of Rational Review.
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Looking Forward -- and Back
When I conceived Rational Review, I intended for it to focus not on the Libertarian Party, but on libertarian ideas. That is still my vision for this publication.
Why, then, an issue with three articles about the Libertarian Party's 2002 national convention? Like it or not (and as of now, I like it very much) the Libertarian Party is the primary political vehicle through which libertarians attempt to affect public policy. That's not the only important thing -- culture and vision are equally important -- but it is certainly an important thing and worthy of our attention.
So, the convention is over and boy, are my arms tired. We have a new chair, a new national committee and a new sense of direction.
It will not escape your notice that of the three members of Rational Review's staff who attended the convention, all three were elected to national office: R. Lee Wrights as an at-large representative to the Libertarian National Committee, Steve Trinward as a regional representative to the same committee, and myself to the Judicial Committee.
We must be doing something right. Enough bragging, though.
The most important result of the convention is that the particular schism that has torn the Party for the last eight years should be effectively ended. The election results for chair and LNC amount to a repudiation of the "spend and spend, don't elect and don't elect" cabal that maintained a white-knuckle grip on the Party's checkbook for nearly a decade.
As anyone who cares knows, I endorsed and worked for the campaign of George Phillies for chair. He did not win. "The big center" however, did move. In choosing Geoff Neale for chair, the center rejected the notion that the Party should continue to remain a combination of feeding trough and toilet for professional fundraisers. When Neale's first ballot votes are combined with those of Phillies, NOTA and others, that rejection was by a healthy two to one margin.
The Party is not in the best shape: "Membership" has fallen as a natural function of non-renewal after the massive "Archimedes" direct mail campaign to boost it in the late 1990s. Without continuing direct mail operations at the same rate as under Archimedes, this fall-off is to be expected. However, "membership" is not the only, or central, criterion of success. Our strength is in our activist core and in our growing ability to elect officeholders around the nation.
The sea change reflected in the convention results give the Libertarian Party a sound basis on which to proceed in building a strong political organization that can take us to the next level, electing more officeholders, giving them the tools to be effective in their work and helping them to climb the political ladder to positions of more influence. That's good for freedom.
Would I have preferred to see George Phillies elected chair? Yes, I would have. Nonetheless, I am ecstatic about what did transpire.
Buckle your seatbelts and return your trays to the upright position. The LP is about to enter into a period of unprecedented success.
A lot of things went into making the current situation possible -- so many that I could not catalog them all in a book, let alone a webzine article. Instead of trying, I want to concentrate on one person who has gone relatively unrecognized -- at least in the positive way that he deserves -- despite his central role in recent events.
I was prepared to dislike Jim Lark very much. In 2000, as this year, I supported George Phillies for the chairmanship of the Party, and experienced some despair when Mr. Lark defeated him in the election for that position.
A lot of people, myself included, had some faulty pre-conceived notions.
Because Mr. Lark appeared, at first blush, to be the "picked man" of the "spend and spend, don't elect and don't elect" faction of the LP, it's accurate to say that he didn't get a fair shake from either side. The "spend and spend, don't elect and don't elect" faction and their opponents both expected him to be the inside man in quashing any attempts to set things right.
He turned out to be something very different.
When Jefferson Davis arrived in Montgomery, Alabama in early 1861 to be inaugurated as the first president of the Confederate States of America, William L. Yancey proclaimed "the man and the hour have met. Prosperity, honor and victory await his administration."
As you'll recall, that prediction was less than accurate. Almost from the beginning, Davis's administration was fraught with the economic and military problems of a nation under blockade and at war with a larger neighbor and desperately seeking recognition and support.
Davis's nation lost its war. It could, however, be argued that it was Davis's intense sense of honor and devotion, placed into action, that allowed the South to hold out for four long years.
I contend that Jim Lark's intense sense of honor and devotion is largely responsible for the fact that the Libertarian Party came through the last two years not only intact, but victorious in some ways. Battered and bruised, yes -- but intact and stronger as an institution for its trials.
The "Willis Affair" was not the first intra-party struggle. It will not be the last. But, had Jim Lark shown anything less than complete objectivity and respect for truth and fact, it might have been the last.
Arrayed against each other were two factions: one of them intent on an ethical "total cleansing" of the Party, even if that entailed destruction of the Party as a consequence; the other intent on preserving the prerogatives of corruption even if that entailed destruction of the Party as a consequence.
As chair, Mr. Lark's first priority had to be -- and was -- the continued existence of the Party. His insistence that the inquiry into the "Willis Affair" be open, objective and not aimed at promoting the goals of either faction served that end. It also gave rise to wailing and gnashing of teeth on the part of both factions ... but when the wailing and gnashing of teeth died down, there was still a party for them to fight over.
Let me reiterate this: the continued existence of the Party, as such, was not a foregone conclusion. There were (and still are) individuals on both sides who would rather break the egg to make an omelette than protect it and hope that it might some day hatch. Candor requires that I admit to having, at one point, been one of those individuals. Honesty requires that I give the lion's share of credit for having changed my views on the subject to Jim Lark.
The Libertarian Party had fewer members when Jim Lark's term ended than it had when that term began; that phenomenon, upon examination, stems from the recruitment effort of the late 1990s, an effort that was not sustainable over the long term and that Mr. Lark cannot be assigned blame for the long-term consequences of.
The Libertarian Party experienced financial difficulties during Jim Lark's term. Those difficulties were concomitant with the dropoff in membership described above and were further exacerbated by the fundraising difficulties that followed the September 11th terror attacks. Once again, an honest evaluation will find Mr. Lark blameless in the matter. More accurately, it is arguable that his leadership sustained the Party through these difficulties -- that the situation would have been worse had he not been at the helm.
The Party had more officeholders at the end of Jim Lark's term as chair than it did at the beginning. The Party took a larger public role -- placing ads in USA Today and the Washington Times against the drug war, for example -- at the end of Jim Lark's term than it did at the beginning. In my opinion, the Party is stronger as a political organization now than it was on the day that Jim Lark became chair. If Mr. Lark can't claim full credit for these things -- and he would be the first to deny that he could -- I submit that he is once again due a portion of that credit.
Had Jim Lark done nothing more than preserve the Party through a patch of rough sea, he could count his chairmanship a success. That he left the Party in some ways stronger than he found it marks him as a leader whom we were incredibly lucky to have found.
Thank you, Mr. Lark, doing an often thankless job. And thank you for doing it well.