Reform This, Pal

In which Will Durst prepares for the Reform Party's nominating convention with a little backgrounder on an odd little political movement that the kooky Ross Perot created and the kookier Pat Buchanan hijacked.

| Thu Aug. 10, 2000 2:00 AM EDT

Depending on whom you believe, the Reform Party is either holding its quadrennial convention this week in Long Beach to nominate a candidate for president, or secretly attempting to attract the attention of the USA Network's programming executives in a bid to fill the weekly slot of the departing "WWF Smackdown."

In the aftermath of a massive party schism Wednesday over which delegates would be allowed to vote to nominate a candidate, the national Reform Party convention itself will be unpredictable, to say the least. Saying that it won't be the same smooth pile of gelatinous goo the Republicans force-fed us like prize geese last week is a bit like saying the middle of the Arctic Ocean might not be the perfect place to plant a banana farm. The Reform Party should change its name to the "Who Wants A Piece Of Me?" Party.

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The Reform Party was hatched from the feverish brow of H. Ross Perot back in 1992 as "United We Stand," when the Texas billionaire solicited money from ordinary Americans to run for president. Only in America. For one brief polling moment, Perot actually led both Bush and Clinton. Then in July he quit the race, crying the Republican dirty-tricks squad planned to disrupt his daughter's wedding. Of course he never explained how exactly one goes about disrupting a Texas wedding. Were they going to knock over the goat spit? Steal the Aqua Net from the bridesmaids? Replace all the good picante sauce with that kind from New York City?

The Lone Star dwarf re-entered the race in time to participate in the debates where he actually said out loud: "I'm all ears." Why, of course he is. He's an enchanted stump with ears. He quite literally looks like a wingnut. And he picked a vice presidential candidate with qualifications that would be considered underwhelming for a unincorporated county council race. "Who am I? Why am I here?" Questions which Admiral Stockdale never really cleared up. His uncanny resemblance to Cap'n Crunch didn't help either.

Still Perot's message resonated: "I'm not them." And 19 percent of America thought long and hard, and finally arrived at the conclusion: "Good enough for me." I guess people reasoned that, by electing billionaires instead of politicians, you could eliminate the middlemen.

In 1996, he won the newly renamed Reform Party nomination again. But it was a less a sequel and more a tired rerun whose ending was already known, and the indifference was deafening. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. You're going to take out the trash and hose down the pigs, Mr. Billionaire. We've heard it." Perot's subsequent disappearance has been rivaled only by David Caruso's. Who's David Caruso? My point exactly.

Then, two years ago, Jesse Ventura morphed into Governor Bullethead, and the Reform Party was about to be rewrapped in feather boas and double-breasted spandex. Which made Perot, the altitude-challenged firepot, madder than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. While Perot's minions got mired in a steel-cage match with the Gov., Pat Buchanan and his treacherous sister Bay stole the party and are presently trying to jump into bed with the ghost of what Perot might have been.

When they talk about politics making for strange bedfellows, they don't get any stranger than that.