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Thursday, Aug. 12, 2004 09:40 pm

Keyes to victory?

The Illinois Republican Party goes to extremes to find a Senate candidate

Cover photograph by Kim Foster/KRT

The new Illinois Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, Maryland activist Alan Keyes, may be most famous for his most liberal act: jumping into a mosh pit while Rage Against the Machine performed, body-surfing the crowd, and exchanging body slams with a spiky-haired teen as a means of getting filmmaker Michael Moore's endorsement for president in 2000. As Moore put it, "We knew Alan Keyes was insane. We just didn't know how insane until that moment."

"Insane" is an adjective that voters may be hearing a lot in association with Keyes before Nov. 2. The reason: The opinionated candidate has a long record of far-right statements that have been largely overlooked. In the 1996 and 2000 Republican presidential contests, no candidate saw Keyes as a threat or wanted to risk criticizing an African American. Since then, Keyes has been a little-noticed commentator favored by the extreme right wing. That will soon change, and many of Keyes' comments may shock the Republican moderates who grudgingly accepted him as their candidate.

On Sunday, when Keyes accepted the Republican nomination, he cited Democratic nominee Barack Obama's support for abortion rights.

Abortion is Keyes' number-one issue: He wants a total ban, with an exception only as a "collateral and unintended consequence" of saving a woman's life (not the health of a woman, rape, or incest).

His rhetoric on the subject has been fairly strident. In a May 7 speech in Provo, Utah, Keyes said the 9/11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,200 people, were a message from God to oppose abortion: "I think that's a way of Providence telling us, 'I love you all; I'd like to give you a chance. Wake up! Would you please wake up?'"

In 2002, Keyes argued that the abortion issue should determine the outcome of every election. "This issue alone, which I believe dominates our moral decline as a people, should decide this and every election cycle," he said. During a campaign appearance in Bedford, N.H., in 2000, Keyes asked a class of fifth-graders, most of whom were 10 years old, "If I were to lose my mind right now and pick one of you up and dash your head against the floor and kill you, would that be right?" He then went on to tell the children that some courts and politicians think it's OK to murder 6-month-old children.

Keyes has an apocalyptic view of America's future unless it repents: "I do stay up at night thinking about what's going to happen to America. I do stay up at night with a vision of our people in conflict, of our cities in flames, of our economy in ruins."

A history of failed campaigns

In 1988, in his home state of Maryland, Keyes lost to Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes with a respectable 38 percent of the vote. By 1992, when Maryland voters got to know him better, his support dropped to a mere 29 percent against one of the most liberal senators in the country, Barbara Mikulski. Maryland is only marginally more Democratic than Illinois (in 2000, 40.3 percent in Maryland voted for George W. Bush, compared with 42.6 percent in Illinois), so it's hard to imagine how Keyes can compete here.

In 1996, Keyes finished fourth in the Illinois presidential primary with 30,052 votes (3.67 percent of the Republican vote). In 2000, Keyes was a distant third, with 66,066 votes (8.96 percent), only because he was the last conservative to stay in the race.

In 1992, Keyes paid himself an annual salary of $100,000 from campaign funds while he ran for the Senate, then refused to pay off his campaign's $45,000 debt. Maryland Republican Party chair Joyce Lyons Terhes declared, "When he decided to use campaign funds for his salary, that discouraged a lot of Republicans, and even Maryland voters." Many of his top campaign staffers from 1992 refused to support his run for president. Keyes has paid off his Senate-campaign debts, but, according to Federal Election Commission records, he owes nearly $525,000 from his failed presidential bids.

Perhaps the greatest scrutiny of Keyes has come as a result of the charge of carpetbagging. Republicans -- who had been planning to denounce Obama as an interloper raised in Hawaii and educated on the East Coast who came to Illinois a mere 15 years ago -- suddenly find themselves with a candidate whose main connection with Illinois consists of flying through O'Hare International Airport.

On the Fox News Channel in March 2000, Keyes rejected the idea of running for Senate in New York: "I deeply resent the destruction of federalism represented by Hillary Clinton's willingness go into a state she doesn't even live in and pretend to represent people there, so I certainly wouldn't imitate it." Keyes said, "I do not take for granted that it's a good idea to parachute into a state and go into a Senate race. As a matter of principle, I don't think it's a good idea." That principle got tossed aside when the lure of a prominent political race was offered to him.

In running for the Senate, Keyes is making a seemingly impossible quest. A CBS 2/Newsradio 780 poll taken after Keyes was selected found that of 500 adults, 75 percent thought it was inappropriate for a nonresident to run. Keyes had an 18 percent favorable/33 percent unfavorable rating, compared with Obama's 48 percent favorable/22 percent unfavorable numbers.

The story of Alan Keyes

Obama's campaign juggernaut scared away many other candidates, but Keyes isn't afraid to lose. To understand why, one must look at Keyes' background.

Born in 1950, with a career-military father, Keyes was elected president of Boys Nation in high school, met President Lyndon Johnson at the White House, and spoke to the American Legion in Dallas. During the late 1960s, Keyes considered following his father into the military but ultimately avoided the draft thanks to student deferments and a high draft number. Keyes attended Cornell University, where his favorite teacher was legendary conservative Allan Bloom. When Keyes denounced black students for an armed takeover on campus, he reported receiving death threats. Keyes spent a year studying in Paris with Bloom, then followed him to Harvard, where Keyes earned his doctorate in government. A fan of J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) and a Trekkie, he plays classical guitar and even considered a career as an opera singer.

In 1978, Keyes entered the State Department Foreign Service. As a member of the policy-planning staff headed by Paul Wolfowitz, who is now a key foreign-policy and defense adviser to Bush, Keyes was the black face used by the Reagan administration to oppose economic sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa. Keyes also worked as a low-level diplomat at the U.S. Consulate General in Bombay, India, where he met Jeane Kirkpatrick. When she became the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Reagan, she hired Keyes in 1983. Keyes spent two years as U.S. representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (UNESCO), a job that Keyes still uses to be called "ambassador."

In 1988, Kirkpatrick was approached to run for the U.S. Senate in Maryland after the Republican-primary winner withdrew. Kirkpatrick rejected the offer but suggested Keyes instead, and a conservative star was born -- a losing star, but a star nonetheless.

Keyes' failed 1988 Senate campaign led to a job running Citizens Against Government Waste (1989-91) until Keyes' failed 1992 campaign, which led to a radio talk show, The Alan Keyes Show. His failed 1996 campaign for president helped him double his speaking fee from $7,500 to $15,000 per speech. And Keyes cashed in on his failed 2000 primary performance with a cable-TV show in 2002 on MSNBC called Alan Keyes Is Making Sense. The only problem: Viewers didn't agree that Keyes was making sense, and anemic ratings (Keyes was averaging 258,000 viewers in one month, a third of those pulled in by CNN or Fox News) caused MSNBC to cancel the primetime show. For Keyes, losing elections has been a good career move in promoting himself.

Keyes on race

Keyes is also legendary for playing the race card. He quit his State Department job in 1987, blaming it on a racial snub by Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead. (Keyes accused Whitehead of looking past Keyes and speaking to subordinates while arguing over Keyes' plan to withhold funding for any UN committees that refused to support U.S. policies. Whitehead called the charge "outrageous" and "inaccurate.")

In 1992, when he wasn't given a prime speaking spot at the Republican National Convention, Keyes made headlines by blaming the decision on racism and accused fellow Maryland Republicans of being racist for not supporting him. Keyes spoke twice at the convention, including once in primetime. Because the Republican National Committee withheld financial support for his losing cause, Keyes accused them of racism and complained that in the Republican Party, "colorblind means that when a colored person walks in, you suddenly go blind."

Running for president, Keyes accused the media of "a blackout to keep the black out." Salon.com reporter Jake Tapper recounted that after the Oct. 28, 1999, presidential debate, Keyes accused journalists of being racist because they didn't ask him questions in the pressroom: "The people of this country have gotten over their racial sickness -- I don't know that you folks have. I think that merit means nothing to you because you can't look past race. And I think I'm deadly sick of it. If you're not in the mold that's supposed to correspond to what you folks say is 'black,' what you claim are supposed to be the attributes of the race, then you're shut out."

When Tapper pointed out the media attention to African-American Republican J.C. Watts and asked him about it, Keyes responded, "The very question is a racist question!" Keyes told the media, "You do to me what you did to my ancestors! You ignore my successes, just as you ignored my ancestors' successes. You ignore it and then you report it so people can think badly of me. And then you want to tell me you're not a racist!"

Keyes told USA Today in 2000 that he was excluded from media coverage because of racism: "I think it's racially motivated. And it's racially motivated not in the sense of just being against blacks but being against black conservatives, who would threaten the base of left-wing liberalism in America." Keyes claimed that the media was playing a "Stepin Fetchit game of racial politics." When an interviewer praised his oratorical skills, Keyes called it racist because it denigrated his ideas.

As Kevin Merida noted in the Washington Post in 2000, "How do you explain a black man who regularly uses slavery metaphors to make his points and yet complains he has been racially typecast?"

When Keyes invokes the civil-rights movement, it is only to make a point about his favorite issue, abortion. Keyes has said, "I believe I fight the same battle, when I speak on behalf of the unborn, that Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. were fighting."

Keyes even argues that abortion "is committing genocide against black people in this country with devastating demographic results that we have already seen in the course of the last census."

When it comes to race, what Keyes rejects is the idea that any black person -- except for Alan Keyes -- suffers discrimination. Keyes told Larry King in 2000 that if he was the victim of a "driving while black" police stop, he would not blame police but would fault the "black folks out there disproportionately committing certain kinds of crime."

Although Keyes is opposed to affirmative action, his selection was itself a case of affirmative action. Before choosing Keyes, the Republican State Central Committee interviewed 13 candidates for the U.S. Senate job (including Daniel Vovak, a guy in an old-fashioned white wig who had been living out of his car for the past month). They picked two African-Americans as finalists: Keyes and moderate Republican Andrea Barthwell. Certainly no one can claim that it was just coincidence that, in running against an African-American Democrat, the Republicans chose two African-Americans as their finalists.

Filmmaker John Ridley noted, "Maybe it's because the Republicans don't normally practice affirmative action that they're so clumsy at it when they try."

Why would the Illinois Republican Party pick a candidate from so far away and so far on the right? According to Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times, Keyes' selection was arranged by state Senators Dave Syverson, Kirk Dillard, and Minority Leader Frank Watson, who apparently believe that Keyes can help solidify the Republican base downstate and bring out voters to win three key state Senate districts.

Mike Lawrence, an aide to former Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican moderate, described Keyes' selection as a "cynical ploy." Other Republican moderates have been lukewarm in their reception of Keyes.

Greg Blankenship, who runs the "Obama Truth Squad" Web site and is founder of the Illinois Policy Institute, calls Keyes' candidacy "truly nuts" and "borderline delusional." Blankenship says, "I've dealt with Keyes personally. . . His ego is too big for the Senate, Presidency, and probably God."

Even the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine edited by Keyes' Harvard roommate William Kristol, calls the choice of Keyes a "fiasco" in an online article by Republican consultant Mike Murphy.

"I'm certain Ambassador Keyes is now busily printing up some 'Crazy Times Demand a Crazy Senator' yard signs," Murphy wrote.

That Republican centrists are running from the Keyes' candidacy shouldn't come as a surprise. Keyes has consistently attacked moderates in his party, especially those who are pro-choice. He's denounced what he calls the "Schwarzenegger corruption of the Republican Party," referring to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention. According to Keyes, "on all the matters that touch upon the critical moral issues, Arnold Schwarzenegger is on the evil side."

Don't expect George W. Bush or the national Republican Party to throw support behind Keyes, either. The last thing Bush needs to do is waste his time in a lost state for a hopeless cause standing next to a loose cannon who has mocked him in the past as "Massa Bush" and accused him of being too liberal.

In May 2000, Keyes threatened to leave the Republican Party unless Bush selected an anti-abortion running mate and the party platform supported a constitutional amendment banning abortion. Keyes toyed with running for president as part of the far-right Constitution Party but ultimately agreed to endorse Bush.

Sex, marriage, and Nazis

Keyes' extreme views touch on most hot-button social issues, from gay marriage to the separation of church and state.

Gay marriage, Keyes warns, will cause "the destruction of civilizations," and he has equated the "homosexual agenda" as "totalitarianism." In fact, Keyes claims, "Hitler and his supporters were Satanists and homosexuals." To Keyes, "The notion that is involved in homosexuality, the unbridled sort of satisfaction of human passions," leads to "totalitarianism," "Nazism," and "communism."

According to Keyes, "Since marriage is about procreation, and they can't procreate, it is a logical requirement that they can't get married." Keyes is indifferent to the fact that heterosexual couples incapable of or unwilling to have children can get married, as he is to the fact that many gay couples have children. Keyes seems oblivious to this reality: "Homosexuals are not haunted by the prospect or possibility of procreation -- because they're simply not capable of it. I think this is pretty obvious, isn't it?"

Yet Keyes is alarmed that lesbian couples are allowed to have children by means of artificial insemination because the children of lesbians who don't know their fathers might get together and be unknowingly related: "That means that an incestuous situation could easily arise in our society; it's more than likely to arise -- not to mention every other kind of incestuous complication."

At a May 14 rally in Boston against gay marriage, Keyes even declared that gay and lesbian couples don't have sex: "It's not entirely clear to me you can call them sexual, because in point of fact, sex is no part of what they do. Real sexuality is about the distinction between male and female, as expressed in the body and its differences."

Keyes may be against gay marriage, but he doesn't have a problem marrying religion and government. He has denounced what he calls "this silly argument" that there must be a separation between church and state. "Entirely a lie" is what he calls this long-standing principle of American government, even claiming that the U.S. Constitution grants states the right to establish churches or impose religious tests on political leaders. Not even Keyes' allies on the far right have endorsed his remarkable views about the Establishment Clause.

Keyes also advocates the idea of executive nullification, giving a governor or the president the authority to disobey a court order he believes violates the Constitution. According to Keyes: "The right response of a chief executive in this state and in this nation, when faced with an order by a court that he conscientiously believes violates the Constitution he is sworn to respect, is to refuse their order!"

Keyesian economics: The slave tax

If his views on abortion and homosexuality seem outside the mainstream, Keyes' economic ideas may be even stranger. Keyes opposes what he calls "the slave income tax," and he means that term literally: "What do we call it when you work and someone else controls 100 percent of the fruit of your labor? We call it slavery. Therefore, I am not talking in metaphors here."

During a 2000 presidential-primary debate he referred to "Massa Bush" and his tax-cut plan because "this is all a discussion between the masters of how well or ill they're going to treat the slaves."

Keyes urges repeal of the 16th Amendment, which allows for a federal income tax, and instead advocates a 20- to 23-percent national sales tax, with exemptions for some basic good and services, to replace all federal income and payroll taxes.

But Keyes is no typical free-trade Republican. He denounces international trade pacts such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement as socialistic and subversive. "By joining the World Trade Organization," Keyes has argued, "We subvert the American constitutional system."

He's diverged from Republican orthodoxy on other matters as well, including criticism of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, an initiative of the Bush administration. Keyes has said that the Patriot Act could lead to abuses: "Give someone the label 'terrorist,' and they can be flushed down some executive hole."

And Keyes has also been sharply critical of the Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East: "We need to see the Saudi money and the Saudi people and Saudi encouragement of religious extremism have, if not directly committed these acts of terrorism, been deeply implicated in the infrastructure of terrorism."

But, for the most part, Keyes' views represent the far right of the Republican Party. Keyes supports removing all limits on campaign contributions and spending; opposes a minimum-wage increase; and supports partial privatization of Social Security payroll taxes.

Keyes wants to close Department of Education and use federal money for schools exclusively as vouchers for parents. He advocates teaching high-school students how to use guns. Evolution, on the other hand, should not be taught because it "utterly destroys the foundation for any sense of a transcendent basis for human justice." He blames the torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib on sex-education classes: "What have we done on the campuses and elsewhere but encountered sex education courses and classes that push at our young people the legitimacy and normalcy of pornography?"

Keyes links gun control to higher taxes: "If you can't be trusted with your guns, guess what else you can't be trusted with? Your MONEY!" Keyes has even hinted that gun control justifies armed revolution against the U.S. government. Citizens, he says, have a duty to "resist and overthrow the power responsible" if their right to have guns is "systematically violated." In 1999, Keyes even seemed to threaten the president by saying, "the Second Amendment is really in the Constitution to give men like Bill Clinton something to think about when their ambition gets particularly overinflated."

Why Keyes?

Diehard Republicans and Keyes fans (sometimes known as "Keysters") are thrilled to have a prominent right-winger running in a traditionally moderate state. Moderate Republicans are much more worried, although they have publicly jumped on the Keyes bandwagon.

Why would Republicans (who rejected Jim Oberweis because his anti-immigrant ads were perceived as too bigoted) choose a candidate with a long record of extreme statements against gays and lesbians, against abortion rights, against free trade, and even against moderates in his own party?

One reason is that they believe that Keyes will continue to be immune to close scrutiny by the media.

But up against an African-American opponent, Keyes can no longer use the race issue to stifle criticism.


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