The Magazine

The Sane Fringe Candidate

Meet John Cox, Republican candidate for president.

May 21, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 34 • By MATT LABASH
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Los Angeles

When you have a name like John Cox--a plain vanilla name, an achromatic name, a name that people with more distinctive names would choose if they'd committed a heinous crime and needed to start afresh on the lam--it's easy to feel like everyman and no man., the online directory, says that there are 1,979 John Coxes throughout the land. But there is only one John H. Cox. Actually, there are 66 of them. But there's only one who is running to be president of the United States of America.

That John Cox, the Chicago millionaire who was the first declared Republican candidate (as of March 2006), called our offices a few weeks ago. He sounded vexed. He sounded desperate. He sounded like a man who was tired of screaming into the void. He needed something that any self-assured, self-contained, well-adjusted person who enters the political arena needs: He needed the validation of people he'd never met.

A good Reaganite conservative, Cox has tried to be self-sufficient, financing his campaign thus far to the tune of $800,000. After 20 trips, he's been to all 99 counties in Iowa. He's been to New Hampshire 14 times, and South Carolina, 10. He's won a Republican straw poll outright in Aiken County, South Carolina, and finished fifth in total votes among all Republican contenders when three other counties were totaled. And yet, he's lucky if he ever gets mentioned in mainstream media candidate roundups. Meanwhile, doing interviews with the Small Government Times just isn't putting him over the top.

I'm not going to lie, I felt sorry for John Cox. He needed some media attention, and last time I checked my lapsed 2002 congressional press pass, I was a member of the media. I decided to redress this injustice and go see John Cox. I've spent a fair amount of time around fringe candidates, but he didn't seem like the others. He doesn't own a sandwich board or a megaphone. He never says "blood for oil" when critiquing the war in Iraq. His suits fit, and he has no tendrils of out-of-control ear hair.

By no means is he humorless, but he seems like a serious person. Let him tell it: "I'm a serious person." Born poor on Chicago's South Side to a mother who was raped by a father who split shortly thereafter (he points to his very existence as the reason he's adamantly against abortion), Cox, 51, is a self-made man. He finished college in two and a half years "because I was paying for it," he says, adding, "My daughter finished in five years--because I was paying for it." He later went on to start several businesses: a law/accounting firm, an investment advisory firm, a real estate management company, and a venture capital firm. In the mid-'90s, he led a group that purchased the Jays Foods potato chip manufacturer, sparing more than 600 local jobs and taking it from a $17-million loss to a $3-million profit in less than a year.

In the red flag department, he has run unsuccessfully for office in Illinois three times: in a congressional, senatorial, and Cook County recorder of deeds race. But even in his most recent loss, in 2004, his high principle was in evidence. He spent around $200,000 of his own money running for the recorder's job on the promise to eliminate the position as wasteful spending if he won--the kind of idea that used to fire up conservatives back when they were, how to put it, conservative.

Still, if you're not an elected official or a celebrity, there is no surer way for a serious person to come to be considered unserious than to run for president. When I informed a colleague that I was going to write a piece on a sane fringe candidate, he looked at me disbelievingly: "Isn't that an oxymoron?"

The advantage of writing about someone who has absolutely no chance of winning is that you get to dictate terms. I agreed to see John Cox, but told him there'd be some conditions. I would not be manhandled or warded off at crucial junctures by any punk press secretaries. Also, I would be granted exclusive access. He told me nobody wanted access, so that wouldn't be a problem. He added that I'd better get out there shortly, he was having an important press conference on Monday. That would mean I'd have to fly to Chicago on Sunday. But it was perfect weather outside, and I wanted to get some fishing in over the weekend. "Can you bump it to Tuesday?" I asked. "I don't see why not," he said.