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. Switchboard.com, 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.

In Chicago, we meet up at a trendy Asian fusion restaurant. In tow are his 25-year-old daughter (he has three others, including a 2-year-old) and his attractive second wife, Sarah, who is 11 years his junior. His first marriage broke up, he says, "because she didn't love me anymore." Sarah is partly responsible for his presidential run. Tired of seeing him barking at the television, at the corrupt and profligate Republican leadership as well as at the feckless president (Cox supported the war, but calls its mismanagement "nothing short of an absolute disaster--Iraqis are pumping less oil today than they were before we invaded"), Sarah told him, "Why don't you do something about it?"

They were supposed to go on a trip the next day, but Cox stayed up all night. Waking early the next morning, Sarah found him sitting in the living room at 6 A.M., reading a Reagan book. "He said, 'Honey, I'm going to run for president.'" Her first reaction: "Oh. My. God." Her second reaction: "I said, 'Well, if you want to do it, go ahead.' He's got a lot of energy."

Cox feels that none of the current crop of Republicans is actually carrying the leadership mantle of Ronald Reagan. And it's not, he wishes you to know, like he's one of those weirdo Reagan fetishists. Reagan had plenty of faults. "It's not that he was some giant," Cox says. "It's just that he stood head and shoulders above all the other midgets."

Cox feels he can do the same, given the faux-conservative "Rudy McRomney" midgets currently in the on-deck circle. He says he doesn't even necessarily want to be president--he has a great life--he just wants to see the job done properly. "I'm pissed, because I expected something better out of a conservative Republican president. On everything--Iraq, immigration, spending." And many true conservatives he meets feel the same, which is how a no-name like him can win a South Carolina straw poll, a feat he mentions at the slightest prompting, or at none.

The next morning, I arrive early at the Intercontinental Hotel to get a good seat for Cox's brace-yourself announcement--that he has paid his $25,000 registration fee, and is on the South Carolina ballot. I needn't have bothered. There's nobody around, except for some California Closet Company conventioneers. When I ask the concierge where the John Cox press conference is, he says, "John who?" Cox's amiable press secretary, Dan Herren, a South Carolina political hand who's a Re/Max realtor on the side, tells me this isn't out of the norm. When Cox tells strangers he's running for president, a common reaction is "President of what?"

I find my way to the proper room. A "JLS Foods Inc." sign is still in the placard bracket from an event the day before. Only two reporters are there--a guy from a radio wire service and me. Cox, who is silver-haired and trim, immaculately tailored in a charcoal suit with a blue pinstripe, looks disappointed but not surprised. He muses that it doesn't help that the nationwide May Day immigrant-rights rallies are taking place the same day. Not only are illegals taking our jobs, they're taking our publicity.

Still, even while he makes plenty of noise about the need to seal our borders, the corrupt Mexican government, and a crackdown on businesses that hire illegals, he will not set his hair on fire by becoming a pandering immigrant-basher--he points to fellow GOP hopeful Tom Tancredo as an example. "I refuse to lower myself," says Cox. "I'm a businessman. I've got clients. I'm not going to make myself out to be a buffoon."

Cox eyes us two journalists, then says, "No need to go there," nodding at the podium. Instead, he pulls up a chair next to us. "It's much more intimate this way," I say, trying to make him feel better. "Most of my gatherings are pretty intimate," he says, with a pained smile. He tells us he is on the South Carolina ballot, and hits the highlights of his platform: how he wants to eliminate the IRS and our disastrous, confusing, punitive tax system and go to a "fair tax" (a consumption tax), how he's pro-life and pro-Social Security reform, how he's anti-spending and anti-corruption. I can't speak for the radio reporter, but to me it sounds pretty good. Though he didn't have to go into all those details. He had me at "eliminate the IRS."

Later, Cox, Herren, and I adjourn to his well-appointed Gold Coast apartment, which stands sentry over Lake Michigan, on the 45th floor of a high-rise. His mahogany-paneled office evidences how different he'd be from Bush, who has bragged that he is undistracted by reading newspapers. Cox, by contrast, has three TV monitors on the wall beaming nonstop news, and has eight postal bins filled with newspapers. He reads five or so a day during his morning workout on a recumbent bike. Since he and Sarah spend four months a year at their place in Naples, Florida, he's accumulated a backlog--the papers in the bins--which he intends to go through to make sure he hasn't missed anything.

But it is not current events Cox has on the brain. Or rather, it is only one current event--the Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley. It's going off in two days, and all Republican candidates have been invited to participate. All, that is, except Cox. It makes him feel like the only kid left out of the class birthday party, and it's taking a psychic toll. He gets Joanne Drake on the phone from the Library, which is organizing the debate along with MSNBC and Politico.com.

He is extremely courteous: "Hello, Joanne, my name is John Cox, and believe me, I understand you are probably running around like a maniac." He tells her he feels he should be included, but understands that he isn't. He tells her that he won a straw poll in South Carolina, and got more votes in other straw polls than many of the better-known candidates.

He tells her, "It's so ironic that this is at the Reagan Library, because I love Ronald Reagan. I've been to your library three or four times. You know who [supply-side guru] Arthur Laffer is? He's written that he fundamentally agrees with everything about my book"--his new 220-page book, Politics, Inc., that sets out his ideas. (As a novice, Cox is under the mistaken impression that presidential campaigns are about ideas.) If they won't let him debate, the least she can do, pretty please, is to let him plead his case to the media in the spin room. She says she'll run it up the flagpole and get back to him. She never does.

It doesn't matter though. John Cox is a true conservative, and he doesn't wait for others to make his good fortune--he makes his own. So Cox, Herren, and I, along with his wife, two-year-old daughter, and nanny, fly out to Los Angeles anyway. Cox hasn't exactly worked out what he's going to do. Herren had suggested perhaps hiring Lincoln and Reagan impersonators to stage a debate about why Cox should be included. But they decide against--wouldn't be very presidential.

He tries all morning to call various MSNBC executives and is extra irate because at the last second, CNBC cancels a much-needed television appearance he was supposed to make on Squawk Box. "I have a feeling I'm causing ripples up and down MSNBC--they want me to go away," he tells me. "Wasn't I personable? Rational? Courteous? There's a fine line here. I don't want people thinking I'm a crazy man, calling and threatening. I'm just a believer in the U.S. Constitution. In the Soviet Union, they blackball candidates. Let the public decide if I'm crazy or legitimate."

As we arrive at LAX and Cox is loading his luggage in a rented Highlander, he finally gets NBC News senior vice president Phil Griffin on the phone: "I don't want to make trouble, all I want to do is see America get better. I'm not a kook. I'm a substantial person. I won a straw poll." He asks Griffin to let him in the spin room. Griffin says he'll make some calls and get back to him. He never does.

The debate is the next day, so Cox wants to run out to the Library to scout out its penetrability. We drive an hour and a half in rush hour traffic from our Santa Monica hotel to get there at closing time. Cox enters the atrium of the Library, and asks to see his old nemesis, Joanne Drake. He looks official, so security starts to get her on the phone, asking if he has an appointment. Cox, who is nothing if not honest, says he doesn't, but he's a presidential candidate. The formerly friendly security guards start to exchange nervous looks. When Cox spots a media rep, and tries to corner her to again make his spin-room pitch, we are all asked to leave the grounds immediately.

I'd suspected this would be our reception. So I'd made some back-up plans. Before joining up with Cox, I'd told him that I was credentialed for the debate, so he should get someone from his campaign to apply to be my photographer, which Herren had done. The next day--debate day--we arrive early at the press credentialing table. I pick up my lammie, and Dan picks up his, giving it to Cox. Cox and I board the media shuttle bus at the bottom of a hill that runs us up to the Reagan Library. Cox, it appears, will have his day in the spin room.

But he is unhappy about the whole arrangement. It demeans him, he feels. I tell him to get with the program. His look is all wrong. For one thing, he's wearing American eagle suspenders over a crisp, white dress shirt. If he wants to pass for a journalist, he can't go around looking patriotic. "Put on your suit jacket," I tell him. As we arrive at the Library and walk through its gates, I give him more pointers on how to pass for a reporter. "If you see anything free, especially a drink, take it," I say. I hand him a prop reporter's notebook, and tell him if anyone asks why he's not holding a camera, since he's supposed to be my photographer, tell them he's taking mental pictures.

As I leave him at a courtyard buffet table, where journalists are inhaling raspberry sugar cookies and iced tea (the bar doesn't open until later), I turn to interview some elderly docents, who give me details on the Library's architecture and vegetation. I watch out of the corner of my eye, as Cox, on his cell phone, walks across the lawn. He might as well be wearing a neon "imposter" sign: His posture is too good, his clothes are too pressed, he is way too distinguished-looking and silver-haired, like Blake Carrington out for a stroll--really un-journalist-like. He disappears from my radar. Minutes later, when I find him again, he is standing next to a burly security goon outside the gate. I ask him what happened. "Umm, the guy came over and found out who I am." I ask how that could've happened. Not a single person had recognized him since we'd been there. "I told him," Cox says unapologetically. "I'm not going to lie to anybody."

We are bounced from the debate before it even begins. As we ride past the fringe-sters on the curb--Ron Paul supporters wearing dolphin suits to illustrate Mitt Romney's flip flops, guys in "Stop Chemtrails" hats, etc.--Cox grows reflective:

"Am I an anarchist? What have I done to merit the treatment I'm getting here? This country needs leadership, leadership from people who've actually accomplished something in their lives. What you saw demonstrated today is the real problem. Who, with any level of achievement, would want to get involved in this nonsense? If you've achieved something, created value and wealth in a business world where intelligence and skill and inventiveness are rewarded, is it going to be attractive to go into politics where you've got to steal a press pass to get heard?

"And so what do we end up with for leadership? We end up with the sons of former presidents who put us in a war and botch the whole thing up. We end up with politicians who make deals for bridges to nowhere. Is that what we want? Someone who's been in public office their whole life? Will that prepare them for solving problems? What prepares you to solve problems, I would submit, is a life spent actually solving problems. Actually doing something. Am I wrong?"

Cox will have his debate one way or another. So we go back to our hotel on Santa Monica beach. A good fiscal conservative, Herren's sought out a cheap wedding videographer instead of an expensive LA film crew to show up with a camera. Since the hotel room doesn't get MSNBC, Cox's wife mans the live Internet debate feed, waiting for questions to be asked, then hitting the mute button, so Cox can answer for the benefit of the videocamera and eventually a YouTube audience. He wants to show America what they missed. He rips for 90 minutes straight, taking all questions, sometimes taking them twice, when the same question is batted around to multiple candidates who are actually at the debate.

His isn't a performance for the ages, but it's surprisingly good. I expected a clown show. But there are no gaffes. He is fluid and calm, optimistic without seeming Pollyannaish, critical without seeming a crank, at ease with all issues--a man who knows his own mind and isn't afraid to speak it. After his one-man debate, as he sits down at a desk, he seems reinvigorated.

"What's frustrating," he says, "is that I know I could've done well up there. But they won't let me off the bench. Actually, they won't even let me in the stadium to sit on the bench. So I guess I'm making my own stadium." And he is, too. A week later, he sues Fox News to force them to let him into their televised debate. As the New York Sun reported, "During his announcement at the News Corp. [parent company of THE WEEKLY STANDARD] building in Midtown yesterday, Mr. Cox had to compete with red-spandex-clad cheerleaders for the New Jersey Nets who had arrived at the same spot to promote the team. While dozens stopped to gawk at the women, few paid attention to Mr. Cox."

It doesn't matter, though--he's used to being overshadowed. Presidential campaigns are a marathon, not a sprint. He will stick to the end. Or his name isn't John Cox.

Matt Labash is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.