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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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."