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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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.