The Very Dark Horse 

Meet the Clevelander most likely to be on the 2004 presidential ballot. (Hint: His name isn't Dennis.)

Gary Nolan is a "name"  in 65 radio markets --  but not - his hometown. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Gary Nolan is a "name" in 65 radio markets -- but not his hometown.

There is nothing of the glad-handing politician in Gary Nolan. He's terrible at remembering names. He dislikes pressing the flesh. When it comes to details about his personal life, forget it: He actively resists providing the self-serving anecdotes most politicians relish.

Nolan greets his audience at Case Western Reserve without the experienced stumper's warm-up: no corny joke, no telling anecdote, nothing to put the audience at ease. Instead, he launches directly into an attack on Social Security. During his 50-minute address, he never mentions that he grew up in Cleveland Heights, graduated from Cathedral Latin, or lives on West Boulevard. It's not about him or connecting with the audience. It's all message, all the time.

And it's a far bolder message than any Republican or Democrat would espouse. Nolan is a Libertarian, which puts him so far to the right, he's almost left. He wants to dump the FDA, the EPA, and public schools. He wants to eliminate the federal income tax, the Federal Reserve, and federal immunity. Heroin should be legalized, he argues. So should concealed weapons.

It's an extremism that makes Nolan unlikely to be the next President of the United States. He knows that. "What'll it take to win?" he muses in his sonorous radio voice. "A lot of us in churches and synagogues, praying."

But unlike Cleveland's other presidential wannabe, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Gary Nolan is likely to be on the 2004 ballot. Libertarian activists consider him the front-runner for their nomination. Steve Dasbach, the former national party chairman running Nolan's campaign, puts his chances at 80 percent.

"I've known all our candidates since 1980, and I think Gary will be the strongest candidate we've ever fielded," Dasbach says. "He's more experienced in talking to real people, and he's got a better handle on how to express issues in ways that connect with them."

His predecessors, alas, haven't exactly set a high standard. Voters tend to equate Libertarianism with anarchy. The last Libertarian presidential candidate, Harry Browne, earned less than half of 1 percent of the vote in 2000. Next to that, Ralph Nader's 3 percent looks positively dominant.

Still, there's long been a sense that the party is underperforming. As Dasbach points out, more Americans identify with broadly Libertarian beliefs -- small government, personal freedom, and low taxes -- than with Republican or Democrat platforms.

On the municipal level, the party is gaining ground, claiming more than 300 officeholders. Though the list includes such powerhouse posts as the Tewksbury, Massachusetts, sidewalk committee and the Ortonville, South Dakota water board, "You can't say that about the Greens," Dasbach says optimistically.

Republicans have become concerned enough to start swinging. The conservative Weekly Standard bashed Libertarians for costing the GOP "a number of victories in the last election," claiming it took just enough votes to let Dems win South Dakota and Oklahoma seats in the U.S. Senate. Meanwhile, Libertarian Ed Thompson picked up 11 percent in his run for Wisconsin governor -- though being the brother of a popular ex-governor certainly didn't hurt.

Nolan won't be doing Republicans any favors either. An ex-GOPer himself, he's eager to tap into the faction that believes George Bush is far too willing to spend their tax dollars, be it on education or Iraq.

"Ronald Reagan wanted to pass the torch, and none of these buffoons in the Republican Party would take it," says Nolan's buddy Michael Wilson, who owns the Seattle company that peddles Political Grounds, coffee marketed via right-wing humor. "I'd vote for Gary in a heartbeat, and it wouldn't be a wasted vote."

But, he adds wistfully, "I'd like to see him stay in the Republican Party and move it back where it needs to be."

A talk-show host for almost a decade, Nolan spent the last four years at Radio America, the conservative powerhouse that also employs Oliver North. Nolan at Night had listeners in 65 markets and was considered one of the top 100 talk shows in the country, says Mike Paradiso, Radio America's chief operating officer.

Nolan had always been a staunch Republican. It was one of the reasons he got into radio. "I'd watched Phil Donahue for years," he explains, "and I always thought, 'There's got to be a counter to this guy.'"

Yet after a few years on the air, he found his perspective changing. Fans say he was a good host because he listened and encouraged real debate; in the end, the debate changed him.

It wasn't a huge shift. He'd always believed in limited government. What changed was his faith that the GOP could deliver it. "Has the size of the government gotten any smaller during any Republican administration?" he asks. "I realized I'd been brainwashed."

There was also the drug war. Nolan has never used drugs or even drunk booze. Naturally, he supported tough anti-drug laws -- until he debated a dissenting retired cop on his show. "I thought I'd eat him alive," Nolan says. "But I realized that no argument against legalization holds water."

In 1999, Nolan formally denounced the GOP on the air and signed on as a Libertarian. The party, always glad for a marquee name, issued a national press release.

Four years later, he announced his run for President. The timing was good: Radio America pulled the plug on Nolan at Night last November. (The parting was amicable, both sides say, though neither will provide specifics.) Nolan believes his radio connections will attract attention not commonly afforded third-party candidates. Both Chris Matthews and Peter Arnett were on his show, for example; he thinks they'll return the favor.

Ralph Z. Hallow, national correspondent for The Washington Times and a frequent Nolan at Night guest, agrees. "Media people know him, and he knows them," Hallow says. "I don't know anyone, across the spectrum, who doesn't have a respect for him."

That, Nolan knows, may be his greatest gift of all. The classic third-party quandary is that the media won't take candidates seriously unless they show they can win. But they can't win without extensive media coverage. Nolan has already been filmed for C-Span's Road to the White House, the first Libertarian to receive such attention.

His Beltway prowess, however, doesn't mean he has a foothold in Cleveland. "Nolan at Night" never aired here. So despite local roots as solid as those of any Sweeney or Corrigan -- his late father was a structural steelworker, and his family still owns a Lorain Road watering hole called Nolan's -- he remains anonymous in a town desperate for celebrities.

"It was news to me that he's a Clevelander until I talked to him a few months ago," admits Brian Gomez, the party's Northeast Ohio chairman.

Still, Nolan is eager to make some headway around town. A big, genial guy with puppy-dog eyes, he takes the stage at Case as if the campus Libertarian Club is the McLaughlin Group. He works through issues painstakingly, detail after detail, eschewing lines that solicit easy applause. The crowd -- about 30 students, mostly true believers -- gives him props anyway.

He's no less earnest one-on-one: Over a caffeine-free Diet Coke at Nolan's, he gladly waxes enthusiastic on the evils of high taxation and the war on drugs. There's no "I" in his patter; he's not driven by a messianic complex, he's looking for converts to the cause.

Bar patrons seem none too interested in the would-be Commander-in-Chief. "They know Gary, and they know he's just a nice, regular guy," explains his sister, Maureen Nolan, who runs the place. "He doesn't say, 'I was just speaking to Dick Cheney.' I do that. I'm the cheerleader."

A longtime Republican herself, Maureen is ready to cross party lines for her little bro -- and hopes to bring with her the good lunch-pail Democrats who drink at Nolan's. It won't be easy. Cleveland has never been a Libertarian hotbed, and it's not likely to get much attention from the Nolan for President campaign, homeboy or not. "We're going to focus on markets where we've had some success," says Dasbach, such as California and Massachusetts.

There are practical considerations, after all. Despite their success on the Ortonville water board, the Libertarians remain a fringe party, and Nolan will have to work with a budget of about $2 million. That's some $190 million less than George W. spent last time around -- pretty tough odds to beat, even with C-Span on board.

More by Sarah Fenske


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