This is not the place you'd expect to find a physicist. It's early September, and John Hagelin stands before nearly 400 roaring delegates and supporters in a hotel conference room in suburban Washington, D.C., accepting the presidential nomination of the obscure Natural Law Party. It is roughly one month since he made a similar claim to the nomination of the Ross Perot-founded Reform Party at its convention in Long Beach, California, futilely insisting that he, not perennial presidential wannabe Pat Buchanan, was the rightful nominee of the Dallas-based group. Rebuffed at the Reform powwow, devotees gathered at the Hagelin convention and held up yellow signs embossed with an unintentionally sarcastic assessment of the Hagelin campaign's chances: "Hagelin/Goldhaber 2000: Anything's Possible."
The 46-year-old theoretical physicist, wearing a crisp navy suit, waits patiently for chants of "Go, John, Go!" to subside. Balding, but with a youthful and serene visage marred only by conspicuous bags underneath his eyes, Hagelin thanks his audience and launches into a John McCain-esque denunciation of special interests. "I'm running as a scientist to bring a common-sense approach to government of what actually works," he says, "not what's bought and paid for by special interests."
The first few words of that sentence--"running as a scientist"--are actually more interesting than his policy stance, because they beg the question that hounds Hagelin: "So how did a Harvard-educated nuclear physicist, who co-wrote a treatise that built on Einstein's theory of relativity, end up as a fringe presidential candidate and professor at a low-ranked Iowan college where all subjects elucidate the teachings of an aged New Age guru?" Part of that is answerable by recounting his personal history, of course. A quantum shift in Hagelin's life occurred in 1983 when he left Stanford in the midst of personal problems stemming from a messy divorce. A year later, he turned up at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, to head the physics department. Within a decade, he had combined his obvious intelligence with a fervent belief in Transcendental Meditation to become a New Age candidate with legit academic credentials.
But his background also serves to highlight just how deep the goofiness of his candidacy runs. Despite his invocations of science and authoritative tone, Hagelin the presidential candidate is far removed from the stomping grounds of his earlier years, the prestigious Swiss CERN laboratory (the European Center for Particle Physics) and the Stanford Linear Accelerator. Once considered a top scientist, Hagelin's former academic peers ostracized him after the candidate attempted to shoehorn Eastern metaphysical musings into the realm of quantum physics.
He has found a home in the Natural Law party, where another group present had made a similar passage from credibility to absurdity. They included Ross Perot's longtime political advisor Russell Verney and several other disgruntled former leaders of the Reform Party. Kicked out of the party after refusing to recognize Pat Buchanan as the party's presidential pick, they staked their political credibility to Hagelin by testifying he was the rightful nominee of a hijacked party.
Their presence illustrated a bizarre tale of how the deposed leaders of a once formidable, solidly Middle American party formed in the cauldron of early-'90s populism were lulled by a candidate and political party under the swoon of the strange New Age charlatan. Hagelin is a disciple of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the aged founder of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement and its related worldwide moneymaking empire that achieved fame after the Beatles briefly joined his flock in the '60s. The thought that regular meditation has health benefits is nearly mainstream today, but the structure built around the TM philosophy strikes religious notes and is much more questionable, even cult-like, critics say. One of the Maharishi's deepest-held beliefs is that the aura created by platoons of incredibly focused meditators prevents crime and wars, an assertion backers claim is supported by scientific "research"--much of it done by Hagelin.
Beyond this largely laughable claim, critics say the Maharishi has a larger goal: Secure government funding to build the TM dominion under the rubric of improving health care, education, and other areas. The U.S. Natural Law Party, one of more than 80 chapters worldwide established by the Maharishi during the '90s, is a political vehicle with the apparent aim of bagging more tax dollars for TM, even though a federal court declared it a religion in the '70s. As well, the Maharishi has made comments that he believes democracy to be a "corrupt" form of government in need of elimination.
Hagelin plays a starring role in this nuttiness. In 1993, he took legions of meditators to Washington, D.C., in a failed attempt to lower the city's notoriously high murder rate, and he (unsuccessfully) offered contingents for peacekeeping missions to Kosovo and the Persian Gulf. Since Hagelin's '92 and '96 campaigns flopped, he adopted a new strategy of sweeping his stranger metaphysical claims under the rug and trying to swallow other third parties. In part of a divided and desperate Reform Party, he found a sucker.
Old-line Reformers don't think they're being played by a strange operator, though. In an affidavit to election authorities, even two-time candidate Ross Perot (retired from politics) said he supported the Hagelin faction. Its backers' far-fetched hope: Hagelin's campaign will catch fire and recapture the Perot glory days and surpass Buchanan's campaign. Of course, they also believe that backing a man whose spiritual guide once claimed people could levitate is a good idea.
Dallasite Paul Truax is one of the veteran Reform Party activists listening to Hagelin's message. At a Garland Steak & Aleduring lunch, Truax works on a chicken plate while spelling out his reasons for supporting Hagelin and running mate Nat Goldhaber, most of which center on the fact that Hagelin is not Pat Buchanan.
"He is not a radical right-winger, and that is what I like about him," Truax says. "The Hagelin/Goldhaber combination is a much better fit for what the Reform Party stands for and the majority of its members stand for."
Truax has been with the Reform Party since its auspicious beginnings in 1992 when billionaire Ross Perot first announced on CNN's Larry King Live show that he would run for president if voters would get him on the ballot in 50 states. At the time, Truax and his wife were lying in bed watching the program, and the prospect of a Perot run immediately thrilled him. In fact, his reaction is described in an appropriately TM-esque way: "My wife says she didn't know a man could levitate and say Hallelujah."
Truax became one of Perot's most committed grassroots supporters. His hope didn't ebb after Perot lost the election: Shortly thereafter, Truax joined Perot's United We Stand America advocacy group and became vice president of its Texas arm. When in 1995 Perot founded a political party for his second presidential run, Truax was there, even if many Perot voters had wandered away. He helped found the Reform Party of Texas and also served in the national party as a Southwest regional representative and executive committee member.
So it came as quite a shock to Truax that this election year, he and other founding Reformers were ejected from the party that they built from scratch. Another view may be that Truax essentially ousted himself after protesting the party's post-Perot pick for nominee. The party's new standard bearer, Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative commentator and firebrand, bolted the GOP to run under the Reform Party's banner--and nab its alluring $12.6 million kitty, federal-matching funds earned from Perot's 8 percent showing in 1996.
Truax has nothing but contempt for Buchanan. He complains about Buchanan's "predatory" political tactics and "ultra right-wing conservative" agenda. "To see Ross Perot's gift to America being trampled by these foul-mouthed Mongol hordes irritates me beyond words," he says.
Despite such rancor, Buchanan came to the Reform Party by invitation. Even Truax admits he spent $10,000 of his own money this year traveling the country to stump for Buchanan before breaking with him. What happened?
Desperate for a candidate with name recognition to keep their party afloat, Reform regulars invited Buchanan into their ranks with one proviso: He would stress the party's standby issues of economic nationalism and fiscal conservatism--and not divisive social issues such as gays and abortion. This agreement, predictably, quickly evaporated. Once Buchanan had seized the bulk of the party's internal machinery, his "culture war" rhetoric came out of the closet. The original Reformers could do little after giving him keys to the house.
Tensions came to a head at the Reform Party's rowdy August convention in Long Beach, California, where the Buchanan critics staged a counter-convention to nominate Hagelin that they claimed made him the genuine representative of the party. Both conventions labeled the other illegitimate, staking a claim to the Reform Party mantle and the millions in federal funding. Buchanan handily won the battle; last month, the Federal Election Committee cut him the check, and a California state court issued an injunction barring the Hagelin faction from using the Reform Party moniker.
Despite their cause's apparent defeat, the anti-Buchanan forces--including Truax, Verney, and former Reform Party Chairman Jim Mangia--haven't given up. Like other party stalwarts, Truax goes to great lengths to defend Hagelin against the suggestion that his beliefs are too unorthodox. "If I had a choice between a criminal meditating or committing a crime," Truax says, "I'd take the meditation"
No Lotus-positioned meditators, however, were visible in Alexandria for the remainder of Hagelin's acceptance speech. In the address, he eschewed cosmological themes to elucidate reasonable, if debatable, policy planks, such as preventative medicine and renewable energy. Critics say each campaign Hagelin has run has seen him further de-emphasize TM's stranger elements.
"In '92, TM was put in the forefront," says Barry Markovsky, a University of Iowa sociologist who has studied the TM and Natural Law organizations. "In '96, that disappeared completely and pretty much has stayed that way. They found it was just too weird and off-putting, but it remains the basis of everything."
Luckily, brazen public kookiness is well-documented and not too far in Hagelin's past. One instance transpired in 1992, when he challenged candidates Clinton, Bush, and Perot to submit to "brain mapping" by electroencephalogram (EEG) to determine their mental fitness, a provocation that enticed a rebuke from Jonathan Pincus, chairman of Georgetown University's neurology department. He said while EEGs are instrumental in spotting neurological disorder, "they have nothing whatsoever to say about a person's moral fiber" or intellectual qualities.
Another episode occurred in June of 1993, when about 4,000 TM practitioners traveled to Washington, D.C., with one bold and transcendent goal: to lower the violent crime rate by at least 20 percent in a city rife with violent crime and municipal chaos--through the power of incredibly focused meditation. They also harbored national ambitions, seeking to raise President Clinton's falling popularity ratings (a botched universal health-care effort and gays in the military were to blame) while increasing amity in a fractious Congress (gays in the military and universal health care were to blame).
The legions of TM devotees who jetted to Washington from across the world in June of 1993 were certain their two-month "National Demonstration Project to Reduce Violent Crime," funded with $4.2 million from the TM treasury, would be an unparalleled success. By meditating en masse, they hoped to produce what TM leaders dub "the Maharishi effect," radiating a powerful yet invisible "coherence of consciousness," similar to radio waves, that would lower tension across the city--and as a result, take a bite out of crime.
Indeed, their predictions went, even D.C. denizens unaware that rows of mantra-repeating, lotus-positioned meditators had populated their city would be positively affected by good vibes. Would-be felons' stress levels would drop as well, and they would be less inclined to, well, shoot or stab somebody.
Heading the operation was Hagelin, one of the TM movement's newest stars. He confidently predicted that after the Washington experiment's conclusion, "You should see a resumption of previous levels of crime...So we can be very bold about the results and take credit for it."
Two months passed. Good vibrations radiated from meditation locations, yet TM disciples were unable to stop one of Washington's worst seasons of mayhem ever. "The weeks that followed seemed like something out of an old mad-scientist movie--an experiment that had gone horribly wrong," says Robert Park, a University of Maryland physics professor and director of the American Physical Society's Washington office, in his recent book Voodoo Science. "Participants in the project seemed serenely unaware of the mounting carnage around them...The murder rate for those two months reached a level unmatched before or since."
Yet on July 29, 1993, Hagelin and other TM leaders held a news conference to claim victory. They weren't modest in stating their achievements, attributing improved relations between President Clinton and Congress and several world events to their efforts. Most important, Hagelin gave TM credit for less crime.
Number-crunchers were skeptical, to say the least. Fewer robberies and assaults occurred during TM's tarriance than the previous year, but what about a whopping 50 percent rise in murders and a 9 percent jump in rapes? (An astounding 90 killings occurred in Washington during those two months.) "Homicide is the toughest nut to crack," answered Hagelin in a troubled tone, promising he would return to elaborate further.
And he did. At an October 6, 1994 press powwow, he unveiled a 55-page "scientific analysis" of crime during the TM sojourn. The meditators' peaceful presence, he claimed, had actually decreased violent crime by 18 percent, according to a "scientifically rigorous time-series analysis" based on weather, changes in the earth's magnetic field, and other factors.
Skeptical scribes asked: Eighteen percent compared to what? Even more violent crime would have occurred, he claimed, had the thousands of meditators not been present. Predictably, city officials passed on Hagelin's $5 million proposal for a permanent Washington contingent of TMers.
And what would said contingent do to keep itself occupied other than live on the dole and bounce up and down blissfully on padded floors? Hagelin had a suggestion last year when he magnanimously offered the U.S. government 7,000 meditators and allegedly levitating "yogic flyers" to quell hostilities in war-torn Kosovo. But Hagelin has yet to answer one question pertinent to such military forays: Can yogic flyers dodge bullets?
Reporters present might have asked: Just who were these people holding weird press conferences? It's necessary to first look at the practice of Transcendental Meditation and its bearded founder the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi--former guru to an A-list of stars from the Beatles to Burt Reynolds and now-estranged New Age healer Deepak Chopra--to understand Hagelin and TM's political effort.
The elderly Maharishi, in his 90s and directing his empire from the Netherlands, founded TM in 1957 with one dovelike message: "The basis of life is unbounded bliss and it can be experienced effortlessly by anyone." Ever since, he has been adding new facilities and higher-level techniques to the mix--most notably, yogic flying, in which advanced "TM-Sidhi" students bounce in a Lotus position under the belief that they are spreading peace and levitating, a practice blamed for many back injuries. (Officially, TM leaders admit yogic flyers haven't yetachieved airborne status.)
Meanwhile, the Maharishi is regarded practically as a deity by his following: A TM-operated Web site claims "His Holiness" Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is "considered to be the greatest teacher in the world today." In a 1990 Life magazine article, John Hagelin said the guru will bequeath a legacy "far greater than that of Einstein or Gandhi."
The Maharishi, known for habit of giggling while dispensing pearls of wisdom in videotaped meditation sessions, also heads several multibillion-dollar businesses, ranging from natural medicine products to an architectural design firm. But the essence of TM is the starter program (current cost: $1,000), which TM leaders claim five million people have taken. New recruits receive a mantra, a single word in Sanskrit they repeat for 15 to 20 minutes during twice-a-day meditation. Like other forms of meditation it relaxes its practitioners while lowering heart rate and blood pressure, benefits corroborated by a strong base of research.
While TM advocates tout their program above other meditation regimens, researchers say TM works about as well as other methods. But adherents don't stop at testimonials that TM simply makes you feel good. They cite more than 500 studies to prove that TM has a more powerful impact--including the vaunted "Maharishi effect."
Barry Markovsky, the Iowa University sociologist, said the institution has an insatiable need for validation in scientific journals and newspapers. "Once they publish in a certain journal," he said, "they start to call it 'the prestigious journal,' but that's almost never the case. They are almost always barraging journalists with articles, and every once in a while something gets through."
Even as Hagelin wins more visibility for TM in the United States, however, his organization is fighting decline that has dovetailed with hippiedom's demise. TM's heyday was in the '70s, when it made its way into schools and prisons in Western nations. In the U.S., officials and judges eventually booted TM out of public institutions on the same grounds as students' being unable to lead prayers at public school football games: TM is actually a religion.
The final nail excising TM from most of the public sphere was a 1978 federal court ruling in New Jersey that declared TM religious. The religion revelation flew in the face of adherents' frequent claims that TM is a mere self-improvement technique with no religious or philosophical bent. (Hagelin frequently indicates he's an Episcopalian.)
Indeed, critics assert that TM is a bastardized form of Hinduism that doesn't acknowledge its roots. For instance, religious experts say TM's "puja" initiation ritual closely resembles ceremonial offerings to the Hindu god Shiva, while supposedly meaningless Sanskrit mantras that devotees repeat during meditation actually invoke Hindu deities. Why deny ties to one of the world's great religions? According to the Concise Dictionary of Religion, Maharishi denies TM's grounding in Hinduism "to appeal to a wide spectrum of people who might otherwise have ignored his teaching."
John Knapp, an ex-TM teacher who operates a document-laden Web site critical of Transcendental Meditation (www.trancenet.org), suggests another motive. While other cultic groups lobby the IRS and other tax authorities for the prestige that religious status brings, TM leaders go the reverse route because they're "trying to get into government and get funds for meditation," says Knapp, who left TM in 1990 after 23 years of working as an instructor, press officer, and other roles within TM.
Knapp, who lives in upstate New York and is working on a master's degree, faults TM for its moneymaking focus (the Maharishi holds a trademark on TM) and laughs at the idea that TM could help reduce health-care costs, one of the Natural Law party's key claims. He recounts paying thousands for "courses, food, supplements, yogic flying, medicine, astrology chart, yagya, flowers to the statue of Shiva...It just goes on and on." Knapp also admits to being part of TM's frequent yogic flying club. "I believed I was flying," he says, "but I can tell you right now I was building huge thigh muscles by jumping up and down in the Lotus position."
Knapp is also one former follower who hurls the "cult" label at TM, claiming it isolates members from society, tightly controls the behavior of followers, and doesn't tolerate dissent. The claim is a familiar one for TM, which in 1991 reached undisclosed settlements with several ex-followers who claimed they suffered psychological damage and were induced by fraudulent means to stay in the movement at the expense of their careers, education, and adult development.
Even so, Knapp admits that not all Transcendental Meditators are cult-like. Rather, he says 90 percent of meditators take a starter course at local TM centers and eventually leave with only a nice memory of "incense, flowers, and smiling gurus."
The other 10 percent become more involved. He recalls "constant unrelenting psychological pressure" during the time he spent in Swiss TM training centers, the Iowa Maharishi university, and elsewhere, environments where adherents often weren't allowed to read the news or talk to family members. He says he even once participated in a book burning. Tomes that were "full of stress," including the novel Love Story, were thrown into the blaze.
Knapp has redirected his criticism of TM toward its newest incarnation, the Natural Law Party, and party leader Hagelin. "When Hagelin talks about 'scientifically proven solutions,'" he says, referring to the party's proposals for crime, health care, and other issues, "he's talking about TM products."
Meanwhile, the TM movement has puzzled outsiders by sending bizarre love letters to third-world dictators, a practice not yet noticed by the mainstream media. Heralding the "dawn of a New World Order of Peace" in an April press release, a statement from the Maharishi University of Management praised "the invincibility of President Fidel Castro of Cuba, the freedom of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, the Divine Rulership of President Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia, and the casting off of corrupt democracy by Robert Guei of the Ivory Coast."
Denunciation of "corrupt democracy" not only echoes the Maharishi's avowed repudiation of that form of rule, but sheds light on the Natural Law party's call for "all-party" rule. "Democracy has had its time," Maharishi told followers in the fall of 1999. "Democracy must now be replaced by a system of administration that will create an integrated unified nation." The press release reprised failed attempts in the 1980s to convince third-world nations to devote large parts of their economy to TM. During the '90s, however, the Maharishi shifted his strategy of weaving TM into the fabric of society by establishing Natural Law parties worldwide.
For Hagelin, the passage to kookdom occurred gradually. Even at the Maharishi University of Management, Hagelin continued to distinguish himself scientifically for some time.
Along with his mentor John Ellis, head of CERN's theoretical physics department, and other scientists, he co-authored the theory "Flipped SU(5) Supersymmetric Grand Unification." It's a treatise, according to Nature, that is "one of the better-accepted unified field theories" that seek to bring together all of the physical laws into one tidy package--but the theories are "highly speculative," according to physicist Robert Park, director of the American Physical Association's Washington office.
A Transcendental Meditator since his teen years, Hagelin ultimately wasn't content to keep his scientific and spiritual pursuits separate. Eventually, he sought to extend the Flipped SU(5) theory to human consciousness, thus attempting to bring the "Maharishi effect" into the fold of quantum physics. The move appalled Hagelin's former scientific colleagues and shattered the remains of his mainstream credibility.
"A lot of people he has collaborated with in the past are very upset about this," Jorge Lopez, a Texas A&M physicist, told Nature in 1992. "It's absolutely ludicrous to say that TM has anything to do with flipped SU(5)." John Ellis of CERN also told Hagelin to knock it off with his "flaky" assertions, to no effect.
Most ignominious of all, Hagelin was awarded an "IgNobel" prize in 1994 by junk science debunking Annals of Improbable Research Journal. But the clear-minded Hagelin pays little heed to such criticism, even calling Robert Park's book Voodoo Science, which heaps doubt on Hagelin's 1993 TM experiment in Washington, a work of narrow-minded "smut."
A witty and affable debater, Hagelin appeared on Nightline, Politically Incorrect, CNN Talkback Live,and other shows in the wake of the Reform Party convention to plead that he is the rightful heir to the Reform Party nomination. Only months ago, those TV programs wouldn't have even fleetingly considered granting a forum to the small-time contender. On August 11, that changed when Hagelin stood before at least 100 supporters at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center to give his first major public address.
Earlier that day, Hagelin led a symbolic walk-out from the main convention to a hastily set-up doppelgänger function at the arts center. The civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" was sung, symbolizing Buchanan's supposed oppression of the party. Speaking before his supporters, Hagelin hit not only on generic Reform Party themes, such as campaign finance reform, but also on more esoteric topics such as organic farming and other Natural Law issues. "I accept with humility and pride the mantle of H. Ross Perot," he told a euphoric crowd on nomination night, August 13.
How did Hagelin make it to Long Beach? He stepped in when the party that Dallas billionaire H. Ross Perot created in 1996 as a vehicle for his second presidential run fractured over Buchanan. By the time Perot loyalists changed their minds about Buchanan, he had already begun peopling state conventions with his foot soldiers. Livid, the old guard began looking for an anti-Pat, but found few takers. Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, the nation's first Reform governor, had already been driven from the party after he tried to play kingmaker. Ralph Nader and Sens. Gary Hart and San Nunn, as well as actor Warren Beatty, didn't bite.
Enter John Hagelin, eager for alliances with other third parties, especially after an attempt to commandeer the fledgling Green Party fizzled. Despite the appearance of many shared values, especially on environmental matters, Green Party activists soured on Hagelin last spring when he released glossy materials claiming he had led a "Green-Reform-Natural Law" coalition before consulting them. "I took great offense when he unilaterally declared the Green Party part of his coalition," says Nancy Allen, a Maine-based spokeswoman for the Association of State Green Parties.
Reached in Iowa, Kingsley Brooks, co-chairman of the Natural Law Party, admits that Hagelin's outreach attempts to Greens were a flop. "They accused us of trying to take over the party," he says, denying any underhanded strategies in their bid to join forces with Greens. (He also denies that the Natural Law party is chiefly about TM and says TMers have actually become a minority in the growing party.) Anyway, the Green debacle is ancient history to Natural Law Party backers, who had better luck lassoing the disorganized Reformers.
A few blocks away in the city's convention hall, Pat Buchanan was also accepting a Reform Party nomination. Broadcast live on C-SPAN, Buchanan's shindig looked more professional, with large TV monitors and upbeat, patriotic rock anthems. But Hagelin, whose show C-SPAN recorded for later airing, insisted he was the genuine nominee, citing allegations of ballot fraud made by his campaign and the Perot loyalists against the Buchanan campaign.
Buchanan strongly denied the charges, and Hagelin's allegations have yet to find an audience either in court or in election bureaucracies, where officials avoid internecine party battles. The question of who exactly was the real Reform Party leader remained unanswered until September 13, when a California state court forbade Hagelin the use of the moniker "Reform Party."
The ruling capped a costly battle in state courts across the country, which proceeded at times on a more humorous level as some state officials choose Hagelin or Buchanan for the ballot line by picking names out of hats. (Buchanan won Iowa, while Hagelin won Montana by a hat pick.) The tussle over the $12.6 million in federal-matching funds also added to Buchanan's consternation, delaying his campaign for several weeks until the Federal Election Commission officials finally awarded him the funds.
Despite both defeats, Hagelin claims he leads the "true Reformers." He has certainly proved himself a foil to Buchanan by confounding his campaign in vote-rich Michigan, where officials refused to allow either candidate on the ballot. Texas may count as one of Buchanan's few solaces: Hagelin cannot contest Buchanan for the Reform Party ballot line in Texas because it won't appear there, since Buchanan qualified as an independent candidate. (Hagelin may not appear on the Texas ballot at all. Election authorities disqualified the Natural Law Party after a statistical sampling found a plethora of invalid addresses on their ballot-access petitions.)
Meanwhile, Hagelin's emergence and support from Reform Party dissidents have baffled his critics. "This is strange," said Robert Park of the American Physical Society, which represents the nation's physicists. "I wonder if they quite understand what Hagelin has stood for." Others speculated that the anti-Pats didn't care at all about Hagelin, but needed a "stalking horse" to taunt Buchanan. Anyone would do. "The old-time Perot people, I'm sure they're privately embarrassed by this stuff," said David Gillespie, a political scientist and third-party expert at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina.
Some Perot stalwarts openly admit their lack of knowledge about Hagelin, scratching their head over issues such as genetically modified food (Hagelin's staunchly against it); others say they had no clue Natural Law parties had been established in 85 nations under the watch of the Maharishi. Nevertheless, supporters insist they have much in common with their new candidate. "It's a free country," says Jim Mangia, a founding national secretary of the Reform Party who is leading the Buchanan backlash. "Some of us believe in the Virgin Mary, some of us believe in meditation."
What about Hagelin's overtures to head off warfare in Kosovo and the Persian Gulf by dispatching legions of levitators? Interestingly, Mangia wasn't skeptical of the notion, but said it represented one of many credible ideas suppressed by deep-pocketed special interests. "Given that everything else over there has failed, I don't know why they shouldn't try that," Mangia said. "I'm not into meditation personally, but there has to be more on the table to how we solve the problems of the world."
In The American Prospect, a left-of-center political magazine, one observer connected the party's future chances to Reform leaders' willingness to embrace such ideas: "As I watched the week's goings-on," says Alexander Nguyen, "I thought I could hear in the background a giant sucking sound--the Reform Party's once formidable influence yogically flying into the atmosphere."
All through the summer, candidate Hagelin said he is primed for victory. He claims he's harnessed an "emerging vibrant independent political movement in America," and even predicts a come-from-behind, Jesse Ventura-like win in November. "In every single area we have winning ideas that are long overdue," he told the Dallas Observer in a brief telephone interview. "We have a foundation for a grassroots insurrection at the ballot box more than Perot did."
For now, at least, the anti-Buchanan faction of the Reform Party isn't perturbed by Hagelin's cosmological rants on so-called "universal fields of intelligence," or the possibility their new leader is a grade-A kook. As long as Hagelin is "moderate" on issues such as gay rights and abortion, they're willing not to look so deeply into his background. "TM is certainly not a danger to our liberty like right-to-life is," says Reform Party veteran Beverly Kennedy of Dallas.
Why put their weight behind such a strange bird, or even bother to continue with Reform Party politics after the party has gone a different direction? Why not throw in the cards for this election and try again next time from scratch?
Vindictiveness against the Buchanan campaign, which has taken over the party and steered it in a new direction, seems the obvious answer. Nevertheless, Reform Party dissenters insist that they too have come to embrace Hagelin's agenda after getting to know him better. "He's a very impressive person, and everybody likes him," says Kennedy, who cites Hagelin's stands on genetically modified food and renewable energy as dynamic issues she believes the Reform Party should adopt.
Meanwhile, Hagelin the scientist-turned-TM evangelist has tapped a new audience. Indeed, for Linda Curtis, a Reform Party veteran from Austin who also attended the Long Beach convention, Hagelin's TM affiliation is actually a plus, because his unflappable nature has impressed her. "He seems like a really calm guy," she says. "I've seen him in confrontations, and he doesn't get angry at all."
Admiring Hagelin's unruffled nature, she adds one more comment after a moment of reflection: "Maybe I should try TM."
Perhaps that's the idea.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.