Good Vibrations

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.

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Jonathan Fox
Contact: Jonathan Fox