Dodging the Yogic Fliers

Buchanan faces a curious transcendental challenge

Newsweek, July 9, 2000
By Matt Bai

Pat Buchanan is outraged that he'll be barred from the debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush if he wins the Reform Party nomination. "If we are excluded," he said recently, "then the American democracy is, in some sense, a fraud."

There is, however, one man who's more than willing to debate Pitchfork Pat: John Hagelin, a quiet quantum physicist who champions the power of Transcendental Meditation. Hagelin has emerged as the Reform Party's anti-Pat candidate, and suddenly he seems to have a real chance at snatching the nomination. The party's executive committee demanded last week that Buchanan agree to debate Hagelin. But Buchanan refuses to share a stage with the opponent he dismisses as "this character." Democracy, it seems, has its limits.

Buchanan still laughs loudly and easily, but there must be days when he wonders where it all went. Four years ago he was savoring his victory over Bob Dole in New Hampshire. Now he's locked in a struggle for his political life with a man who once took 4,000 "yogic fliers" to Washington to see if they could reduce violent crimes through meditation. (The murder rate soared.) Meanwhile, Buchanan's Reform Party is imploding. Factions in at least 10 states are suing each other over who should be seated as delegates at next month's convention in Long Beach, Calif. So stunning is the enmity that Buchanan has decided to accept Secret Service protection before he walks onto the convention floor.

This is not exactly how Buchanan envisioned it when he bolted the Republican fold last year to seek the Reform nomination and its $12.5 million in matching funds. The Perot camp was desperate to keep Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura from taking over, and Buchanan had the cachet to do it. But when Perot's state delegates wouldn't pledge loyalty to Buchanan, his famous Brigades began overwhelming the meetings and electing their own delegates. "When somebody extends a welcome hand to you, you shouldn't try to rip the fingers off that hand," says Russell Verney, Perot's top political aide.

"This is a brilliant guy [Hagelin], but I don't think I'd feel comfortable with him running the country." - Dr. Robert Park, author of the book 'Voodoo Science'

So now the Perotistas have thrown their support to Hagelin, the only other candidate who qualified for the primary. In a party stacked with political oddities, he redefines the term. A Harvard-trained physicist, Hagelin worked at Europe's most prestigious physics lab and at Stanford, where he coauthored an important theory on "Flipped SU(5) Supersymmetric Grand Unification." (You don't want to know.) But then he strayed into a more spiritual realm, landing at the Maharishi University of Management in Iowa. Last year he was on the "Roseanne" show, offering to quell hostilities in Kosovo by sending in his flying yogic meditators. "This is a brilliant guy," says Dr. Robert Park, author of the book 'Voodoo Science.' "But I don't think I'd feel comfortable with him running the country."

Aggressively upbeat, Hagelin maintains that everything he has done is based on empirical research and has yielded credible results. He claimed in a published paper that his 1993 meditation experiment in Washington actually reduced violence overall. "I have yet to meet a scientist who carefully read the study who hasn't been impressed," Hagelin says. A presidential candidate twice before with the Natural Law Party, whose beliefs mirror his own, he triumphed over arcane ballot laws using a network of students and meditation devotees. These days Hagelin talks like a New Age libertarian. He wants lower taxes and opposes more gun laws. He's helped Congress with ideas for preventive medicine, like buying treadmills for patients before they need expensive bypass surgery.

Hagelin does have one advantage: it may take a quantum physicist to comprehend Reform's byzantine nomination process. About 900,000 ballots are now being mailed and will be tallied at the convention. A confident Buchanan is counting on some 400,000 people who scribbled their names on his petitions, but it's unclear how many of them are real supporters. The Buchanan camp is already suggesting that the election could be rigged. If he loses, Buchanan could try to get two thirds of the delegates to overturn the vote. If he wins, his enemies may sue in an attempt to tie up the matching funds. Either way, the hostility is only going to intensify. A little meditation couldn't hurt.

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