March 3, 2006

Thanks for Changing My Life President Browne

Harry Browne changed my life. It’s hard to imagine he’s gone. He was a mentor, an inspiration, and, I’m most pleased to say, a friend.

In 1996 I was already a political-junkie who had worked on campaigns. I’d also edited and published an independent conservative student newspaper in college. But I was brought into the libertarian movement by Harry Browne. I had just become a politically homeless conservative. Harry Browne was on C-SPAN. The timing couldn’t have been better. The messenger couldn’t have been better.

My last conversation with Harry Browne was on New Year’s Eve, 2005. He sounded tired, but I will never forget the call.

He wanted to tell me how much he appreciated my friendship… how pleased he was to see what I had accomplished. When you look up to someone the way I did to Harry Browne, that means a lot.

It wasn’t always that way. Harry Browne was, as Pamela wrote in an appendix to his 1995 book, Why Government Doesn’t Work, a “perfectionist.” It was a dream come true to come to work as his Press Secretary for the 2000 campaign. But it wasn’t always easy. I can’t tell you how many times I didn’t quite make the mark. Looking back, I realize Harry was almost always right. I had a lot to learn – and you can bet I did.

Harry Browne did an impressive number of interviews that year, on top of personal appearances and travel – over 800 of them from mid-February until Election Day. One time that I didn’t measure up was Day One of the campaign. Harry’s book was overdue and as we neared announcement day, we were hesitant to bother him. But Harry always wanted to know everything that was going on – especially if it was in writing.

Without checking with Harry, I assembled a press kit for the media and distributed the materials to each of the outlets interviewing him that week. The first week kicked-off with a bang. Harry probably did 30 or so interviews in those first few days – many of them to a national audience.

My unapproved “innovation” to the press kit was a rewrite of a 1996 campaign piece that I labeled, “The 12 Steps to Freedom.” And it was a real hit. The folks interviewing Harry latched right on to it. An Associated Press (AP) reporter who had interviewed Harry early on the first day, made all 12 points available on the wire. That meant virtually everyone interviewing Harry had them – except Harry.

On day two of the campaign, while on national live television, he was asked, for what must’ve seemed to him to be the umpteenth time, to talk about his 12 point plan. Harry told the interviewer he didn’t have a 12-step plan. The interviewer was bewildered because he had a copy of it.

Harry’s response was priceless: he said the reporter at the AP apparently made up the list.

Adding to the humor of the moment, the points were being displayed on the screen, right next to Harry’s face!

It’d be cute if that was the end of the story. I was actually outside by the car during the interview and so didn’t see the exchange. While Harry was at another interview that day, my cell phone rang. The AP reporter was on the other end of the line.

I mainly remember the volume of his call. He wanted an apology and a pound of flesh. He felt Harry had sullied his name. How dare he get his facts wrong! Since this was the first I’d heard of it, I was caught quite by surprise and I promised to find out what happened.

I told Harry about the call. He asked to see the press kit. In fact, he took the “12 Steps” with him back to his hotel that night. But he couldn’t help finding the whole thing amusing. “Imagine,” he said, “A reporter who is upset because he was misquoted. It’s a true man-bites-dog story.”

Harry Browne should be most remembered for his outreach skill. He was the Jim Brown or Michael Jordan of persuasive outreach to the masses. He was unlike any typical evangelist you’ll ever meet. He never flailed his arms, didn’t raise his voice and shout, and yet, he was the best libertarian evangelist ever.

No one in the libertarian movement has ever done a better job of presenting those ideals in an easy-to-understand and persuasive manner. It has been said that the path to libertarianism, “usually begins with Ayn Rand.” Well, for a bunch of people I know and have read online in the last several hours – as well as for me – it began with Harry Browne.

The reason Harry was the best communicator wasn’t his Gary Cooper delivery. It wasn’t that he looked and sounded like he’d walked out of Central Casting. It wasn’t his Hemingway-esque style of writing. It wasn’t even what Harry himself thought it was.

Harry thought that his greatest strength was speaking in terms of benefits to the audience – “You” was the most important word. For example, he didn’t say he was going to end the income tax because it was unfair, un-American, un-Constitutional, or just plain wrong. No, Harry wanted to end that tax because he wanted, “you to be able to keep what you earn; to save, to spend, to give away as you see fit, not as the politicians determine.”

But I don’t think that was the real reason he was the best.

Harry’s secret to effective communication was his discipline. He was incredibly self-controlled and well-organized. He kept all kinds of data. One of those forms of data was his soundbite file. When I came to work for the campaign, that file already had nearly 800 soundbites. Harry understood that, in some cases, he only had one chance to make a first impression and only seconds to say what he intended. He wanted it to be perfect.

He never thought on his feet. No, he would take his best ideas, write them down, rehearse them, and then deliver them. If he had a new idea, he’d note that, modify the old or just add the new idea to the list, and then deliver the new stuff. No one else did this – and you could tell! Fortunately, you can see a polished version of the soundbite file in his final book, Liberty A to Z: 872 Libertarian Soundbites You Can Use Right Now (published by the Advocates for Self-Government).

Here are some of the gems:

  • Government is good at only one thing. It breaks your legs, hands you crutches, and says, “See, if it weren’t for us, you wouldn’t be able to walk.” Government programs have run up the price of health care, so it tells senior citizens, “You couldn’t survive without Medicare.” Its subsidies have caused college tuitions to skyrocket, so it tells young people, “You couldn’t go to college without student loans.” If government had taken over the auto industry in 1920, today we’d all be driving Model-T cars – and saying, “If it weren’t for the government, we’d have no cars at all.” Government has caused us to forget how easy life was before the government broke our legs.
  • Some people say the libertarian program to reduce the federal government goes too far; that it throws out the baby with the bathwater. But we have to remember – it’s Rosemary’s Baby.
  • When you think you are turning something over to “the government,” in reality you are turning it over to Teddy Kennedy, Jesse Helms, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, and the rest of the gang. Whatever the issue, when they write the law to implement it, there will be a federal building in it for West Virginia, to satisfy Robert Byrd; there’ll be a research center for Massachusetts, to take care of Teddy Kennedy; a subsidy for Archer-Daniels-Midland for Bob Dole; and so on. This isn’t what you asked for, but that’s the way government operates – and it’s the way government will always operate.

Harry even had some things to say about death.

  • I am 70 years old. I hope to live another 20 or 30 years – 40, if we can get rid of the FDA.
  • Since government supposedly can do whatever it sets out to do, the president should sign an executive order outlawing death. However, as with all other laws, Congress should be exempt.

It’s unfortunate that this was his final book. He had at least three more in him. He had lots to do and he knew it.

After the campaign was over Harry planned to write a book on the Drug War. He created a proposal and even had a taker, but the advance was too meager and so Harry was going to put it off until later. A book on the insane War on Drugs by Harry Browne was bound to be unique and persuasive. And because Harry Browne was so conservative in his demeanor, it was likely to be a very valuable tool.

But then came September 11, 2001. Harry had warned that a day like this was coming. He was actually surprised that some of those who’d listened to him and supported him were shocked by the attack. He thought the anger should’ve been directed at the geniuses who’d managed our nation’s foreign policy. What he did next might be considered courageous by some and foolish by others. But for Harry, it came naturally to write a column titled, “When Will We Learn.” It was his most-read column, ever. It was even published in foreign languages.

Harry became a man on a mission. He wanted everyone to understand how bad War was… the terrible role our political leaders had played in creating the situation… and, as time went on, how they weren’t telling us the truth. He wrote many other columns. Spoke out whenever he had the opportunity. And he helped us build the amazingly prophetic site.

For a book on this subject, a sufficient advance was arranged. Harry Browne went to work on a book he intended to call, The War Racket. But it was, as Harry explained to me, a book unlike any other he’d ever written. Harry was well-read in his history, but after starting on the project he realized that “well-read” wasn’t enough. He collected literally dozens of books, read them all, and made copious notes. He struggled with the structure – often the hardest thing about writing a book. He wrote a great deal, and then re-wrote, only to rewrite again as he was unable to deliver a manuscript on time. The publisher canceled the deal.

Harry had a great deal of work to do, and so he went on. Running for President twice wasn’t good for his finances. And he was passionate about spreading the ideals of liberty and peace.

This partial list of activities would’ve been exhausting to a man half his age… Not only was Harry the co-founder and Director of Public Policy for the Downsize DC Foundation and, but he also wrote columns for a variety of publications (most of them online), did a radio show he liked to call “the libertarian conversation,” and another radio show on investing (both on the Genesis Communications Network). He became President of the Free Market News Network for much of 2005, and did an online TV show for them. He also did some private investment consultations.

There was little time to work on the War Racket. But he was eager to get back to it.

Finally, he should’ve written an autobiography. No one could’ve told his story as well as he would have. Harry was an American original. It would’ve been a fascinating read. Michael Cloud suggested a title for this book: The Freest Man Who Ever Lived. That sounds like a sequel to his 1973 classic, How I Found Freedom In An Unfree World.

We would’ve profited from the pleasure of each of those books. Perhaps we’ll still see the War book, but it’s the autobiography I most would’ve liked to have read.

Everyone is entitled to their own reflections and memories, but as I read what others have written, I feel motivated to set the record straight…

  • Harry didn’t regret running for President as a Libertarian. Quite the contrary. He would remind his staff that we had a fantastic division of labor – we did all the work, he got all the credit. The former wasn’t true. We all were proud to work for him because he represented us so well. While I don’t feel he got the credit he deserved, he certainly was happy. His last public appearance, where he gave a speech from a wheelchair, included warm, enthusiastic, and long standing ovations both before and after the speech. Harry was touched.
  • It is inevitable if you get into politics that you will have critics – people who think you didn’t do things right. It is also inevitable that if you’re good, you will have enemies. It’s unfortunate that some folks can’t leave bygones be, but Harry certainly moved on. Harry didn’t believe in grudges. He wanted to move on and enjoy life. Those who appreciated him and wonder how he felt about it all will be pleased to learn that Harry was none the worse for wear.
  • Harry was not a “Doom-and-gloomer.” He wasn’t a Nervous-Nellie. He simply explained the situations that faced us. But despite how down others might get by news of devaluations or wars, Harry wasn’t stockpiling, wasn’t scared, and wasn’t telling others to be. Frankly, he was almost Pollyanna in his attitude. He had a firm belief that things would work out in the long run. He just thought things could be better sooner if we worked for it and spoke the truth.

Harry Browne was a unique, special individual. He changed my life. Take Harry Browne out of my life, and I would be in a radically different place. Well, I’m great where I’m at! Thank you, Harry Browne.

You were my President!

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