Fred Karger, Republican candidate for president, knows there is no chance he will be the GOP nominee, much less the next leader of the free world. “I’m not delusional,” he says, though one might wonder what, exactly, he is thinking.
Karger is no political naif. He spent nearly 30 years as a campaign advisor to several of California’s top Republicans and served as an election strategist for corporate clients, including cigarette maker Philip Morris. His trophies — a home a block from the ocean in Laguna Beach, a second one above Laurel Canyon and a silver Mercedes to ride between the two — speak to his success.
Prosperous enough to have retired at 53, Karger can travel the world and, for two years, he did: Australia, Europe, South America. But these days, Karger spends most of his time in Iowa and New Hampshire, burning through roughly $25,000 a month in personal savings in an improbable quest for the White House and, maybe, a bit of respect.
Karger is gay, a fact he kept hidden for most of his 61 years and his entire professional life, and if it sounds like some kind of joke (a gay Jewish Republican walks into a precinct…) or strains credulity (a gay Jewish Republican president?), Karger laughs right along. But he’s not kidding.
By running for president and trying to get on stage for at least one debate — the overriding goal of his candidacy — Karger hopes to send a message to people like himself: a boy growing up outside Chicago and, later, a closeted adult, shamed by society’s view of his sexuality and too scared to admit, even to himself, who he was.
They need to understand, Karger says, that not only is it OK to be gay, it’s also possible to be gay and an unflinching candidate for the nation’s highest office.
“I want to send the message to gay younger people and older people and everyone in between that you can do anything you want in life, and don’t feel bad about yourself and don’t feel you have to live your life the way I did,” Karger says over a long lunch at Musso & Frank, the fabled Hollywood haunt.
He is tan and lean, with closely cropped gray hair, looking in his polo shirt and chinos as though he might have sailed up from Orange County via Ralph Lauren’s summer catalog. The onetime aspiring actor and Armour-size ham yuks it up with a waiter in a blood-red dinner jacket, winks behind tortoiseshell glasses and flips through his iPhone, showing off pictures of himself having a rollicking good time on the campaign trail, where he hands out Frisbees, T-shirts and notepads asking, “Fred Who?”
As seriously as he takes his pioneering candidacy — which is a lot more seriously than many in the gay community — there is a puckishness that can’t help peeking through. Asked his first order of business if he assumed the Oval Office, Karger responds with cheek: Redecorate.
As a boy, Karger loved TV’s “The Rifleman.” He was less interested, however, in the saga of homesteader Lucas McCain than the handsome star who played him, Chuck Connors. “I had a crush,” Karger says, and it was the first dawning that he was not like others.
He grew up cushioned in affluent comfort, with a father who ran the family-founded brokerage firm, a stay-at-home mom who volunteered and a housekeeper who cooked and tidied up. His older brother got the girls while Fred made money selling things door-to-door: greeting cards, stationery, cleaning fluid. The expectation was Karger would marry, have children, join the family business and a country club.
“But I was different,” Karger says, “and it was very difficult.”
It turns out he was a lot like his Uncle Buddy, to whom he bore a striking resemblance. When he was 19, Karger visited a gay bar for the first time and in walked Buddy. Karger fled before he was spotted. Two years later, his uncle killed himself, blaming his male lover in a suicide note. He was 42.
The story has become a part of Karger’s campaign, shared with audiences. At a San Francisco fundraiser this summer, he looked on impassively as a group of 25 gay men watched his video image, projected on the wall of a small loft, matter-of-factly discussing the tragedy. His calmness belies the trauma at the time. Karger wondered whether he’d see 42; his parents’ shame and horror at Buddy’s death drove him even deeper into the closet.
It also drove him to California. Karger had fallen in love with the state during a family trip and figured that moving might help him keep his secret. He tried acting, with some modest success: a shaving commercial, bit parts. His big break, a “Welcome Back, Kotter” spinoff, fizzled when the network pulled the plug.
Throughout, Karger maintained a passion for politics. He was raised a moderate Republican, volunteering at age 14 in Nelson Rockefeller’s epic 1964 campaign against conservative Barry Goldwater.
In California, Karger parlayed a series of volunteer campaign jobs into a position with the Dolphin Group, a top political strategy firm. His clients included former Gov. George Deukmejian and campaigns for President Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush. When Bush ran for president, Karger helped demolish Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis by famously publicizing the case of Willie Horton, a murderer who raped a woman while on weekend furlough.
Karger makes no apologies for the effort, which some called racist (Horton was black, his victim white), or the subterfuge he sometimes employed on behalf of the tobacco industry (forming phony advocacy groups).
“I’m very proud of my work with them,” he says, spearing a jumbo prawn in the red leather booth at Musso & Frank. “They’re wonderful people and they always hired the best and brightest.”
The whole time Karger was living a double life: “Dating” women, living with “roommates” — one for 11 years — who would disappear with all traces whenever family came to town. He laughed at gay jokes and “actually, in a sick way, kind of enjoyed them,” he says with a wan smile, “because it told me I was safe with my secret.”
Karger finally came out to his parents in 1991, after nursing a friend who died of AIDS. They accepted him, Karger says, but never seemed entirely comfortable. So he kept closeted, which was also better for business. Although he told his business partners — “it wasn’t a surprise, and didn’t change who or what he was,” says one, Lee Stitzenberger — maintaining his secret kept Karger’s sexuality from becoming a campaign issue.
When his parents died and he retired, Karger finally came out publicly. It was 2006 and he was 56 years old.
There was no grand announcement. He simply took a lead role in the unsuccessful campaign to save a Laguna Beach gay bar, the Boom Boom Room. Three years later, he founded Californians Against Hate to oppose Proposition 8, the measure banning same-sex marriage, and used his expertise to expose secret funding of the measure by the Mormon Church.
To some extent, his presidential campaign is an extension of that effort. By nudging Mitt Romney, the GOP front-runner and a prominent Mormon — preferably on stage, in front of a national TV audience — Karger would like to stop the church crusade against same-sex marriage. In his view, Romney could make that happen with a phone call.
Romney’s feelings are unknown. His campaign declined to comment.
As a natural-born salesman, Karger has done an impressive job promoting his presidential bid. He has a thick sheaf of clippings (“the Jerusalem Post has covered me!”) and is a semi-regular on cable TV.
Fundraising, though, has been tough, and it is not hard to see why. Last month, Karger enthusiastically showed up at a gay film festival in downtown Los Angeles — “time to get folks to whip out their checkbooks!” he said on arrival — then stood awkwardly in a crowd of several hundred, hands in his pockets, unnoticed save for old friends. An inveterate stargazer (who crashed the Oscars three times), Karger made a beeline for Chaz Bono, the transgender child of Sonny and Cher, and talked up his candidacy.
Bono was polite, but seemed manifestly uninterested, a response typical within the overwhelmingly Democratic gay community.
Chad Griffin, a political strategist spearheading the federal court challenge to Proposition 8, spoke for many a few days later when he praised Karger’s “great service” in exposing the Mormon Church’s role. He also had kind words for his groundbreaking candidacy. “I hope it brings about a serious dialogue in the Republican primaries about freedom and equality for all Americans,” Griffin said. But that was all.
“Fred’s a Republican. I’m a Democrat,” Griffin said. “I’ll be supporting and voting for President Obama.”
Trying to wedge his way onto the debate stage, Karger has lobbied TV networks and event organizers, urged pollsters to include him in their surveys — poll numbers being one criterion to participate — and started a website, https://www.letfredin.com, to make his case. So far it has been to no avail; he will look on Thursday night as others participate in the third debate of the campaign.
What may be most frustrating, though, is the way Karger, a skilled and respected political pro, is so often treated as a kook. He mentions a New Hampshire visit where the local reporter showed him photos of Lobsterman, a costumed crustacean and perennial candidate, suggesting a kinship. “Not even Pat Buchanan or Alan Keyes,” Karger lamented, citing Republicans who at least debated their opponents before voters ushered them away.
But whatever indignities he suffers, Karger sees a triumph in being who he is, openly, and doing what he is doing.
“I always wanted to run for office but knew I never could, just as I could never have a family,” Karger says, poking at the last of his shrimp Louis. “When you’re gay and in the closet, you learn there are lots of things you can’t do.”
Running for president may be compensation — after all, you can’t be much more out of the closet than that.
“It sounds crazy,” Karger says. He laughs, but is serious all the same.