Ron Paul and the Aaron Russo Memorial Service

Brian Doherty accurately wrote:

Attended a memorial service for Aaron Russo, the film producer and libertarian activist, this afternoon at Hollywood’s House of Blues. It was one of the “celebrating a life, not mourning a death” variety.

Rep. Ron Paul was there and said some words about Russo the freedom fighter, and Russo’s pet causes of abolishing the IRS (got a big round of applause from this Hollywood crowd) and the Federal Reserve.

As I arranged for both Ron Paul and Brian Doherty to attend the event, I thought I’d tell the political side of the story from my perspective.

This portion of the story started when I was speaking with Heidi Gregg, Russo’s loving and devoted partner in both good times and in bad, shortly after Aaron’s passing. For those not aware of the pertinent parts of my background, I served as Aaron’s campaign manager during his 2004 Libertarian Party presidential bid and assisted with field production in a few of the Washington, DC scenes of America: From Freedom to Fascism.

When I asked Heidi what my wife and I could do to help the family, her request was that I make arrangements for Ron Paul to speak at Aaron’s upcoming memorial service. Knowing it would be a scheduling nightmare, I immediately called friends in Dr. Paul’s congressional and campaign offices to provide the head’s up. Dr. Paul alluded to this when speaking at Aaron’s service, saying it wasn’t a matter of if he’d attend the service of his friend of fifteen years, but… (I didn’t take notes to obtain exact quotes; it would have been inappropriate in that environment.)

My wife and I arrived in Los Angeles shortly after noon on Thursday afternoon, which gave us enough time to check into our hotel, take a nap, eat dinner, and then pick Dr. Paul and Campaign Chairman Kent Snyder up from their flight, which arrived a bit after 9 PM. We took Kent and Dr. Paul back to the same hotel in a rental car (an unneccessarily oversized SUV, to be more precise. I generally drive a Grand Cherokee, but this Yukon was so large it didn’t fit into many Hollywood parking garages and was cumbersome to navigate on some of the more famous Hollywood streets. I won’t be renting one of those again).

When Dr. Paul checked in, he had received around three hours sleep since the New Hampshire presidential debate; he went directly to bed. Kent, my wife and I went scrounging for food and ended up at the Beverly Hills Cheesecake Factory, where we killed some burgers and, of course, cheesecake.

As all three of us have lived in the District of Columbia, we talked a bit about common friends and life inside the beltway, but our conversation mostly focused on the presidential campaign. By comparing notes from this campaign to others I have worked in the past, I found my general hypothesis that the Paul 2008 campaign is a magnified version of national Libertarian Party campaigns generally accurate. Depending on which metric one uses (i.e. fundraising totals, Internet traffic, grassroots support, the blogosphere) the Paul campaign is currently between three and ten times the scope of an LP campaign. This doesn’t count mainstream media coverage, where the Paul campaign has surpassed even the tenfold mark.

We talked about Tommy Thompson’s brother Ed running Paul’s Wisconsin operations. Ed and I are friends and the two of us had discussed the issue earlier in the week; Ed Thompson and Kent Snyder had also been in recent communication with each other.

We covered how to best coordinate two different campaigns: The official one and the grassroots rEVOLution. We discussed handling differences between the sometimes wildly diverging factions of Ron Paul supporters: Handle it at a state level. To quote my child psychiatrist wife, a few of the more problematic folks need to “put on their big girl panties and deal with it.”

We also talked about the fact that a great deal of financial support for the campaign isn’t showing up on FEC reports, which makes the campaign appear to some media watchers smaller than it is in reality. As an example, what is the relative value of thousands of Ron Paul rEVOLution banners being displayed across the country?

The tie I chose to wear has some relevance to the story. I attended the memorial service of former Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne. At that service, each male in attendance was given a tie from Mr. Browne’s wardrobe. I had not yet worn the tie I received that day, but it seemed very appropriate on this occasion. While Harry Browne couldn’t be there, his spirit was present at the memorial service of another former Libertarian presidential hopeful. Aaron respected the person Harry Browne very much; he had some considerable problems with Browne’s campaign staff. Barry Hess, who ran against Harry Browne for the LP nomination, was at Aaron’s memorial service. It felt comforting to me that by wearing that particular tie, it brought some final closure to some tension within the Libertarian Party for years. In the very least, it brought either the person or spirit of four LP presidential personalities together in one room for a final visit.

Around 10:30 Friday morning, our limousine arrived at the hotel to take us to House of Blues for the memorial service. I had previously asked my friend Angela Keaton if she and Brian Doherty (Angela is Brian’s better half) could assist in transportation. Dr. Paul had a tight schedule and the limo which took us to the event would be taking Dr. Paul to LAX long before the end of the service. My wife and I needed a way back from the event. Brian was still at Burning Man when I made the request, but Angela confirmed for the two of them. Angela rode with us while Brian followed his his car.

While scheduling was tough for Dr. Paul, I had to cancel plans to grab a few drinks with Doug Stanhope in Birmingham. I’m still not sure who had the tougher end of the deal. 🙂

While in the limo, I explained to Dr. Paul that Heidi preferred the event to be more of a “celebrating a life, not mourning a death” type service. Brian wasn’t in the car, but the words he used were the same ones I did.

When I walked in, the television monitors were showing still photographs taken during Aaron’s life. For background music, Tom Petty’s recorded voice repeated the song “I Won’t Back Down.” My wife still fondly recalls riding with Aaron in some city during the 2004 campaign when Aaron played the song over and over again.

Because of my previous work with him, I’d seen most of the photos before. There were quite a few shots of Aaron taken when he was a kid which I had never seen before. It was obvious from these family snapshots that Aaron had been a good looking kid who was probably born with a decidedly anti-authoritarian streak. This continued into his adult life; in one picture he had his arm around Jamie Lee Curtis, one hand grasping her breast.

One of my old friends, Barry Hess, drove up from Phoenix for the service. In 2004, I had asked Barry to assist with the Russo presidential campaign. While he contributed to the campaign in many ways, his primary accomplishment was in speech writing and debate rehearsals. Barry is the one who more-or-less came up with the campaign slogan “All your freedoms, all the time.” Barry’s wife Gina and son Zelig were there and we all talked about old times, especially on the campaign trail with Aaron.

I’ll not cover most of what happened at the service, as my understanding is that a video will soon be available to the general public. There were both video and still photography crews at the event. I don’t remember if the video is to be released in an online format or DVD (I heard both versions), but I’m sure this will be properly announced in due time. What I hope to cover are my perceptions of the more political angles of the event.

Heidi officiated the service, introducing speakers and making a few appropriate personal reflections from time to time. As anyone who knew Aaron would expect, every minor detail of the event was handled perfectly.

Heidi announced that the Aaron Russo Freedom Foundation (quote from the distributed program) “will maintain his spirit by promoting the art of documentary filmmaking” by awarding “scholarships to film students showing special promise in their art.”

Aaron loved mentoring new talent. When we were on the road together, one of the reflections which always brightened his eyes was when he talked about some of the kids he had influenced over the years. I ran into one of those kids, Max Hirshman, at the service. Max was working for Aaron during the 2004 campaign. He’s now working at a Hollywood talent agency and has quite the impressive list of clients for someone his age.

A rabbi led everyone in the 23rd Psalm and the Kaddish, then the religious portion was completed. Russo never displayed his religious views for public airing; many people I know assumed he was Italian and therefore Catholic. In reality, Aaron came from a Sephardic ancestry.

Aaron’s son Max gave an an extremely touching and personal view of his father’s life, their sometimes conflicted relationship (anyone who has known, worked with, or loved Aaron Russo can certainly relate) and the lifelong impact it will have on him. Aaron’s brother Irwin spoke. I also learned a childhood tale Aaron had never related to me. I knew that Aaron’s childhood nickname (imagine a late-50s/early 60s teen-aged Brooklyn-born Long Island-raised kid in a white T-shirt and black leather jacket) was Turk, or sometimes “The Turk.” I didn’t know that others called him “Poo,” or sometimes combined the two for Turkey Poo.

To be clear, Ron Paul was the only political speaker at the service. Most of the speakers were family members or from the Hollywood crowd. However, I think each and every speaker brought up Aaron’s fight for political freedom multiple times.

Dr. Paul didn’t deliver a campaign speech, but spoke about his friend of fifteen years. Because fighting for freedom was their common tie, Paul spoke a lot about the freedom issues the two had in common, closing each train of thought with something Aaron had said or done which made Paul’s point significant. He was well received by this mostly Hollywood crowd of around 300. Brian noted:

Interestingly, it seemed a given to Paul and his introducer that everyone knew who he was. He was introduced merely as “Ron Paul,” not “Congressman Paul” or “presidential candidate Paul” and he referred within his speech to talking to Russo about his “decision to run” without saying what for. It may be that any friend of Aaron Russo’s is presumed to be knowledgeable about this sort of politics; or it may be that the general run of Americans know more about Ron than I might have guessed at this point.

Although we never discussed it, I also found it noteworthy that everyone seemed to know who Ron Paul is and that the more fiscally conservative portions of Russo’s and Paul’s ideologies were enthusiastically applauded by the audience. Another common tie Russo and Paul share is their very early opposition to the Iraq War, a topic which one might think would be better received by the Hollywood crowd, but Paul only mentioned this in passing (generally through the prism of general foreign policy). As Paul (who was interviewed in the documentary) referred to Freedom to Fascism quite a few times in his talk, my thought is that the congressman was trying to tie a lot of his speech to the main thrust of the still controversial film.

One commenter at the reason thread suggested that Paul’s comments could be taken as political opportunism. Another commented that there could be no Wellstone moment, as Paul “didn’t even mention his candidacy or anything.” Another commenter suggested that Paul was there as a “citizen and friend.” From my perspective, the last comment hit the nail squarely on the head.

To be clear, I have discussed the political ramifications of the service with one of Paul’s congressional staffers as well as his presidential campaign chair, communications director and scheduling coordinator. I’ve also talked with Dr. Paul directly about the topic. Notable is that his congressional communications director and I are friends (she volunteered for me during Russo’s presidential bid) and she never contacted me about the subject. There is no doubt in my mind that Paul showed because his freedom fighter friend of fifteen years had died; there was no political opportunism involved.

To answer another question from the comment thread, I did not see Bette Midler. However, I was seated in a reserved table near the stage with Dr. Paul and there were quite a few people upstairs who may have sat there for purposes of anonymity. Several family friends (and surprisingly for me, not Aaron) told me (without any indication this was to be kept private) that Midler and Aaron had reconciled many of their past differences in the last few months.

One thing that stood out was a particular contrast between Ron Paul and the other speakers. This contrast symbolizes something I see in the libertarian movement but is more pronounced in the Ron Paul campaign.

Several of the speakers used profanity or brought up tales of high-speed driving or drug usage. Several of the speakers either dropped the “f” bomb or talked about smoking a joint or eating ’shrooms with Aaron. I’ve probably been in private with Dr. Paul a half dozen times, heard him speak in smaller less formal settings (i.e. Grover Norquist’s Wednesday meeting), and heard him speak at larger events. I’ve never heard Paul use vulgarity or refer to using illegal drugs in a positive manner.

This is part of the beauty of the movement. We all come from different backgrounds and have different social and religious views. What strongly unites all of us is that we don’t believe government should dictate these values.

At my state level, I recently observed this same contrast. A Ron Paul supporter who chaired a recent meeting is very religious and I’ve never heard profanity coming from her. Another supporter in the meeting used the analogy of teaching virgins about anal sex to accurately describe a recent internal conflict. The conversation moved on as it should with mature adults; no one seemed offended and both sides worked together to reach the solution to the problem we all eventually agreed upon. Too bad I never had the chance to tell Aaron this story; he would have loved it.

By the way, in his later life, I never saw Russo doing drugs (other than that related to his illness). He rarely drank alcohol, even. Several times he told me he didn’t drink at all, but he would grab my wine glass from across the table (even at a five star restaurant) and take a swig. To Aaron, most things were very black and white. He didn’t order a drink, but merely had a sip of mine — which meant to him that he wasn’t a drinker. It’s one of the things I’ll always find endearing about him. He would also reach across the table to grab a piece of food (with his bare hands) from my plate, another of his culinary charms.

When we were on the road, people assumed he was smoking a lot of marijuana, although he wasn’t. Before going though security (this was post-9/11) at an airport, I was checking my pockets to see if I had metal items in them in order to not set off any alarms. To my surprise, I found a baggy with several joints inside in my jacket pocket. I never learned who slipped them in my pocket, and had to throw them out before going through security. Following this, we both had to check our pockets before arriving at any airport. There were several times we found that someone had secretly given Aaron a anonymous gift which could have landed us in prison.

Several people commented about how difficult it was to work with Aaron. One very accomplished rock-and-roll agent from “the day” stated that he could never work for Aaron, but he eventually worked with him at the Kinetic Playground. One lady (I never found out who she was) bought me a drink because I was the only one she knew, other then Heidi, who could manage The Manager.

Aaron Russo had a gruff exterior but a heart of gold. Quite a few people told tales (and even more personal anecdotes when we were all standing around talking informally) about how difficult he could be to work with — but how worthwhile it always ended up being, whether in politics or show business. He drove a hard bargain and expected no less than the absolute best one could possibly perform — and then some. His childhood, his rock promotion career, his movie productions, Mad As Hell, his gubernatorial run in Nevada, his presidential bid and Freedom to Fascism had the same tone: Cutting edge productions that altered the future of people touched by his work.

Aaron never knew any personal limitations with respect to show business, but did with politics. He once told me the free market decides which movie is good, which band to go see or which television program to watch. His job was merely to recognize the talent and market niche, to ensure that the money was found for the project and that it was properly produced and promoted. With politics, he argued, the same principles should apply — but don’t. Unfortunately, he reasoned, the political and media elite control the political process and there is no free market with respect to the political choice most Americans receive on Election Day.

Aaron was discouraged after his failed presidential bid for a few days, then called me excitedly about his next project, which turned out to be Freedom to Fascism. He was never a quitter and was always looking ahead at the next gig, as opposed to reflecting on the last one. Since Ron Paul announced his candidacy, Ron Paul was Aaron’s next political gig.

If Aaron was still alive, the Internet would be Aaron Russo’s next Kinetic Playground. Ron Paul would be his next Bette Midler. Ron Paul’s campaign would be his latest project and Aaron would be working to see that the campaign had the necessary money and promotion available to win.

Aaron’s body is no longer with us, but his spirit is. He can’t complete his final production, but the piece of Aaron Russo which remains in everyone touched by him can. Aaron more-or-less said that it’s up to us to complete his final act by doing what we can to help the Ron Paul campaign.

Aaron wanted the words Freedom Fighter etched upon his tombstone. I’m no good at saying good bye.

So long friend, so long brother, so long Freedom Fighter.

7 Replies to “Ron Paul and the Aaron Russo Memorial Service

  1. Steve’s relating the story of Aaron eating from Steve’s plate and sipping from Steve’s glass reminded me of an occassion when I was teasing Aaron about his habit of eating from other’s plates. I told him I could imagine him as president at a state dinner for Queen Elizabeth, reaching over and taking something from her plate. He picked up the thread saying, “Hey Liz, are you going to eat this…”

  2. thanks my friend,
    i was there and this is a beautiful summary of the day’s events and of Dr Paul’s brilliant tight rope walk of not being political while sharing his love for his fallen brother in the freedom movement.
    I was very moved by the whole proceedings and I told Heidi later that she helped a lot of people that day to move on past their loss. Aaron gave a voice and a face and a major kick in the ass to the freedom movement while waking up millions of people. We need to redouble our efforts so that his legacy will live forever.

  3. I am so sorry I was not able to make it to Aaron’s service. I loved Aaron and I’m proud to call him friend. He had a profound impact on my life and I will miss him very much. It was my pleasure to share the podium with him on numerous occasions and fight by his side for the holy cause of liberty.
    Sheriff Richard Mack

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *