Fred Karger, Republican candidate for president, spent nearly 30 years… (Bret Hartman, For The Times )
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.