HOLLY SPRINGS, Georgia—The letter was so compelling because no one expected Bob Barr to write it. It was January 2009, shortly after President Obama had put forward Eric Holder as his nominee for attorney general. Barr had just run for president as the Libertarian Party’s nominee, but he remained best-known as the tireless inquisitor of Bill Clinton. Republicans, eager to weaken Obama, were lacerating Holder for his role in Clinton’s pardon of financier Marc Rich. Barr was not.
“Mr. Holder and I may have had disagreements over policy matters during the time he served in the administration of President Clinton,” he wrote. “However, I never had reason to question his personal and professional integrity, or his deep understanding of and commitment to our Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights.” Holder, he suggested, “will restore public confidence in the Department of Justice.”
Barr, at that time, seemed to be morphing into a sort of post-partisan figure. He’d left the GOP for the Libertarian Party in 2006, out of disgust for the Bush administration’s civil liberties record. “I’ve been very pleased to listen to some of the things some of the Democrat leaders are saying,” he told me then. He won the Libertarian nomination by telling activists that he’d “made mistakes,” like backing the war on drugs. “The last few times I’ve been on the same panel as Bob Barr,” Democratic New York Rep. Jerry Nadler told me recently, “we’ve been on the same side.”
But in March 2013, Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey announced a run for Senate. Twenty-four hours later, Barr jumped into the race for Gingrey’s seat in the deep red northern suburbs of Atlanta—some of the turf he’d held between 1995 and 2003, when he was redistricted out of Congress and began his amazing journey across the ideologies. Three months later Barr informed readers of his syndicated column that “the time has come for Attorney General Holder to step down,” in order to “salvage” his reputation.
It’s the Holder letter, more than anything else Bob Barr has said, that has been weaponized by his six opponents. Not his evolution from a DOMA sponsor to a DOMA critic, not his sojourn in the Libertarian Party, not his brief advocacy for Haiti’s exiled president-for-life. It’s the three-page post-partisan letter he wrote for one nominee, and it’s a criticism he simply refuses to consider.
“It’s just politics,” Barr told me. I asked him why he thought Holder had “fallen,” or whether he ever expected better from the Obama administration. “What else would I say that I haven’t said already?” That was the end of the answer.
Barr’s slogan is “Experience, to Right the Wrongs,” and implicit in that is that he knows which mistakes he made. The theory of the Bob Barr comeback is that the Republican Party of 2014 has become more libertarian and more ready for what he’s good at—investigating and humiliating politicians.
“I missed the opportunity to actually draft and amend legislation,” Barr told me. “You simply can’t do that from the outside. Through teaching, through my law practice, in the private sector, you can influence the debate—but ultimately, in terms of passing and debating laws, you have to be in the arena.”
Barr barely won the 2008 Libertarian nomination, prevailing in a daylong ballot fight after gambling pro Wayne Allyn Root finished in third place and endorsed him over the longtime Libertarian activist Mary Ruwart, in exchange for a place on the ticket. The novelty of Bob Barr running for president intrigued the press, and the candidate earned time on The Colbert Report and a long profile in The New Yorker. Yet the Barr-Root ticket won only 0.4 percent of the vote, running third to Ralph Nader’s umpteenth (and last) attempt to ruin things for Democrats.
Barr’s reswitch “didn’t come as a surprise,” said Ruwart. Root, who’s also returned to the Republican Party and become an occasional Fox News pundit, was proud of his old running mate for rediscovering a path to relevance. “The system and the media bias make it impossible for third-party candidates to gain momentum and win elections,” he said.
The Libertarians—who ended up nominating another former Republican for president in 2012, and getting .99 percent of the vote—have moved on. “He never seemed to fit in with most of us,” said Doug Craig, chairman of the Georgia Libertarian Party. “He made it hard on us to get new people because they did not think we took libertarianism serious enough with his nomination. When Bob Barr and Wayne Root left the party, we actually had a spike in new members.”
Barr has gotten back on board with Republican orthodoxy, as it’s moved closer to what he believed. In 2008 he said that “the federal government’s approach to the war against drugs has been one that tramples on the very notion of federalism.” When I asked him whether he’d challenge D.C.’s new law decriminalizing marijuana—similar to something Barr had opposed in the 1990s—he started by saying that Congress absolutely had the right to vet the law.
“I’d have to take a long, hard look at it,” he said. “It’s not something I’ve focused on in the last couple of years.”
Still, Doug Craig was hopeful. Barr’s time with the Libertarians did seem to “move him closer to libertarianism.” He spent two years of his life telling activists and journalists of his new religion, and he’s returning to a Republican Party in which “NSA” is a curse word and Sen. Rand Paul is a tastemaker.
“The party has moved, though I don’t take credit for it,” said Barr. “It has to do to some extent with Ron Paul’s runs for the presidency, with Ted Cruz raising these issues. All of these things combined have brought the Republican Party back to its Reagan roots.”