Welcome back, Karger


MANCHESTER, N.H. — If there were ever an “It’s a Wonderful Life”-type movie made about underdog GOP presidential candidate Fred Karger, it would start on the cutting-room floor of “Horshack,” a promising 1976 sitcom pilot for ABC.

Based on nerdy high school student Arnold Horshack from “Welcome Back, Kotter,” the family comedy was a career breakthrough for Karger, an aspiring actor who was cast as Horshack’s street-tough cousin Howard. After a week of rehearsals, his character was cut out of the final script. The moment was a cruel blast of Hollywood disappointment: not being good enough to appear on a show that’s not good enough to air.

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Horshack’s mother, Ellen Travolta, went on to star as Scott Baio’s TV mother three times (“Happy Days,” “Joanie Loves Chachi” and “Charles in Charge.”) Horshack’s little sister, Andrea McArdle, became “Little Orphan Annie” on Broadway. And Karger? Well, he wound up as the director of opposition research for Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign.

Today he’s recasting himself on the national political stage, spending more than $25,000 a month in personal savings to fund a long-shot presidential bid predominantly aimed at repealing the federal Defense of Marriage Act and making gay marriage legal in all 50 states. Although he’s been taking campaign trips across the country, about half his time is devoted to making a strong showing in the New Hampshire primary.

“Anything is still possible,” the youthful 61-year-old Karger says in the dining room of his “New Hampshire White House,” a rented home in Manchester that doubles as campaign headquarters. 

“New Hampshire can catapult you into the first tier,” he says, “and then the money starts flowing in. There’s an obvious lack of moderate, centrist Republicans in this race. I am it.”

The candidate’s definition of “centrist Republican” is a curious one. He supports legalizing and taxing marijuana and favors lowering the national voting age to 16 or 17. Perhaps it’s no surprise that he won the St. Anselm College Straw Poll earlier this year.

His self-declared status as the first openly gay Jewish Republican presidential candidate has led to short bursts of high-profile media attention, ranging from Comedy Central, which sought his views on the allegedly closeted President James Buchanan, to The Jerusalem Post, which treated his recent visit to Israel on a par with that of a foreign dignitary. But ironically, the historic campaign is resonating the least with Jewish and LGBT audiences.

“Jewish Democrats don’t like that I’m Republican, and as soon as I drop the gay bomb, Jewish Republicans run the other way,” he muses. “And for the gay groups, well, again, there’s that big ‘R’ on my forehead. Fundraising has been my least favorite part of this whole experience.”

R. Clarke Cooper, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a national gay and lesbian grassroots organization, bluntly echoes Karger's frustration.

“Republican allies like Rep. Mary Bono Mack [R-Calif.], who are strong conservative advocates of the LGBT community, still get shafted during election season by gay organizations,” he says. “Heck, Sen. John Cornyn [R-Texas] has personally helped raise PAC funds to support our congressional allies, but we find ourselves hard-pressed to get LGBT colleagues to do the same for us.” 

Karger, who wears a rainbow-flag lapel pin when he campaigns, rarely gets questions about gay marriage when he canvasses New Hampshire neighborhoods. During a recent door-to-door precinct walk in Concord, the state’s suburb-like capital, prospective voters were far more curious about job creation, the economy and the professional bagpiper leading his marching volunteers.

“I’m still flabbergasted by the way people respond to the bagpipes,” campaign aide Kevin Miniter says. “It’s like watching the Pied Piper. By the time people slowly get off the couch and come to the windows and doors, they want to meet Fred.”

A large percentage of strangers, young and old, also seem thrilled to receive a “Fred Who?” commemorative Frisbee instead of another political brochure. To date, he’s given away more than 10,000. One of the campaign’s cheeky YouTube ads shows the Frisbees as UFOs spreading joy across New Hampshire. And as a lark at the Iowa State Fair, he handed one to Sarah Palin, who scribbled her name on it, mistaking him for an autograph hound.

Karger still has an entertainer’s instincts. At campaign headquarters he prominently displays a photo of himself next to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). It was the comedian’s 1999 novel about his hypothetical presidential campaign, Why Not Me?, that gave Karger the idea to run. (In the book, Franken’s major issue is abolishing ATM fees.)

Karger’s deep appreciation of political kitsch aside, he wants to be known as a fighter for the socially centrist wing of the Republican Party in the spirit of his childhood hero Nelson Rockefeller. The New York governor ran for the Oval Office three times before becoming Gerald Ford’s vice president, most notoriously blasting “extremists who feed on fear, hate and terror” at the Republican National Convention.

During the 1964 presidential primaries, a 14-year-old Karger volunteered on the phones at Rockefeller’s Chicago campaign office. “I was always a political junkie, maybe because I wasn’t any good at sports,” he says. “When our high school took a trip to Washington to see the Senate, I was excited to get autographs from the Republican moderates — guys like Ed Brooke and Jacob Javits. I didn’t go after Strom Thurmond!”

During the same year as his “Welcome Back, Kotter” gig, Karger was a volunteer for the unsuccessful Senate campaign of Rob Finch in California. Finch, who served as President Nixon’s secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, connected the young actor to the Dolphin Group, a political consulting firm where he’d stay for 27 years.

So what would have happened if “Horshack” had become a hit TV comedy and Karger never entered politics? Would Walter Mondale’s “Where’s the Beef?” campaign have overcome Reagan’s “Morning in America” in 1984? Would that infamous tank photo-op in 1988 now be hanging at the Michael Dukakis Presidential Library? 

The California retiree isn’t making any of those bombastic claims. But he’s happy, in retrospect, that his acting career, which also included an Edge shaving cream commercial and a background passenger role in “Airport 1975,” collapsed when it did.

“Had that pilot sold, things would have turned out dramatically different for me,” Karger says. “I’m really grateful that I went off into politics. Being a washed-up 1970s sitcom star would be a really difficult life right now.”

Reached at her Idaho home, Ellen Travolta admits that she doesn’t remember meeting her would-be co-star more than 35 years ago.

“That was my first TV pilot, and we all believed it was going to work,” she recalls. “But I really believe we are all meant to follow our passion. I wish Fred well and think he’s extremely brave. I hope he makes more people realize that being gay is not something you catch or choose.”

Early in his career, Karger used to be a party crasher, successfully sneaking into the Academy Award ceremonies twice in the early 1970s. He has gorgeous pictures of his 20-something self with actresses Raquel Welch and Candice Bergen to prove it.

“Some would say that I’m now crashing the presidential race,” he says.