Karl Hess: 1923-1994
By Randy Langhenry
Karl Hess, often described as the "most beloved libertarian," died April 22. He was 70.
Hess was editor of the Libertarian Party NEWS from 1986-1990 and afterward served as editor emeritus. He was the author of more than a dozen books, including "Dear America," "Community Technology," and "Capitalism for Kids," and was the subject of a 26-minute documentary entitled "Karl Hess: Toward Liberty." The film won two Oscars in 1981, including one for best short documentary. In 1964 he was the chief speech writer for the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign.
Hess was born in Washington, DC, in 1923, the son of Josef Karl Hess and Thelma Snyder Hess. He was raised by his mother whom he later described as "the most unforgettable libertarian I ever met."
Hess never finished high school, but was often described as one of America's most original thinkers. "I loved education," Hess said in a 1976 interview with Playboy magazine, "which is why I spent as little time as possible in school." As a teenager, at 15 in fact, Hess went to work as a journalist-as a radio news writer for the Mutual Broadcasting System. By age 22, he was the assistant city editor at The New York Daily News, a position he was fired from within a year for refusing to write the obituary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "When [FDR] died I refused an order to work on the obituary stories extolling his Presidency," Hess later wrote. "I regarded his regime as social fascism then and I still do."
Hess then held a number of writing jobs, including news editor of Aviation Weekly magazine.
In 1948, Hess began speech writing for the Republican National Committee. He was then hired as press editor for Newsweek magazine, a position he held for five years. During the 1950s and 1960s, Hess wrote speeches for "every major Republican"-Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Barry Goldwater-and even a number of Democrats, including Hubert Humphrey. In 1960 and 1964, he served a chief writer for the Republican national platforms.
In 1964, Hess became the chief speech writer for Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign. At one point during that campaign, Goldwater complained to reporters about the mechanics of a presidential campaign. When asked how he would prefer to run a campaign, Goldwater said, "I'd rent one of those little executive jets, and Shakespeare and I would just do it." The man Goldwater was referring to as "Shakespeare" was Hess.
Upon hearing of Hess's death, Goldwater issued a statement saying, "It is a sad loss. He was a very dear and valued friend, one of the finest writers I have ever known. I am going to miss him."
Following the 1964 presidential campaign, Hess became a member of the Students for a Democratic Society, a Vietnam war protestor, and a tax resister. When the Internal Revenue Servcice confiscated all his property and put a 100 percent lien on all of his future earnings, Hess taught himself welding and exisited on batering his work for food and goods. Along with commercial welding, he also produced artistic metal sculptures.
In 1969, Hess wrote an article for Playboy magazine entitled "The Death of Politics." In the article, Hess described his own libertarian philosophy. The article, written before the founding of the Libertarian Party, is often credited with having brought about a revival of the libertarian movement.
Hess then became involved with community-technology projects in Washington, DC, and traveled around the country lecturing on various appropriate technologies.
In 1975, Hess and his wife, Therese, moved from Washington to West Virginia, where they and his sons designed and built an energy efficient home.
In West Virginia, Hess found the life he had sought for so long. With family, neighbors, and friends, Hess lived a simple and happy life built around work-welding, writing, furniture repair, and lots more-and taking an active role in his community. Hess worked with local community technology groups, writer's groups, vocational education students, and more.
He became an active participant in volunteer literacy programs, both as a tutor and state board member. Most of his many neighborhood friends knew nothing of his past political life until after the friendships had been long-established. In West Virginia, Hess realized his ambition to be a "good friend, good lover, good neighbor."
"He has to be the most generous person who lives in the state," said Steve Fesenmaier, head of the film services division of the West Virginia Library Commission. "He is a monument to the individuality of West Virginians."
Thoughout this period, Hess kept an hand in his "old" political life through speaking engagements at libertarian functions and on college campuses, and by writing for various publications, such as Harper's, Reason, and Liberty magazines.
He was named editor of the Libertarian Party NEWS in 1986 and served in that capacity until 1990, when health problems slowed his activity.
In 1992, Hess agreed toserve as the Libertarian Party's candidate for governor of West Virginia to call attention to the difficulties of ballot access in the state. When asked by a reporter what he would do if he actually won the election, Hess replied, "I will demand an immediate recount."
After several hospital stays for heart surgery, Hess began work on his autobiography. Two years ago, he received a heart transplant at the University of Virginia hospital.
He leaves his wife, Therese; two sons, Karl and Eric; a grandson, Patrick; and countless friends and neighbors.
A "Day of Rememberance and Celebration of His Life" will be held at his home in West Virginia on June 11 (see page 10 for details).
Memorial contributions can be sent to the Center for Independent Thought, 942 Howard St., San Francisco, CA 94103, with note that it is for Karl Hess. The money will be used to finish work on Hess's mostly-completed autobiography.