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When he first was elected to Congress, defeating six-term incumbent Buddy Darden, much of the credit went to the Grand Old Party. Like dozens of other new congressmen around the country, Barr was swept into office by the Republican Revolution of 1994 – orchestrated by then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, who represented the district next door.
Even as a congressman, Barr stood apart from the typical hail-fellow-well-met school of politician. He cultivated few close friends in Washington and rarely took part in the D.C. social scene. Most nights, he slept on a couch in his Capitol Hill office. At meet-and-greets in his Cobb district, he could seem stiff, sometimes humorless, not entirely comfortable making small talk with constituents.
According to associates, Barr had little interest in the usual perks available to members of Congress. A former adviser remembers him as being "all business, all the time" – not unpleasant, but certainly not the life of the party.
While Barr shies away from the usual glad-handing, though, he is drawn to the lure of television cameras. Where other congressmen passed their time cutting deals in smoke-filled rooms, Barr seemed most in his element making the rounds of Sunday-morning news shows, debating the issues of the day.
"The happiest I ever saw him," says a former staffer, "was in the 15 minutes after an appearance on 'Meet the Press' or 'Larry King Live.'"
For Barr, the central thrill of holding high office was taking part in the great political dialogue, mixing it up on the national stage. As a congressman, he relished the role of right-wing culture warrior, taking extreme, and sometimes outlandish, positions – calling for the impeachment of Clinton months before Monica; authoring the Defense of Marriage Act, which forbade federal recognition of gay unions; even proposing a ban on Wiccan ceremonies on Army bases.
Barr was in the fray on many of the issues that made social conservatives and Clinton-haters froth at the mouth: He bashed the National Endowment for the Arts, he railed against "partial-birth" abortion, he shouted down all arguments for gun control. In a particularly incongruous move for a future Libertarian candidate for president, he famously authored the 1998 "Barr Amendment," which attacked the right of D.C. voters to decide by referendum whether to legalize the use of medical marijuana. Not only did the measure prevent Initiative 59 from being carried out, but it forbade even counting the votes.
Barr's career as a congressman arguably jumped the shark during a 2002 fundraiser when the National Rifle Association board member accidentally fired an antique pistol inside a constituent's house, shattering a sliding-glass door. By then, his frequent talk-show appearances and dramatic declarations – John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban," should be charged with treason, convicted and put to death, he said in a speech – made him seem to some as a far-right version of then-Rep. Cynthia McKinney, an extremist more interested in getting attention than in governing.
Four terms in, Barr's national notoriety as a conservative firebrand had made him a handy foil for opposition fundraising. At the same time, he'd earned a reputation as something of a maverick. Not a reach-across-the-aisle maverick like McCain – Barr's had too much contempt for liberals for that – but rather an outspoken advocate for civil liberties who criticized the Bush administration's expansion of executive power and even called for the appointment of a "privacy czar" within the new Department of Homeland Security.
In 2001, when Democrats carried out a partisan redrawing of congressional seats, the late Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy, who harbored a personal dislike for the former federal prosecutor, made sure Barr got drawn out of his home district in Cobb. He was instead thrown into the Gwinnett-heavy seat held by Rep. John Linder, a backbench GOP congressman with a reputation as a faithful party apparatchik. (The redistricting would quickly backfire for Democrats and then-Gov. Roy Barnes, resulting in the election of two new GOP congressmen, as well as a payback redrawing by Republicans a few years later.)
When Barr announced he would challenge Linder for the 7th District seat, his opponent used his outspokenness to paint him as a bloviating lightweight. "Bob has been on 'Crossfire' more than he's been on the House floor," cracked Linder during the 2002 campaign.
Barr also found that his political independence had won him few supporters within his own party. As he recalls, even his fellow Republicans conspired to keep him from returning to Washington. "There were overtures made to me by leadership in Congress not to run" for re-election, he says, careful not to name names.
"The Republican Party is interested in feathering its nest and staying in power and keeping within its ranks those who toe the party line," Barr explains. "I did not toe the party line with some regularity, and I think there were folks within the Republican establishment – not just here in Georgia, but nationally – who didn't appreciate that."
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