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The Elmo Files

From a distance Bob Dole didn't quite look real. For one thing he was wearing makeup for the countless cameras that surrounded him in front of the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on November 26. For another he was too far away from the assembled protesters for them to hear him. His mouth was moving, but it seemed no sound was coming out -- a talking head without the talking.

Inside the courthouse the county's three-member canvassing board tried to divine a nation's future by contemplating 1800 questionable ballots as if they were tarot cards. Outside, CNN kept watch, gathering sound bites from the irascible ex-senator while waiting for a final tally in the postelection trauma of the Al Gore­George W. Bush race.

The crowd stood corralled behind wooden sawhorses like livestock, hundreds strong and ornery, skin glistening in the humidity. The protesters were political pilgrims, rightfully confused and perhaps not surprisingly cranky, milling about on a Saturday night in an otherwise abandoned downtown.

For fun they yelled. A lot. Through megaphones, cupped hands, and chapped lips, they chanted. Their slogans, some angry, some silly, some nonsensical, piled up like alms at a Deep South tent revival.

"Thou shalt not steal," read one.

"Out with the GOP Mafia," exhorted another, "Gore got more."

"A dimpled chad is happy voter," blared one puzzling placard.

Some in the crowd hawked Gore pins or Bush pins, and their corresponding pro- or anti-recount arguments. All around, the sound of a two-party system thundered through battery-powered megaphones. A mother-daughter team sported matching homemade T-shirts professing their faith in Republicanism.

The Bush supporters were out in greater force. At the back of the anemic Gore crowd, a man perched on the balls of his feet and craned his neck to see over the commotion. He wore a blue button-down shirt and khaki pants and seemed suspiciously quiet, possibly Republican.

"We've got to organize," he said, his voice ringing with urgency as he passed out sheets of white paper. But James Traynor "Elmo" Spaulding had not come to convert the Gore supporters, or to join them, even. He came to sell himself.

The single-page flier he distributed there was the first edition of the newsletter of his nascent political organization, the Manumit Society of America (MANSA). Manumit is not a rodent, it's a verb that means "to emancipate." The MANSA Report is its newsletter, a "premiere" edition with a mission statement (which fails to put forth any discernable mission), a couple of strident editorials, and a plea for support, signed simply, "Elmo."

Though the newsletter is brand-new, the 57-year-old Spaulding is an old hand when it comes to self-promotion. His past winds behind him in a trail of half-baked enterprises and harebrained schemes dotted with glossed-over disasters. He's reinvented himself often, a practice he considers a patriotic birthright: "In this country, you wake up in the morning, you're a new kid, and you can become anything you want," he says. "Europeans just don't understand that concept."

That night, outside the Broward County Courthouse, Spaulding was high on American-style liberty, in love with the power of the First Amendment and the disheveled beauty of democracy in action. He knows how precious the right to vote is, because he no longer has that right.

In 1991 Spaulding was convicted of conspiracy, bank fraud, money laundering, and aiding and abetting, for which he served 63 months at Eglin Air Force Base in a federal big house for white-collar criminals and 5 months in a halfway house. He also paid $5775 in restitution to his victims and spent three years on supervised release.

Yet while other ex-cons are running from their pasts, Spaulding ponders running for Congress. He hates the system he says betrayed him but hopes somehow to change it. Spaulding sees the contradiction and revels in it: "Maybe," he says, arching an eyebrow and offering one of his favorite phrases, "there's a Freudian piece of underwear in that."

Two weeks after his appearance at the courthouse, Spaulding pulls over to a candy-pink Yamato Road mini mart. He has stopped to use the phone but returns to his road-weary beige Toyota Camry without having made the call, holding a white waxed paper bag.

"I love this stuff," he says, "I just can't get enough of it."

He's referring to presidential politics, not the cherry-filled glazed donuts he offers. During the past two months, Spaulding has, by his own admission, been obsessed with the election. November 7 he spent the entire day shuttling voters from his mother's Lake Worth retirement community to the polls, certain his elderly passengers were Gore supporters. He says he logged hours in front of the television, watching political shows that flooded the cable TV infotainment-industrial complex. Afterward he logged on to their Websites and sent dozens of e-mail responses.

He pauses to lick white flakes of glaze from his fingers, then continues, his speech studded with vocabulary culled, sometimes awkwardly, from punditry: phrases like "bellicose rhetoric" and "half-truth innuendo." Spaulding loves the thrust and parry of legalese. To him it has the ineluctable appeal of a secret handshake -- learn it and you too can be an insider. He's a devotee of radio and television shows likeLarry Klayman's Judicial Watch Report and Mark Levin's Landmark Legal, and though he doesn't have a law degree or any formal legal training, he admits to "an element of wannabe lawyer." (OK, jailhouse lawyer.) With his mullet haircut, mirrored shades, and black loafers sans socks, he exudes an element of bail bondsman as well.

Though his pastime as an armchair politico runs out the clock, it doesn't pay his bills. Spaulding figures he needs to earn $400 to $500 a week to cover his expenses. To that end he files bankruptcies and brokers deals on behalf of people facing mortgage foreclosure. The freelance job gives him flexible hours, providing plenty of free time for other do-it-yourself legal matters for those too old or sick to do it themselves. He says clients pay him what they can afford.

In February 2000 a federal judge ordered Spaulding to stop filing Chapter 13 bankruptcies. "Some people say I'm practicing law without a license," Spaulding relates. At this he laughs gleefully. "I say, "Drop dead.'"

Even though his cash flow has been sporadic (and of dubious legality), he scraped together enough money to buy some time on a Palm Beach County radio station. For eight consecutive, glorious weekdays in July, he hosted his own talk show, Elmo's X-Files. (Elmo is the name his wife gave him because, he says, he tickled her, like the Sesame Street character. They are getting a divorce.)

The show consisted largely of Spaulding's own brand of braggadocio: bombastic, free-associative rambles that serve as a primer for his fervent, if scattered, brand of liberalism. He constantly refers to himself in the third person and takes delight in repeating his mocking characterization of TV Republicans, with their "blow-dried hair" and "that pinched look on their face[s], and their butt cheeks squeezed so tight you couldn't pry them open with a crowbar."

He took phone calls as well: Those who agreed with his views got to talk; those who didn't got mocked or simply cut off. Often as not the show spun onto tangents, such as one caller's desire to have a harem or Spaulding's contradictory, tongue-in-cheek claims: that he's gay, a "man of color," a communist, Jewish, and "a black lesbian woman trapped inside a white male body."

Though he relished his time on the air, Spaulding could neither attract underwriters nor afford to continue buying the time himself. Even so, he hasn't given up on countering what he sees as a "vast, right-wing conspiracy" that dominates the airwaves. "I just want to buy one station," he says. "We have to have one station, and then we syndicate the programming to compensate for the dozens of national conservative talk-radio hosts."

He takes another bite of donut. His voice brims with vitriol, as do the hastily written, sometimes misspelled diatribes he distributes. He begins to ramble on about the judicial system -- the inequities of sentencing and so forth -- forgetting his point but remembering his big thesis: Power corrupts, and "the system" is corrupt.

His solution: Acquire power, then change the system. Before he went to prison, his goals were far different. "I was chasing the almighty dollar," he says disgustedly. He was a Republican. Now, as a Democrat, he still loves the sound of his own authoritative baritone, still gets worked up and fed up, but wants to use his powers of persuasion for good now, not evil.

Spaulding's one-man "movement" began when he sat at his computer in the dark basement home office Thanksgiving Day. He typed his thoughts; a formatting program turned them into a newsletter. Spaulding added the obscure name and a trademarked symbol to its acronym. The MANSA Report looks semiofficial, but the phone number listed on his newsletter reaches Spaulding's modest Lake Worth condo; the group's "members" are mostly his friends and family.

Number of contributions to date: zero.

Spaulding pauses to walk over to the neatly trimmed hedge at the edge of the mini mart's parking lot, leaning over it as he finishes the last of his glazed donut, which is threatening to spew sticky red filling all over the foliage. He stands upright and interrupts his own interview. "This is great," he says, as if to pinch himself, "I love being on a soapbox."

Spaulding is proud of the fact that he's a local, more or less. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1944; his family moved to Boca Raton when he was just nine months old. His stepfather, Russ Benson, managed the golf locker room at the posh Boca Raton Resort & Club. Spaulding didn't get along well with his stepfather, who he says once came after him with a tool used for picking up golf balls. Spaulding, who has three younger half sisters, says Benson was an alcoholic who abused his mother.

"I was basically the man of the house," Spaulding remembers. "I was what they call the "hero child,' the child who protects the family from the alcoholic."

When his mother finally divorced Benson, Spaulding had graduated from high school. Still, he remembers his youth as an otherwise happy time, the Beach Blanket Bingo era.

"It was fun. I loved it," he remembers. "I was so absorbed with the opposite sex."

On the wall of his home hangs a framed headshot of Spaulding, a black-and-white high-school photo circa 1962. He takes it down, the better to admire it. "This is my favorite picture," he says wistfully. "I'd like to start over from there."

After graduation he attended Palm Beach Community College, just around the corner from his present home. He studied for a few semesters there, had a part in a play, and at the encouragement of a teacher, flirted with the idea of becoming an actor. "I wish I had taken him up on it," he muses, "I think I would've loved that."

Instead he dropped out to join a friend in opening a bar, Schooners in Delray Beach. However, the bar soon needed to be renovated in order to handle the growing, noisy crowd; his partner's father then bought out both of them. In 1968, at age 23, he got in on the ground floor of a classic pyramid scheme, COSCOT, Cosmetics for the Communities of Tomorrow.

It was Amway meets Mary Kay, and Spaulding was a motivational speaker, whipping young recruits into a multilevel sales frenzy. He was paid on a per-head basis for parroting motivational tracts like Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. A year later Spaulding moved to Atlanta with the hope of working for COSCOT founder Glen Turner there, but Turner ran into legal problems, eventually being fined for violating federal lottery laws. Turner's travails dashed Spaulding's original plan.

Spaulding found himself in the Deep South, deep in the "summer of love." He went to a Woodstock-style concert. He wore his hair in an Afro, but he wasn't much into pot, finding it "too inhibiting." He preferred a shot of Jim Beam instead, sometimes drinking as much as a bottle a day. For dough Spaulding says he and his friends started an Atlanta ad agency, Superior Communications, and put together prize premiums for their main client, Coca-Cola.

Then a key artist at the agency left for a teaching job, the 1970s gas crisis hit, and the city's economy withered. Spaulding returned to Boca Raton and worked in real estate for the next two years. In 1976 his former stepfather, long overwhelmed by debt, spread plastic over the bed in the small house behind his Fort Pierce restaurant and shot himself with a .22-caliber pistol. "He'd been threatening to do it for years," Spaulding says.

Spaulding, his half sisters, and his mother inherited the Crab Inn; Spaulding, by then married with a stepson he'd adopted, moved his family to Fort Pierce to run it. Spaulding renamed the restaurant Montego Bay and continued to serve seafood. Three years later the family revamped the 7000-square-foot building, turning it into a country-and-western bar known as the Sundowner Saloon.

Among the bar's attractions was a used mechanical bull Spaulding had bought for about $3000. The bucking bronc made the Sundowner a nighttime destination for cowboys both urban and rural. Some of the latter were a pretty tough bunch: self-professed rednecks from Belle Glade and Okeechobee. To this day Spaulding, who sports a haircut made famous by Billy Ray Cyrus, is proud of the fact the Sundowner was no dude ranch. "My bouncers were real cowboys," he crows.

But this authenticity came at a price. "They [would] get all liquored up," Spaulding allows. "And frequently cowboys want to take on other cowboys." In 1981 a fatal shooting and a near-fatal stabbing on the premises just five days apart marred his business. Spaulding pulled the plug on the mechanical bull and shuttered the Sundowner for good.

He was not without other options, thanks to the many contacts he had made through the bar. He found a job selling time-share properties for a Fort Pierce company and later took a similar job in Orlando. When that company was sold, he struck out on his own, marketing time-shares under the corporate name SB Leigh. He opened an office on International Drive in Orlando and proceeded to "make and spend a small fortune."

By the mid-'80s his business was booming. Spaulding had a couple of Lincoln Town Cars (or Lincoln Continentals, he can't remember which), and was able to give his wife an allowance of $1000 a week. He says he lived this high life in part because of the era's many tax breaks for businesses. In his heyday, he brags, he was making $500,000 a year, but he adds: "You're not going to write about money, are you? I don't want to get in trouble with the IRS."

In 1988 he began using telemarketing to promote his time-shares and would "drop" as many as 20,000 postcards a day. The mass mailings told the recipient that he or she had just won a prize, subject to an $89 processing fee, and listed an 800 number to call to collect it. The number reached an Orlando room with 38 phone lines manned by Spaulding's employees -- whose numbers once swelled to more than 100, he remembers. They'd sign callers up for a trip that was not so much a prize as a cheap vacation package that required two two-hour tours of condos for sale or rent.

It was a pretty typical boiler-room scheme, and it worked fine -- for a while. When an acquaintance of Spaulding's got hold of some cheap fur coats made in China, Spaulding decided to use them as premiums to sweeten his mass-mailing deal.

The coats were hardly premium quality. Spaulding sent them out to about 5000 customers. "I gave one to my wife, [then] we took a trip to Miami Beach. She laid it down there in the trunk on top of the luggage and when we opened the trunk, the coat had just melted," he remembers with a laugh.

The pelts were glued together, not sewn. When they got hot, the glue would melt. When his customers discovered this design flaw, they responded by returning the remnants of the coats, complaining, or both. Federal prosecutors soon got wind of the scam; under threat of prosecution for violating federal lottery laws, Spaulding signed a voluntary compliance order.

The debacle spelled the end of Spaulding's independent boiler-room business, but it was just the beginning of his trouble with the feds.

Though it's midmorning on a business day, the nameless Boca Raton office park is eerily silent. Spaulding maneuvers his Camry into an empty spot in front of a one-story, gray concrete building that, as if adhering to some unwritten code, has windows uniformly hung with institution-style vertical blinds.

He opens the door to an office marked with the enigmatic name, "Worthington Trust," entering a reception area without a receptionist. Cardboard boxes litter the floor; the furniture looks rented. Spaulding walks to an office on the right. There, behind a computer monitor with a mesmerizing algorithmic screen saver, sits a man called Mad Dog.

He is a slight man; his white shirt and tie hang from his thin frame. His longish hair is graying; thick, Coke-bottle glasses give him the look of a disheveled professor.

Mad Dog (he asked that his real name not be used) and Spaulding greet each other casually and quickly pick up a conversation they had just hours before. Mad Dog called Spaulding to point out a typo in the opening stanza of a poem he contributed to The MANSA Report. The poem, "Thoughts Hang in My Mind Like Chads," begins, "In a place quite as country snow." It should've read, "quiet as country snow."

Quite a difference, but Mad Dog shrugs it off. The two men bicker and banter about the title of a book Spaulding hopes to write. Spaulding says he's been working on a book about the judicial system for about a year. He doesn't have a publisher, but he wants to publish it under the title, The Theft of Democracy. Mad Dog prefers Stealing Freedom because, he says, it's more poetic.

The men go back and forth about the respective merits of both names. "Do you want to go artsy-fartsy?" Spaulding asks rhetorically. They joke about the book winning a Pulitzer Prize -- or are they joking? He wouldn't get credit for the book's success anyway, since he's planning to use a nom de plume. "Even John Adams used a pen name," he says, adding that he sometimes writes under John Adams spelled backward.

Spaulding relishes the idea of creating a stir like the one prompted by the 1996 roman à clef Primary Colors, with everyone scrambling to determine its author.

"I think it would be delicious," he says, savoring his carefully chosen adjective. "Don't you think it would be delicious?"

The air in the fluorescent-lit office is stale, the hands on the wall clock have stopped. The men ramble on, discussing projects and deadlines vaguely, as if speaking in code. Then Spaulding jingles the coins in his pocket and takes off for the store. When he returns he has two enormous cans of Arizona iced tea, which he pours into plastic cups, but none of the V8 Juice Mad Dog requested. "My credit card was maxed out," Spaulding explains.

He sips his tea and looks at Mad Dog, a man for whom, physically at least, the nickname could only be ironic. Mad Dog is, in fact, placid; Spaulding gets fired up. When asked about the story of his apparently tongue-in-cheek moniker, Mad Dog stiffens, smiles his nervous, toothy grin, and glances at Spaulding.

Their eyes meet in a silent conversation. The air conditioner clicks on, sending a rumble through the ceiling, a distant hum through the walls. Mad Dog's face falls, and Spaulding smiles uneasily.

"Should we tell?" he finally asks.

Mad Dog got his handle at Eglin. By the time he met Spaulding, he'd nearly completed his ten-year sentence for drug-related crimes.

When Carol Robinson received a postcard in her metal mailbox on Route 1 in Hope, Arkansas, that day in 1990, she had no idea that she was about to become inextricably linked to one James "Elmo" Spaulding.

The card, she remembers, was pink, and it said she was a winner. A farmer's wife, Robinson was told she'd been specially chosen to receive at least one of the following: a 1991 Ford Mustang convertible, a SunCat II catamaran sailboat, a $2500 cashier's check, a holiday for two -- choice of Hawaii, Orlando, or Las Vegas -- or a $1000 Series EE U.S. savings bond.

To get these prizes, the card declared, "You must call immediately." Robinson dialed the number listed on the card. "Not even a toll-free number," she notes in rueful retrospect. "This person got all excited and said, "You've been a major grand-prize winner.' She wanted to know why I wasn't more excited."

Though the postcard said no purchase was required to receive "at least one of these premiums," she was persuaded take out a credit card and pay $439 for a water purifier from Ion Technology Systems, with an address on NW 35th Terrace in Fort Lauderdale.

Robinson did receive a water-filtration system; she thought it looked OK, "But how can you tell?" she asks. "You're taking it on faith that it's purifying."

When she saw similar water-filtration systems for sale at much lower prices, she grew suspicious. Finally a prize arrived.

"Well, the sailboat came in a box to my house. The best I can tell you, I opened the box just enough to see it was made of plastic pipes and that stuff you see in lawn chairs."

Soon afterward Robinson saw an article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the arrest of five people for a telemarketing scam. She contacted her postmaster. Several years later she received restitution checks for the price of the water filter.

As for the water filter, Robinson's not sure if it ever did the job. "I trashed it at some point. I learned my lesson on that one," she says. She learned it so well that even a reporter's queries are suspect: "When you called," she confesses, laughing darkly, "I was going to tell you I'm not going to do anything over the phone."

Postcards like the one Robinson received were mailed out to thousands of people around the country. To collect their "winnings," recipients called a number and were given a sales pitch as enticement to buy a water-filtration system. Neither the prizes nor the systems lived up to the claims the company made.

In 1989 and 1990, the federal court for the Northern District of Texas indicted Spaulding and 18 other suspects on charges that included conspiracy, bank fraud, money laundering, and aiding and abetting based on his involvement in the scheme. Spaulding claims he's entirely innocent, that a $2100 check he wrote that was used as evidence was in fact repayment for another, unrelated debt. He says he took the fall while the real criminals got off easy.

His defense attorney, Mike Heiskell, remembers the case: "It was a nightmare," he says from his Fort Worth, Texas, office. Heiskell, a past president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers' Association, contended that Spaulding was an unwitting pawn in a get-rich-quick scheme controlled by a few people at the top. The case was a long shot, he admits, in large part because of the judge assigned to it.

The case went to trial in 1991. "It was my first trial in front of Judge John McBryde, and he was new on the bench," Heiskell says. A brand-new appointee of President George Bush, McBryde was at the time something of an unknown quantity. He would soon become notorious for his toughness.

"I think he hinted to the jury about his feelings in the case, [and about] James," Heiskell says. "We were just up against a real heavy-handed judge." After his conviction Spaulding was sentenced in December 1991. (Indeed McBryde would soon face his own problem. In 1995 his quick temper prompted Jerry Buchmeyer, chief judge of the Northern District, to strip him of two cases, one involving another fraudulent telemarketing scheme. The decision was reversed by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal in 1997. However, McBryde's actions in those cases prompted the court's Judicial Council to conduct an investigation, and on the last day of that year, to ban him from hearing cases for a year. He has been engaged in legal battles to clear his name ever since.)

Spaulding's motion for a new trial was overruled. All along he had insisted he was innocent, so when Spaulding was sentenced, it knocked the wind out of him: "I couldn't believe it. I just figured, "This is America, things would work out.'"

They didn't, and Spaulding moved into the Florida Panhandle prison where life was somewhat like a boarding school or a college dorm. In addition to his 63-month Eglin hitch, Spaulding was forced to pay restitution to 13 people, including Carol Robinson.

It was minimum security, soft time, but Spaulding's indignation hardened nonetheless. "The first three years, I didn't sleep more than three hours a night," he remembers. "I was so angry. What brought me out of it was getting in a library, doing some research, and finding out how many other people had been screwed worse than me."

Spaulding thrived under incarceration. He spent hours in the law library, reading up on his case and the cases of other prisoners. He jogged. He talked. He snagged a new, extra-thick mattress off a delivery truck and got a plum work detail cleaning the visiting area. He even taught a class on entrepreneurship to other inmates. The irony of this is still lost on him.

In prison Spaulding met a lot of people he believed to be innocent, Mad Dog included. He became a jailhouse lawyer, and whereas others gouged their clients, Spaulding worked cheap -- often pro bono. And that wasn't all. Like a high-school student who participates in every available activity to pad his college applications, Spaulding joined the prison chapter of Toastmasters, Black Awareness, and Club Latino.

Mad Dog remembers the day he met Spaulding. The two were in line at Checkpoint Charlie, the gate where inmates wait to be processed in and out of work release. Spaulding had his long hair tucked under his cap and a smile on his face.

"I was surprised when I found out he was a businessman," Mad Dog remembers. "I thought he was some kind of politician. I had met politicians -- senators, representatives, judges who were in the system. They were hale fellows, they had their hand out, they were always speaking as if, "Vote for me.'"

Spaulding acted just like them: "He was a "Vote for me' kind of guy."

And vote for Spaulding they did. He was elected president of the prison chapter of Toastmasters, an office Mad Dog also once held. In prison, amid the camaraderie of other white-collar convicts, fly-by-night schemers, dreamers, con men, and salesmen like himself, Spaulding found a niche. He was big man on work camp.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day 1997, Spaulding, just prior to his release, gave the equivalent of a valedictorian's address. His speech was a pulpit-pounding oration called "I Am a Man of Color"; part of his premise was that he is not white but rather "pink with beige overtones."

"He brought down the house," Mad Dog remembers. "He was really good." (Though the pair have remained friends, they, as ex-cons, are legally forbidden to associate.)

Four years later Spaulding still gets a chuckle out of his signature line and keeps a copy of the four-page speech in his desk at home. He planned to give it again for Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2001 but couldn't garner an invitation to speak anywhere.

On a recent Tuesday night, the Boca Raton Community Center is packed. In one room an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is being held, while across the hall about 20 elderly men sit in neat rows, some of them wearing garrison caps and pins, all of them appearing to listen politely to the senior citizen behind the podium.

With his relative youth and his lack of military regalia, sitting on a metal folding chair at the end of a row near the door, Spaulding stands out from the crowd. He leans back, his leg splayed out to the side, a bright white ankle peeking out from black pants. His bluish-silver hair is pulled back with a terry-cloth ponytail holder.

On the floor beside him sits his omnipresent brown leather briefcase. Inside it looks more like a giant purse, filled with odds and ends that include a bristly pink hairbrush. Occasionally he will repair to a restroom, returning with hair freshly fluffed. He's always worn his hair long, in defiance of his father, who made him get crew cuts when he was a boy. Now, he laughs, he tries to encourage his son, Christopher, to grow his own hair long. (Chris, a snowboarder, shaves his head.)

Spaulding billed this gathering as a Manumit Society affair, but that was a lie. In fact it is a meeting of the Disabled Veterans of America. Spaulding's sister, Travis James, is present, but she can't go inside the meeting because she's a woman. When both the AA and the DVA meetings have adjourned, the alcoholics and veterans mix in the pink-hued lobby of the hall, lingering with Styrofoam cups. Spaulding works the room, hoping to drum up some interest in MANSA, especially among the DVA members.

Though they listen politely as he greets them, many of the vets are politically conservative and staunch supporters of the military. They humor Spaulding and his neoliberal platitudes for a short while before interrupting with stories of deceased spouses, time-worn riddles and jokes, and sage life advice for this whippersnapper.

He smiles warmly. The group is having a military ball in March, and Spaulding volunteers to sell tickets to it. The veterans are not aware that he's an ex-con. "Do you think I should tell them?" he later wonders aloud. As of last September he no longer has to check in with a corrections supervisor. Legally, he says, his ten-year ordeal was over then, but it hasn't really ended.

Spaulding says he is different now. He insists on his innocence, as do his friends and family. His mother, Ruth Sheller, is impressed with her son's intelligence. "I agree with all he says, most of the things. I read his writing," she adds with a sigh. "He's so darn smart; I just wish he'd find a niche."

And he's persuasive. He convinced his second wife, Cynthia, to become a Republican back in the '80s. Unlike her husband she remains one to this day. Their present political rift is emblematic of their estrangement.

"He'd love to debate with me, but I'm not interested," Cynthia Spaulding says. To her, religious faith renders earthly leadership moot. "God is sovereign, and he says no leader would be put upon the throne without God's permission," she explains. Her husband has attended the occasional Promise Keepers meeting and considers himself a born-again Christian, but his most prominent devotion is to politics.

Whatever he does, though, Spaulding can't seem to shake his past. "It's not going to do MANSA any good," he frets of his felony convictions. He has filed paperwork to get them overturned. If they are, he figures merrily, "I'm just another Ollie North."

He knows how he must look to an outsider. The irresistible process of telling and retelling his tale has caused him to reflect on it. He wants to edit his own life story, which he knows will be word-processed, boiled down, psychoanalyzed, and twisted like the frayed yarn it is. Just like all his favorite characters from CNN, MSNBC, and C-SPAN, James "Elmo" Spaulding will be spun.

He admits his chances for court redemption are slim and wonders whether it's wise to talk about these things with a reporter. Yet he maintains that, whether or not his voting rights are restored, his true redemption has already happened -- at Eglin. He now denounces beliefs he used to champion, striving to obliterate his former self.

But some things remain the same. Spaulding is still a salesman at heart; he's simply traded his get-rich-quick scheme for a political pitch. And as a salesman, Spaulding knows guilt and innocence don't matter that much in marketing. In the long run, the deal breaker is this: "When you look back on your life," he wonders, "does it seem tacky?"

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