George Galloway is everything progressives have traditionally despised in a politician — a cigar-smoking womanizer and flashy dresser whose brawler’s instincts unerringly lead him to his opponent’s throat. These also happen to be the very traits envied by many on today’s American left who are desperate to brighten their dowdy, puritan image. Last week, the British member of Parliament was in top form when he appeared at Wilshire Boulevard’s Immanuel Presbyterian Church to promote his book Mr. Galloway Goes to Washington.

“I’m not here to re-colonize you!” he joked upon taking the podium, a moment after kissing the Palestinian scarf that a woman had presented to him. “I’m of Irish background, and so we know a thing or two about imperialism.”

The tanned and mustachioed Scot-Irishman cut a relaxed figure and, after denying that he is an al Qaeda apologist, began savaging America and Israel for what Galloway called “the 50 years of injustice inflicted against the people of Palestine.” Soon he was gliding through the fiery rhetoric that has earned him accusations of demagoguery: “The quarter of a million dollars that each Israeli settler received from their government to leave the land they illegally occupied came from you and could have been given to New Orleans!”

Galloway’s Tayside burr and booming cadences marked a delivery that was part Martin Luther King Jr., part Scotty from Star Trek. That night, certainly, Galloway beamed his audience up. But to where?

Most Americans know of Galloway through his riveting appearance, last May, before a Senate subcommittee where he murderously kabobbed Bush and the stunned inquisitors investigating his alleged profiteering in Iraq’s oil-for-food program. Those in the media (to say nothing of the Senate) unfamiliar with Parliament’s bare-knuckles debate rhetoric were shocked by the withering scorn Galloway heaped on the administration’s rule of war. The antiwar left was ebullient. Here was a man, finally, who stood up and spanked the White House and the legislative brothel that posed as a Congress. If only it had been Galloway in last year’s debates instead of the deferential Kerry and Edwards!

Britons, though, have known him since he first appeared on their national radar in 1983, when, as a young radical, he was appointed to head the War on Want charity; within a few years he drew fire for his globetrotting and free-spending ways. In 1987, barely after he was elected as a left-wing Labor M.P., reports of extramarital affairs and shady finances at some of the party’s social clubs began bubbling around him. “Gorgeous George,” as he’s called, has faced down personal scandals and been cleared — sort of — of financial improprieties, only to be booted out of Labor and his Glasgow seat in 2003 for, among other things, allegedly encouraging mutiny among British soldiers in Iraq.

Galloway made news earlier this month when he squared off in a sanguinary New York debate with Christopher Hitchens, the neocon-trarian who believes he’s the reincarnation of George Orwell. (Hitchens actually comes off more like Whittaker Chambers crossed with Humbert Humbert.) Seated in the audience for the mud-wrestling match was Oona King, who, to paraphrase the Scotsman, knows a thing or two about George Galloway. King was the incumbent East End London Labor M.P. whom Galloway defeated by little more than 800 votes. He and his newly formed Respect Party targeted her half-Muslim district and accused pro-war Laborites like King (who is black and Jewish) of trying to destroy an Islamic country.

“He reminds me of Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me if You Can. He’s a great orator but an example of wasted talent. I can see why the American left would fall all over him,” King told me by phone last week.

“I love listening to his style of speech, because it’s so vivid and compelling,” she admitted. “What I hate is the style of politics that verges on megalomania, that whips people up and drives people apart instead of bringing them together.” King, who claims the bruising campaign Galloway waged against her has made her happy to be out of office, was reluctant to be quoted for this article because, she said, Galloway is suing her for comments she made about his campaign against her. She also said Galloway clearly won his debate with Hitchens.

The day after Galloway’s appearance, I asked him about the persistent charge leveled by Hitchens and others that he derives more than a little schadenfreude from America’s predicament in Iraq.

“If,” he replied, “I really hated America as Bill O’Reilly says, I would say, ‘Please stay in Iraq as long as you can. The longer you stay, the more disastrous your defeat will be.’ ”

After Galloway’s speech at Immanuel Presbyterian, a huge line of worshipful listeners waited for him to sign copies of his book. To what, I wondered, did he owe his sudden popularity among American progressives?

“I think it’s because of the flatness of the surrounding landscape,” he said. “The political duopoly in America leaves a lot of room for me.”

There was a time when the American left had leaders — people who were elected by memberships of unions, student groups and ethnic organizations. But now, in a culture that has, as Galloway says, become politically flattened — to say nothing of being obsessed with celebrity — it looks for heroes and icons. The problem is that icons are merely humans whose flaws become gigantically magnified under media scrutiny. How did the old Maoist saw go? It is not the hero, the individual, but the masses of people who make history. Something like that. Of course, if the hero becomes the figurehead for a movement, it is that movement’s masses who have to pay for his sins. “In a real tragedy,” the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky once said, “it is not the hero who perishes; it is the chorus.”

For now, Galloway is concentrating on building his Respect Party and pursuing whatever lawsuits he is filing or defending. Above all, he continues to speak his mind, much to the anger of his critics and the joy of his admirers.

As he told me somewhat ruefully, “I gave up ‘off the record’ a long time ago.”

LA Weekly