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Underneath the Turban  
What happens when a noted campus loser grows up and becomes a multi-millionaire and U.S. Senate candidate?  
   

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    Sept. 22 —  We never even knew his real first name. To us, he was always “Baboo” Kathuria, a lovable campus loser known for only three things: his omnipresent turban and untrimmed beard (a symbol of his proud Sikh heritage), his stunning lack of self-confidence with the ladies, and a still-unsurpassed losing streak in campus elections.  

   
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       YET NOW, EXACTLY 20 years later, the very same man is running for the U.S. Senate from Illinois — not as the lovable loser I once knew, but as an incredibly successful businessman with a personal wealth estimated at $100 million who once even dated Miss India.
        How did this happen? It’s a tough question. But by raising it, was I not raising the very opposite question about myself? I was far more popular in college than Baboo, yet my personal fortune is closer to one hundred million Thai baht than one hundred million dollars. And I would sooner win a race for Brooklyn dog catcher than U.S. Senate. And dating Miss India? Please. The closest I ever came to such a romantic conquest was taking a woman to an Indian restaurant and getting her back to my place before her dysentery kicked in.
        So clearly this was not just the story about one man’s quest for a Senate seat; this was a voyage of personal discovery: Am I now the loser that Baboo was?
        My personal odyssey first led me to Brown University, where Baboo and I studied during the mid-1980s. You remember those days: The Mets were actually good. Everyone thought the music of A Flock of Seagulls would live forever. And Ronald Reagan was president and the world seemed new again (in the sense that everything had reverted back to prehistoric times). I headed to the library to peruse old issues of the campus humor publication for which I wrote.
        As I flipped through the yellowing pages, I was reintroduced to the Baboo Kathuria who was a recurring symbol of electoral futility and romantic isolation, the punchline of every one-liner. For instance:
       
* When a campus figure was arrested for masterminding a prostitution ring (no, seriously, that really happened), the cops pinned several other campus crimes on him. But according to our publication, the one nefarious act that could not be added to the charges was responsibility for “Baboo election losses.” That crime has yet to be solved.
       
* When the Brown University endowment surged unexpectedly, we offered ways that the school could spend money, including “Create an Amish Studies department,” “Buy Yale” and “Support Baboo in his run for the U.S. presidency.” (And we meant it as a joke; who knew how prescient we were — except Baboo, of course?)
       
* We offered a Cosmo-style quiz to allow Brown students to figure out whether they were losers. If you answered yes to any of the questions, you were. The questions? “Do you own your own bowling ball?” “Do you own a chess computer?” and “Do you attend Baboo campaign rallies?”
       
* During a wave of campus violence, we postulated that students were more afraid of suddenly finding themselves as “being Baboo’s campaign manager” than encountering the still-unapprehended assailant.
       
        Yet this man could now not only buy and sell me, but also digitize me, send me out over the Internet and download me into his cellphone. Indeed, I did some research on Baboo and discovered that this doctor had actually made his millions setting up cellphone and Internet service in India, pioneering medical imaging technologies and even dabbling in investment banking. Immediately, I remembered that I had graduated college during one of those seminal epochs in American history when an entirely new industry was being invented and anyone with a Gold Rush mentality stood to earn millions just by staking a claim. A nation’s graduates stood at a crossroads between Internet millions and Old Media stagnation. Baboo chose the millions while I, who had never even used a computer until senior year, chose stagnation.
        Clearly, I needed to go to Chicago to continue my voyage of personal discovery and meet Chirinjeev Kathuria. (Editor’s note: These voyages of personal discoveries are all well and good, but if you think we’re paying for all this travel, guess again.)
        For starters, I took Baboo out for a power breakfast (Editor’s note: We’re definitely not paying for that). He recounted a compelling personal story that I’d never known at Brown: how his father and mother moved to the United States virtually penniless when Baboo was just 8 months old, how Baboo graduated at the top of his high school before getting his M.D. and M.B.A. degrees, how he started a string of successful companies (yes, the first 10 million is the hardest, Kathuria told me), how he opened up the first U.S. investment bank branch in India, how he made complex deals to set up the very kind of technologies that I don’t understand to this day, and, yes, how he dated Miss India (she was the friend of a friend).
        He even told me how he became a Republican (which stunned me because at our Brown, we never even knew what a Republican was. But you know what I’ve always said, a Republican is just a Sikh who got mugged). And he told me why he was running: “This country gave me everything,” he said, “and I want to give something back.”
        The next day, I followed Baboo to a meeting of the Illinois Committee for Honest Government. My goal was to see how Baboo would be received by the very people whose support he’d so desperately need to win the nine-man Republican primary in March.
        The event was at a local Italian restaurant and, because the buffet hadn’t been set up yet, I chatted with Jon Blessing, a GOP strategist and a rising star. Blessing said he likes Baboo but quickly added, “I don’t think a guy with a beard and a turban can win in a post-9/11 America. He’s a great candidate and as American as apple pie. But in the Midwest, these people want someone who looks like them.”
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        Next, I chatted with Jessica Jones, who runs field operations for one of Baboo’s rivals, Gen. John Borling. Jones said she considered working for Kathuria until he made a classic rookie mistake: At a candidate forum, Baboo recalled the time he quoted John F. Kennedy during a speech in high school. Later, Borling got up to speak and began, tellingly, “I remember when I spoke to John F. Kennedy...” That sealed it for Jones.
        “Plus, I don’t think a guy with a turban can win,” added Jones, who not only spoke eloquently about politics, but supported by longstanding theory that Republican women are a lot hotter than democratic women (see gershkuntzman.homestead.com/files/Pseudonymous_3.htm).
        The buffet was finally open, so I didn’t notice when Baboo finally showed up, the iconic American flag pin in lapel. As he worked the room, people rushed over, many saying they remembered him from prior appearances. Perhaps that turban is double-edged?
        “People said there’s no way I could win with the beard and the turban,” Kathuria said. “But now they say I’m getting an unfair advantage because everyone remembers me because of the beard and turban.”
        Finally, Baboo delivered his standard stump speech. He tried to be self-deprecatory, but he still has the comic timing of the Dalai Lama.
        “Don’t let the beard and turban fool you: I am an American,” he said. “My campaign is a lot like the War on Terror: The first phase is shock, which happens when people see my beard and turban. Then it’s awe, when they hear my personal background, and now I’m trying to win your hearts and minds.”
        Sure, his speech was filled with generalities about lower taxes and better family values, but I was impressed nonetheless. A guy I’d known as little more than a campus loser was running for Senate with a fair amount of aplomb, a soupcon of dignity and boatloads of cash from his personal fortune. Me? I’m just the poor schlub with the notebook, the old Mazda and the soup stains on my Dockers.
        But something still bothered me. No one in the room knew Baboo as “Baboo,” but as Dr. Chirinjeev Kathuria. This, I later discovered, was the brainchild of Baboo’s campaign manager, Jon Zahm.
        “We don’t like to use the name ‘Baboo,’” Zahm told me. “We’re creating a brand here and the brand is ‘Dr. Kathuria.’ The nickname ‘Baboo’ gives people an excuse to not take him seriously.”
        I found that hard to believe. I mean, who wouldn’t take Baboo seriously?
       

Gersh Kuntzman is also Brooklyn bureau chief for The New York Post. His website is at www.gersh.tv
       
       © 2003 Newsweek, Inc.
       
       
   
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