I’m delighted that you’re here.
I hope you’ll explore this website, and invite your friends to visit, too. But, first things first. You probably have lots of questions about me.
Who is Claire Conner?
Why is she writing about the radical right and what makes her an expert?
Is her story relevant to today?
Great questions. To begin, let me take you back to the early 1950s, when I was a little girl.
When I was six, I could put my hand on my heart and recite the “Pledge of Allegiance.”
I knew I lived in God’s favorite country.
I could name three great Americans: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and “Tail Gunner Joe.”
I had no idea who that last fellow was, but I knew he was important because my dad and mother talked about him all the time.
Before long, I figured out that Joe was Joseph McCarthy, the firebrand senator from Wisconsin.
While McCarthy was searching high and low for Communists in our government, my parents were listening and learning. When the senator was censured by the Senate, my parents were angry. When he died, they mourned.
My mother said, “They killed him because he knew too much.”
My father said, “It will take a lot more Joes to save the country.”
My father became one of those Joes. My mother was his willing partner.
When I was thirteen, my parents dove into the world of paranoid politics, a world dominated by the John Birch Society (JBS), the new anti-Communist, anti-federal government movement founded by Robert Welch in 1958. They’d been friends with Welch for over three years. It took them only a blink to join him in the new crusade.
“We’re taking back the country” was the Birch mantra. For Birchers, that meant taking back the country from Communists, Socialists, and Collectivists by eliminating every government program since the turn of the 20th century.
My parents-Stillwell (Jay) and Laurene Conner were the first two JBS members in the city of Chicago. My father became a National Council member and remained in top leadership for thirty-two years until his death in 1992. When my mother died in 2007, she’d been a JBS member for 49 years.
Eager to please my parents, I embraced everything they embraced. When my father told me I was old enough to help save my country, I became a John Birch member myself.
I was fifteen when I was one of the JBS members pictured in the Life Magazine report of May 12, 1961. My appearance in the most recognized national magazine of its time made me the focus of teasing and criticism from classmates and neighbors.
Gradually, I began to question the JBS positions and values.
I broke with my parents over the Civil Rights Movement, which the JBS vehemently opposed.
I disagreed with the JBS position that all safety net programs were unconstitutional and had to be eliminated.
I didn’t understand how getting rid of all regulations on business and undoing all environmental protections would make America freer, stronger, or safer.
I couldn’t image America with a federal government less than half of its current size.
I didn’t believe that every liberal was a Communist or Communist sympathizer and I could never accept the idea that Democratic presidents were pawns of an international conspiracy to take over the world and create a New World Order.
When I finally said “NO” to my parents’ political extremism entirely, it created a rift that never healed.
For over 25 years, no one was interested in my story. After all, the JBS had gone the way of the dodo bird. One woman in the publishing industry told me, “The JBS is a footnote of a footnote in American history. No one cares about a girl growing up with crackpot parents.”
In 2008, things changed.
Old JBS ideas appeared as “new” mainstream policy positions. Radicals became a force to be reckoned with. Suddenly, my story mattered. After all, I had been in the front row in the early days of Birch mania. I was a witness.
My book, Wrapped in the Flag (Beacon Press 2013) is the story of extremism, its impact on me, my parents, my family, my city and, if unchecked, our country. Wrapped in the Flag (named one of the Best of 2013 in Nonfiction by Kirkus Reviews) goes deep into the heart of the JBS, exposes the extreme ideas of that powerful political fringe group, and shows how they continue to impact America today.
I spent almost six years working on this book, but I know that my preparation started long before I wrote a single word.
I earned my degree in English (with honors) from the University of Dallas, Irving TX. Twenty years later, I completed my Master’s degree in Teaching English from the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. In 1988, I was named Student Teacher of the Year by the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English. I’m sure I was the oldest teacher who ever won that award. I was fortunate to work with seventh and eighth graders in Marshfield, Wisconsin.
For over ten years, I was the leader of the Marshfield chapter of Wisconsin Citizens Concerned for Life, now Wisconsin Right to Life. I spoke extensively to students in area high schools, to church and parent groups. I finally figured out that the “pro-life” movement has no interest in babies or their mothers after birth. I had to face the reality that my anti-abortion approach to women’s reproductive issues was way off-target. Leaving the movement was another step in my personal and political evolution.
I have four precious children and three adorable grandchildren. I live in Dunedin, Florida with my husband, Bob, and our little doxie, Conner. We love to garden, cook, read, and travel.
I speak widely on the JBS and the dangers of the radical right. In my presentations, I expose the plans of rich anti-government libertarians, religious zealots, and old John Birchers to take America back . . . back 100 years. As I travel, I meet so many Americans who are worried about the extremists. It is those new friends and supporters who keep me going.
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