Growing Up in the John Birch Society
A new memoir exposes the trauma of growing up in an extreme-right-wing family—and the way those traumas were visited, politically, on the rest of us.
August 6, 2013
Old Enough to Save the Country
Claire Conner was about 13 years old when her parents handed her a John Birch Society membership form and told her, “You are old enough to take part in saving the nation.” For Claire that meant getting her dollar-a-month dues automatically subtracted from her allowance—and doing a whole lot of cringing.
Her father, who was the first Bircher in Chicago, and her mother, who was the second, had taken out lifetime memberships, which cost $2,000 ($15,000 in today’s money). For years they had been convinced that the John Birch Society’s founder, Robert Welch, was one of America’s truest heroes—certainly after they received a numbered, mimeographed copy of a black-covered book called The Politician.
I interviewed Claire, who is now a retired teacher and a most un-retiring liberal activist based near Orlando, Florida, about her memoir of growing up Birch, Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right, at the Seminary Co-op bookstore in Hyde Park, where every month I host an author or activist for an interview in my “Rixonland” series. That particular sunny afternoon, she picked up a prop I had brought along for the occasion, and the audience’s attention was riveted:
“The Birchers call this the ‘Black Book. They call their bible the ‘Blue Book,’ because it has a blue cover…. This book”—she waved my copy of The Politician, a spiral-bound thing that I had ordered from John Birch Society headquarters in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1997—“is a tract written over a period of years showing Dwight Eisenhower as a dedicated Communist. Who reported, by the way, in Mr. Welch’s theory, to his brother Milton”—the president of Johns Hopkins University—“in the Communist Party.
This book was given—secret copies, numbered copies—to certain individuals. Bill Buckley had one. Barry Goldwater had one. My father had one. My father got it in 1955, when I was 10, three years before the John Society ever existed…. You had to sign a pledge that you would never reveal the contents of this book. So, as the John Birch Society developed, there were rumors that developed that there was this”—she whispered—”secret book. ‘There’s a secret book! There’s a secret book! There’s a secret book! And it names real Communists in the government!’ And my father would say, all the time, at every meeting, when people said, ‘What about the secret book?’ that, ‘There is no secret book.’
“So I didn’t believe there was such a book.”
Her father and mother were fanatic adherents of Joseph McCarthy, who had been censured by the Senate the year before, and who died two years later. Basically, he drunk himself to death, but you couldn’t tell her mother that. “She said, ‘They killed him because he knew too much.’ And my father said, ‘It will take a lot more Joes to save this country.’ And as I say in the book, I didn’t realize that three years later my dad would be one of those Joes!”
By 1960, her dad, Jay Conner, was the leader of Chicago’s Birchers. That summer was a hot one, so the Society was holding its recruitment meetings in the nice, cool basement of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glenview. (The pastor, she is sure, was a Bircher.)
Chicago Columnist Breaks the Story
“My dad was speaking to 200 people and giving his standard speech—about the United Nations and the conspiracy and so on—and during the question-and-answer period this woman [was] waving her hand, and my dad called on her, and she said, ‘What about this secret book?’
“So my father said, ‘There is no secret book. There is no such book. There will never be a book’—he went through this whole thing.”
The woman then reached into her satchel, pulled out the secret book, and partook to read from the section that said Dwight David Eisenhower was a secret Communist.
There happened to be in the audience a columnist for the Chicago Daily News, Jack Mabley, who wrote the first article that revealed to the non-wingnut majority the existence of this strange political sect who believed that the nation’s beloved Republican president was a Communist five days later, and wrote a second article a day after that focusing on the Birchers’ Chicago sachem, Claire Conner’s father.
“It’s no small thing to see your own father exposed nationally not just as a lunatic but a liar,” Claire Conner
Rick Perlstein Knows About the Radical Right
I (Rick Perlstein)wrote about much of this stuff, and what happened next, in my first book, Before the Storm: how the John Birch Society suddenly became a national sensation; how the Republican power structure and the “mainstream” conservative movement led by William F. Buckley and National Review purged Robert Welch from their ranks, careful, however not to alienate the massive Birch membership that formed its most determined activist cadre in elections; and how the “Birch issue” came to largely to define the civil war within the Republican Party over the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater—his famous convention-speech line “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” was, in context, largely a tacit defense of the Birchers’ patriotic bona fides. And I think I tell the story well.
Seeing It From the Inside Out
But it’s something else altogether to read it, as I put it in my blurb of Claire’s book, “from the inside out”—from the perspective of a family within which right-wing extremism served as an efficient machine for something just short of child abuse. Like I said in that blurb, I’ve been waiting for a book like this for a long time. I recommend it with the only reservation that it is too short.
Hear what happened when her mother returned from a rhapsodic tour of a literally fascistic nation. “The first night—now, I was 12 years old—we were sitting over dinner. And my mother said, ‘I want to tell you children a story about Spain.’ She lights her cigarette.” She told her children about the left-wing general who kidnapped the son of one of Franco’s generals and said that unless certain political prisoners were released he would kill the son. That boy, her mom was careful to explain, was exactly her age. “The general said to his son on the phone, ‘say your prayers like a good Spaniard.’ And he was shot.’ ” She writes in the book eloquently about her reaction: “Something happened to me after that night. I had frequent headaches and stomaches. A rash appeared on my neck, arms, and legs…. After Mother and Father were dead, I knew that one of the Commies would put a pistol to me head and pull the trigger.”
I Walked With Them
Conner told me, “When they walked down this path, I sort of walked with them. Because there was no other way to go”—that’s how families work. They f— you up, your mom and dad. And then you work to unf— yourself: “I’ve been trying to make some sort of peace with this for, oh, thirty-five years.” Of such stories great family memoirs are made. And this is a great family memoir.
But it also bears a political argument we need to absorb. Explained Conner in Chicago, “The John Birch Society built the most effective, best-funded right-wing populist organization in the United States of America. Now, not all my friends on the left want to hear this. It’s so easy to say, ‘These people were crackpots.” But Robert Welch “was a brilliant man. That doesn’t mean he was correct about anything. But he was a brilliant man. And he loved to sell.”
And what comes through strikingly in the book is that, even as Welch and his organization were excoriated, the stories they told, frequently through carefully disguised front groups with pleasant-sounding names—say, the one from the 1960s about how sexual education was teaching children how to be sexually promiscuous; or the one in the early 1990s promoting the impeachment of Bill Clinton—were sold quite effectively to the broader political culture. They achieved things.
We really, really don’t want to believe this. Even Claire Conner did not want to believe this. She writes, remembering the Kennedy assassination, blamed in the wider political culture as a product of just the sort of extremism Birchers were promoting, “the whole right wing is kaput. My parents and the Birchers just became ancient history.” Less than eight months later, of course, Barry Goldwater was the Republican presidential nominee. She writes of her conviction of how the miserable failures of the Bush years were “killing America’s appetite for right-wing Republicans.”
And yet now we have thirty states with Republican majorities, many of them veto-proof.
They Have Stopped the Government
And at that point, in Chicago, Claire Connner concluded in thunder. “These people are at the point of changing our government. If you want to see how, look at Texas, look at Florida. Look at Ohio. Look at Wisconsin, for God’s sake—my state. Look at Michigan, for heaven’s sake: they think they elected a moderate, but they elected a right-wing radical. That’s how this game is played. They’re changing the policy. And the whole thing is so deep that when they vote them out of office, number one, half of them won’t be able to vote. And number two, we will have years of problems to fix…. We were so happy that we won the popular vote, but they’re buying the place….they’ve virtually stopped thegovernment for five years.”
Claire Conner knows of what she speaks. She was there at the inception—as a sad-eyed, vulnerable adolescent—then watched as the machine was put together: a machine whose deceptively smooth surface has always only barely hid the corrosive ugliness and cunning anti-democratic cleverness underneath, convincing too many liberals, too many times, that the ugliness could not but fade away in the fulness of time—convincing them wrong. Read her, and listen well: there is nothing new under the wingnut sun.
Edited for clarity, headings added