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Conservatism as Phoenix | The Nation

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Conservatism as Phoenix

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"Since McCarthy's day," writes Perlstein,

Robert Sherrill, who worked as a reporter in Washington during much of the Goldwater era, came to enjoy the Senator's sneer.

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Robert Sherrill
Robert Sherrill, a frequent and longtime contributor to The Nation, was formerly a reporter for the Washington Post. He...

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liberals had been wondering why apparently intelligent people could believe that the wrong kind of politics in the United States would inexorably hasten its takeover by the USSR.... The cognoscenti neglected the simplest answer: people were afraid of internal Communist takeover because the government had been telling them to be afraid--at least since 1947.... It shouldn't have been surprising that the John Birch Society was able to win a membership in the tens of thousands in an officially encouraged atmosphere of fear and suspicion.

In a moment we'll come back to the mystically crackpot John Birch Society, but right now let me introduce, with Perlstein's guidance, a few of the men who created the JBS and similar organizations, and who were effective in raising Goldwater to the level of a presidential contender in the public's mind.

Clarence Manion was the first to suggest, in 1959, that a drive be started to draft Goldwater for the Republican presidential nomination. Manion was an ugly man but a mesmerizing speaker. His bald dome extended into a forehead, Perlstein tells us, that "seemed to get bigger each year, as if to make room for yet one more set of facts and figures on the Communist conspiracy, forcing the droopy ears, doughy cheeks, protruding lower lip, and picket-fence teeth to crowd ever more tightly at the bottom of his face," and "his eyelids were raccooned, as ever, from too much work and too little sleep. But his eyes sparkled. He looked almost beatific."

And why not? A practicing Catholic, he tried all his life to do the Lord's work, both as dean of the law school at Notre Dame and as a political activist, popular radio announcer, lecturer and writer. He began as a loyal Democrat but was disillusioned by what he considered the duplicity of the Democratic Presidents who took us into the "entangling alliances" of two world wars. Back when he was a supporter of the New Deal, Manion believed that "guaranteeing a decent standard of living to all Americans was government's sacred duty," but as a constitutional scholar drifting rightward he came to the conclusion that in trying to do good, the federal government had assumed tyrannical powers. Manion became one of the nation's most influential isolationists.

Equally important and more flamboyant was Robert Harold Winborne Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, which in its day was the liberals' favorite symbol of far-right insanity. The JBS was perhaps best-known for the billboards that went up all over the country urging the impeachment of that well-known Communist, Chief Justice Earl Warren. "By April of 1961," writes Perlstein, "you had to have been living in a cave not to know about Robert Welch and his John Birch Society. The daily barrage of reports left Americans baffled and scared at this freakish power suddenly revealed in their midst. It also left some eager to learn where they could sign up."

Welch was a genius who entered college at the age of 12. An omnivorous reader, by the time he was 50 he had taught himself that the Communist conspiracy, which had gobbled up Western Europe, was gaining ground here; that our State Department had deliberately surrendered China to the Communists; that Eisenhower had "consciously served the Communist conspiracy" all his life; that "civil rights" was just part of the Communists' larger diabolical plan, which included "elites surrendering American sovereignty to the UN; foreign aid rotting our balance of payments; skyrocketing taxes, unbalanced budgets, inflation. There was only one way to explain it: our labor unions, churches, schools, the government--all had been infiltrated" by Communists. These and similar discoveries were delivered to the public in commercially published tracts that "[flew] off the shelves."

The John Birch Society itself was founded in December 1958 at an Indianapolis lecture delivered by Welch to eleven wealthy men, three of them past presidents of the National Association of Manufacturers. It lasted two straight days, with breaks only for "lunch, coffee, and dinner." Identical meetings were held in a dozen other cities. By 1962, Welch was raising over a million dollars a year--big bucks in those days--and membership was estimated to be as high as 100,000. Because the press usually described the organization as extremely weird, not many politicians admitted membership, but a few Congressmen did. Ike's own Secretary of Agriculture, the Mormon elder Ezra Taft Benson, was a member. Not long after giving the benediction at Kennedy's inauguration, Richard Cardinal Cushing declared his admiration for Welch. Denison Kitchel, who later became Barry Goldwater's campaign director, was a member. As for Goldwater, he was characteristically loose about it, saying "a lot of people in my home town have been attracted to the society, and I am impressed by the type of people in it. They are the kind we need in politics."

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