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Pawlenty, CPAC and the John Birch Society

In February, Gov. Tim Pawlenty will take his undeclared campaign for the Republican presidential nomination back to Washington, D.C., for the Conservative Political Action Conference. CPAC, as it is always called, is a  major annual gathering of conservatives and an opportunity for Repub candidates and might-be candidates to strut their stuff before various elements of the party base (although CPAC, which is put on by the American Conservative Union, is technically non-partisan).

Among the co-sponsors of the conference one finds a name one hasn't heard much since the mid-20th century — the John Birch Society. As a refugee from that century, I can tell you that when your mom and I were kids the "Birchers" (I use the term I grew up using and mean no offense by it) were a leading symbol of right-wing extremism.

So this is an obvious set-up to play the always popular "dissociate yourself" card. Under the rules of that card game, everyone involved in CPAC (including Pawlenty, as a speaker) has to repudiate the Birchers or be tainted by association with the most extreme thing the group ever said or did. It's fun and easy to play (see Barack Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright) but also stupid and demeaning (ibid). A letter-writer to the Strib played the card early this week, asserting that Pawlenty's attendance would amount to an endorsement of Bircher views.

I actually did inquire of the spokester for Pawlenty's undeclared campaign whether the governor might want to comment on whether his willingness to speak at an event co-sponsored by the John Birch Society implied any association between his views and theirs, but the calls and emails (over several days) received no reply. Still, I cannot bring myself to play the card.

I was surprised and interested to learn that the John Birch Society was still in business. But, as this recent NYTimes where-are-they-now feature indicates, they are still kicking, based in Grand Chute, Wis., (near Appleton, Oshkosh, Green Bay), still believing in what its leaders call a satanic conspiracy to take over the world. In Birch's heyday (the late 1950s and early '60s), the conspiracy was pretty much Communism, with its quest for global domination. The JBS was famous for a tendency to see communism everywhere. It's leaders back then opposed the civil rights movement on the grounds that it was a Communist front, and that the spreading movement to fluoridate water (as a cavity-fighting measure) was also a Communist plot.

The great writer of satirical political songs of that era, Tom Lehrer, wrote a song about the JBS that included the couplet:

"You cannot trust your neighbor, or even next of kin
If your mommie is a commie then you gotta turn her in."

A long list of prominent American leaders — including many top Republicans, by the way — were considered by the Birchers to be Communist dupes. The Society's founder and early leader, a retired candy manufacturer named Robert Welch, asserted that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a conscious agent of international communism. Crazy as that sounds today (and it really sounded crazy to a lot of people then, too) the New York Times described the JBS as "by far the most successful and 'respectable' radical right organization in the country."

The Birchers were also isolationists who started a movement around the slogan "get the U.S. out of the U.N.; and the U.N. out of the U.S." They believed the United Nations represented a conspiracy to do away with individual national governments.

The modern day Birch Society still subscribes to the idea of getting the U.S. out of the U.N. (and vice versa) and it still believes there is a conspiracy to do away the the United states as a separate nation (the current theory revolves around the so-called North American Union, that would merge the United States with Canada and Mexico).

So, back to the present. If Tim Pawlenty wants to be president, he certainly must say what he thinks the U.S. relationship to the U.N. should be, but he doesn't have to start from any particular that he agrees with the long-standing JBS position just because he spoke at a conference co-sponsored by the JBS.

Lisa DePasquale, CPAC director, told me Thursday that the conference will have 90-some cosponsors. To become a co-sponsor, she said, all an organization has to do is agree with the core principles of the American Conservative Union Foundation, outlined in a series of articles on its website, and buy an ad in the Conference's program. Co-sponsorship gets you an exhibition booth in the hall and the right to participate in meetings to plan the event. The JBS has not been a co-sponsor of previous CPACs, but DePasquale said they met the crieria, they "seem to be on our side," and she didn't think they should be shunned over things they said and did 50 years ago. "Most of the people on both sides of those arguments are dead," she added.

She agreed with me that wasn't reasonable to assume that Pawlenty's participation as a speaker implied any agreement with JBS's explicit positions, part or present. "If every speaker had to agree with every position of every co-sponsor, we wouldn't have very many co-sponsors," she said.

Of course, Pawlenty is no more implicated in JBS's beliefs than any of the many other speakers, which includes other leading undeclared presidential candidates such as Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Mike Huckabee was scheduled but has canceled. Sarah Palin was invited but has declined. The current list of speakers, co-sponsors and exhibitors is available here.

Other possible candidates — U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, former Sen. Rick Santorum — will also speak and their names will be included on the famous straw poll, taken most years at CPAC, in which attendees indicate who they would like to the Repubs nominate. Romney has won the last three years running. Last year was the first year that Pawlenty's name was on the straw poll and he finished ninth with 2 percent. (Romney won with 20 percent.)

Pawlenty needs to improve on that showing more than he needs to repudiate the John Birch Society, but he really needs to return my calls anyway.

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Comments (23)

Mr. Black,

This idea of yours that there are "moderate" righ-wingers is an interesting delusion. Pawlenty was never a moderate, that illusion was fostered by a media pretending be balanced. These are his people, of course he's talking to them.

I recommend two books:

"The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power" by Jeff Sharlet.

"Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party" by Max Blumenthal.

Mr. Black.
For $50 I'd be happy to proofread your copy before it is published. This story has at least 5 missing or misplaced words and/or typos. For someone like me, that makes it hard to focus on what your story is really saying.

Discover why J. Edgar Hoover and senior FBI officials within the Domestic Intelligence Division concluded that the Birch Society was "extremist", "irrational", "irresponsible", "fanatics" and "lunatic fringe".


When you read "The Family" note the Democrats, such as Hilary Clinton and Senator Senator Mark Pryor. who are prominently mentioned.

I hope the day comes soon when people wake up to the fact that not all Democrats are "liberals" and not all Republicans are "conservatives." And to the fact that not all "liberals" are good and not all "conservatives" are bad.

"Still, I cannot bring myself to play the card."

But laying out the entire deck, well that's another thing....?

Seriously, if you wish to go back and remove that sentence, Eric, I won't say anything and Mr. Jacobson would probably be very appreciative.

"CPAC, which is put on by the American Conservative Union, is technically non-partisan"

Who are you trying to kid? CPAC and the ACU are Republican operations as much as the Republican National Committee. Describing them as non-partisan requires complete suspension of disbelief.

I suppose, technically, every President and member of Congress is non-partisan once they are elected. But by that standard nothing is partisan except the political parties themselves.

The usual tap dance....
Pawlenty will try to signal (in code) that he supports the same issues as the Birchers (or the modern day incarnation of the Tea Party) to gain right wing support while avoiding any explicit endorsement that would drive away moderates.


I understand your not wanting to explicitly tie Pawlenty to the Birchers, but you dance around an interesting point:

If the John Birch Society of the 1950's and '60's considered so many Republicans to be "Communist Dupes", what has changed in the intevening 50 years so that they now wish to sponsor an essentially GOP event?

Has the Society moved away from their extremist conspiracy theories? No. According to your article they haven't changed much at all. That leaves only one conclusion: The Republican Party has changed, and this new partnership is merely the latest example of how extreme the change has been.

Absent both celebrity and money, I would think that the governor benefits anytime he is able to generate news.


You can't be neutral on a moving train as someone wiser then I said. This organization contributed to the ruination of people's lives. Isn't that enough to take a stand ?

It's a good thing that EB at least says he "cannot bring myself to play the card."

Still, the "discussion" of this non-issue seems to do just that.

It looks like the presidential campaign is well under way on both sides, as the scurrilous accusations mount from the left.

What "requires complete suspension of disbelief" is the idea that MinnPost is a balanced news organization. The way you people push Eric Black (an extremist left winger) demonstrates you're nothing better than City Pages.

By the way, the idea that wanting out of the UN is some old, radical idea is ridiculous. It's in the current GOP platform and has been for as long as I can remember. In fact, it's a mainstream idea shared by a large portion of the American public.

Agree that guilt by association is wrong, if that's the sole connection.

Wonder how one can tell the difference between a partisan organization, and a technically nonpartisan one noting Mr. Black's statement, "although CPAC, which is put on by the American Conservative Union, is technically non-partisan"

Is it partisan only if you're a registered political party? Is there a chance that CPAC will invite President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, John Dean, Rachael Maddow, ,,, anybody who isn't part of the right wing,,, to speak at their conference? Do they invite such leaders, and get turned down, or is it all about like minded characters in a politically conservative frame?

John E Iacono posts: "It looks like the presidential campaign is well under way on both sides, as the scurrilous accusations mount from the left."

Hmmmm .. Obama is a not a citizen but is a socialist/nazi/fascist ... wants to take over the economy ... kill grandma with death panels ... turn us into a socialist nation, have government takeover health care .... nationalize our economy

all fabricated nonsense, well within the definition of scurrilous, and all offered up by right wing Obama-haters since the gentleman took office.

if scurrilous accusations are mounting from the left (wondering which those might be) it will be some time before they get anywhere close to the volume of trash the right wing has put into public discourse

John E Iacono

Quoting: "It looks like the presidential campaign is well under way on both sides, as the scurrilous accusations mount from the left."

You are completely out of touch with reality. There is no campaign on the left for president. Not even from the middle. Obama's only problem is people expected too much and too many butt-saving hypocritical DINOs are letting him do what people elected him to do. I repeat my typical comment. Obama inherited the worst presidency since the Great Depression and has done more in one year than ALL of the Republican presidents of the 20th Century. (Of course, if you remove Eisenhower, that would be nil anyway.)

Howard (#14)

>Socialist: seems a fair characterization of one who would turn 16% of the US economy over to the government. Pretty much what socialists do.

>Wants to take over the economy: see above.

>Kill grandma with death panels: a very inflammatory way to characterize what is actually in the bill: turning over medical decisions to a "panel of experts." -- which, at last check, is still in the bill.

>Turn us into a socialist nation: see above.

>Take over health care: exactly what those 2,500+ pages will do, while health care costs escalate.

>Nationalize our economy: Taking over 16% of it seems to go a long way toward that.

Howard, any totally UNFOUNDED charges, like a "guilt by association" charge? A 100% liberal voter in the Senate has to expect people will be sensitive to what he does.

As a matter of fact, I find myself comforted that BO has shown more rational approaches in many matters since he took office. But I still believe his heart is where those charges you mention reside.

Jeremy (#15):

I took a friend out to learn to drive, and she drove into the ditch. I took over the wheel. I got us out of the ditch. Is she still responsible if I then drive into a tree?

This "It's all Bush's fault" (when it never really was all his fault at all, unless he had forced us to take out all those unsustainable home loans, and had forced the bankers to gamble with them) is getting a little old, don't you think?

And don't you think every spin from the White House is pretty much part of the '12 campaign? Well, maybe not the claim that "everything worked just fine" after the near plane explosion, but they took that back.

From my viewpoint, the presidential campaign, complete with "scurrilous accusations" is well under way.

@15 John I hope that this is not too off topic, but I think this expands on elements your comment.

You know, we went through the biggest boom and bust, arguably, since the Great Depression. And almost the entire American public was howling for the heads of investment banks and brokerage firms to be chopped off and marched on poles down Wall Street -- and we did not have that kind of government response. So I'm not a Marxist by any means, I'm a die hard capitalist, but I am a little worried that the sense of justice that was meted out may not really have satisfied the underlying current of anger in society, and we may have another round of this before we're through.

I think people have been scapegoating to some extent, and I think actually, that made things a little bit worse. Because this housing crisis has been coming for a while, and there were a lot of people saying, "I don't want my neighbor to get a bail out. That's not fair." Well the problem is, we're all interconnected and when your neighbor loses his house, your value goes down, the crime in your neighborhood could go up and as we saw, the entire economy is tied to our housing prices and what happens to them. So my feeling is, if we've been a little bit more generous with our neighbors, perhaps the economy might not have gotten so bad, and this housing crisis might not have gotten so bad.

Part of the problem with scapegoating is the crisis was born of many, many factors, including bad habits of all of us collectively, the American people. Yes, there was mortgage fraud; there was very bad rating of highly risky securities. But abetting this was a broad spectrum of the American people who were not saving at all, the savings rate went to zero at one point -- actually dipped negative for a while. So the responsibility is very, very broadly shared, and I think that has tempered the sense of revenge and scapegoating that we might otherwise have seen.

My dad, who was a very wise man, used to have a saying that when you point your finger at somebody else, at least three of your fingers are pointing back at you. We really were all in this together

There are 300 million people in this country, and we've really developed in the past couple of decades a bit of a culture of what we might call "responsibility-free decision making." And you know, we did get to the point where you can pick up your pack of cigarettes that says right on the side of it, the surgeon general says what you're about to do will kill you. And you can smoke them all day long and then when you get sick, you sue the tobacco company.

There comes a point at which people need to recognize that when someone offers you a loan that you can't afford, it's not 100 percent the other person's fault. Even if you didn't understand the documentation and even if you were mislead, something should have told you, "I can't afford this." It wasn't just the government, it wasn't just corporations, it wasn't just borrowers -- it was all of us together.

I think one of the things we haven't learned, is that we don't learn lessons. They learn over-specific lessons. So, if you chased the hot returns of Internet stocks in 1999, and then you lost all your money in 2000, the lesson you learned was not to chase the performance of Internet stocks. So then you went out and you flipped condos in Ft. Lauderdale and then you got wiped out on that. And now the lesson you've learned is don't flip real estate, but you're piling into gold. And if that's the way you learn lessons, then you haven't learned any lesson at all.

Richard (#18)

There's a lot of truth in what you say, BUT it WASN'T "all of us." I can buy "very broadly shared," but not "all of us".

Those of us who remember the thirties, and the collapse in home values then, and the several down markets in homes since -- and the harsh treatment from the bankers at those times -- would NEVER finance our homes without the biggest down payment we could muster, and would NEVER buy into home equity loans to "100% of appraised value." And we would think long and carefully about taking on debt which we could not repay if the least little thing went wrong, whether temporary job loss or a jump in credit card rates. We were NOT part of this debacle, nor did we contribute to it. And we are not few.

Those of us financially experienced would NEVER counsel any client to "get in over his head" in the hopes that next year would produce increased income.

Those of us with our dad's worthless Cities Service stocks from 1929 in the back of our heads would consider carefully jumping on the latest stock market bandwagon, believing that the stock market is a sophisticated technique by the big investors to fleece the little guys. And if we did buy any stocks it would be in safe and sound securities. We were NOT part of this debacle, though perhaps fewer of us were careful here than in regard to our homes.

Those of us who remember the bad times that have come many times over the years did not let today's good times make us forget, and put aside something for the inevitable rainy day. We were NOT part of this debacle, and to the extent we were able we did NOT contribute to it.

Our schools may bear some of the blame, producing citizens with "feel good" social studies, when "those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it". But no-one kept these younger generations from learnin it on their own.

While I may have some sympathy for families who stretched too far in hopes of having back yard for the kids, I remember that they were adults and responsible for their own actions. They did not HAVE to take the bait of variable rate mortgages and cheap credit cards and low interest home equity loans. They CHOSE to do it. And I did not, even though the same offers were made to me.

So I find myself resentful of your conclusion that we are ALL responsible, just as I was resentful when a some boys in class threw spitballs when the teacher was facing the chalk board and the teacher sent ALL of us to the cloakroom.

I hope all those responsible will (as you also seem to hope) learn the lessons from this crisis that many of us learned years ago. But they won't if they decide it's EVERYBODY'S fault and not their own.

the big change in the JBS the past 25 years has been the sort of take-over of the group by the fundie Catholic junta, ones who go for the Latin Mass only. Within such super-traditional Catholics there is a strain of what some would call anti-Semitism... It might be more fair to call it anti-Zionism...but they do seem to see Jews as often the enemy, part of the secular conspiracy against the true church.
That's a big change for the JBS, because founder Welch was rather irreligious, which created lots of tensions within the group because the vast majority of Birchers were either Protestant fundies or Catholics, probably; anyway, very religious. And Welch constantly had to soothe concerns about whether he was an unbeliever. It seems he sort of subscribed to an historical or ahistorical form of deism, partly in worship of the founding fathers.
The Birchers in many ways were far more benign than their popular image, and really cashiered anyone who got weird, either violent, gunnutty, widly anti-Semitic or racist..;
But their central fault was that famously fingered by Buckley circa 1960 when he made the big break with Welch, who had been a sort of sponsor of his earlier: they confused consequences with intentions. If Hungary went commie, it's clear that the UN and the Ike administrations WANTED Hungary to go Commie and we will work backward from there.
That intellectual shortcoming included the mass use of evil by association.
If you were seen marching next to a known commie at Peace Rally, that proved you were either a commie or a dupe.
Birchers never considered that commies might have been tryin to get some respect by "slumming."
On the upside, the Birchers were right about some things, and raised interesting questions on others.
They pegged Nixon faster and harder than just about anyone...maybe it's just the old broken clock syndrome (right twice a day) but, the fact is, looking for conspiracies all the time means you turn up some once in a while.
They were hip to Hiss way back.
Fact is, since 1992, many of the bircher claims about commies turned out to be true. Moscow did finance and direct the CPUSA, it turns out.
So... just cuz you're paranoid doesn't mean there wasn't a worldwide communist conspiracy.
Their changes since 1992 have been kind of amusing; they really were thrown for a loop when their raison d'etre seemed to vanish in the haze.

And big q

Your right John, perhaps I should have stuck with collectively. As you say, there are many that are both responsible and savvy with their personal funds and finance's. And one should be careful not to lump these folks with those that were less so.

“There is nothing wrong with macroeconomics that another depression [won’t] cure."

It's a war-horse of a quote, but a really good one.

best to all

What a long way we've come! Neither Goldwater nor Nixon would go anywhere near the Birchers. BridgeFAIL is dependent on traditional media NOT connecting the dots on him. He runs around the country touting his cred on health care, while he destroys insurance and care for 50,000 Minnesotans. He clamors for a balanced budget amendment while he led Minnesota to unbalanced budgets for eight years. He has destroyed this state; now, through projection and disinformation he seeks to do the same for the nation. To the Republicans nothing is more enticing than a proven government destroyer.

Sorry, Eric, the implication that it doesn't matter much because the Birchers are only one of 90 some sponsors of the conference doesn't wash. Does that mean any organization, no matter how heinous, would be too insignificant to withdraw from the conference over their sponsorship because they are only "one of 90"? How about the American Nazi Party (as just another example, not saying anyone's a Nazi here). Or NAMBLA?

Just because the conference organizers feel comfortable taking the Birchers money, or that their support is diluted among many others, or that they believe the Birchers now "are on our side" doesn't make them any less offensive. Pawlenty's appearance before any event enjoying the sponsorship and monetary support of groups like the John Birch Society is offensive, particularly as he represents the State of Minnesota.

You lie down with dogs (apologies to all dogs out there), you can expect to get fleas. And you should expect to get called out for it as well.