Nation's Move To Right Pulls Birchers Back From Brink -- New Vigor In The Granddaddy Of Ultraconservative Groups
HOME, Kitsap County - Through the leaded-glass windows is an intoxicating summer-evening view of the dark waters of Carr Inlet lapping against the shaded yard.
But inside the living room of Barda Grant's spacious stucco home, nine people are focused intently on a video warning that elite insiders are "setting us up for a future dictatorship." If the narration, with its condemnation of former Soviet ruler Mikhail Gorbachev as "manipulator of the year," seems a bit dated, that doesn't dim their enthusiasm.
To the members of John Birch Society Chapter CHNC, who meet monthly at homes in the Gig Harbor area to educate themselves about what Birchers refer to as "The Conspiracy," the fall of the Soviet Empire and a conservative political resurgence are no reason to relax their vigilance.
Or to see the world much differently than they did 20 years ago.
"They tried to smear us for years, call us a secret society," said Chuck Matson, a retired McChord Air Force Base engineer who has been a member for two decades.
"But people realize they've been sold a bill of goods. They're coming back."
The John Birch Society - ultraconservative anti-communist warriors who in the 1980s disappeared from public view along with such other Cold War relics as Che Guevara T-shirts - appears to be on the rebound, according to some who monitor the far right.
Postal records show monthly mailings of the group's magazine, the New American, in 1994 reached 58,000 - more than doubling in two years. While the society doesn't release membership numbers, researchers say the subscription list is a solid indicator of the group's resurgence.
This year, the Birch Society also purchased a new $1.2 million headquarters building in Appleton, Wis.
"At one point, I think they were down to 15,000 members from a peak of about 100,000 in the 1960s," said Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates, based in Cambridge, Mass., which has studied the John Birch Society. "They've come back on the big wave of right-wing populism in the country right now."
It's difficult to reconcile the group sitting in Grant's living room, munching homemade cookies and sipping coffee, with the sinister force many considered the Birch Society and its founder, candy magnate Robert Welch, to be.
In 1965, then-Gov. Dan Evans tried to drum the Birchers out of the state Republican Party, saying in a speech there was no room in the GOP for "false prophets, the phony philosophers, the professional bigots, the destroyers."
These days, with the media focused on groups such as armed militias, the organization that once inflamed such passion now seems like the Rotary Club of the far right.
The Birch Society stresses voter education, not paramilitary training in fatigues. For members of the Gig Harbor chapter, direct action means building and installing roadside signs ordering, "Get US Out of the United Nations."
At first glance, much of their agenda might seem hard to distinguish from conservative Republican fare: lower taxes, less government, opposition to gun control and abortion, criticism of U.S. participation in U.N. military forces.
The twist is their unyielding belief, set forward at the society's founding in 1958, in a vast international conspiracy working to destroy American sovereignty and enslave citizens under a one-world government.
The media, government officials, bankers - The Insiders - are all involved. Internationalism - "globaloney," some call it - is opposed in all its forms: the United Nations, the World Bank, NAFTA and private groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations.
Believing in The Conspiracy
A lot of Birchers say they found The Conspiracy implausible at first.
Not Grant. Her path to the Birch Society started 16 years ago, when she got home from a waitressing job late one night and tuned in to a conservative talk-show host on television.
"I'll tell you why it was easy for me to believe in a conspiracy. It was a conspiracy that killed Jesus Christ," Grant said. "Things don't just happen. The press wants to put a bad name on conspiracy, make us sound like kooks."
Asked for firsthand evidence of the conspiracy, she says she flipped on the news during the 1992 Los Angeles riots to hear a Channel 7 news anchor criticizing the jury verdict that acquitted the police officers accused of beating Rodney King. Every television reporter hewed the same line, she claims, part of what she says was a plot by elite groups to stir up racial turmoil and find an excuse to seize private guns.
In the 1980s, the crumbling of the Iron Curtain took the edge off the society's warnings of an international conspiracy. The election of Ronald Reagan brought mainstream conservatives into power.
But most of the folks in Grant's living room, middle-aged or elderly people, didn't waver in their adherence to the Birch message. To them, only the cast of those leading the country astray has changed.
At times, the Birchers declared President Dwight D. Eisenhower a tool of the communists, called for the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and opposed the civil-rights movement because it was supposedly infiltrated by Reds.
Today, President Clinton, according to an article in the New American, is a combination of Robespierre and the Marquis de Sade. Conservatives, warn Birch Society President John McManus, must realize Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich - a member of the "globalist" Council on Foreign Relations - "isn't on their side."
"By invitation only"
The leader of the Gig Harbor chapter, former Seattle Police Officer Dennis Falk, is a gregarious man who works part time as a security officer in the state Legislature. He wears a tiny birch-leaf tie clip, homage to the group he joined 31 years ago.
He sees the ascent of so-callled conservatives to power as a mirage.
"Reagan was elected because the media portrayed him as a conservative. The Birchers knew he was a liberal. For every four years of Reagan, we went a trillion dollars in debt," Falk said.
As for the supposedly conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, Falk has his own opinion: "I appreciate him stirring the pot. But the day Rush attacks the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations is the day he will no longer be on the national airwaves."
The Birchers say their reputation for secrecy is overblown. Falk says he can't even remember the group's code name - CHNC - without looking it up. But the group goes to some lengths to screen members and filter information about the organization.
To join, prospective members call a toll-free number at the society's Wisconsin headquarters, 1-800 JBS-USA1. Then the national group contacts Falk, who in turn makes a home visit and decides whether to invite the person to join.
"We keep it by invitation only," said Falk, who has revoked only one person's membership in his many years as a chapter leader. "We hold meetings at private homes, which is kind of a filtering factor. You aren't going to invite some sleazebag into your home."
State coordinator Bob Chipp claims membership in Washington has rebounded in the past few years, with 45 chapters and roughly 800 members now in the state. In a study of the society's 1989 mailing list by Political Research Associates, Washington had the fifth-highest total of Birch Society members in the nation.
Always one minute to midnight
While Birchers focus on ballot-box change, Loretta Ross of the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta, a liberal watchdog group, says the society shares with more extreme groups both a message of paranoia and many of the same conspiracy theories. She said leaders of miliitias and other so-called "patriot" groups rail against U.N. treaties as a forerunner to a takeover by global government - a key Birch Society theme for decades.
John Bunzel, a political scientist at Stanford University's Hoover Institution who wrote about the society in the 1960s, adds: "For groups like the Birchers, it was always one minute until midnight. Drastic action was always around the corner."
For the Gig Harbor chapter, the work of vigilance is more mundane.
The agenda ranges from their monthly recruiting efforts, in which each member is urged to turn in a sheet with six prospective members, to a discussion of how well boaters can see a new "Out of the U.N." recruiting sign posted near the waterfront.
Chipp is also visiting. He asks members to help send a teenager to the annual John Birch youth summer camp at Lake Wenatchee. About 85 youths get a chance to play volleyball, water-ski and spend half of each day in classes on such subjects as America's Christian heritage, the national debt and The Conspiracy.
"It's Americanism 101," Chipp tells them, urging them to get out their checkbooks. "We provide the fundamentals."
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