The road to irrelevance - Part 2: My Birch Society saga

By Erik Jay
web posted May 29, 2000

I waited over a decade to talk about my experiences with the John Birch Society. Perhaps I should have given it a few more decades.

The response to the first of my planned three parts has caused me to alter my approach to the rest of the series: this will be it, a second and final installment. The main reason, actually, is that there happens to be a much better (at least, more current and certainly more prolific) source for the information that I would be giving you. Why reinvent the wheel?

It turns out that an old, old, way-back-when friend of Robert Welch's, one Alan Stang, has been trying to pull the covers off the JBS leadership for a few years already. Whether he is the disinterested (that is, unbiased) observer of the Birchers that he claims to be, and appears to me to be, or is the devil incarnate as the JBS'ers maintain, is something you will have to decide for yourself.

But that's one of the places that I will point you for more and better information -- http://www.alanstang.com -- so that you can try separating the wheat from the chaff yourself; the other spot is my own website, where I have posted the complete, unedited reply I received from Tom Eddlem, JBS Director of Research. All I need to do here in the final installment of this truncated report is tell you a little about the JBS's reply to my last column, share some comments from a few well-placed former employees, and apprise you of how some other conservative and libertarian pundits view the JBS vis-a-vis the current imbroglio.

Mr. Eddlem more or less accused me of being a shill for Alan Stang -- rather, to use their own preferred vocabulary, a co-conspirator. He flat out called Mr. Stang a liar and scoundrel, and cited this and that and the other arcane bit of history and hagiography to defend the Society and indict Mr.

Stang. To his credit, when I asked him if he wanted to respond to Mr. Eddlem and his bosses, Mr. Stang replied, "No, I don't answer them because...it would waste precious time." He prefers to let the distressed, disgruntled, and disgusted present and former members of the JBS do the talking, by way of letters published on his website -- usually published in their entirety, unedited, or so it would appear. In my estimation, Mr. Stang is providing a service to those members by making his site available as a virtual living room coffee klatsch get-together with friends chatting it up about their common woes.

And the level of that chatter, and the more widespread chatter concerning the Society, went up a few decibels this week. I received some very interesting comments from my own subscribers (my e-mail weekly column "What Next?" goes to a wide assortment of folks), one of which resulted in the following exchange:

Dear Erik: With all the real issues which assail us, and the ever-increasing threat to freedom posed by the collectivists in Washington, it seems somehow a bit perverse to go after one of the few anti-collectivist organizations in the USA. You'd provide a better service going after the Ford Foundation or any number of more powerful Leftist/Establishment organizations.

Thank you, Greg

Dear Greg: I had many former members plead with me to do the article, and I delayed doing so for ten years. Then, with the latest batch of info about the funny money goings-on, I finally had had enough. This is not an effective group at all. The amount of waste, the amount of lying, the amount of character assassination, etc., is mind-boggling.

It is very important to know who our allies are. You have not been on the inside track on this, and you simply do not know what is going on. Which is why -- after a decade of holding my tongue -- I finally wrote it. I suggest you visit www.alanstang.com and see what some really angry ex-Birchers have to say. Then get back to me. Thanks for the input, but you're sadly, dangerously mistaken in this case.

As to your statement that the JBS is "one of the few anti-collectivist organizations in the USA" -- well, this is what the JBS would like you to think, certainly. However, when I set up my "Allies" page on my own website, I had to stop at about fifty groups; I had a list of over three hundred that I amassed by myself in about an hour on the Internet.

There are literally thousands of national and local "anti-collectivist" groups, as you call them, ranging across every imaginable issue, geographical area, religious affiliation, and ethnic group. For just one example: In L.A., there are at least two dozen foreign language pro-freedom, pro-life, pro-free market groups that I know of. There's even a Charismatic Catholic Filipino Army Veterans "freedom discussion group"! Wow! Now that's niche marketing!

Perhaps you're a JBS member, former member, friend of a member. But, GD, my own history with this group goes back almost 40 years (and I'm not fifty yet!) and I know the JBS president, V-P, a scad of "major coordinators", the mag staff, the former mag staff, the 25-year head of the old West Coast office, the owner of the oldest American Opinion bookstore in California -- I know whereof I speak, Greg, and these folks do even more so.

I like Robert Welch's writings (particularly "The New Americanism") and have great regard for any number of JBS members, messages, and principles.

However, I do believe the leadership is corrupt and self-serving. They tried to rip off my friend (and former colleague at "The New American" magazine) for 70 grand in a real estate scam; only by standing up to them, and threatening to expose the deed at a JBS Council meeting through the offices of a decent (now deposed) Council member, did my friend prevail. Others have not been so fortunate.

Scoundrels, scalawags, and sycophants at the top; decent, dues paying folks at the bottom. It makes me almost physically ill to see a group with such great (written) principles turn into a cash cow for a bunch of second-rate poseurs. I wish I had written the article years ago; perhaps I could have reduced the amount of frustration that membership in the JBS almost always brings dedicated but naive new members. Not to mention, reduce the amount of wasted time, money, effort, and reputation. Tragic. Regards, Erik

Although all these letters went back and forth on a single evening, there was about an hour or so interval here; I assume Greg went Birch-surfing on the net for a while, after which he wrote to me again:

Dear Erik: Thank you for the responses. My contact has been much more limited: I am a long term subscriber to "The New American" and I attend meetings and presentations when a guest speaker comes to town. I have been a supporter, but am not a member. I have always thought that the speakers that I have seen have been courageous and well-informed, especially someone like John McManus. The reason I had not actually joined was because I rely on my status as a knowledgeable "hip" ex-hippie-type, to help sway people away from their knee-jerk leftist views at my politically-charged worksite, and I was aware that membership in JBS would diminish one's authority because most people -- if they have even heard of the JBS, as you rightly pointed out -- think they [represent] some extreme "right-wing" lunacy. But I always attributed the effective smear job against them as having come from the fact that they were most hip to and vocal about -- from the earliest stage -- the collectivist menace that killed so many tens of millions, and so the JBS was seen as the primary group to neutralize by any means. Thanks for describing your background with this issue. If what you say is true, I will be deeply disappointed. But, I am always in support of striving for the truth, regardless of how uncomfortable the outcome.

Best wishes, Greg

Now there is some clear thinking; either Greg read my "straight-thinking" series last month or he didn't need to, because his conclusion is positively inarguable: "I am always ... striving for the truth, regardless of how uncomfortable the outcome." This is the mature view that is wholly alien to the blindered JBS-and-only-JBS cultists -- which most assuredly does not describe all the members of that group. But to rise to any position in the organization itself, and particularly at HQ, a cultic devotion to the leadership is a concrete requirement. A personality cult was precisely what Robert Welch designed and instituted for this organization, and he made no bones about it whatsoever in the Society's founding document, the "Blue Book"; he was proud of that design, frankly, although it has failed him since his death in 1985.

You see, no one in the group rose to anywhere near his stature, and there were a good four or five years of revolving-door CEO's, in-and-out Council members, and so forth. It was just about the time that I agreed to go back to Arlington (near Boston) to help modernize the magazine operation that a new oligarchy was cementing itself into place -- a troika, really. This was the beginning of the Jack McManus-Tom Gow-Vance Smith era.

But they had to move to Appleton, Wisconsin first. Oddly enough, it is the hometown of both Senator Joseph McCarthy, among the most sainted members of the JBS's pantheon of patriots, and Harry Houdini, the illusionist who vowed to communicate to the living world from across the river Styx. As near as I can put together, in 1989 the Society needed a financial white knight, and in rode G. Allen Bubolz, a second-tier member of a family that bestrode the Wisconsin insurance industry. Second-tier or not, he became the Chairman of the Board, I believe it was, while Jack McManus moved into the president slot and Tom Gow, whom I had met in California when I was dissipating my energies for a year as a JBS member, became a V-P and/or the office manager and/or the HQ heavy. (He got to fire a surprisingly large fraction of original Wisconsin employees, people who had moved out from Massachusetts and insisted on holding the JBS to the terms of the deal. Never a good idea...)

The last six months of 1989 in Appleton were totally crazy. Bubolz and the Council were fighting, McManus and Bubolz spoke different dialects entirely, the office operation was chaotic -- but we did get the magazine redesigned, and never missed a deadline. On the other hand, during this period Bubolz tried to pull a fast one in a real estate deal with one of the employees, and once the threat was made to actually tell the truth about this scam, the put-upon JBS membership ended up making the deal good; that is, the Society used members' dues money, by far the JBS's largest source of income, to pay off the guy. And then, with some additional and unspecified amount of dough in the third CEO golden parachute in five years, Bubolz was gone and Vance Smith was in.

Smith, Gow, and McManus: this is the troika to this very day.

Now that we're back in year 2000, what to do? Well, if you care at all about the subject, go to the Stang site or my own, where I posted the JBS reply to Part 1 along with my response to them (http://erikjay.com/gt.html). If you don't, click over to another column, cartoon, or auction site. The fact is, even some people directly involved in the JBS saga don't care to comment.

My good friend, and the victim of the real estate scam attempt, replied thus when I invited him to comment on the goings-on:

Dear Erik: What's the point? You'll never convince the "insiders" at JBS.

The underlings can't see the truth and the overlords already know it. Just tell it like it is and move on. You and I have too many promising efforts in progress to get distracted by ineffectual purists. Why not just print [their] "rebuttal" ... and solicit responses...? By the way, given the history of the house [deal] and the generous terms of his termination, Bubolz is not likely to contradict [the JBS version of events].

I was interested in getting some input from outside the JBS circles, so I forwarded details of the saga to a number of respected commentators of impeccable conservative/libertarian credentials. One, a popular East Coast radio host and regular contributor to numerous webzines, gave me some great information:

Dear Erik: I am interested in your analysis of the Birch Society. While I am not a member and disagree with them on many things, particularly their "grand conspiracy" theory of history, they have occasionally sent me interesting guests for my broadcast and have provided me with good background information for research. John McManus, president of JBS, is a neighbor ... and a friend.

While the JBS has many faults and is somewhat directionless, I still think they are relevant if, for no other reason, they publish "The New American" which, I think, is excellent. William Norman Grigg and William F. Jasper are top-notch writers and researchers. I am, however, interested in your research and look forward to seeing more.

The JBS does have many of the hallmarks of a cult of personality around Robert Welch and while I admire their conservatism, patriotism, and careful research methods, this insistence on a conspiratorial view of history is to their discredit. In the course of my broadcasting I have heard most conspiracy theories, including bizarre ones involving space aliens, and at least [compared to that] the JBS operates relatively responsibly. I simply reject the approach. I've noticed that when a person or group operates with a conspiratorial view, there is a tendency to try to explain everything under the sun in accordance with the theory. The JBS is as guilty of this as anyone. Conspiracy theories have been the source of great destruction and I have tried to dispel these.

Regards, C.

I really can't argue with any of that; he nailed it pretty well. I would only add that the internecine warfare and the cozy financial dealings among the in-crowd are unknown to most observers, and deserve to have a thousand points of light directed at them from all angles.

Finally, this commentator directed me to the great WorldNetDaily site and a column about various conspiracy theories. I sent that particular columnist Part 1 of this series, and his reply was perfectly typical of the ones I got from half a dozen others whose bylines grace such periodicals as "Liberty" and "National Review" and "Reason" and "Chronicles" -- a real smorgasbord there, eh?. The WND fellow wrote:

Dear Erik: Thanks for writing... I know Jack McManus, too, and he told me some real crazy things when I spoke to him several years ago. You are right to say that [the Birchers] marginalized themselves. But worse yet, they've spread confusion and misinformation far and wide. You should see the mail I get -- constantly -- from people trying to educate me about "the conspiracy". I have long been sickened by the stupidity of it all, and the waste of time and misdirection of energy. Many patriotic people are totally on the wrong track, and I think it's fatally hurting the right's ability to focus. It's crippled us for forty years. Many mainstream readers associate my writings with Birch conspiracy theory. It seems the black muck sticks to us all.

Regards, J.

After this phenomenal flurry of flapping lips, I suddenly realized that probably too much has been said about the JBS -- just not to the inquisitive readers of the internet's freedom-focused sites. It's all been bottled up within a subset of a subset of the right wing, and exposed to "outsiders" only through a few personal undertakings (vendettas, the JBS would call them), Alan Stang's being the most ambitious and comprehensive.

At first I thought the JBS would want to hush it all up, but no. The fact is, the Society needs all the publicity it can get, and we have it from no less an authority than Katherine Hepburn that there is no such thing as bad publicity. In fact, she went on to say something even more appropriate to this ongoing JBS saga, this long and depressing tragicomedy from which I am now, in front of God and you witnesses, recusing myself.

The irrepressible Kate, confronted with some juicy but accurate scandalmongering in the entertainment tabloids, averred that "I don't care what anyone writes about me, as long as they spell my name wrong."

I've had it with this topic, friends. If you want more of it, head over to the sites I gave you above. And don't call me; I'll call you!

Erik Jay is editor of "What Next? The Internet Journal of Contentious Persiflage" which you can subscribe to by visiting http://erikjay.com.

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