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Birch Society Is Alive, Well and to the Right of Newt Gingrich

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Now that communism appears to be gasping its last, it’s getting tougher for the John Birch Society to stir up any serious tremors with its message of a worldwide Marxist conspiracy to subvert the American Way of Life.

But the society, which once warned that Dwight Eisenhower might be a tool of the Kremlin’s dark maneuverings, does not lack for new menaces. The latest leftist threat: Newt Gingrich.

The ultraconservative organization, which drew much attention at the height of the Cold War, is most often mentioned today only as a historical footnote and political point of reference, as in: “He’s somewhere to the right of the John Birch Society.”

Witness the patronizing tone shown by the following recent news item: “Once the terror of California’s GOP politics (showdowns with Nixon, face-offs with Reagan), this political group is making nice. An adopt-a-highway sign on California 395 a few miles this side of the Nevada border tells drivers that the next two miles of roadside cleanup are brought to them by the John Birch Society.”

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Given the political limbo into which the John Birch Society has fallen, it may come as a surprise that anyone still belongs to it. But a banquet last Saturday night at the Warner Center Marriott, the annual dinner of the society’s West Coast Council, dispelled any thoughts that the Birchers might be dead, or even ailing.

The dinner, held for the first time in the San Fernando Valley, capped two days of policy-planning meetings by the society’s inner circle. At a news conference, the Birch elders condemned Gingrich, the Georgia congressman and speaker of the house who embodies the rise of the New Right to those outside the society. And they had harsh words for the Republicans’ “Contract With America,” which purports to be a platform for a conservative make-over of the government.

Essentially, the society thinks Gingrich is an “internationalist,” which makes him not much better than “the President and her husband,” as the society sees it. A society bumper sticker exhorts prayers for the Clintons because “they’re sick people.”

The Birchers, no matter what you think of their philosophy or version of history, cannot be accused of bending with the political winds. They stand firm on the principle that the enemy is us, as the cartoon character Pogo was famous for saying back in the 1950s when the Birchers were born. They won’t be distracted by a minor shift of power among those who are all part of the conspiracy.

At their dinner Saturday, they also showed themselves to be rugged banqueters. About 650 filled the Marriott’s main salon, sitting through 2 1/2 hours of oratory on the sins of the New World Order and the Emerging New World Army.

Even the young Birchers are tough. Several--like their parents, dressed in formal evening wear--managed to sit still through the lead-off speech, a 20-minute exegesis that drew parallels between pre-revolutionary France and the current mess in the world.

William Norman Grigg, a former Washington journalist who saw the light and is now a Birch society researcher, detailed the persecution of the Jesuit writer Guillaume Francois Berthier at the hands of Voltaire and the secularist Enlightenment.

Quoting voluminously from 18th-Century tracts to make his point, Grigg said: “This was all necessary to clear the decks of Christianity in order to make room for a new religion of the state, a new totalitarian religion.”

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This he compared to today’s ethic of the gaea, named for the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth, which places the well-being of the biosphere above individual rights. As outlined in Swiss theologian Hans Kung’s “Declaration of a Global Ethic,” this means, Grigg said, “quote, ‘No person has the right to use her or his possessions without concern for the needs of society and Earth.’

“No property rights.”

That’s not to say that all Birch speakers have the style of scholastic power lifters.

Master of ceremonies Philip E. Binzel told about the time Birch society president John F. McManus was picked up at the airport by a regional officer, and happened to ask if the car’s passenger seat had an air bag:

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“It does now,” Binzel said the fellow shot back.

Before launching into the Federalist Papers and denouncing “George Bush, Bill Clinton and a collection of other double-crossers and self-servers calling themselves the Congress of the United States,” McManus got a few laughs himself.

“There are people out there who think Roe vs. Wade are two different ways of getting across the Potomac.”

McManus brushed aside communism’s alleged collapse as just one more sign of the deviousness of the conspiracy.

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“There had to be reasons behind it all,” he said. “The main one I suggest is that the conspirators decided to have the UN become more potent.”

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Far from joining the Whigs, the Know-Nothings and the Free Silver parties in the museum of extinct political movements, he said, the Birchers are on the rise, evidenced by the steady increase in the circulation of the New American, the society’s biweekly magazine. The society doesn’t reveal what the circulation is, nor how many members it has.

“I’d say we’re winning the battle,” McManus said. “I’d say the momentum is shifting to our side.”

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The evidence is less apparent to political humorist Mark Russell, who noted in a recent performance that Orange County was becoming less conservative. “I don’t know what happened to the John Birch Society, or those billboards that said ‘Impeach Earl Warren,’ ” Russell said.

Well, Mark, there was one “Get US Out of the UN” banner flying in the Valley last week.

It was on the wall behind the dais where sat the 24 men of the council in their black tuxedos.


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