Book Review: 'Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America's Radical Right' by Claire Conner
Review by Susan Grigsby
Like the author of Wrapped in the Flag, I was raised in the Chicago area, but in the less affluent western suburbs rather than those up north. And, like the author's, my father was politically opinionated, but he encouraged his children to think for themselves, and would actively engage in political discussions with them. When he could, his donations went quietly to the ACLU and the NAACP.
It was from him that I learned to suspect those who waved a flag to show their patriotism, as if that was all that love of country required. A Stevenson Democrat, he warmed to JFK in time and wept at his death. He resented McCarthy and the fear he created and the political capital he derived from the fear. In other words, my upbringing was so totally different from the author's that it is hard to believe we grew up in generally the same place at the same time.
And yet, I found myself feeling that there but for fortune...
Claire Conner was raised by the first two members of the Chicago Branch of the John Birch Society. She was early pressed into service by her parents to offer food and beverages to the adults who gathered in the family home to discuss the dangers presented by the International Communist Conspiracy. Joseph McCarthy was the martyred spiritual leader of the group whose actual founder was Robert Welch.
Fiercely determined to carry on the battle against Communism that McCarthy started, the John Birch Society, formed in 1958, fought against every New Deal program that existed, as well as programs created by the Eisenhower Administration, including the Interstate Highway System. They hated Liberals, Jews, African Americans, and most of all, Communists, whom they felt controlled President Eisenhower.
“Eisenhower’s motivation is more ideological than opportunistic . . . he has been sympathetic to ultimate Communist aims, realistically willing to use Communist means to help them achieve their goals, knowingly accepting and abiding by Communist orders, and consciously serving the Communist conspiracy, for all of his adult life.”
- quoted from Robert Welch's manuscript The Politician in Wrapped in the Flag, page 54.
Sound vaguely familiar? It should. The John Birch Society became so extreme that William Buckley eventually ran them out of the mainstream Republican Party.
Little known, or remembered by us on the outside, is the fact that Buckley was initially considered an ally and friend by the leaders of the John Birch Society. Robert Welch donated funds to help keep Buckley's National Review afloat in its early days. Nor did most of us on the outside realize that one of the founding members of the Society, and a member of its national council, was Fred C. Koch, father of the current Tea Party bankers, David and Charles Koch.
The author's father was also a member of the national council which gave her an insider's view of the operation of the Society in its heyday that she shares in Wrapped in the Flag. Names that we have forgotten over time are resurrected in anecdotes: General Edwin Walker whose "Pro-Blue" program used John Birch Society materials to educate his troops on how to fight communists and to advise them how to vote. Revilo Oliver, a member of the national council and rabid anti-Semite and Holocaust denier whose extremism resulted in such an avalanche of bad publicity that he was asked to leave the Society. But it was the publicity that concerned the Birchers, not the anti-Semitism. They maintained an almost religious belief in the Illuminati and its influence on our government and they feared the coming New World Order.
There is also a personal coming of age story in Wrapped in the Flag. A story of a girl becoming a woman and learning that the world was not quite as her parents had led her to believe. They reviewed every one of her textbooks and school assignments to ensure that no liberal views were presented that could contradict the way they saw the world. But then, at 16, she secretly read Black Like Me, and and could not reconcile what she had learned with her parents' beliefs.
Although financially comfortable, her parents not only refused to pay for her college education, claiming their money was needed to fight the Communist threat, but they refused to allow her to accept the State Scholarship that would have paid her costs to attend the University of Illinois. To do so would have violated their libertarian principles, and besides, the Governor was the Democrat Otto Kerner. That liberal. Only at the small Catholic University of Dallas, run at the time by a Bircher, would she be safe from all those liberal influences. And so she was in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
More than an insider's look at the John Birch Society or a coming of age memoir, Wrapped in the Flag presents the clearest understanding of the Tea Party movement as something old. Something that did not quite succeed the first time, but then neither did Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon. The beliefs of the John Birch Society, and their slogans about "taking America back," never really died, but were shamed into a place of lowered visibility under a rock somewhere, ready to come roaring back as soon as conditions allowed.
Unfortunately, William F. Buckley died in 2008.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.