Commentary Magazine


Cell 772, or Life Among the Extremists

Soon after the word was circularized that President Eisenhower was in the employ of the Kremlin, Senator Goldwater said that all the people he knew who were members of the John Birch Society were fine, decent people. Now the Senator has asked us to consider the proposition that the agitated temper in pursuit of a certain form of liberty will postpone—and God willing even halt—the great republic's decline. I would like to consider this proposition, not abstractly but in its own terms, through an incident that took place three years ago in Austin, Texas, a locale which, in this political season, is an appropriate one. Austin is the most enlightened and sophisticated of our Southwestern cities. It is the site of the largest university in the South and the second home of the President of the United States. Symbolically, it is the capital of the state which Goldwater has exploited as his national base. Without Texas we would not have had a Johnson, and I seriously doubt if we would have had a Goldwater, at least not the same one. Goldwater has spent so much time in Texas in the last eight years that some people believe the state has had three U.S. Senators.

I was living in Austin in 1961 editing the literary-political journal, The Texas Observer. At the time, the John Birch Society was flourishing nationally. It was under persistent attack by the Establishment press, sensation-seeking columnists and interpreters, and hence it was gaining daily in adherents. This was some time before the pristine views of the Society were muddled by Eisenhower's denying that he was on the payroll of the NKVD, with a monthly salary and a substantial, if not spectacular, share in the profits. It was also three years before Ike himself caused doubts in the minds of his detractors by unleashing the angry Convention delegates against the deception of Eastern journalists. And three years would pass, too, before the Presidential nominee of a major party would give the Society unexpected respectability by recommending extremism as a virtue or, to put it another way, exposing moderation as a vice.

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One night my wife and I were eating dinner at home in Austin when my phone rang. The caller, speaking in whispers, gave his name as Tom Bunch1 and briefly described his mission. He said he needed to see me as soon as possible. We arranged a safe rendezvous in an out-of-the-way roadhouse.

Bunch was a curious young man of about twenty, with a predilection for speaking in cryptic whispers, even when no one was about, for punctuating key sentences with sighs, and for never sitting with his back to a door. He was one of the most solemn people I have ever dealt with. I admit that from the beginning I suspected his intentions. For three days I was wary that he might have been using me in some elaborate campus hoax, perhaps a fraternity plot to make a fool of my newspaper, which, circulating at just a shade over 6,000, could ill afford to lose its honor, much less its head. He pulled out a John Birch Society official membership card, which I examined carefully. He had even brought a sheaf of notes with him, and with an earnestness that would have subdued the doubts, though I suppose only temporarily, of a Mark Lane, he began telling me his story. He said that he had joined the Birch Society out of curiosity. His past was clean enough, and in due time, after serving quietly and diligently, he became a member of a select and dedicated cell, No. 772. This cell had been organized earlier in the year by Jack Bigby—one of the John Birch Society's most trusted and experienced co-ordinators, a man of firm determination and great physical strength—for the purpose of bringing about a full-fledged investigation of the state university. The members, young patriots chosen for their courage and resourcefulness (they were, one might say, a Texas version of a small 19th-century Balkan spy ring), were charged with the job of spying on their professors so that subversion at the university might be ferreted out.

Bunch gave me a list he had made of the other eight student members of Cell 772. He described Miss Ledbetter, an aggressive and wily piano instructor who provided the secret meeting place. Cell 772, he emphasized, was not merely secret, it was super-secret. He intimated that even the highest authorities up North might not know its every move.

Cell 772 had been working in close cooperation with a business firm downtown, Enterprisers, Inc., a front for the Birch Society. Here a corps of people had been amassing information on supposed subversion and subversive activities at the university. Here elaborate files were kept on private citizens. Here lists of supposed Communists, crypto-Communists, Communist dupes, and liberal Democrats in all the colleges and universities of Texas were kept up to date. But chiefly they had their eyes on the state university itself, which had a library, and whose teaching ranks included many home-grown dissenters and Yankee intellectuals.

Jack Bigby had advised the members of Cell 772 to use pocket-sized tape recorders in lectures at the university. The president of 772, a young man named Judson Chapell, had also informed his associates that they would be aided in their work by two members of the investigative arm of the Department of Public Safety, a sort of boondocks FBI, with a less efficacious technology. State Representative Clarence “Stonehenge” Bailey of Houston, whom President Chapell had identified several times as an active John Bircher, would, in the meantime, push for an investigation of the university by a special legislative committee composed of the “right people.” Textbooks used at the university were being checked by another special unit within 772, the Group for Book Review, against a master list (supplied by Enterprisers, Inc.) of alleged subversive works.

Bunch had more to say about Jack Bigby, whom he liked to call “the Big Man.” At one of the meetings, Bigby had suggested that the cell (or, as they prefer, chapter) members write anonymous letters to parents of fellow students who had been involved in “liberal activities.” He had also told them that the Birch Society and Robert Welch were the only answer to the Communist problem and that the front-group tactic used by Communists was most effective. And he had warned the young conspirators several times that no one could be trusted, “not even ourselves.” Bigby apparently was also a judo expert, and he had lectured at length at a cell meeting about judo, remarking that he would like to use his judo on some of the sit-in demonstrators who had been picketing movie houses near the campus. When a cell member complained in exasperation one night that perhaps the best way to treat the enemies of the John Birch Society would be to kill them off, Bigby said that might not be a bad idea, but that there were too many.

Cell 772, Bunch further informed me, had been addressed one evening by Dr. Felix J. DeSpain, a leading Birch Society intellectual who, in professional life, was a veterinarian specializing in cow skin diseases, with a free-lance practice at a nearby zoo. The cell members had brought Dr. DeSpain up to date on its activities, and he had agreed wholeheartedly with their objectives. DeSpain had just been to Southwest Texas State Teachers College at San Marcos, Lyndon Johnson's alma mater, to get a cell going. There had been a little difficulty. One young man who had already joined the Society turned out to be an atheist. DeSpain finally settled the problem by deciding that the student could still be effective against Godless Communism at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, even though Godless himself.

Bunch later met with another important figure, Mrs. Clara Saxon, at Enterprisers, Inc. Since she had received good reports on his work from other cell members and the adult leaders, she took him into her confidence. She showed him a copy of Sex and Love in the Bible, which she said was being pushed by Communist-front groups at the university, such as the YMCA and the Wesley Foundation. At this meeting, for the first time, Bunch was shown the list of subversive educators.

Bunch, together with two other cell members, also met with two special investigators, Burns and Hare, at the Department of Public Safety. The meeting had been arranged by State Representative “Stonehenge” Bailey. The cell members identified themselves to Burns and Hare as members of the John Birch Society. They presented the investigators with certain evidence on subversion at the university. Burns and Hare warned that they could not be implicated in any way, because they were not supposed to mix in politics. They told the cell members that they would provide them with two pocket-sized tape recorders, if, beforehand, they could bring the investigators one “juicy” lecture on their own. Then Burns and Hare took the names of Bunch and the two others and said they would check their reliability.

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II

Young Bunch had told me a tale of enigmatic proportions, elaborately documented by the notes he had taken at home after every meeting. What was I to do with this information? It was quite possible that he was a counter-spy, a sort of double agent, sent out by Bigby.2 I therefore determined to proceed with caution. There were two factors working in my favor. One, members of the John Birch Society had persistently insisted that their organization was not secret. Two, one had the word of Texas's third senator, Senator Goldwater, that all the Birchers he knew were decent and affectionate souls. I had little doubt that I could check out my informant's allegations with such an above-the-table group.

I began with the state representative. One afternoon, during a floor debate in the House of Representatives, I walked over to “Stonehenge” Bailey's desk and sat down. I had met him before on several occasions, and as is the political manner in Texas, our ideological disagreements, which in stormier times might have been the basis for a holy war, were softened by a first-name relationship. “Stonehenge,” I asked, “have you heard anything about an investigation of the university?”

“I've heard rumors,” Bailey said, “that they're gonna investigate everything from playpens to the UN.”

Had he played a role in an imminent investigation? “It's none of my affair, actually in a sense,” he said. Well, did he know young Chapell, the president of Cell 772? He said he did not. Was Bailey himself a member of the Birch Society? “No,” he replied, with much ardor. “I'm not a member, never have been, and never will be.” Well, what was his opinion of the Society? “I am frankly presently trying to form an opinion,” he said. “I'm reading the pro's and con's.”

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Next on my list were the two investigators at the Department of Public Safety. I phoned Hare for an appointment, and drove out to the large modern building on the Dallas highway. The atmosphere inside was one of muted efficiency, and I wondered how many friends of mine they had on file, what they or their cybernated facilities might know of their politics, their habits, their behind-the-scenes sexuality.

I climbed up the stairs and found the door marked “Burns and Hare.” They were sitting behind separate desks in a smallish, cluttered room. Both were big and beefy country boys, I could sense—perhaps from Killeen or Dripping Springs or Pflugerville. Later I would see quite a lot of both of them, back on the fringes of the crowd at campus meetings. I once spotted Hare looking over a gathering that turned out to hear Dwight Macdonald on anarchism; I would not have been astonished to see him walk up to the curious goateed figure and clamp on a pair of silver handcuffs. Later I saw Burns in a crowd of students listening to Norman Mailer, and I wondered what he reported on that.

Hare motioned me to a chair, and as I bent over to sit down, I was surprised to see, next to each other on top of a large pile of printed matter, two publications: The Texas Observer and The Worker. I had never really considered this juxtaposition. It was a strange feeling, seeing one's own byline next to that of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

“I see you have good reading matter here,” I said to Hare.

“We read everything out here,” Hare said. “In this job we have to keep up with what's going on.” Behind his desk in the corner, Burns was doing some paper work, but I could tell he was simulating it. He was very much aware of me, the back of his neck was taut; he was chewing gum, and occasionally he would glance up and look me over. I was rummaging around in forbidden terrain. Here were two Texas country boys accustomed to judging quickly, and not used to changing their minds.

I began by asking if they had conferred with members of the John Birch Society in gathering information for an investigation.

“We have informants, sources of information, and sometimes these sources are in a position of controversy,” Hare said briskly. “Because we use an informant doesn't mean we're in sympathy with him.” Had they offered the group the pocket-size tape recorders? “Definitely not,” he said. “It would be out of order for any state equipment to be loaned to any individual or organization.” Wasn't there a question of propriety involved, I asked, when public officials worked with members of a group like the John Birch Society? “As for the propriety of our assocation with anyone,” Hare snapped, and Burns rustled in the corner, “I can't answer that. If we are to do a service to the state, it is necessary to have informants in all walks of life.” With that, slapping his hands on the desk, knocking The Texas Observer and The Worker off their pile into a disarranged ideological jumble, he closed the interview.

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Judson Chapell, who, according to Bunch, was the president of Cell 772, had a room in a streamlined air-conditioned dormitory near the university campus. When I identified myself, he was quite cordial, but nervous. He offered me a chair and asked what I wanted.

“How long have you known State Representative ‘Stonehenge’ Bailey?” I asked.

“Not long, actually,” Chapell said. “I ran into him at the Capitol. He's a very nice guy. Do you know him?”

“What did you talk about?” I persisted.

“Just all kinds of things. We talked about some investigating committee, some standing committee, but I don't think it went through.”

“Is ‘Stonehenge’ a member of the John Birch Society?” I asked.

“I don't know that he is,” Chapell said. “From what I understand, they don't tell who they are. He's the one to talk to about that.”

“How long have you been a member?” I asked.

“As a matter of fact, I'm not,” he said. “I don't know any more probably about it than what I read in the papers.”

I asked if he knew Jack Bigby. “I don't believe I do,” he said. I asked if he knew the piano teacher, Miss Ledbetter, who owned the house where the secret meetings were held. “I don't think so.”

“I have information that you're president of Cell 772 of the Birch Society. Is that true?” I asked.

“I'm flattered,” he replied. “Go on. I didn't even know chapters had presidents.” He turned his head and contrived a laugh.

Had he heard about a secret campaign to gather material on subversives at the university? “No,” he said, “I don't know what that would be. More power to ‘em if they can.” Had he been to see Hare and Burns at the Department of Public Safety? “No.”

What did he think of the John Birch Society? “Actually, I don't know much about it,” he said. Did he believe there was any subversion at the university? “Well, The Daily Texan, you know, the student paper. But it's not subversive, I guess, it's Democratic, it pushes the Negro, but I don't know if that's subversive.”

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I left Chapell's dormitory, found a phone booth on the campus, and phoned Bunch. He was angered by my report of the interview with the president. “He's lying through his hat,” Bunch said.

That night, I got another call from Bunch. “I have something that will make you sit up and listen,” he whispered. We arranged a meeting at the apartment of a reliable friend.

A large tape recorder was on the table in the room. Bunch, considerably calmer than in our previous meetings, sat in an armchair and explained what had taken place. Sometime after I had left Chapell, Bunch decided to phone him on the pretext that “some reporter” had been around looking for him. On his own initiative, and with his own tape recorder, Bunch had taped the ensuing conversation.

He started the tape recorder. I reclined in my chair to hear this unusual piece of evidence.

Chapell, after a moment of apparent suspicion, told Bunch that, alas, the reporter had talked with him only a short while before.

“He knows everything,” Chapell's voice said. “I mean everything, with all the letters capitalized.”

The voice of Bunch interrupted: “You mean he knows you're. . . .”

“He knows everything,” Chapell repeated. “I mean, everything.”

“How did he find out?”

“We're working on that now,” Chapell said. He then advised Bunch not to tell a single other member of Cell 772 that the news was out. He also warned Bunch to prepare for the reporter, to remain calm when confronted with his startling information, and to feign ignorance.

“Have you talked with Bigby?” Bunch asked.

“Yes,” Chapell said after a pause, and then added in a dramatic flourish, that no matter what happened, “the work of the chapter will go on. He knows I was lying. He'll know you're lying, but lie anyway. He'll publish our names, but the work will go on. One other thing,” the president warned. “When you want to talk with me, come over here personally. Don't talk on this phone. We have reason to believe it's, you know. . . .”

There was a momentary silence on the tape.

“Tapped?” Bunch whispered, incredulously.

“Yes,” the president said.

Bunch turned off the recorder. He sat down in his chair, glancing my way with a bemused expression. “Now what do you think?” he asked.

But that was not all. He had more evidence. He had spent part of the afternoon downtown at Enterprisers, Inc. The people down there, he said, had told him that the pending investigation was just a matter of time. He also reported that the workers at Enterprisers, Inc. had just sent to the House Un-American Activities Committee for information on three university professors: one in economics, one in government, one in philosophy. He then reached into a folder and withdrew a copy of a list of eleven “subversives” in Texas colleges, which he had helped type out that afternoon. A well-known writer whom I knew was included. Under each name was a detailed list of the man's activities.

Then he produced another document, an information blank which members of Cell 772 were using in tabulating subversion at the university. Here it is:

Faculty

  1. Sources of Documentation
  2. Test of Socialist-Communist sympathizers
  3. Listed Citations

Courses

  1. Emphasis on Keynes-Socialist Principles & Philosophy
  2. Lack of courses on Americanism
  3. Student Comments on Course Contents
  4. Ridicule of Christian Doctrine

Textbooks

  1. List of textbooks each item to set out
    1. Author, title, publisher, date
      1. Author's known activities

Student Organizations

  1. Official
  2. Unofficial thru YMCA, Unitarian Church, Christian Faith and Life Community

Daily Texan

  1. Clippings
  2. Irresponsibility
    1. Staff
    2. Faculty Advisors
    3. Illustration of JBS letter complete falsification

It was now midnight. I resolved that the following day I would talk with Mrs. Clara Saxon at Enterprisers, Inc., Dr. Felix DeSpain, and ultimately Jack Bigby himself. It would be a significant day. Wrapping my black cloak about me, I carried my speculations home, and foregoing Seymour Martin Lipset, I put myself to sleep reading Conan Doyle's “The Red-Headed League.”

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III

Early the next afternoon, after the morning session of the legislature, I got in my car, doing three loops around the Capitol to make sure I was not being tailed, and drove to Enterprisers, Inc., which occupied a ground-floor office near the city's most prosperous hotel. From the outside it seemed eminently respectable, a prototype of a solid bourgeois undertaking.

I walked inside and was greeted by the noise of several typewriters. I asked a young lady behind the front desk if I could see Mrs. Clara Saxon.

As I was ushered into her private office, Mrs. Saxon gave me a warm welcome. She was a large, lively lady who seemed about my size, though when I reflected on her in hindsight, I concluded that she must have outweighed me by roughly one stone. I weighed approximately 175 at the time, and was not in bad condition, but I think on a careful weighing she would have tipped the scales, with the heavy dangling earrings not included, at approximately 190. She had an animated manner, seemed well-coordinated, and was altogether cordial. I was not certain I had the proper lady.

She invited me to sit down. “Mrs. Saxon,” I asked, “what kind of business is Enterprisers, Inc.?”

“Well,” she replied, “the list on the window outside describes it. We're a bookkeeping service.”

I wrote her remark in my notebook. “What do you want this for?” she suddenly asked.

I explained that it was merely a routine inquiry. Then I tried to take her guard down. “Mrs. Saxon, how long have you been a member of the John Birch Society?”

She was absolutely furious. “I haven't such information,” she replied, growing red in her face, the earrings tinkling faintly against her earlobes. Yet for some reason she managed a contorted smile, which only served to emphasize her rising anger.

“You're not a member, then?”

“No.”

“Do you know a young man named Judson Chapell, the president of Cell 772?”

“No!” she shouted. “What is all this about? This is no business of yours!”

“I have reliable information,” I said, “that your business is a front for the John Birch Society. Is that true?”

“Well, isn't this something!” she exclaimed. “This is a bookkeeping business.” She was in a state of extreme agitation, but I gave her credit for trying to control herself. She obviously did not want to mug a reporter on her home grounds. “Look,” she said, “I am very busy. I have a job I have to finish today. I'll have to ask you to leave.” She stood up.

“Can I see you later this afternoon, then?” I asked. No. “Tonight?” No. “Tomorrow?” No. “Day after tomorrow?” No. The lady never wanted to see me again.

Glancing at a table to my right, I noticed at that moment about a dozen copies of a book entitled The Life of John Birch by Robert Welch. “What is this?” I asked. At this point, Mrs. Saxon, the kindly matron of a few moments before, began pushing me toward the door. She came at me from the left flank. “Let me have those notes you took,” she shouted, and grabbed for my notebook, tearing a page. Retaining a manly grasp on it, I retreated toward the entrance. The girls in the office, intrigued by these gymnastics, stopped typing, and in the silence Mrs. Saxon glowered at me from her doorway. She could have been a Russian female discus-thrower. I left.

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The next person on my list was the veterinarian, Dr. Felix J. DeSpain. I had had some dealings with DeSpain a couple of months before, soon after the Birch Society had burst forth on the national scene. The trouble with DeSpain was not that he did not talk, but that it was impossible to get him to stop once he had started. He not only admitted that he was a member of the Society, he discoursed unendingly about why he was. One could not get within close range when he was heated up and going strong; a fine misty rainfall of saliva reinforced his ideological contortions, and one worried about radioactivity. At the time he had praised Senator Goldwater as a great man, but he believed Robert Welch was greater. He had called the editors of Time “a bunch of pinks” and apologists for socialism. “Like the New York Times,” he had said. “Would anyone say they're not soft on Communism? Wouldn't you say they're soft on Communism?” he asked me.

“I think there might be some question,” I had answered, arguing that most of its reporters were our fellow Southerners, and that its managing editor, like myself, was a Mississippian. No Mississippian, I said, had ever been caught in the act of subversion.

“Oh my God! We have clippings and clippings where they definitely agree with the Daily Worker!” What had disturbed him the most, however, was the extent to which the Fabians had taken over the country. “Fabianism is going to the same goal as Marxism. They're all going to Chicago, except on different routes—one on Route 15, the other on Route 12.”

I reached DeSpain's office, and he was available. We retired to a back room, full of scalpels and hypodermics.

“Doctor,” I asked, “is the Birch Society a secret organization?”

“There's nothing secret about it at all,” he answered enthusiastically. “The only thing secret about it is this—the United States has gone so far to the left in socialism and Communism, and the newspapers are always ready to treat us unfairly, the minute the news gets out that you belong to the John Birch Society, the papers will write it up.” The only secret aspect, he said, was not to disclose the names of other members—“to prevent any member from being harassed through reprisal.”

Was the local Birch Society doing anything secret these days, I asked? The doctor said they were writing letters to Congressmen, that sort of thing. “Some lunkhead in Washington called it a fascist organization. But we don't want totalitarianism of any kind—Communist or fascist. We just want good conservative Jeffersonian democracy.”

How long had the local Birch Society been secretly gathering material on “subversion” at the university? “I didn't know it was going on,” he said, a little apprehensive now. “You see, we have several chapters here—twenty-six in all. One chapter never knows what another's doing.”

How long had Bigby been a Bircher? “Oh, he was a charter member. We were in the first chapter together.” “How long has Mrs. Saxon over at Enterprisers, Inc. been a member?” “Oh, she was one of my chapter members,” he replied. “We were in the original chapter in Austin.” Had he been to a meeting of Cell 772 at the piano teacher's? “No, we don't attend other meetings,” he said. Had he attended any other meetings? “Yes,” he said. Where? “I can't tell you where. I could, but I won't.” Did he know about the plan to tape-record university lectures? He said no. “Even if they are, I don't see anything wrong with it. The Communists make a great to-do about the citizen going out and bringing in information on other citizens working against the state. Do you see anything wrong with it?” By this time we had walked to the front door and were standing on the porch in the sunlight. “Well, Doctor,” I said, “do you think secret recordings would be, you know, hitting below the belt?”

“I certainly don't,” he said, jabbing my shoulder blade with his hand. “Look, my son is going to be at the university next year, and I think it'd be a good thing for him to do something like that. If they are brainwashing these young people like that, I think a parent has a right to know.”

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Bigby was next. Bunch had told me that the youth leader was hosting another Birch cell meeting that night; I could imagine the concern which must have seized the local brotherhood. I found Bigby's house, a large two-story place down a dark side street. It was a gloomy night, and there was lightning in the skies off to the west. I parked in the shadow of a pecan tree and waited several minutes, until one by one all the cars had driven away. As I approached the house, rain began to fall softly. A bright yellow light shone on the porch. I knocked four times on the door. Did one need some special password, some designated knock, before he would come? I knocked again. There were heavy footsteps from inside. The door opened, and a tall, very dark, and heavily built man, perhaps in his forties, squinted out. I was sure he had been expecting me, because almost before I could identify myself he motioned me out to a roofed patio in the yard.

I patted Bigby's dog, a grizzly terrier. It was a wasted gesture. Bigby was less communicative than the terrier. He grew more and more belligerent with each question I asked. He would not talk with me, now or ever. He did not want me around, and he invited me to leave the premises immediately. He proved to be the most profound disappointment of the entire venture. It was difficult to see how he could have reached a position of such eminence.

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IV

At our final rendezvous, Bunch was disillusioned by the equivocation of his former colleagues. There was no one else to see, nowhere else to go. The investigation was complete, except for the secret files of Cell 772, which had been entrusted to my informant. Bunch escorted me to his dormitory room, and handed me the files. At any moment the other members of the cell, perhaps Bigby himself, might come to retrieve them, but the world had to know. Safe in my study at home, I looked through this staggering collection of evidence. Here are the most important documents:

On April 20, 1961, Thursday, during Speech 803 class, during which members of the class were giving speeches, a girl from Longview, Texas (I believe) gave a speech regarding the subject that the modern male is less useful than in the past. The subject was a critical analysis of the modern male. The girl concluded by saying that even if the modern male was useless, she was glad he was around. At that time, Mr. Foster, the class instructor, asked her if she was glad the male was around because of the reproduction act. Shortly later in the discussion of her speech by members of the class, the instructor asked her if the male was useless how did she plan on continuing the race (humans)? He went on to say that she could use artificial insemination.

Throughout the semester Mr. Foster has taken many opportunities to make obscene remarks in the presence of two female members of the class.

I intend to obtain the name of the girl involved and include her name on this sheet . . .

(signed) Lee Luscomb

Another document:

On April 20, 1961, an English instructor, Mr. Shawn, said to his English 601 class: “The New Testament has some basic inconsistencies. I hope you won't report me to the Board of Regents, but . . . it (the New Testament) is hard to reconcile.”

These statements were made to show that the Bible should not be considered in making decisions regarding morality. The subject arose out of discussion of the lead characters of Huckleberry Finn.

I would like to complain about this attempted discrediting of the Bible.

(signed) James L. Moore

Another document contained a list of fourteen “subversives” on the faculty, including one department head, noted across the campus for his conciliatory roles and his Christian activities, who had not uttered a controversial statement in a quarter of a century. A cryptic note was attached to the list: “Check committee who are selecting president of University.”

Another document noted:

In the summer session of 1959, Professor Laird said the following in essence at the beginning of the semester . . . “Does anybody in here really believe that the main reason we're here on earth is connected with the hereafter? I don't think so.” (Show of hands, about four or five raised hands.) “The assumption of this course will be that the hereafter is not the question of importance, but to establish a world that is best for man's life here.”

This Professor Laird made fun of belief in God, and said he doubted the existence of God? and that it was stupid to consider him in organizing the world.

P.S. this upset me enough at the time to write a letter to the American Mercury Magazine—which I may have a copy of at home.

The secret file also contained diverse reports on other lectures: “Trial by jury is feudal”; “federal aid to education is nothing new”; “segregation is not local custom but was forced by legislation”; and more.

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That very night Cell 772 found its spy. When he returned to his room, Bunch told me the next day, four cell members were waiting. They demanded the secret files. He said he did not have them. They invited him outside. The president reached into his pocket and slowly pulled out two dollars, the monthly dues. Handing him the money, Bunch said, the president told him, “We ought to smash your face in.” Then they left.

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V

For quite some time after this incident, I watched many other romantic activists at work: retired generals, evangelists, insurance salesmen, ex-FBI-men, renegade leftists from the country club set. At first I was entertained, but finally I grew tired of the whole charade, and became increasingly disturbed by its vigilante effect at the local level, where such activity usually hurts the most. Yet I never ceased to be intrigued by the resourceful view these people have of the world. I once heard a self-proclaimed expert on Marxism, asked when Das Kapital was written, reply, studiously, “Before Marx died.” At a formal convention of a group known as the Constitution party, out there on that misty terrain where even Karl Hess, Bozell, and Shadegg fear to tread, or do so at their risk, I was solicited to help adopt the pansy as the national flower, and to replace the Eagle with the Mother Hand. I talked with Mr. Bunker Hill Castle about loose and strict constructionalism. One speaker, whom I heard on a later occasion publicly challenge Lyndon Johnson to a fist-fight, remarked that a recent Democratic Convention reminded him of “a bunch of drunk Mexicans in a house of prostitution with a credit card,” and another commented that “the only person who could be elected President today is a Catholic nigger from Tennessee named Cohen.” To my recollection these were the only two attempts at humor I ever heard from a zealous rightist.

Traveling about the region, I was subjected to diverse arguments. There were appeals suggesting a state department in every state to counteract America's centralized conduct of foreign affairs; I would not have been surprised by a plea for local control of outer space. I heard it explained, in so many words, that when Christ expressed the sentiment, “Lord, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” it was a private remark to the carpenters, was off-the-record, and was not meant for general consumption. I followed the trail of that most flamboyant of Goldwaterites, a perspicacious old brickbat named J. Evetts Haley (whose book, A Texan Looks at Lyndon, has been something of a bestseller) and his organization, “Texans for America,” as they traveled about like the old justices of assize, winnowing the subversive and the obscene from school textbooks. These middle-class patriots intimidated public school officials, successfully promoted major revisions in a number of textbooks, and by proxy recruited a majority of the state House of Representatives to their cause before the intellectuals and professors began to fight back, typically, at the last moment.3 Haley and his followers opposed any favorable mention in school books of the income tax, social security, TVA, federal subsidies to farmers and schools, and had harsh words for any mention of John Dewey, the UN, the League of Nations, UNESCO, disarmament, integration, and the Supreme Court. They further demanded that publishers remove from their books the names of Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, Pearl Buck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Louis Untermeyer, Charles Beard, Henry Steele Commager, Allan Nevins, and J. Frank Dobie. When Dobie, paterfamilias of Texas letters, led a delegation of writers to protest against the censorship movement, J. Evetts Haley called the delegation a group of “fatheads,” “supersophisticates,” and “leftwingers.” When a professor quoted from John Milton's Areopagitica, one lady in his group whispered to another, “Who's John Milton?”

This was a mentality that flourished on its own private evidence, carried to dire extremes: films,4 books, pamphlets, and tape recordings. In any of the dozens of “patriotic bookstores” in America, alongside Conscience of a Conservative and Why Not Victory? one will find, among others, A Youth's Primer to the Confederacy—What the Historians Left Out; How to Plan an Anti-Subversive Seminar; The Income Tax—Root of All Evil; Why Do Millionnaires, Ministers of Religion, and College Professors Become Communists; or Essays on Segregation, billed as “a collection of writings by six Episcopalian clergymen one of them a bishop, exploring the Christian foundations for the racial settlement in the South called segregation, and exposing ‘integration’ as an attack on mankind's greatest treasure, faith in Jesus Christ.” After a generous sampling of this and similar lore, one could begin to understand how the brooding and uncomplicated mind, with proper encouragement, might detect subversion not only behind the UN and the TVA, but also the French and Indian War, the Pure Food and Drug Act, compulsory vaccination for smallpox, the abolition of entail and primogeniture, the bank holiday of 1933, the British Reform Act, Red Cross blood banks, the Congress of Vienna, the election of Grover Cleveland, Teapot Dome, and public venereal clinics.

_____________

VI

I do not wish to be unfair to the third Senator from Texas, who knew nothing about Cell 772, and who I am sure would be hesitant at any time to solicit pleasantries on a ham-radio line from Bigby, DeSpain, Mrs. Clara Saxon, or, for that matter, Bunker Hill Castle and J. Evetts Haley. Yet the fact remains—and it is almost unbelievable—that under his leadership a major American political party, in the year 1964, not only refused, but refused with ardor and militancy, to adopt a resolution denouncing such people. To understand what this refusal implies, one needs some prior insight into the nature of the Goldwater mystique. During his ceaseless peregrinations in the late 50's and the 60's, after a typically well-attended speech in the Southwest, Gold-water would usually depart on the next plane out, leaving us fixed residents to live with the curious voltage with which he had imbued our atmosphere. For the truly imaginative of the Elect, he was regarded as the advance man of the Apocalypse; it is difficult to convey the religiosity with which he was embraced. Within hours after his departure the local ideologues would engage themselves and their neighbors in spirited mumbojumbos against the United Nations, the unexecuted Hiss, the socialist schemers in the next subdivision, Dean Acheson's striped trousers, American diplomacy in Europe, and, for that matter, diplomacy in general. General Marshall's ghost stalked a thousand suburbias, and hausfraus who had never heard of Harlan, Hughes, or Marbury v. Madison cursed the mere mention of Justice Warren.

Richard H. Rovere, in his article in last month's Harper's, was impressed by the difference between the “two Goldwaters,” between “the agreeable man with the easy Aw Shucks manner who speaks in rightist platitudes but has only a loose grip on ideology,” and “the dour authoritarian polemicist” who dominates his books and many of his collected speeches. What Rovere does not discuss in his penetrating essay is the fearsome influence that the combination of these two qualities has had on the hard-shell far-rightists among the Goldwater partisans—those people, and they number in the thousands, to whom the faintest suggestion of comedy, fallibility, or dissent is threatening. Goldwater's direst warnings about the growing power of the national bureaucracy or the insufficiency of our gunpowder supply, expressed in the dustbowl idiom and with the disarming grace of the underwear-design artist, have been the greatest single stimulus to the basically simple folk who prefer the primer to the history text, and the quick-action revolver to both.

I am not referring here to that vast respectable middle-class community, yearning for the lost days of the Articles of Confederation, which James Reston says must be understood for a rounded view of the Goldwater mystique. Respectable they may be, even with many of my relatives, in-laws, and old classmates among them; and their numbers would indicate something gone badly wrong with America. But what I find even more intriguing has been the interplay between Goldwater and the professional Goldwater organizer on the one hand, and rigid political fundamentalists like DeSpain and Bigby on the other. It has been a relationship of magnetic affection, and only lately of a most reluctant and tentative qualification. The general aura which surrounds the man has been a prime source of the invaluable sustenance he has given this absolutist mentality: his simplistic view of “good” and “evil,” his indifference to the meaning or importance of words, his lack of concern with the real world. Much more effectively than McCarthy, he has encouraged a whole demonology, a veritable Yoknapatawpha of ghouls and adversaries.5 The Ambassador from the Strategic Air Command, he has been both symbol to the most ingrown local patriotism and the hero to that quality of mind which Richard Hofstadter, in examining the “paranoid style” in our politics, sees as one of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Hero and symbol, he has been revered in a way that Lyndon Johnson—political practitioner, neutralizer of the factionalist and forever to be suspect for it—never could be.

As editor of the political-literary journal which Hare and Burns read each week, I discovered that one could get along tolerably well with the Gold-water organizers, the pros of the trade, for there is a curious everyday dialogue even in the cynical workings of politics. But it was something else with the rank-and-file, for which political discourse seemed less a way to argue rationally than a mode for registering unchallengeable prophecies and undeniable accusations. One never developed an argument with a typical Goldwater matron, for instance, for the simple reason that to confront her with a perfectly reasonable contention would lead her afield to fancies so irrelevant that one might as well have been talking to an entire backfield, or to the local chorus of the DAR. As for making any contact with the full-fledged mystics, this was impossible; you were subverting them by your presence.

The three elements—the professional politician and organizer, the middle-class partisan, and the nervous activist of the Bigby and DeSpain school—made an interesting mélange. The professionals sometimes knew that their activists, when in a state of extreme titillation, could be an embarrassment, but to disavow them would not have been politically wise: they served as a kind of panzer corps, making forays into enemy ground, involved in an endless diatribe that carried Goldwater's own messages to thunderous conclusions, often by merely taking them verbatim and adding their own footnotes. All this could only encourage the vague restlessness to be found among the less frenetic partisans. These respectables, in turn, sometimes being community pillars, by their mild and tacit approval or by their unwillingness to disapprove, inspired a gentler community regard of the battle tactics of the shock troops. In many cities of the Southwest and West, in fact, large numbers of these respectables would turn out for the cold war seminars or the anti-subversive forums to listen from curiosity, and they would often remain to participate actively in the genuflections and blood-oaths which were substitutes for tea and coffee. Goldwater himself, with his careless talk of plots and thievery, has cast a broad umbrella over the mélange, broad enough to contain the most basic inconsistencies; when he now accuses Johnson and Khrushchev, for instance, of making private deals on the “hot-line,” he is speaking to the consensus.

_____________

VII

Having lived in New York for the past year, removed from the wellsprings of such strenuous disaffection, I occasionally brood on how the nation stays together. The differences in the land sometimes seem too deep for pacific coexistence; we are a great paste-up job. Where, I have asked myself, would I take DeSpain if he dropped in unexpectedly for a visit? A coffee-house in the Village? A publishing conference at Harper & Row? Columbia? The tapestry room of the Cloisters? The Little Church Around the Corner? My Fair Lady? Each in its way would be off-limits: only the Bronx Zoo might serve as common ground. The politics of fantasy and the real world face one another across a chasm too vast for any human act to bridge. “Anyone who joins us in all sincerity we welcome,” Goldwater said in his acceptance speech. “Those, those who do not care for our cause, we don't expect to enter our ranks in any case.” There is solace in that, and much hope.


Footnotes

1 The incident I am recounting is completely true, though I have changed the names of some of the people involved.

2 A later speculation about Bunch proved to be the right one: He was starved for drama, and being also an enemy to what the Birchers stood for, he felt he would get in a few good blows for the Western ethic by being a kind of reverse subversive, satisfying at the same time his sense of the fanciful and remote.

3 One lady testified on an economics textbook that it included a picture of the UN building very close to a paragraph on free enterprise. “This layout,” she said, “gives the student a mental picture that the UN is the proper vehicle for the defense of free enterprise. The UN is a socialist organization, an equalizer.” Another said, “If you think we're a bunch of scared crackpots, you're right—but we're scared of Americans, not Russians.”

4 One of the most widely circulated of the films was distributed by the political activist group, Freedom-In-Action, and supported enthusiastically by George Murphy, the Republican candidate for the California Senate seat against Pierre Salinger. A doctor who doesn't care about politics falls asleep and has a nightmare; medicine is socialized, farmers await orders from Washington, gas is rationed, the government controls the schools. The man wakes up, FIA goes to work on him, and he wins his precinct convention over the Reds. This is nothing, however, compared with some of the more vivid tape recordings.

5 Of all the statements I have read or heard from a Goldwater enthusiast, my favorite is one by a columnist in one of the staunch Goldwater dailies in the Texas Panhandle. “Among our people are so-called liberals, neo-socialists, crypto-communists, over-educated dilettantes, intellectual charlatans and pseudo-political scientists, posing as public-opinion makers who contend that a democracy and a republic are the same.”

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