What to Do When Paranoid Conspiracists Are the Main Backers of the Most Libertarian GOP Presidential Contender?


If the year is 1962, and you are William F. Buckley, you tell the John Birch Society to take a long walk off a short pier. In the March 2008 issue of Commentary, Buckley takes us down memory lane to a fateful Palm Beach meeting where he, Barry Goldwater, Russell Kirk, and Jay Hall conspired to croak the Birchers:

The society had been founded in 1958 by an earnest and capable entrepreneur named Robert Welch, a candy man, who brought together little clusters of American conservatives, most of them businessmen. He demanded two undistracted days in exchange for his willingness to give his seminar on the Communist menace to the United States, which he believed was more thoroughgoing and far-reaching than anyone else in America could have conceived. His influence was near-hypnotic, and his ideas wild. He said Dwight D. Eisenhower was a "dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy," and that the government of the United States was "under operational control of the Communist party." It was, he said in the summer of 1961, "50-70 percent" Communist-controlled. […]

The society became a national cause célèbre-so much so, that a few of those anxious to universalize a draft-Goldwater movement aiming at a nomination for President in 1964 thought it best to do a little conspiratorial organizing of their own against it.

Whole thing here; link via The Corner. No, I'm not related.

Marginalizing the Birchers turned out to be a crucial turning point in the life of another right-wing media outlet, a little broadsheet we like to call the Los Angeles Times. Yes, it's hard to believe now, but the West Coast's largest newspaper was for eight decades a Republican kingmaker, champion of "True Industrial Freedom," and a bit of a rag (though former reasoner Tim Cavanaugh has been waging a sporadically effective "one-man jihad to rehabilitate the reputation of the pre-Otis-Chandler Los Angeles Times").

When Golden Boy and fourth-generation publisher Otis Chandler took over the paper in 1960, he consciously yanked the paper in the general direction of the New York Times, both in quality and politics. A critical moment in both of those processes was when he commissioned a five-part series in 1961 investigating the John Birch Society (which his own aunt and uncle were prominent members of). The official creation myth:

After the series was published, Otis asked for an editorial criticizing the Birchers. When [Editor Nick] Williams showed him the piece, the publisher said it wasn't tough enough. Williams wrote a new one, warning that the Birchers' extremism and smear tactics were subversive acts that could "sow distrust and weaken the very strong case for conservatism." Chandler signed it—and published it on Page 1.

The series and editorial landed like a bombshell. More than 15,000 readers canceled their subscriptions, and Chandler's breach with some members of his family was widened still further. Philip Chandler resigned from the Times Mirror board seven months later.

But the series also served notice that The Times was in the process of becoming a different—and much better—newspaper.

For what it's worth, the Birchers claimed that their problem was with the editorial, not the series itself.

I've always found it interesting that that three of the most oft-cited Otis Chandler acts to improve the journalistic quality of the L.A. Times were expressly political—the Birch takeout, the hiring of lefty editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad, and the hiring of lefty journalist Robert Scheer