President Ron Paul? Ron Paul and the John Birch Society

During the Vietnam War, an Army major famously told reporter Peter Arnett "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it" Welcome to Dr. Ron Paul's prescription for America. If he ever becomes president, you won't recognize the place.
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During the Vietnam War, an Army major famously told reporter Peter Arnett "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it"

Welcome to Dr. Ron Paul's (R.-Tx) prescription for America. If he ever becomes President, you won't recognize the place.

Rep. Ron Paul's got a public image as a sort of amiable eccentric -- Uncle Fuzzy in DC. He favors legalizing marijuana, getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan and generally cutting the defense budget, and ending corporate welfare -- all positions that get him a sympathetic hearing with a lot of Americans. And he knows how to sound sensible, principled, and down-to-earth.

That's good for him, because it helps camouflage one of the country's most extreme right-wing politicians -- a very close ally of the John Birch Society (JBS), which is best understood as a sort of seed bank for right wing ideas, rather than an active political agent -- but one with long arms in today's political landscape.

Rep. Paul's ideas are so extreme that no sensible voter would give him a second look if it wasn't for the Uncle Fuzzy persona.

How extreme? Here's some of what Uncle Fuzzy told a group of young followers he'd do if he made it to the Oval Office.

  • Allow anybody to mint money by passing the "...Free Competition in Currency Act, which repeals legal tender laws and all taxes on gold and silver.";
  • Force the FDA and the FTC to allow any dietary supplement onto the market "...unless they have clear evidence that the manufacturer's clams are not true." This is a prescription for endless lawsuits.
  • Kill Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid for future generations;
  • End Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits for people getting them now --but giving them "...time to prepare for the day when responsibility for providing aide is returned to those organizations best able to administer compassionate and effective help--churches and private charities."
  • Fire up to 800,000 federal workers through attrition, not filling vacancies for "non-essential" jobs.
  • Veto budgets he didn't like;
  • Substantially defund federal education programs;
  • Likewise, defund the Byrne Grants that help local police fight interstate crime; something even the conservative Heritage Foundation opposes.

Not very fuzzy, is it? And that's just part of his list. You can read the whole text here.

Where did Rep. Paul get these ideas? Well, mostly from the seed bank of the John Birch Society. While he's not a member, he's been close to it since at least the 1970s.

"Ron Paul may not be a member of the John Birch Society, but you need a micrometer to tell them apart," says Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates who's been tracking the JBS and other right wing groups for years. Berlet sometimes writes for The Huffington Post.

In recent years the JBS has played a major -- and acknowledged -- role in the Tea Party, which is better known for being funded by the likes of the Koch Brothers.

The Koch Brothers, who deny they're JBS members, are themselves sons of a JBS founder, Fred Koch. The JBS itself says it never discloses its member list.

But the JBS makes no bones about its connections to the Tea Party. "We've been helping train the Tea Party for some time, teaching it how to organize and avoid some of the mistakes we made," says Bill Hahn, a JBS spokesman.

Rep. Paul himself has no problem discussing his close JBS ties. Giving the keynote address at the JBS' 50th Anniversary dinner, for instance, he said "I'm sure there are people in this room who probably helped me at that time [win the 1976 election] because I know so many of you have over the years."

Then he told the room a story about his first news conference in Washington. Someone from Houston asked if he was a JBS member. "I'm not a member [of the John Birch Society]," he told the reporter, but "...the members of the John Birch Society have been very good friends of mine and have been very helpful in my campaign."

More recently, Rep. Paul made his sympathies with the JBS, as well as a good glimpse into his short-term agenda, perfectly clear during a speech he made to the South Texas chapter of the JBS in August, 2009. There's a three-part video of this speech on YouTube that you can see here, here, and here. It's not just a sobering speech for anyone without far-right sympathies; it almost sounds sensible -- a clear indication of just how deeply JBS ideas have penetrated the American mainstream.

The JBS is pretty obscure today, partly by choice. It needed time to regroup after William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater cast it out of the conservative movement in 1962 for being too crazy -- crazy enough to threaten their plans to elect Goldwater President, and turn America to the right. But it dug in, survived, and is enjoying a renaissance today.

How crazy the JBS was in the old days bears repeating. They didn't just insist President Eisenhower was a Communist agent; they believed the world is in the grip of what Berlet's employer, Political Research Associates, calls " unbroken ideologically-driven conspiracy linking the Illuminati, the French Revolution, the rise of Marxism and Communism, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the United Nations." Political Research Associates is a progressive think tank based in Somerville, Mass.

These same ideas are floating around among Rep. Paul's supporters. In June, 2009, for instance, somebody calling himself Robert W. Benjamin wrote on the website of Rep. Paul's Campaign for Liberty about how the "satanic" Rothschild family, operating through the Illuminati (allegedly based on the teaching of the Talmud), took over the Freemasons and now controls the so-called Lucifer Trust, supposedly financed by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Ideas like that would have been enough to throw the JBS into the twilight of short-wave radio broadcasts and booths at gun shows. But luckily for it, many of the very rich people pushing the ideas now afflicting American politics have JBS roots -- including the Koch Brothers and Richard Mellon Scaife. Scaife, also son of a JBS founder, is the man who financed Bill Clinton's impeachment.

Again, Rep. Paul's not a JBS member. But considering his close ties to it, and the close similarity of their views, it may not be necessary for Rep. Paul to be a JBS member to have deep sympathies -- and connections -- with it.

For instance: According to Rep. Paul, one of his first political mentors was Larry McDonald, a Congressman from Marietta, Georgia and JBS chairman.

In his keynote speech to the JBS, in fact, he says that when he was thinking about running for Congress in 1974, "The first person I called was Larry McDonald, a great American...His advice, I remember, was 'Run in the party where you think you can win,' because he realized the parties were irrelevant -- it was just to see where you could be the most successful."

McDonald himself is an interesting character without his being Rep. Paul's political mentor. What makes him interesting, though, raises questions about the sort of people Rep. Paul thinks are appropriate for him to be hanging around with.

Before he ran for Congress, McDonald was an internist in Marietta and had a thriving practice treating cancer patients with laetrile, a so-called miracle cure for cancer. In fact, laetrile, also called vitamin B-17, is cyanide; the FDA calls it a "quack medication" with no cancer-fighting qualities at all, and in 2004 it sent a man to jail for 60 months for selling it.

In the mid-70s, according to the JBS spokesman, Mr. Hahn, the JBS denounced laetrile. This may have had something to do with the fact that people who were taking laetrile to cure their cancer were dying instead.

But that didn't stop JBS members, including McDonald, from promoting it, and in fact the two major figures in the laetrile movement, Robert Bradford and Dr. John Richardson, were JBS members. Both were convicted in 1977 of smuggling laetrile into the country.

According to a long series published in 1976 in The Atlanta Journal, Larry McDonald used his laetrile practice to buy an arsenal of guns. Jim Stewart, who along with Paul Lieberman reported the series, told me how, posing as a cancer patient wanting to be treated with laetrile, McDonald gave him a pile of forms that he said Stewart needed to fill out,. Stewart retired from CBS News, where he covered national security, after 34 years as a reporter.

In the pile, said Stewart, was a federal gun purchase permit. McDonald later used the permits he acquired this way to buy weapons -- something he and Lieberman proved were used by McDonald by being taken into the attic where they were stored, taking a gun, and giving it to an officer of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), who traced the gun to one of McDonald's patients.

According to Stewart and Lieberman's reporting, McDonald turned his laetrile practice over to another doctor, Dr. Robert C. Shuman, when he decided to run for Congress in 1974 -- about the same time Rep. Paul first asked McDonald for advice on running for office.

Shuman, they reported, was a JBS member who would only treat patients with laetrile if they made a contribution to the Larry McDonald for Congress Committee -- and joined the John Birch Society.

The reason this is ancient history is important isn't just because it raises questions about Rep. Paul's judgment, and the people he's associated with who've helped him get where he is today, but because the people helping him today are likewise JBS members -- and some of them promote laetrile.

These last include one G. Edward Griffin, a California businessman who sometimes speaks at Ron Paul rallies -- much like John McManus, JBS' President, who warmed up the crowd at the 2008 Ron Paul rally, Rally for the Republic.

By his own account, Mr Griffin is a life member of the JBS, promotes laetrile (he's written a book about it called World Without Cancer), and today heads something called Freedom Force International. Mr. Griffin calls this group an international organization that seeks political power to fight what he considers collectivism, and says it's allied with -- but not part of -- the JBS. As it happens, he urges Freedom Force members to also join the JBS.

Interesting company for somebody many people think of as amiable, eccentric Uncle Fuzzy.

I gave Rep. Paul's office several chances to respond to us for this story. His Congressional press secretary referred me to his campaign, which never replied.

Visit my website, Reinbach's Observer.

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