This cartoon is drawn by Becky Hawkins. I had no idea she was going to do the flaming eyes in panel 2, but I laughed aloud when I saw the sketch. :-)
For my entire life – or at least, my entire life that I’ve been paying much attention to politics, so really my entire life minus nearly the first twenty years – I’ve heard the story about how William F. Buckley and the National Review kicked the extremist John Birch Society out of conservatism.
But it’s a myth – a myth that Buckley himself spread frequently. It’s true that Buckley wrote two op-eds that were politely critical of Birch Society founder Robert Welch Jr. in 1961 and 1962.
Buckley wrote two editorials, in April 1961 and February 1962, criticizing Welch. The first gently critiqued Welch’s practice of citing communist subversion when there was none and concluded by saying “I hope the Society thrives” despite its bungling leader. The February 1962 editorial, entitled “The Question of Robert Welch,” was more biting. Buckley wrote that Welch’s conspiracy theories made him a man “far removed from common sense.” In an effort to not offend the Birchers as a whole, however, Buckley inaccurately portrayed Welch as an aberration from the society he led.
Buckley even tried to maintain his friendship with Welch. Shortly after the 1962 editorial, he wrote Welch, “I am very anxious to keep current on your thinking and the society’s activities, and would be grateful if you would look into this. If our subscription has expired, I should be only too happy to look to renew it.”
This was the totality of Buckley’s supposed purge. In later years, Buckley recast these two editorials as lethal salvos that drove the John Birch Society from the conservative movement.
Far from ending the Birchers’ influence, the op-eds had basically no effect at all. In 1964, Barry Goldwater, who represented the extreme right of the GOP, captured the presidential nomination. Goldwater publicly distanced himself from the Birchers – but his rise was alongside theirs. The Birchers, not Buckley, were ascendant. And the extreme right remained influential within the Republicans in all the decades since – culminating with the rise of Donald Trump.
And while that’s all terrible, I somehow find Buckley’s self-aggrandizing myth very funny. Which is pretty much all the excuse I need to do a cartoon. (I wonder how long it’s been since the last political cartoon about the John Birch Society was drawn? Probably quite a while.)
Buckley’s “moderate” conservatism included a lot of racism – including his opinion that voter suppression and even some violence was justified to maintain the rule of the white race in the South. Like many conservatives, over the years Buckley learned to express that in more acceptable ways, by talking about state’s rights instead of white supremacy.
TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON
This cartoon has four panels, plus a tiny “kicker” panel under the bottom of the cartoon.
The top of this panel has a huge caption, in “vintage” style lettering, that says 1962.
Below that an older man, with a bald head and white hair sticking out on the sides, and wearing an old-fashioned brown suit with a yellow bow-tie, is pressing his hands and face against the audience-facing side of the panel, as if he’s pressing against a sheet of clear glass. His eyes are bulging and mismatched in size and he’s talking aggressively at the readers. We’ll call him “Bircher.”
BIRCHER: President Eisenhower is secretly in the pay of COMMIES!
BIRCHER: A shadowy America-hating CABAL controls the CIA AND the schools!
Bircher is now in full on rant mode, his yelling mouth HUGE, his head turning red, flames literally coming out of his eyes. Behind him, William F. Buckley Jr walks up, a corrective forefinger raised; Buckley raises his voice but remains calm.
BIRCHER: Teachers are recruiting YOUR kids into COMMUNISM SATANISM and SEXUAL PERVERSION!
BUCKLEY: HALT, John Birch Society! I, William F Buckley Jr, DENOUNCE you.
Bircher falls to his knees, weeping. Buckley dramatically points, arms straight, in an unmistakable “get out of here” gesture.
BIRCHER: I’ve been denounced? NOOOOO!
BUCKLEY: BEGONE! Trouble conservatism’s respectability NO LONGER!
Bircher walks out of the panel with a bent over I’m-so-sad posture. Buckley, looking smug and self-satisfied, walks away in the other direction, doing the “brushing dust off my palms after doing some work” gesture.
BUCKLEY: Now the conservative movement will NEVER AGAIN be ruled by CONSPIRACY MONGERS and IRRATIONALISTS!
TINY KICKER PANEL UNDER THE BOTTOM OF THE CARTOON
Buckley, smiling, talks directly to the viewer.
BUCKLEY: Finally conservatives can focus on RATIONAL goals… Like protecting the white race from negros!