When I was a boy growing up in northwestern Wisconsin, I already knew about Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Hell, I had an aunt who ate that kind of conspiracy baloney up for breakfast. So, in the early 1960s when I was in junior high (that's what middle school was called) and I started hearing and reading about the John Birch Society, nobody had to tell me that these folks were nut cases. And I saw that Robert Welch, the group's founder and chief nincompoop, appeared to be seriously impaired: He'd assert as fact that the U.S. government already was in the hands of the Communists, and that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was "a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy" and had been "all of his adult life."
I took this walk down memory lane - sorry, Ike - after reading an article by Sean Wilentz in the latest "New Yorker." Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton whose books include "The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008," wrote about how people like Glenn Beck and many other (but certainly not all) Tea Party types are channeling John Birch Society "facts" and making them their own. For instance, Beck echoes the John Birch line by saying that the conspiracy started with the Progressive era when, particularly, President Woodrow Wilson's administration committed the sins of originating the Federal Reserve system and the graduated income tax. "Wilson just despised what America was," Beck told his radio audience.
Wilentz's main point is to ask why a Republican Party that has mostly managed to stifle such nut-caseness within its ranks for half a century has suddenly quit trying to do so, embracing Tea Party thinking instead. It's a development that bodes little but ill over the long run for the party, despite the outcome of the coming general election. It's a development that wiser heads, such as the late Bill Buckley, fought long and hard to prevent.
When I grew up and moved to Montana, we had our share of strange ideas. Think the Freemen. Think people terrorized by thoughts of black helicopters. But these days, what worries me is that too many Republicans I'll find on the ballot this November might have been studying up on tracts of the John Birch Society.