Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Out of the woodwork: John Birch Society alive and confused in Maine

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The Maine arm of the John Birch Society, founded in 1958 to combat communist influence in government, visited the State House in Augusta last week, calling for legislators to, well, do nothing, as it turns out.

But that's not how it started. On January 20, the local Birchers joined a nationwide effort asking state legislators to rescind longstanding legislative calls for a federal constitutional convention. At various times state legislatures have raised issues with the US Constitution by passing resolutions asking Congress for a constitutional convention to address them, such as in the early 20th century when many states called for direct election of senators, legalized in the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913.

Patricia Truman of Hallowell, who has been a JBS member since 1964 and is a longtime local-chapter leader of the society here in Maine, was unclear when asked by the Phoenix about what requests Maine has made, but she was sure she wanted lawmakers to rescind them anyway, fearing that revisiting the Constitution could result in reversal of important protections now enshrined there.

Mike Hein, a John Birch Society member and publicist who is a former spokesman for the Christian Civic League of Maine, a right-wing advocacy group, issued a statement claiming Maine has four outstanding calls for a convention. He later specified three, adding that he had "heard from others" of a fourth. First on Hein's list was Maine's 1911 call for direct election of senators, which is no longer outstanding because that request passed as the 17th Amendment in 1913. Second was a 1941 call for repeal of the 16th Amendment (which allows a federal income tax). Third on his list (with a specific Congressional Record citation of "CR 099, page 04434"), is not a new call for a convention, but rather a 1953 resolution rescinding the 1941 repeal request. Which leaves no active calls to be rescinded by Maine lawmakers.

Birchers have a long history of ill-informed beliefs about government. They considered President Dwight Eisenhower a communist, and objected to his policies; they also opposed the civil-rights movement in the 1960s on the conspiracy-theorist grounds that the movement's leaders were, or were influenced by, communists. (Conservative icons Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, and William F. Buckley repudiated those claims and made clear that Birchers are on the extreme right wing of the right-wing movement.)

And that string continues. Truman claimed that during her visit to Augusta she learned of a call she said was proposed by Seth Berry, a Maine House Democrat representing Bowdoin and Bowdoinham: "He wanted our state to call for ConCon," she said. "I just know that Representative Berry does want to have the state call a ConCon," and insisted Berry's move related to the US Constitution and not the state's, she said.

But she's wrong. When reached on his cell phone, Berry said he had indeed proposed a convention, but to discuss the state constitution, saying anyone who thought otherwise "probably should have called me before they assumed that."