Saturday, December 16, 2017
Features and More

Review: Growing up on the right wing

After Barry Goldwater's crushing defeat in the 1964 presidential election, college student Claire Conner said to a friend who proclaimed it would be "a cold day in hell" before another conservative was nominated, "'The whole right wing is kaput. My parents and the Birchers just became ancient history.'

"Good grief," Conner writes. "Were we ever wrong."

Conner grew up in the inner circles of extreme right wing American politics, a childhood she describes in fascinating detail in her new memoir, Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America's Radical Right.

Now a Dunedin resident, Conner was the second of five children of Stillwell and Laurene Conner of Chicago. He was a World War II veteran consumed by anti-Communism; she shared that obsession and a deeply devout Catholicism.

In 1955, the couple met Robert Welch, "candy-company executive turned conspiracy hunter," and found him both brilliant and patriotic. When Welch founded the John Birch Society three years later, the Conners were among its original members and remained among its leadership for most of their lives.

That meant, Conner writes, she and her older brother, then in their early teens, were recruited to the cause as full adult members as well. Claire's mother soon demanded she bring home her Catholic school textbooks to be inspected for anti-Americanism. When her mother found what she deemed to be such material, Claire was ordered to return to class and publicly "correct" her teacher, a rather terrifying nun. After her first year of high school, at a conservative Catholic girls school, Claire was expelled — not for anything she did but because the faculty was so weary of dealing with her mother's attacks on textbooks.

Those were embarrassments; sometimes her parents' associations were downright terrifying. Conner was a college student in Dallas when John Kennedy was assassinated. That night, she called her father, who told her she might need a lawyer.

"'They might think we did it,' Dad said.

"'Did the Birch Society have anything to do with this?" I asked my father.

"He hung up without answering."

By then, Conner already was rejecting her parents' beliefs, and would continue to do so, eventually becoming a liberal and a speaker on the impact of the radical right on American politics. But it was a long and torturous process, and they never forgave her for it.

Wrapped in the Flag deftly combines Conner's autobiography with an insider history of the John Birch Society and the extreme right over more than half a century. She describes personal memories of such figures as William F. Buckley, Phyllis Schlafly and Fred Koch (father of Charles and David). She explains the Birchers' and her parents' enthusiasms (Joseph McCarthy, Goldwater, Ronald Reagan when he opposed Medicare, but not when he signed the biggest tax increase in American history) and bitter enemies — they believed Dwight Eisenhower and the Kennedys were all Communists, and that both Richard Nixon and George W. Bush were tools of the Insiders, a group bent on one-world government (and that Dick Cheney is one of its puppetmasters).

Conner regrets the fracturing of her family, but she doesn't sweeten her bitter recollections. Her most vivid childhood memory of her mother is the image of her at the dining room table, writing piles of letters or combing through textbooks, cigarette in one hand and glass of scotch in the other, while Conner and her siblings did the chores. Near the end of her mother's life, Conner's two sons came out as gay, and they all agreed they could never tell their grandmother — she was adamant that the 9/11 attacks were God's punishment for homosexuality, abortion and contraception in the United States.

Yet Conner portrays her parents with respect, painting a picture of the world they created for themselves and the process by which it became an echo chamber in which opposing viewpoints — even those of their own children — were dismissed out of hand, and the cause was so great it was worth every sacrifice.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.

Comments
She was about to celebrate her 94th birthday — and ended up in the back of a police car

She was about to celebrate her 94th birthday — and ended up in the back of a police car

Two days before her 94th birthday, Juanita Fitzgerald was arrested and hauled off to jail.The Eustis woman’s crime?She was being evicted and had fallen behind on her rent, WFTV 9 News reported. Instead of vacating her home at the National Church Resi...
Published: 12/16/17
Festivus 2017: Send us your grievances

Festivus 2017: Send us your grievances

Here's your chance. Tell us what annoyed you in 2017, and we'll share it with our readers.
Updated: 2 hours ago
Fueled by indulgence and machismo, restaurants are a hotbed for sexual harassment

Fueled by indulgence and machismo, restaurants are a hotbed for sexual harassment

When Brenda Terry was 16 and living in St. Louis, she was a hostess and food runner at a sports bar where female employees wore cute, little cheerleading skirts. One night, she said, a patron grabbed her crotch. She ran to her management team and the...
Published: 12/15/17
Self-serve beer bar opens Saturday in downtown St. Pete

Self-serve beer bar opens Saturday in downtown St. Pete

Pour Taproom, a craft beer bar with 85 taps that customers pour their own brew from, will open at noon on Saturday, Dec. 16. The nearly 2,300-square-foot bar at 225 Second Ave. N has undergone extensive renovations, including a St. Petersburg-themed...
Published: 12/15/17
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to marry May 19

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to marry May 19

LONDON — Kensington Palace says the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will be held on May 19. The palace announced the date Friday and confirmed the ceremony will take place in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. The couple announced their...
Published: 12/15/17
Inside Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s first Christmas without leader Paul O’Neill

Inside Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s first Christmas without leader Paul O’Neill

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A half hour to curtain, Al Pitrelli unwinds on a couch in his spartan dressing quarters, fresh off a loading-dock Marlboro. He’s deep inside an arena, about to play the 29th show in the 18th city of the Trans-Siberian ...
Published: 12/15/17
Tavis Smiley theatrical show canceled at Straz Center in wake of sexual misconduct allegations

Tavis Smiley theatrical show canceled at Straz Center in wake of sexual misconduct allegations

The theatrical tour about the death of Martin Luther King Jr. that Tavis Smiley was slated to bring to Tampa’s David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts has been canceled in the wake sexual misconduct allegations against the broadcaster.Death...
Published: 12/14/17
Updated: 12/15/17
This week's top holiday events: Parades, Christmas lights, theme parks and more

This week's top holiday events: Parades, Christmas lights, theme parks and more

PARADES Homosassa Christmas Boat Parade Parade begins at Marker 75 by Bird Island. Free. Homosassa Springs Marina, 10806 W Halls River Road, Homosassa. 6 p.m. Dec. 16.   Indian Rocks Beach Boat Parade It begins at the Holiday Inn Harbourside and...
Published: 12/14/17
Bar review: Spanish flair at Bulla Gastrobar in South Tampa

Bar review: Spanish flair at Bulla Gastrobar in South Tampa

Take a second and try to think of a few of the world’s biggest drinking cultures. Ireland is a freebie, but then you’ll probably move onto Germany, Russia and possibly even South Korea (yep, South Korea goes hard).How about Spain? No, I’m not just ta...
Published: 12/14/17
From Crystal River to Brooksville, branch out to shop on these unexpected main streets

From Crystal River to Brooksville, branch out to shop on these unexpected main streets

You don’t have to stare at a greeting card to picture a bustling old main street lined with decorated shops and lampposts. Historic small-town shopping districts are easy to find, and more charming than Walmart. Beyond the downtowns of St. Pet...
Published: 12/14/17