Some heavy irony visited the Tuesday Afternoon Club's hall last week when followers of the John Birch Society assembled there to fawn over a man who hijacked an airliner to Cuba 20 years ago seeking weapons for the Black Panther Party.
The speaker, Anthony G. Bryant, held about 100 listeners at attention for more than an hour. Elderly men and women, young ones in business clothes, families with children--almost all white--smiled in favorable judgment as Bryant, standing before them in a cream suit, confessed to his desire back then to arm the urban guerrilla war that would destroy American society. An "Amen" even floated from the back of the room a few times.
This was possible because Bryant has become a kind of a St. Augustine of the ultra-right.
He is on the A list of the Birch Society's American Opinion Speakers Bureau. Pat Dixon, who manages the American Opinion Bookstore in North Hollywood and occasionally rents the Tuesday Afternoon Club hall for meetings, snapped him up.
The former heroin user, armed robber and Black Panther hit man brought quite a few new faces to the group of regulars she recognized, Dixon said.
They were offered a selection of literature, including "The Selling of Gorbachev" and "Nicaragua Betrayed." The attraction of the evening was "Hijack," the story of Bryant's transformation from Maoist revolutionary to anti-communist hero.
In his talk, Bryant said the transformation began the moment National Airlines Flight 97, en route from New York to Miami in March, 1969, landed in Havana on orders he gave while holding a gun to the pilot's head.
Instead of being showered with the adulation he expected, Bryant was arrested. He spent 11 years in Cuban prison.
The brutality, the killings, the indifference to human needs he said he witnessed there convinced Bryant that his vision of the enemy may have been a little fuzzy. He grew to embrace the belief of the John Birch Society that communism is the true enemy, attacking America from within.
Bryant said he used the time to piece together a new understanding of good and evil that lets him make much better sense of events in the world.
The foundation of his value system, as he explained it Thursday night, is simple enough.
"Any and everything that embellishes and enhances the human condition is good," he said. "All that detracts from that condition is evil."
From that foundation, he said, he judged communism evil, for it maims children with land mines in Afghanistan. He judged South African Bishop Desmond Tutu evil also, for he condones the African National Congress, which he described as communist.
Bryant didn't mention right-wing death squads in El Salvador. But he made it clear that war itself is not necessarily evil.
"I'm not here to talk to you about peace," he said. "I'll leave that to the peace mongers. I'm here to talk about war, confrontation, battle, victory."
Even so, many years after his first battle fizzled, Bryant still carries war as his No. 1 theme. The only difference appears to be that the rhetoric is now more Pentecostal than Maoist.
"Pray for this nation," he exhorted. "Repent. Repent. I wouldn't be here today, but God delivered me."
Bryant gave God credit for saving him by planting a Cuban revolutionary on the plane he hijacked.
"He was carrying a briefcase full of $100 bills," Bryant said. "I robbed him."
That was the crime the Cubans imprisoned him for, he said. Had he robbed only Americans, he might have never have been forced to see the imminence of America's collapse.
"We have been overthrown. . . ," he told his audience. "You've lost your nation. Then what am I doing here? I mean to tell you that we have just enough time to take it back. . . . To do that, you are going to have to become a warrior."
"WARRIOR," he shouted, making heads recoil.
At times, though, Bryant seemed to say the war can be won at the polls. He cited a list of congressmen he considers pro-communist.
"If we don't begin to fight now, truly, Congress will be packed with communists this election and you will have lost your nation."
He denounced both presidential candidates as pro-communist, but said he's voting Republican because "at least we can hold Bush's feet to the fire of the platform of the Republican Party."
"Yes, I am extremist," he said at last. "Yes I am. God is an extremist. It's time to become extremists, ladies and gentlemen."
Near the end of his talk, Bryant pulled out one relic of the old days.
America, he said, is still racist and always will be. That's because the enemy is sewing racial strife.
"Black America is under attack," he said. "Black America has been targeted for destruction."
For that reason, and also because it is evil, he urged people not to be racist.
Some of the things he said really made sense, especially his admonishment that the way to understand the message is to study the man.