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Perimeters

It's All Water Under the Bridge

October 11, 1995|PATT MORRISON

Hot tub water, mineral water, salt water--California owns the market. But tap water dosed with fluoride in the interest of dental health? That was something else: a poisonous, pinko plot to turn us into "moronic, atheistic slaves." To favor fluoridation was to take another step down the hellbound staircase to one-world government.

So, what if they fluoridated California's drinking water, and nobody noticed?

They have, and hardly anyone did.

Twenty and 30 years ago, when the John Birch Society was the right wing, water fluoridation symbolized big government in a glass. Politicians quaked in their wingtips at the mention of it. The City Council gingerly debated it for six years before voting it down.

Any governor who would have dared sign a fluoridation bill, as Pete Wilson did on Monday--well, it once would have been his head voters were shouting for, not Doris Allen's.

Pete Wilson was a bottom-rung staffer for Richard Nixon's gubernatorial campaign in 1962, when the JBS was a potent if not palatable force in Cold War politics. "Bircher" was a codeword, like "feminazi," so divisive that it compelled Rep. Bob Dornan (himself no commie-lover) to fire a staffer for his JBS ties, compelled Gov. Ronald Reagan to scold the JBS for saying bad things about a Democrat.

Three San Diego Padres relief pitchers claimed membership; a sportscaster was sure the Padres would beat Cincinnati that night because JBS member and pitcher Eric Show would never lose to "a bunch of reds."

In JBS shorthand, Ike was a Commie dupe, Nixon a wanna-be dictator and Reagan a disappointment. The JBS wanted the U.S. out of the U.N. and Tom Hayden out of the Assembly. Southern California was its sword and buckler with a peak membership of nearly 95,000. San Marino was its mecca.

San Marino has long since been superseded by angry and violent datelines--Ruby Ridge, Waco, Oklahoma City. To the children and cops ranged in photo-op position around Wilson as he signed a sexual predator bill in Covina on Tuesday, the baker's dozen stalwarts who protested the fluoride bill must have been utterly mystifying, and their picket signs, like "Wilson Supports Truth Decay," as indecipherable as some ancient runic language.

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The San Marino office and bookshop, the JBS' West Coast headquarters, opened the year Barry Goldwater ran for President, commanding the allegiance and the legwork of what California's attorney general called the "little old ladies in tennis shoes."

It moved six years ago to Appleton, Wis., where Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who branded an era with his name, is buried. He is in the JBS pantheon below John Birch himself, the first martyr of the Cold War, a military intelligence officer shot by the Chinese a week after World War II ended.

In the years between, the JBS' seedcorn of plots and conspiracies and "Com symp" officials and "Insiders" found Southern California's soil as fertile as almost every other seedlet planted here. It played high and to the right, the flying buttress of conservatism--significant enough for The Times to scrutinize in a five-part series and editorialize, "Subversion, whether of the left or right, is still subversion."

It operated summer camps for kids in the Santa Monica mountains, and planned to start its own university. It also had a downlink from the LAPD; a police detective who tracked "subversive" groups passed along the data to a group headed by the JBS chairman.

Only one of its American Opinion bookstores remains in the county, in a part of North Hollywood that's "not exactly a shopping area," says the volunteer who helps to staff it. Alfred Nilsson--he speaks for himself, not the Society, a standard disclaimer--thinks the state put one over on us with the fluoride bill.

But the big picture remains big, like getting the U.S. out of the U.N. "I'm a retired military officer, and I'd be damned if I'd go and fight for some Turkish commander or some Swedish commander, and I'm a Swede."

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Can the JBS still breathe fire when a sign along California 395 tells you that the next two miles of roadside cleanup are brought to you by the John Birch Society?

The JBS' unified-field-theory politics--"Less government, more responsibility, and, with God's help, a better world"--looks like a gramophone among CDs compared to the high-tech splinter groups, rich PACs and direct mail, the Internet armaments and literal arsenals of today's right.

Nilsson was in Glendale, at "a big meeting, a couple guys there--I was sure they were Nazis. I eventually got up and moved away from the table. We get nuts in now and then, and a lot of those nuts believe the same things we do, but we believe in education. We don't believe in running around shooting people."

The 13 protesters picketing the fluoride bill signing in Covina belonged to alternative health groups, not the JBS. Frank Cousineau--a JBS member since his junior year at Montebello High--sympathizes, but "there are other issues," larger matters at hand than the fait accompli of fluoride. "If we're successful in bringing government back into the bounds of the Constitution, then some of these problems will resolve themselves--including this one."

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