Dan Smoot, Arid Pundit

Curator's Note

 

Much of the right-wing radio and TV of the cold war years was simply designed to be boring. The right-winger shown here, Dan Smoot, seemed willfully predisposed not to entertain his audience. The reason was simple: the purpose of The Dan Smoot Report radio and TV show was to spread facts that would, by the power of their own truthfulness, destroy the liberal-communist establishment. Even the most modest visual aid would distract from the veracity of Smoot’s spoken word. Look at him seated at his desk in a suit, with globe, books, and houseplant tastefully placed behind him. Note the penetrating, deep modulation of his voice (sadly out of sync in this slipshod clip). This is designed to be a class act.  Were Smoot alive today, he might agree with Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck about some things, but he would also see these men as clowns, for they are political entertainers.

In the strange composite clip under consideration here (a bizarre mish-mash of extremism), Smoot gives a standard dry speech on his favorite topic, the constitution. But first, a modern introduction by Ed Griffin of the John Birch Society.  And the JBS has posted the clip on YouTube! Are these aging cold warriors really so “up-to-date”? Not exactly. Griffin is hardly representative of the new generation of right-wing bloggers. In fact, he was the narrator of the JBS’s 1960 recruitment films, which generally climaxed with JBS founder Robert Welch dryly giving a long speech at a podium. Welch was one of Smoot’s heroes, and Griffin’s presence as YouTube emcee does more to remind us of Smoot’s cold war roots than to establish his modern resonance. 

The clip ends oddly with a contemporary take on the conspiracy theory theme that “9/11 was an inside job,” an apparent attempt to make Smoot’s old conspiracy theories even more relevant, at a Tea Party-fueled historical moment when the sanctity of the Constitution—or a certain idea of the Constitution, at least—hangs heavy in the air. But we should remember that Smoot’s inspiration for his “constitutional conservatism” was, in large part, his opposition to the Civil Rights movement.  Contemporary right-wingers are walking on thin ice in claiming Smoot as a forefather and declaring their concerns not just un-racist but post-racist—as per Allison Perlman’s earlier comments on conservative appropriation of Martin Luther King’s image.

In any case, setting aside the modern packaging (the only way to access Smoot without heading to an archive or camping out on eBay waiting for old anticommunists to finally sell off their 16mm collections) and turning to Smoot specifically, we find someone who is articulate and collected, like William F. Buckley, but more overtly hostile and without his “intellectual” edge.  More importantly, unlike Buckley, Smoot was unwilling to make political concessions.  Buckley admitted in 1962 that Welch had his problems—accusing President Eisenhower of being a conscious agent of the communist conspiracy convinced most “legitimate” conservatives to finally write him off as an unredeemable “extremist”—but that there were many good patriots in the JBS.  Yet even Buckley finally acknowledged in 1965 that both the organization as a whole, and its members, were unhinged and were holding back the conservative movement.  Unwilling to recognize the pragmatism of repackaging cold war paranoia as something more palatable to a mainstream audience, Smoot would hang back with the old right and be forever incapable of making the transition to the new right.  Ronald Reagan—slick and branded, as per Tim Raphael’s post—serves as a brilliant counter-example, an anticommunist and vehement opponent of the counterculture (see Rick Perlstein’s terrific Nixonland) who jumpstarted his political career by being a booster for Goldwater, the favored candidate of extremists like Smoot, but soon learned how to forge cold war anticommunism into something more hopeful and upbeat (“Morning Again in America”).

Constitutional conservative” Dan Smoot was emblematic of the alarmist and extremist old right, the dull purveyors of anticommunist “facts” who had to be left behind for the new right to emerge, culminating with Reagan’s election.

 

Comments

Smoot and the Old Right

 Wow, "arid" and "bizarre" are generous descriptors, and I’m still wrapping my head around the overall coherence of this clip.  Is the implication that the logical extension of a larger and more powerful federal government is of one that destroys buildings and kill citizens to legitimate an expansion of its foreign policy?  And wouldn’t someone like Smoot approve of a vigorous use of state power to fight communism (and, presently, terrorism)?  Buckley and his team at the National Review often fought internally about US foreign policy, but they tended to agree that containment was basically capitulation, a more vigorous attack on communism was needed and, despite their calls for a repeal of New Deal-era enlargements of the federal government, advocated an expansion of the military and defense.

I wonder about whether Smoot’s mode of address was intended to echo the educational television programming that was airing in the 1950s and 1960s.  The books and the globe that share the frame position him as scholarly, his disquisition on constitutionalism more of a lesson than an ideological intervention.  Though I haven’t been able to get my hands  on the instructional programming of this period, much of it by many accounts it was incredibly boring,  tediously replicated the lectern, and did not take advantage of aesthetic possibilities that the television medium had to offer.

The transition from the old to the new right seems to be both about broadening the appeal and salience of conservatism and of transforming how conservatives position themselves; that is, if Smoot and Buckley talk to audiences, Beck and Limbaugh speak for them, identifying themselves as spokesmen for the common person’s concerns.  This is stance that Buckley would not have adopted; he was deeply indebted to Alfred Jay Nock’s idea of the "remnant" — the enlightened few, set apart from the masses.  

 

 

Heather Hendershot's picture

foreign policy and educational TV

Thanks for your note, Allison.  Smoot and his extremist compatriots (JBS and others—my favorite organization name is "The National Indignation Convention"!) were hardcore isolationists.  They wanted to stop communism, but thought others should defend themselves against it without any foreign aid from the U.S.  Spending money on other countries was simply seen as a constitutional violation.  "Internal subversion" was a different matter, of course, and all thought McCarthy to be a great American hero.

The observation about educational/instructional TV is an interesting one.  I’ve always seen Smoot’s style as closer to public service programs and the old-style low budget newscasts—both 15 minute formats for many years, and without visual aids.  I think much educational TV was imitating this "just the facts, ma’am" format.

Jeffrey P. Jones's picture

Rand Paul

The Birchers have been on my mind a lot over the last year as the Tea Party "Movement" has gotten off the ground. So thanks for this clip. Like with Glenn Beck, it’s good to be reminded of the media forms and rhetors that participated in that movement. I guess in what you write, the name that seems missing is Rand Paul. When I hear Smoot talk, my mind keeps coming to interviews with Paul these days—his dispassionate delivery, his meticulously thought out (though twisted) logic, his belief in a grand ideological vision of how government shouldn’t work, etc. As you note, Beck is a clown/entertainer. Paul, while being a politician, is also a foot soldier in the larger ideological battle that he and his father and other libertarians are trying to opportunistically wage at the moment. But again, this clip also reminds me of how closely related such libertarian Tea Partiers are to the JBS

Heather Hendershot's picture

JBS

Amazingly, the JBS has been showing up at some Tea Party events.  It’s hard to tell if its the sign of renewal, or just their last gasp.  Their board of directors is dominated by octogenarians! 

One thing I think the JBS and Tea Partiers have in common is a struggle with image, specifically in regard to class.  There are a lot of folks at Tea Party events who are inarticulate and poorly educated (we’ve all seen egregious spelling errors on protest signs, like "Abortion—American Hollow Caust"), and the Party leadership is trying to weed them out and keep them away from the Fox cameras.  The Birchers insisted they were upstanding businessmen and housewives, but they did draw quite a few KKKers and other extremists who made them look bad, so spin was a constant issue.

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