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Bad Congress, Part 2: John G. Schmitz
The Twisted Representative of Orange County
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
In more than two centuries, more than 12,000 people have served as senators or representatives (or both)—and some of them have been traitors, malefactors, or epic assholes. Bad Congress will introduce you to America’s rogues gallery, helping to put a face on the flaws and failures of the first branch.
This week, we’re talking about the second in our survey of bad members of Congress: John G. Schmitz (1930-2001), Member of the House from California (1970-73).
For earlier installments:
“Pitchfork” Ben Tillman (1847-1918), Senator from South Carolina (1895-1918).
Bad Congress, Part 2: John G. Schmitz
John G. Schmitz was mad at Ronald Reagan.
The Los Angeles Times (April 4, 1968) reported that Schmitz, then a California state senator, said he “[found] it hard to express the depth of my resentment at the twisted politics of a man who would promise millions of people to help wipe out a law…and then suddenly announce that he intends to use all the powers of his office to preserve that law.” Schmitz speculated that Reagan had been blackmailed.
The spark of Schmitz’s ire was Reagan’s decision to abide by the Rumford Act, technically known as the California Fair Housing Act of 1963. The state law protected the rights of Blacks and other minorities to buy housing in California at a time of widespread, and frankly blatant, housing discrimination. The law was controversial in then-conservative California, and a statewide proposition repealed the law in 1964 by a margin of 2 to 1 (in a year when Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater in the state by a margin of 3 to 2). Inconveniently for Schmitz and others, the Supreme Court twice upheld the Rumford Act, and California’s battles over the law were soon preempted by the federal National Housing Act. Reagan’s hands were tied, but to a true believer like Schmitz compliance with the law was treason.
The cause of his ire, however, was that Schmitz was an arch-rightist who represented among the most conservative areas in the country. A sort of MTG/Boebert avant la lettre, Schmitz was a proud member of the John Birch Society—the only (open) member of the Birchers in the Sacramento legislature. The Birchers were extreme anti-Communists, and a number of other -ists besides; they promoted views that the mainstream regarded as fringe, like the notion that Dwight Eisenhower was a secret Communist agent. But they were also a force in Republican politics, and, funded by membership dues and its founder’s money from (among other things) the creation of Junior Mints, they were influential beyond a single legislator.
Schmitz’s path to breaking with Reagan reflected his rise in ardent right-wing circles. Born in Milwaukee, he graduated from Marquette and joined the Marines, where he served as a pilot. He earned a master’s degree from California State College-Long Beach and became an instructor of philosophy and political science at Santa Ana College; local newspapers reported he was also a Ph.D. student at Claremont Graduate School. (His still active personal Web site confirms this—and notes, evidently without irony, that Schmitz also was a literal Keystone Cop at Disneyland.)
His career as a professional anti-Communist led to his political career in an unlikely—and, in retrospect, gross—way. Schmitz was lecturing about the dangers of Communism to Marines at El Toro in 1962. As a Los Angeles Times obituary noted, he came upon a man stabbing a woman near the base and, “[u]sing nothing more than the sheer authority of his voice,” disarmed the assailant. The woman died but Schmitz made his name.
To say Schmitz, an admirer of Joseph McCArthy, dabbled in conspiracy theories would be an insult to his skills. At the least, he was a contender in the pro-am circuit. In 1963, Schmitz, by then part of the rather disconcertingly named “Tustin unit, California Republican Assembly”, was reported in the Tustin News as part of a charge to uncover the truth behind the murder of John F. Kennedy. The Tustin Republicans “adopted a resolution urging Congress to make a complete and unbiased disclosure of all facts” and “blasted what it termed unreliable information in the press, on radio, and TV intimat[ing] that the ‘right wing’ is involved in the tragedy.” In itself, that was not entirely unfair, but the “just asking questions” approach was soon joined by a classic Bircher move: “It was pointed out that former Soviet agent Bogodin Strashinsky [sic for Bogdan], who has defected to the West, … an assassin for high level killings” was available for further testimony.
These sorts of outings led local magnates, including Carl’s Jr. founder Carl Karcher, to back Schmitz’s rise. Elected to the California state senate in 1964, he also became a national director with the John Birch society. The Los Angeles Times article in which Schmitz vented about Reagan’s fair housing stance speculated that he was taking a harder right stance in order to position himself for higher office. His crusade against compulsory sex education and the independence of the state’s judiciary solidified his rightist credentials. The death of longtime Congressman James Utt gave him the chance he needed.
Utt himself was an extremist right-winger who, among other things, supported a U.S. exit from the United Nations and charged that the United Nations was training battalions of African-Americans to take over the United States. In that context, Schmitz’s crack that he joined the Birchers to “get the middle of the road vote in Orange County” reads less as a joke. An analysis of the 1970 California elections in the Western Political Quarterly (now Political Research Quarterly) noted that Schmitz was not the only Bircher to win election to Congress from California that year: John R. Rousselot, who claimed to be a former member, defeated a Nixon-backed challenger.
As a member of Congress, Schmitz did not move to the center lane but drove down the right shoulder. He was one of 19 members to vote against a constitutional amendment to give 18-year-olds the vote. As a Bircher and a member of the organization’s leadership while in Congress, he continued his anti-Communist crusade in office. This included breaking with Nixon, viewed as an apostate for his soft-on-Communism views. In an oral history interview conducted in the 1990s with Brad Koplinski in Hats in the Ring, Schmitz argued:
Nixon was obviously taking the conservatives for granted, because he was galloping to the left. This became obvious when viewing his obits. When he died, [Howard] Phillips from the Taxpayers Party,8 gave a commentary on C-SPAN and he mentioned at Nixon's funeral that all the people that paid tribute to Nixon were liberals. The idea that Nixon was a conservative was built just on his activity on the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Alger Hiss case. He made a whole career on that. But when he was president, he was no conservative. And the sell-out of Nationalist China, was to me just the last straw, but it wasn't the only thing. When I say the sell-out of Nationalist China, that's really what it was.
When President Nixon visited China in February 1972, Schmitz quipped that he didn’t mind Nixon going to China—he minded him coming back. This rankled Nixon, not least because Schmitz’s district included La Casa Pacifica, Nixon’s home in San Clemente. Schmitz moved from jokes to outright opposition by backing the doomed, quixotic primary challenge of John Ashbrook, who sought to give anti-Nixon conservatives a choice in the 1972 primaries.
Breaking with Nixon was too much for Schmitz’s constituents. He lost in the Republican primary in June 1972 to Orange County Assessor Andrew J. Hinshaw, who would later be found guilty of taking bribes from the Tandy Corporation (which is, to be honest, the most metal thing I’ve ever learned about the Tandy Corporation).
As a national hero to the far-right, however, Schmitz had an unlikely second act in national politics as the nominee for president of the American Party, a replacement for Governor George Wallace. Schmitz argued that Nixon and his Democratic challenger George McGovern were both Bilderberger-backed agents of an international conspiracy and trumpeted the views of Gary Allen, a right-wing conspiracy theorist and author of None Dare Call it Conspiracy, which merged right-wing anti-Communism and populism and to which Schmitz had contributed the foreword. As the New York Times described his followers, they were “a dedicated, generally affluent group of white Americans who deeply believe that the Republic is threatened by a conspiracy masterminded by fat-cat international financiers in league with China and Russia and protected from public view by a Comsymp American press. … a lean, hard core of physicians, chiropractors, orthodontists, lawyers, real-estate developers, display-advertising executives, electronics engineers, insurance salesmen … “
Schmitz lost (you may have noticed), but won a million votes in the election. He returned to his job as a political science instructor at Santa Ana College. He even enjoyed a brief political resurrection: in 1978, the Washington Post recorded that the “irrepressible legislator” had made a comeback by winning election as a California state senator. Although the Post noted that he had been “a far-right adherent”, it also recorded that his “ideology was more than matched by his sense of humor.”
Yet times had moved beyond even jocular racism. His Los Angeles Times obituary noted that his racism was too outrageous even for Orange County:
caustic remarks about Jews (“Jews are like everybody else, only more so”), Latinos (“I may not be Hispanic, but I’m close. I’m Catholic with a mustache”) and blacks (“Martin Luther King is a notorious liar”) had grown so outrageous that he was beginning to lose the support of even the John Birch Society, which eventually dumped him. He also got into trouble with feminist attorney Gloria Allred after criticizing her support of abortion rights by calling her a “slick, butch lawyeress.” A lawsuit she filed resulted in a $20,000 judgment against him and a public apology. Schmitz drew fire as well by issuing a press release referring to the audience at a series of hearings he chaired on abortion as consisting of “hard, Jewish and (arguably) female faces.”
It took, of all things, a sex scandal to finally dethrone him. In 1982, his secret life—a pregnant mistress and a 15-month-old secret son—was revealed, upsetting his careful image as a devout father of a troupe of loving children. (Later, one of his daughters would face her own scandal: Mary Kay LeTourneau.)
Schmitz retired to Washington, bought a house once owned by Senator McCarthy, and worked part-time for Political Americana, a memorabilia shop in Union Station owned by collector Jim Warlick, who presumably thought he’d added a presidential candidate to his collection. (He later moved to Virginia and operated a vineyard.)
Schmitz was among the most extreme members of Congress. Yet it’s jarring that the media treated him remarkably kindly—and continues to. Mainstream publications stressed his humor and friendliness, and in the process whitewashed his views. The general sense was that as a fringe candidate there was no need to seriously consider what it meant that he was, in fact, a member of Congress and the recipient of a million votes. (One son later became a more mainstream Republican, working for Morris Fiorina and serving in the George H.W. Bush administration and using his German fluency to become a prominent transatlantic capitalist.)
Yet Schmitz was not a joke, and neither were his politics. Conspiracists can and do win power—and doing so is not a Trump-era aberration, even if their prominence in the White House is. Looking at politics means actually looking at what the range of outcomes is, not what we’d prefer it to be. And sometimes that means reflecting on what it means that Schmitz really did represent his constituents—and his broader constituency.