Thursday, September 30, 2010

Did I Help Spawn the Tea Party?

I avoid reading articles about the Tea Party, but made an exception for Jill Lapore's New Yorker article about Sarah Palin & co. in Boston. Boston Tea Parties Past and Present Lapore writes well about the 18th century, a favorite cubbyhole of mine, and I thought her pointing out that the Founders were trying to build a new nation not tear one down would be a tonic.

I was about to give up on her uncharacteristically convoluted reportage (I guess the New Yorker still pays by the word), and then she mentioned the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission. I worked for the ARBC from August 1971 to August 1972. In her story she suggested that the rise of the Tea Party hinged in part on the failure of the ARBC! To wit: "After Nixon’s Bicentennial Commission failed in every attempt to organize a national celebration,..." it was one slippery slope downhill to the nonsense we have today.

While she doesn't note it, I helped cripple the ARBC by leaking reams of documents showing political favoritism by the Commission. Then she paints the People's Bicentennial Commission (I worked for them too!) as a left wing harbinger of the current Tea Party movement! To wit:

"Today’s Tea Partiers say that they’re concerned, for the most part, with taxes. So was the left-wing Peoples Bicentennial Commission, which, in 1974, called on Americans to form a new TEA Party (the acronym standing for Tax Equity for Americans); it urged organizers to use the slogan “Don’t Tread on Me,” and suggested “How about forums on Tax Day, or on the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party—in front of IRS or H. & R. Block?” The Peoples Bicentennial Commission also published a manifesto called “Common Sense II: The Case Against Corporate Tyranny.” It was left, not right, but, aside from that, it has a lot in common with a book published last year, “Glenn Beck’s Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government.”

I leaked the ARBC documents to the PBC and through them to the Washington Post and Progressive Magazine, helping its leader Jeremy Rifkin gain credibility and funding!!

Oh my god! Lapore chastises historians then and now for letting amateurs bend the past to current political agendas! She suggests that the time to have stopped it was in 1976! If only I had leaked the documents to the American Historical Association and Bernard Bailyn, the big Harvard historian of that day. Instead I washed my hands of all slants on '76 in Expose of an Expose, a March 18, 1973, cover story in Potomac Magazine, then the Sunday magazine of the Washington Post.

HISTORY BITES BACK! I could have saved the Republic and instead suggested two cases of German beer was as good a way as any to sum up the American Experience....

Read the story, and weep!

Expose of an Expose

Confessions of the Bicentennial Commission Spy

by Bob Arnebeck

I have always dreamed grandly, lived less than grandly. After college I worked for the Post Office a, then blew my earnings on a trip to Europe. I wrote and produced a play on the history of the Ford Motor Co. One hundred people saw the play in two weeks, 50 were friends and 25 were relatives of the actors.

By July 1971, I needed money. My father had the contacts to get me in touch with the right man at the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, the agency charged with planning the celebration of America’s 200th birthday. I said yes, yes, and landed a GS-5 job opening all the mail that came to the Commission.

My love was to popularize history and the Commission seemed to be the place to do that. I anticipated rapid advancement from the mailroom to a position where I could hobnob with great historians at meetings laced with lengthy discourses on the American experience.

As I lay in bed the night before I began working for the ARBC, I suddenly recalled an odd fact I had uncovered in my youth: My birthday coincided with the anniversary of the day Nathan Hale was hanged for spying.

On August 14, 1972, The Washington Post and The Progressive magazine carried articles I aided with papers exposing the Nixon Administration’s plans for using the Bicentennial celebration for the glorification of Nixon and Big Business. As I paced in the quiet summer’s night outside the Post building waiting for the papers headlining the expose, I imagined the cries of indignation, the chants of “Shame, Shame, Shame” being led by none other than George McGovern.

The Octopus

In July 1966, Congress established the Bicentennial Commission “to plan, encourage, develop, and coordinate the commemoration of the American Revolution bicentennial.” The Nixon administration created a bureaucratic octopus with numerous committees, advisory panels, and special advisory panels, and consulting teams. The 50 Commission member include Cabinet officers, congressmen, and representatives of the public.

Way back in 1876, P. T. Barnum celebrated America’s Centennial with a traveling circus including three live eagles, four bears, five lions, six elephants, a chorus of several hundred to sing “America” and a dwarf eight inches shorter than Tom Thumb. President Nixon’s Commission is more representative of the American people. He corralled five historians, five educators, four businessmen, three publishers, two broadcasters, two lawyers, one judge, one engineer and the former Mayor of Dallas, Texas; one popular entertainer, four blacks, one Mexican-American, one American Indian and four member under 25, but alas, none under five feet tall.

The Nixon Calendar, Etc.

The Big Shows of the Commission are its quarterly meetings to endorse Bicentennial projects. An endorsed project can display the official symbol of the ARBC, a red, white and blue pretzel. Anything can be endorsed - books, TV shows, parades, ice cream cups, and fights against disease. The Commission even endorsed a whole city, Niagara Falls, N.Y., as the first Bicentennial City.

The Commission just had to honor a city with plans to build a 400-room hotel that rotates so that every room can see the Rainbow Falls - and whose congressman is on the committee that gives the Commission money.

The star of ARBC is its Chairman, David J. Mahoney, a 50 year old millionaire with a Palm Springs tan, the sort of trim physique, slowly bulging in the middle, that is the envy of board room hearties.
He is an advertising and marketing champ who heads a burgeoning conglomerate, Norton Simon.,Inc., that runs McCall’s Magazine, Hunt Wesson Foods, Canada Dry and soon Max Factor.

The Commission meetings I saw were interminable bureaucratic wrangles. When my pet subject, history, came up, Mahoney’s Bronx banter would erupt: “Sometimes, to me, history is the last ten minutes.”

Mahoney had to grapple with the pressing urban problems of today. My first day on the job I ferried Eyes Only memos from Mahoney to Robert Finch and others at the White House. He made an impassioned plea for White House support in procuring more free government parking spaces for the ARBC staff.

While few historians worked with the commission, hundreds of schemers did. Their proposals ranged from the ludicrous - like changing the calendar so that every month has the same number of days and naming the new system the Nixon Calendar - to the profitable: Sara Lee wants to sell birthday cakes, the Franklin Mint wants to sell collectors’ medals, and Lipton Tea wants to sponsor a tea party for America’s blue bloods to celebrate the Boston Tea Party and help market Lipton English Blend Tea.

One day, Miss Rose Bowl 1972 floated into the Commission. She delighted all with roses and peddled the Good News that the Rose Bowl Parade for 1976 would be a patriotic Super Parade.

Collecting the Goods

The Commission staff of about 60 Republicans and a smidgen of Democrats invented red tape for any heady liberal schemes. The staff panned David Wolper’s film “Washington” as too controversial for Commission endorsement. The staff slashed red tape for the red, white, and blue projects that it loved like the rotating hotel.

Some got very special treatment. Mahoney’s secretary forwarded a proposal to the staff urging it be handled with “TLC” (tender loving care.) The proposal was from the wife of a Price Commission official and “Norton Simon, Inc., needs the Price Commission’s good will.”’

On January 25, 1972, Jack LeVant, Chicago businessman and Director of the ARBC, wrote in an Eyes Only, Confidential draft of a letter to his business buddy Mahoney that the Bicentennial could be the “the greatest opportunity Nixon, the Party, and the Government has as a beacon of light for reunification and light within the nation and with the world.”

I decided the Commission was turning into a U.S.I.A. for the domestic front - coordinating parades, fairs and TV extravaganzas to pound into Americans that they were the greatest, are the greatest, and will be forever and ever, under Nixon, the greatest.

Section 7301 of Title 5 of the United States Code, the government employees’ Code of Ethics, commands a public servant to “put loyalty to the highest moral principles and to country above loyalty to persons, party or Government Department… and to expose corruption whenever discovered.”

I had a clear mandate.

My method of exposing the biggies was suggested by James Copley, a conservative newspaper publisher and ARBC member, who once forwarded a copy of an article by Jeremy Rifkin of the People’s Bicentennial Commission called “Red, White and Blue Left.” He urged Mahoney to read what the “enemy” was doing. Whom else do you spy for but the enemy?

In February 1972, I invited Rifkin to my apartment and shared my information.

After months of working where I didn’t dare say what I really thought, I found someone with ideas about the Revolution like mine. We both agreed the best way to celebrate the Revolution would be to have another Revolution (figurative, of course) attack the Fat Cats and rally the Left. We became fast friends. We decided I should stay at ARBC, collect more information and then we would write an expose.

Leftward March

Spying is one notch above playing hooky. One delicious Spring day I uncovered a juicy memo from Leonard Garment of the White House staff. I charged up Connecticut Avenue, almost knocking over a little kid, to the PBC office. Afterwards I celebrated at a bar called the “007!”

But spying also has its drawbacks. I felt like a rat - especially since my desk was in the basement next to the Pepsi machine.

I found the following techniques helpful in fulfilling my nefarious designs:

I kept a messy desk. Once the secretary of the ex-director whose files I had open on my desk came to get a Pepsi. The confusion of papers, bottles, pencils, and magazines prevented her from discovering the files and me.

Once my boss called me in to discuss “sensitive” material. He told me to keep an eye out for a leak. During our conversation I kept my mind on my outward appearances so I wouldn’t betray fear. I controlled my breath maintained normal eye contact, and made my fingers symbols of relaxation. A spy would do well to study Buddha.

From February to July, I amassed the documents that unmasked the ARBC. Late July, the Progressive magazine went to press. The world would know the truth about the Bicentennial the week before the Republican Convention.

Although the higher-ups at the ARBC were so suspicious of each other they seldom suspected a GS-5 could stab them in the back, I was sure they’d suspect me as the leak. I don’t crave martyrdom, so I left the government the week before the expose. Later I found out they first suspected another super grade who didn’t fit in with the “team.”

The mad summer if ‘72 fed any expose artist’s dreams - ITT, the Watergate, the wheat deal, and the bicentennial papers!

A perfect expose works like this: a respected magazine publishes an authoritative article raking the muck… a respected newspaper is given prior notice so that it can fully illuminate the brilliant article…. the opposition party picks up the cudgel… television, radio, and wire services jump on the scandal… Agronsky & Co. discuss the outrage… the White House ducks embarrassing questions… the attacked agency trembles… other patriotic bureaucrats release more incriminating documents… and the March to Utopia begins.

The stories in the Progressive and the Post came out and the House Judiciary Committee began an investigation of the Commission.
The day after the bomb hit, we waited for McGovern’s reaction. Monday passed to Tuesday, then Wednesday and the Dakota Populist maintained silence. Finally, Thursday morning an aide on the McGovern speech research staff called the People’s Bicentennial.
I answered the phone. “Do you think McGovern should say anything about this Bicentennial stuff?” asked the aide.

Picking myself off the ceiling I replied in measured tones, “Well, it’s sort of embarrassing to Nixon.” After a short speech establishing that he would be a better judge of what might embarrass Nixon, he asked “ Do you have any more documents that McGovern could release?”
Finally I outlined a possible statement McGovern could make. “That sounds good. Could you type it up and bring it down to K Street along with some of the documents?”

Since I had read Samuel Rosenman’s autobiography I knew all about speech wiring for Presidents. A couple of “shocks,” a dash of flag waving, a poignant quote from a founding father juxtaposed cunningly with a quote from one of the damaging documents, a peroration calling on the nation to raise its sights from Republican stench to what McGovern could be by the Bicentennial, and voila, I had a statement.

A little heavy, I thought to myself, calling Nixon a Tory and throwing in that old Roosevelt “economic royalist” jive. But McGovern campaign headquarters released the statement nearly verbatim. Rather than pack my bags and join the McGovern campaign plane I had a humble second though - so this is politics?

Fie on the Lest Too

Spiro Agnew told me that the Eastern Liberal Press is a bunch of conspirators who know no higher joy than to jump on any chance to embarrass Richard Nixon. So the day after the front page story in the Post, I expected a front page story in the New York Times. The following Sunday, six days after the Post story, the Times ran an article on page 56!

Apparently, they were upset because they didn’t get the story first. I restudied my Agnew. Tears streaked my cheeks when the Post reported McGovern’s statement on page E-26. I suppose that’s what they mean by breaking a story.

TV networks expressed immediate interest, filmed some documents, and went to get reactions from the ARBC. They had no reaction. No reaction, no story, so there was nothing on the networks.

To wind up the March to Utopia, Agronsky was on vacation, the White House didn’t have to duck because nobody asked any questions.

Since Agnew let me down, I followed the advice of his pal Frank Sinatra and picked myself up, dusted myself off and … began working with the People’s Bicentennial Commission to, as their promotional literature phrases it, “rekindle the true Spirit of ‘76.” Overjoyed to be rid of the government bureaucracy when the dust settled, I found myself in a bureaucracy on the Left.

The PBC is supported by foundations financed through the utilization of tax loopholes by the rich, the PBC attacks the rich and their tax loopholes.

The PBC occupied a two-room suite with a bathroom on the tenth floor of the Dupont Circle Building. The outer office is a madhouse of paper, chatter and anywhere from one to six workers. The inner office is the sanctum where leader Jeremy Rifkin tete-a-tetes with journalists, roving radicals, and do-gooders looking for a story, a movement or Good Deeds to do.

The 28 year old former anti war activist is a small, fast talker from Chicago’s South Side who wears a roguish Australian cowboy hat with Don’t Tread on Me buttons on it.

When he’s excited, for instance when I presented him with a juicy morsel from the ARBC files, he screams and jumps around the room like a caged Yippie.

When the people around him are excited and arguing, the former business school and international affairs student sits quietly, lights his pipe, profoundly pronounces that, “It’s not an either-or question,” like an old labor organizer calming hotter heads.

He doesn’t look like a revolutionary with the leather coat from Britches that his wealthy father bought him , and he’s proud that even after years in the struggle he never spent a night in jail.
Rifkin’s genius is persuasiveness with foundation. He gets their money with the pitch that he’s going to explain to the disenchanted, “the Wallace-McGovern constituency,” their revolutionary heritage by sending them a “” a hard-hitting Populist message.”

Writing articles for Ramparts magazine, producing plays for college campuses, and distributing radio spots attacking government snooping into bank accounts seems more weighted to the McGovern rather than Wallace constituency.

Like the wealthy for centuries before them, they crave excitement. “I tell them the Bicentennial Era could be another McCarthy Era,” Rifkin confided to me, “those rich liberals lap it up.”

Unfortunately, the foundation money went to the PBC through the Youth Project. Even liberal foundations won’t spend money to stop a new era of McCarthyism if they can’t get a tax break. After our big expose the Youth Project got cold feet.

The PBC’s attack on the Administration during the campaign might be construed by the IRS as politics. The Youth Project governing board decreed that the PBC would have to apply for its own tax-exempt status. If not, they would give back sizable sums of foundation money earmarked for the PBC.

Like Mahoney, LeVant and millions of other patriotic Americans would, the PBC went for the money. It decided to make itself suitable for tax exemption. They would be non-political and non-propagandistic, on the surface. But underground - ah that was different! At one point Rifkin talked eagerly about taking over the Democratic Party in 1976.

After exposing the deception of the ARBC, I was in a deceptive group on the Left.

My special projects at the PBC were attacking corporations and an oral history project - denigrate the fat cats and celebrate the People. I wrote a sassy little theater piece about ITT, Wonder Bread and Ben Franklin, but the Director of the PBC Theatre had trouble with it. He preferred plays about the American Dream.

My oral history project petered out, too, after I discovered that very few people know how to tell a good story, Also Jeremy didn’t think an oral history project would have much relevance to the Bicentennial. He wanted a slide show on the American Dream.

My chief task was serving as resident expert on the government Bicentennial. After the foundation flap, however, Rifkin wanted me kept under wraps. He did not want me to go to public places to talk about the Bicentennial. He feared I would be arrested and he would have to waste his time raising money for my defense! Bad as ARBC was, they never told me where I could and could not go.

I, Double Rat Fink

My swan song as a radical came when Rifkin attacked me for political naivete. I had written a handout attacking the District of Columbia Bicentennial Commission as being a tool of the White House. The DCBC is predominantly black. As with many white leftists, the nightmare of being called a white elitist by blacks seemed to haunt Rifkin.

I accused Rifkin of delusions of grandeur. Who would get anything out of attacking him? (Except me.) When I refused to tell him about a confidential meeting I was to attend, he blew up. We engaged in five minutes of Albee dialogue minus the sexual innuendoes. We finally faced the truth, agreed we didn’t trust each other, and I quit.

There is a river that winds its way through the streets, elevators and offices of Washington - the filthy River of Revenge. I decided to sail down it and become a peg. A peg is what a journalist spends his days looking for.

Since the same stale characters, Mahoney and Rifkin, who pegged the July 4, 1972, stories were still around, I was a preminum commodity for July 4, 1973. I approached the writer doing a story for Playboy - after a few meetings, sure enough, he thought about me for his peg. I contacted a Wall Street Journal reporter. He bought me lunch at the Press Club. As of yet he hasn’t made me his peg, but maybe he will. But I couldn’t wait. I craved swift revenge, so here I am.

Apologies to the ARBC!

I botched my Bicentennial career. Now I’m a double rat-fink, and in retrospect, the crimes of the ARBC seem less corrupt than stupid. I apologize to the ARBC for being overzealous, but at least I can cease my search for truth justice and a meaningful Bicentennial. Why not have a meaningless Bicentennial, with lots of laughs? As long as I can remember the Fourth has been a time for fun. Just because 1976 is the 200th is no reason to get in the way of a good time. I’m going to celebrate by cornering a couple cases of old German beer for the Fourth.

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