The brunette on the graceful side of middle age declined to give her name, saying people might get the wrong idea about her.
I found her Tuesday night in the community room at the Holmesburg Recreation Center, 4500 Rhawn St., where the John Birch Society was holding its monthly informational meeting.
Born during the Cold War, the John Birch Society was so archly conservative it could be called fright-wing. Its founder was candy manufacturer Robert Welch, who made a vast fortune with the caramel lollipop Sugar Daddy, which is what he was to the Birchers.
Welch infamously suggested that President Dwight Eisenhower was a communist, fluoridation of water was a plot, and the United Nations was a roach trap for democracy (a concept it does not favor).
Today’s John Birch Society, I discovered Tuesday night, is not like the one of my college days, when conservative icon William F. Buckley drummed Birchers out of the conservative movement for fear that mainstream conservatives would be, um, besmirched, by the conspiracy theories that leaped from Welch’s overactive imagination.
The Cold War was hot in Cuba, Germany was divided, communism seemed to be gaining in Africa and Southeast Asia. The life force of the John Birch Society was anti-communism.
Before Tuesday night’s session in Holmesburg, I asked chapter leader (they don’t like the term president) Chris Affleck about the core beliefs of today’s Birchers.
“The John Birch Society wants less government, more individual responsibility, and with God’s help, a better world,” says Affleck, 52. That doesn’t sound unhinged to me. Affleck, a Philadelphia Water Department surveyor who’s not related to Ben, doesn’t even mention communist threat until I bring it up. It is still real, he says.
He rejects any idea that the society likes Nazis, the Klan, anti-Semitism, or white supremacy. “Hatred is a problem, in my book,” he says. “I was raised Catholic.”
Despite that disclaimer, the Southern Poverty Law Center regards the group as “extreme,'” while others think of SPLC as far left.
For the five people who attended the meeting, there was a DVD on the Constitution plus coffee, cookies, and cake. Affleck has been holding these events, which he calls educational and not political, once a month for three years.
At the scheduled 7 p.m. start, the TV monitor is not working. When an attempt to fix it fails, the society’s field coordinator Kip Webster goes to his car and returns with a projector. The five in the audience wait patiently and help themselves to cake.
The rain earlier in the evening might have depressed turnout, Affleck says, but he’s never had more than 12 people in the room.
The Philadelphia chapter has 20 members. Webster said he couldn’t comment on national membership, but it’s not the 100,000 it claimed at its peak in the 1960s before becoming a relic.
The DVD was something you might have seen in civics class, except they don’t teach civics anymore, so the principle of America being a republic and not a democracy might be news to some in the audience. The DVD praises the role of past immigrants, self-sufficient immigrants, in building the nation.
The bottom line: Our rights come from God, and government’s primary role is to protect those rights — not to establish a welfare state that, Birchers believe, undercuts individual responsibility.
Birchers are patriotic and nationalistic. So is President Trump. Are they being helped by him?
“Trump has been the wind in the sails of our veteran members, but he has brought in no new members,” Affleck says.
As I look around the nearly empty community room, I see that Affleck is right.