John Podesta, soon to become a White House adviser, recently called the Republican party “a cult worthy of Jonestown.” Today he apologized.
It’s an interesting metaphor, increasingly common — how often have you heard references to “drinking the Kool-Aid”? — but it’s worth recalling that Jim Jones was, before his horrific, sadistic end, an increasingly influential figure in California politics, particularly Democratic-party politics.
Jones’ “People’s Temple” religious group/organization/cult played a role in George Moscone’s election as mayor of San Francisco in 1975, and Moscone subsequently rewarded Jones by naming him chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission.
Jones used his position to take possession of public housing units and install temple members in them, and he put other followers on the housing authority payroll. The preacher was building his own power base within city government. “He was using his power to recruit members and to put the hammer on people,” said David Reuben, an investigator for San Francisco District Attorney Joseph Freitas, another politician under Jones’s sway. “He had a lot of authority.”
“Jim Jones helped George Moscone run this city,” said Jim Jones Jr., a chillingly matter-of-fact assessment of the temple leader’s creeping encroachment in San Francisco.
Political leaders, aware of Jones’s ability to deliver — or manufacture — votes, lined up to pay tribute to the preacher. He worked his way into the good graces of officials high and low — most of them Democrats, since that was the party in power in California and San Francisco in the mid-1970s. But Jones was also happy to exchange mutually complimentary correspondence with the offices of Ronald Reagan and statesman Henry Kissinger.
During the 1976 presidential campaign, Jones wangled a private meeting with Jimmy Carter’s wife, Rosalynn, at the elegant Stanford Court Hotel on Nob Hill, arriving with a security contingent that was larger than her Secret Service squad. Later Jones accompanied Moscone and a group of Democratic dignitaries who climbed aboard vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale’s private jet when it touched down at San Francisco International Airport.
Governor Jerry Brown sang the preacher’s praises. Congressman John Burton, Phil’s brother, lobbied the governor to appoint Jones to the high-profile board of regents, which oversaw California’s sprawling public university system. San Francisco Supervisor — now U.S. Senator — Dianne Feinstein accepted an invitation to lunch with Jones and to tour Peoples Temple.
But no political figures were more gushing in their praise of Jones than Willie Brown and Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s rising tribune of gay freedom.
Jerry Brown and Jim Jones.
For a stark raving lunatic atop a cult of personality, Jones had amazing sway among the political leaders of his time. In 1977, facing increasing media scrutiny of allegations of abuse of his followers, Jones moved to Guyana, and renamed it after himself. The rest is gruesome, horrific history, culminating in the November 1978 cyanide poisoning of 909 members of the cult, including more than 300 children.
The comparison of today’s GOP to Jim Jones’s followers is deeply offensive and obnoxious, but also ironic, considering how some of the Democrats still on the scene today were all too eager to embrace Jones when he could provide political assistance.