Politico reported yesterday that John Podesta, President Obama’s official new White House counselor, had recently said the Obama administration would have to concentrate on issuing executive orders rather than negotiate with Congress because Obama is “facing a second term against a cult worthy of Jonestown in charge of one of the houses of Congress.” Podesta had to apologize to Speaker John Boehner for comparing House Republicans to the Jonestown cult led by Jim Jones, founder of the San Francisco People’s Temple, and that lead to the death of 909 people in 1978.
I almost lost it when I read Podesta’s comparison. Urban Dictionary defines “chutzpah” as “unmitigated gall,” and that’s what Podesta practiced in comparing Republicans to one of the most corrupt and menacing cults to ever attach itself to the Democratic party.
I was living in San Francisco during the period when Jim Jones was a Democratic power broker, known for his ability to deliver thousands of votes. I recall that in 1976, Assemblyman Willie Brown, later the longtime speaker of that body, compared Jones to Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein, and Chairman Mao in an introduction. That same year, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s vice-presidential candidate, met personally with Jones. So did Jimmy Carter’s wife, Rosalynn. Among dozens of accolades from leading Democrats that Jones collected was this one from Joseph Califano, who was secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under Jimmy Carter: “Knowing your commitment and compassion, your interest in protecting individual liberty and freedom have made an outstanding contribution to furthering the cause of human dignity.”
Jones basked in the glow of praise his People’s Temple garnered from gullible politicians, and San Francisco mayor George Moscone, later tragically assassinated in 1978, even appointed him to San Francisco’s housing commission. Jones had been responsible for an incredible vote-harvesting operation that may have made the difference in Moscone’s narrow 4,000-vote victory over conservative John Barbagelata in 1975.
After Jones’s death, the national media briefly reported on the massive vote-fraud operation that Jones conducted on behalf of Moscone. The December 17, 1978, New York Times ran a story with this headline: “Followers Say Jim Jones Directed Voter Frauds.”
The story began:
Determined to help elect politicians friendly toward his People’s Temple, the Rev. Jim Jones ordered what former temple members say was an organized campaign of fraudulent voting practices that included importing busloads of illegal voters to cast their ballots in this city’s 1975 municipal elections.
Among those named by some of Mr. Jones’s former followers as recipients of his political support were Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, both of whom were shot and killed in their City Hall offices, three weeks ago, allegedly by an enraged former city official. The police have said that the shooting was unrelated to the People’s Temple.
The former followers said that Mr. Jones had also ardently supported Joseph Freitas, the San Francisco District Attorney; Mervyn Dymally, the Lieutenant Governor of California; State Senator Milton Marks and Willie Brown Jr., the city’s State Assemblyman. There is no indication that any of these candidates were aware of the alleged illegal assistance from Mr. Jones.
The article went on to detail interviews with former People’s Temple members who said that hundreds of out-of-towners had been bused to the polls. Neva Sly said her husband, Don Sly, was the “head bus driver.” Don Sly was the man who held a knife to the throat of Congressman Leo Ryan after he landed at the People’s Temple compound in Guyana in November, 1978. Ryan later was killed just before the mass suicide of Temple members.
Wanda Johnson, another former People’s Temple member, told the Times that “when Jones wanted someone elected, he got them elected.” Johnson described how members were required to produce ballot stubs showing that they had indeed voted. Nonvoters were “pushed around, roughed up, physically abused.” As the Times noted, “there is little doubt that [Jones] controlled the votes of several thousand of his followers, enough to make the difference in a close election.
After Moscone’s narrow victory in November, 1975, allegations of voter fraud surfaced and forced Joe Freitas, the Democratic district attorney, to begin an investigation. But Jones had little to fear from it.
As the Times reported:
In charge of the vote fraud investigation, Mr. Freitas placed Timothy O. Stoen, a newly hired deputy district attorney who was also a longtime member of the temple and chief legal adviser to Mr. Jones. Although about 50 people were subsequently indicted, most of them for having voted in San Francisco while living outside the city, none were members of the People’s Temple.
Phil Tracy, who wrote an article for the liberal New West magazine on the Jones fraud machine, told the Times he had passed on the allegations in person to District Attorney Freitas. But Freitas claimed he didn’t recall any such conversation.
What Frietas did do after the 1975 election was attend a testimonial dinner in Jim Jones’s honor, accept a check for $400 ($1,600 in today’s money) from the People’s Temple and in February, 1978, inform the registrar of voters, according to the San Francisco Examiner: “it was no longer necessary to retain 1975 election files. They were subsequently destroyed.” The Guyana mass suicide occurred nine months later.
No credible, official investigation of just how much the Jones vote-fraud machine helped steer San Francisco elections was ever conducted. But California’s GOP attorney general Evelle Younger reported in December, 1978, that a “federal investigation has developed information that [Assistant District Attorney] Stoen misused his position to obstruct pending investigations that might have adversely impacted on the Peoples Temple of which he was then a member.”
John Podesta was just shy of 30 years old in 1978, and about to become counsel to the Majority Staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee. As a politically-connected partisan he had to have read about the Jim Jones cult’s connections to prominent Democrats. For him to drag out the Jonestown tragedy to smear Republicans actually took more than chutzpah. It was political malpractice of a high order, and, whether or not he apologizes, it’s sad to see the president’s new counselor so verbally reckless.