Politics & Policy

Drinking the Kool-Aid: Remember When Jim Jones Was a Hero to Democrats?

1978: Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones leads a mass suicide of his followers in their camp of Jonestown in Guyana. In all, 909 people, including children, die after drinking cyanide-laced punch. Jones had fled to Guyana to escape accusations of fraud and abuse in San Francisco, and had intended to build a socialist utopia in Guyana.
Willie Brown, Walter Mondale, and Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter ranked high among his supporters.

‘This Nat’l Review editorial would have a lot more potency if NR owned up to fact that 2010 right-wing anger/mobs played a role in dehumanizing Congress, helping lead to Giffords shooting in 2011,” the Washington Post’s Paul Kane tweets.

Apologizing, he later conceded that the “police never determined a motive” — as though this truth may be still out there. Even for a tu quoque, Kane’s tweet seemed especially weak. Loud voices on the radio or behind megaphones did not lead Jared Lee Loughner to murder six people in Tucson. Soft voices, audible only to him, did.

At the time, Keith Olbermann, Paul Krugman, and others insinuated that blame for the murders rested partly with the Tea Party. But Loughner, technically an independent, neither demonstrated with the Tea Party nor belonged to the Republican party. He belonged to the Crazy party. “As I knew him he was left wing, quite liberal & oddly obsessed with the 2012 prophecy,” a former classmate, Caitie Parker, tweeted. But he also railed against paper money, as many on the political right do. Loughner listed online The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf as favorite books. All this seems not to fit neatly into a box. The thinking, political or otherwise, of paranoid schizophrenics rarely does. Making sense of crazy sometimes makes us sound crazy.

The impulse of blaming one political party or another for horrific, unrelated acts neither started nor ended in Tucson. The next year ABC’s Brian Ross apologized after initially reporting nonexistent connections between the Tea Party and the shooter at a Colorado movie theater.

Though imputing political motives to mass murderers usually tells us more about the claimant’s views than about the killer’s, one glaring instance in which ideology featured as the alpha and the omega of carnage strangely passed into history with the villain’s motivations suppressed rather than highlighted.

Jim Jones, borrowing a concept from Huey Newton, called the mass murder of more than 900 member of the Peoples Temple in Guyana 40 years ago “revolutionary suicide.” His indoctrinated followers regarded their nihilistic coda a political act. One of the willing suicide cases announced on the death tape, “No other way I would rather go than to give my life for socialism, Communism, and I thank Dad very, very much.”

But the first draft of history depicted the political fanatics as Christian fanatics, despite the group’s explicit atheism and distribution of Bibles in Jonestown for bathroom use. The words “fundamentalist Christianity” were used in a New York Times article to describe Jones’s preaching. The Associated Press called the dead “religious zealots.” Specials on CBS and NBC at the time neglected to mention the Marxism that animated Peoples Temple.

Beyond the ideology that inspired Peoples Temple’s demise, the media whitewashed the politicians who aided and abetted them.

Learning that San Francisco mayor George Moscone appointed Jim Jones to the city’s Housing Authority Commission, a body of which he quickly became chairman, piqued my curiosity, which led to my writing Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco. This revelation, particularly shocking in light of the fate of his tenants in Jonestown, led me to come across this: Willie Brown, who would become the speaker of the California State Assembly and then mayor of San Francisco, compared Jim Jones to Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. Harvey Milk described Jonestown as “a beautiful retirement community” helping to “alleviating the world food crisis.” California lieutenant governor Mervyn Dymally actually made a pilgrimage to Jonestown that led to a gushing reaction typical of ideological tourists.

The politically inspired delusions of San Francisco Democrats proved contagious. Jimmy Carter’s running mate, Walter Mondale, met with Jim Jones in San Francisco in 1976. Carter’s wife, Rosalynn, found Jones so impressive that she campaigned with him, ate with him, allowed him to introduce her during a campaign speech, telephoned him, and put him in touch with her sister-in-law, Ruth Carter Stapleton. Friends in high places suppressed investigations in the United States, misled officials in Guyana into dismissing allegations against the lunatic in their midst, and biased State Department hands into siding with Jones in his fight with outraged relatives of the captives in his concentration camp.

“We have a memory, a faint one, of Democrats lecturing Republicans about their ‘tone’ not so long ago, something about Sarah Palin and metaphorical crosshairs,” National Review notes in the editorial that set off Paul Kane. Unfortunately, we have forgotten about that time the Democratic party made a hero out of one of history’s great villains.

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