Saturday, October 29, 2011

Book Review: The Big Orange

Book Review: The Big Orange: The History of Republican Politics in Orange County: 1950-2000 by Lois Lundberg

In brief: It is an unabashed puff piece for the Orange County Republican Party that often borders on propaganda. Despite the author’s intentions, however, this book offers disturbing glimpses into the wealthy elite who made the Republican Party the powerhouse that it is today.

As an instructor of college English, I try to teach my students the art of critical reading. One of the hallmarks of a critical reader is the ability to detect and author’s biases. I try to empower my students to challenge an author’s text, to hold it up against their own knowledge and other texts, to test its reliability.

With my critical reader hat on, I began reading Lois Lundberg’s book The Big Orange. Very early on in my reading, a few red flags popped up that signaled the author’s biases.

First, the author Lois Lundberg was Chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County from 1977-1984.

Second, the celebratory quotes on the dust jacket are all from staunch OC Republicans, including Sheriff Mike Carona, who was later fired on corruption charges.

Third, the book is dedicated to former President Richard Nixon. The dedication reads, “This book is dedicated to the memory of the 37th president of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, who helped make Orange County the famous Republican county it became.” The book is also dedicated to Robert F. Beaver, who is listed in an appendix to the book under the title “The Power Elite.” This dedication reads: “To the memory of Robert F. Beaver, known for many years as Mr. Republican of Orange County, for his unselfish dedication to the Republican party and its candidates.”

Fourth, the tone of the book from the very beginning is celebratory of the Republican party in general and former president Nixon in particular. Lundberg writes in the forward, “So many writers of books about the 37th president like to slander or degrade this wonderful man.”

Fifth, the simple vocabulary and conspicuously large type suggest the potential audience for the book: senior citizens, particularly OC Republican senior citizens who may look back on the Nixon and Reagan years as “the good old days.”

It is with these clues in mind that I began to carefully read The Big Orange. Looking beyond the celebratory and nostalgic rhetoric, I find that the book paints a rather frightening picture of Orange County politics, a region that cries out for more serious, scholarly inquiry. Lundberg’s book is neither scholarly nor critical, but it is indeed fascinating.

The Big Orange describes two groups that were hugely influential in shaping Orange County politics since World War II: The John Birch Society, an ultra-conservative group perhaps most famous for opposing Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s and 1970s, and The Lincoln Club, an exclusive group of wealthy businessmen who pool their vast resources to support candidates who favor their interests.

First, let’s examine the John Birch Society. Perhaps the most famous and controversial Orange County politician who was a member of The John Birch Society was John Schmitz, a U.S. Senator from 1965-1970. Lundberg herself describes Shmitz as “perhaps the most right-wing politician in history.” He had a dog named Kaiser. He appealed to the military and businessmen, who helped get him elected.

Lundberg spends considerable ink describing the birth of The Lincoln Club, which made Orange County “one of the nation’s most potent political forces.” The Lincoln Club was formed as a reaction to Richard Nixon’s 1962 defeat by Pat Brown for California governor.

Two wealthy businessmen who had supported Nixon, Robert Beaver and Arnold Beckman, conceived of a way for a wealthy elite to get their candidates elected. In a letter to Beckman, Beaver described their political goals, “This is big business and it should be run that way.” Beckman liked Beaver’s idea and wrote back that the members of their newly-formed club “should have a stake in the community so that any financial contribution they make will be more than a civic contribution, it will be a prudent business investment.”

It was The Lincoln Club, an elite cadre of businessmen with a very small and exclusive membership, that bankrolled the political careers of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Lundberg writes, “Of the five-man committee which managed Governor Ronald Reagan’s campaign in the county, and gave him a 180,000 vote plurality, all were Lincoln Club members. Nearly every Republican campaign committee in Orange County has included Lincoln Club members.”

This idea of a wealthy elite bankrolling candidates perhaps started in Orange County, with the Lincoln Club. The current OccupyWallStreet movement is protesting the ugly consequences of a marriage of big business and politics. Could it be that this concept was born in our own backyard? If so, Orange County historians have an obligation and an opportunity to begin to unravel this tangled web, a task that could prove extremely fruitful, and not just for Orange County.

Lois Lundberg’s book, despite its shameless propagandizing, could prove useful as it sheds light on the origins of the political and economic turmoil we face today.

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