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T&G's brush with John Birch.

Byline: Albert B. Southwick

COLUMN: Albert B. Southwick

The recent article in the New Yorker about Glenn Beck's link to the John Birch Society brought me back 40 and 50 years to this newspaper's uneasy brush with that group. It was a significant chapter in the story of the free press in Worcester.

George F. Booth and Harry Stoddard had bought the combined Telegram and Gazette from Theodore Ellis in 1925 for $2 million. Mr. Stoddard put up 80 percent, Mr. Booth 20 percent. For the next 30 years, these newspapers were a dominating force in Worcester County, especially after they acquired the old Evening Post in 1938.

During those years, Mr. Booth, as editor and publisher, was someone to be reckoned with by anyone who wanted to do anything significant in Worcester. Mr. Stoddard, head of the Wyman-Gordon Co., was a retiring, less flamboyant personality.

Mr. Booth had two sons: Howard, who later became publisher, and Robert, who ran radio station WTAG. Mr. Stoddard had two sons: Robert and Lincoln. They were as different as night and day. Lincoln was something of a madcap, given to fast cars, fast boats and fast living. Robert was sober, responsible and a dedicated conservative.

The plan was that Lincoln Stoddard would become editor and Robert publisher when George Booth and Harry Stoddard left the arena. But Lincoln died prematurely of a heart attack, leaving the succession up in the air. Some feared that Robert Stoddard would be exerting more pressure on the paper to conform to his views, which were more and more extreme right wing. That dismayed many, on the newspaper and elsewhere.

I got a reminder of that when, as a young editorial writer, I wrote a piece that excoriated Sen. Joe McCarthy for his lies and deceit in his campaign against the "Communists," whom he claimed to find in the State Department and practically everywhere else.

As I learned later, that piece set up a confrontation in high places. Robert Stoddard admired Sen. McCarthy and wanted the article killed. But George Booth, still the editor and publisher, decided that it could be published, not as an editorial, which would have been an endorsement by the paper, but as an article under my name. That was done.

George Booth died in 1955, and Forrest Seymour was hired from the Des Moines Register to replace him as editor. Robert Stoddard became president of the company, setting off new doubts and fears about the future of the papers. He made a wise move when he went to New York and hired Richard Steele to come back to Worcester as publisher. Mr. Steele had gone to New York the year before to work for Jock Whitney's Herald Tribune. But the Tribune was a lost cause, and Mr. Steele was glad to return to the T&G.

He told me later that he had made it clear to Mr. Stoddard that the paper would not be a spokesman for the John Birch Society, just coming into prominence. Mr. Stoddard had become one of the 14 founders of the John Birch Society in 1958, along with Robert Welch, longtime president of the organization, and it was already becoming notorious for its extreme views.

Whatever the agreement that he would keep hands off, Mr. Stoddard soon set off a confrontation with Mr. Steele with his proposal that the John Birch slogan be imprinted at the top of the editorial page. When Mr. Steele responded, "Put that on and you can take my name off!" Mr. Stoddard backed down. But his relations with Mr. Steele were never as cordial again.

I knew Bob Stoddard and liked him. He was civic-minded, generous and a pillar of the community. He was not a dour misanthrope. He had a good sense of humor, which he sometimes turned on himself and his right-wing views. But when he got going on the Communist conspiracy and the John Birch Society's efforts to "save America," there was no reasoning with him. He sometimes would have the whole senior staff of the newspaper come to the Worcester Club to be harangued with his views. Few were converted.

The John Birch Society lost credence with most Americans when it published an attack on President Dwight Eisenhower. It called the president "a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy," a charge so preposterous as to raise questions about sanity. Although Mr. Stoddard told me that he had not been in favor of publishing the article, he did not really much admire the president. He had been an ardent backer of Sen. Robert Taft in 1952, and had come to believe that the Eisenhower victory at the Republican convention resulted from some sort of conspiracy.

I played only a bit part in this drama, but I was chief editorial writer. When somebody asked Mr. Stoddard whether he disagreed with any of the paper's editorials, he replied, "All of them!" But he later told me, with a twinkle in his eye, that he had just been kidding. I'm not so sure.

A few weeks after his death, his widow, Helen, invited me to her house to discuss my writing a book on him. We had a nice chat, but I respectfully declined her offer. I didn't think that I could have done him justice.

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Oct 28, 2010
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