In a tiny room a few blocks west of the Republican revolution on Capitol Hill, a man and a woman sit among banks of folders and file boxes, watching every move of the American right wing. The sign on their door is blandly anonymous—Group Research, Inc. (GRI)—but the office behind it is anything but typical for an inside-the-Beltway political organization of the ’90s. There are no banks of computers here, no C-SPAN, no voice mail. There are no Anne Klein-suited secretaries busily sending computer faxes, no cadre of research associates plotting Nexis searches. Gray metal desks are wedged side-by-side among green card files with pull tabs. An elderly R.C. Allen manual typewriter, looking tired but willing, rests on a wheeled stand. The room looks like a federal government office, circa 1950.
Which is exactly when Wesley McCune, founder and proprietor of GRI, served as assistant to Charles Brannan, President Harry Truman’s agriculture secretary. McCune is a young 79, and he looks so good in a bow tie he should be Episcopalian (actually he’s Methodist).
At an age when most folks are reading drug labels and clipping coupons, McCune is reading right-wing pamphlets and clipping articles, compiling an ever-more-massive dossier on the giants of the right. Working out of his 15th and K Streets NW office, McCune has earned a modest name for himself as a kind of left-wing, grandfatherly version of conservative attack dogs like L. Brent Bozell III. He and his assistant, Gladys Segal, a small woman with lots of feathery gray hair, have been observing “anything right of center” since the early ’60s. (Anything, that is, “except the Nazis and the Klan and the militias,” McCune says in his soft, watery voice. “I don’t do the violent guys because the Anti-Defamation League does such a great job on those.”)
McCune does a job on Pat Buchanan and Rush Limbaugh, on Pat Robertson and Wil-
liam Bennett, and on organizations such as the Traditional Values Coalition, the American Conservative Union, and the Conservative Caucus. “I get the material all these people, all these groups put out,” McCune says. “I subscribe to it. I read it. I get on their fund-raising lists. I send ’em a few bucks and get their fund-raising letters, which are really revealing.”
McCune publishes his findings in a quarterly journal, Group Research Report. A subscription is $40. (Circulation? “That’s the only thing I won’t tell you. Gonna be bashful.”) Each Report runs from six to eight letter-size pages. “Look at it!” McCune commands with a smile as he points to the blue typescript print. “Photo offset. Isn’t that easy to read? What do I need a computer for?”
McCune’s journal suggests that the right wing does not suffer from the fragmentation and splintering that has so plagued the left; the whole conservative world is interconnected, like the back of an old radio. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas performed Rush Limbaugh’s wedding ceremony; Limbaugh has made William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues into a best seller; the book is a special favorite of Oliver North.
Anyone spending some time with the Report will catch the streak of comedy running through McCune’s catalog of right-field facts. You’ve got to stay alert to catch it when McCune describes North’s fondness for The Book of Virtues, which “expounds on 10 basic moral precepts, the eighth being honesty.” If vaudeville turns are more like it, learn that Lyndon LaRouche will get “$100,000 in federal matching funds for the unsuccessful race for president that he ran from prison.” Slapstick? Down at the bottom of one page McCune reprints a rightie bumper sticker: “I Love Animals. They’re Delicious.”
McCune is swiveled away from his desk, hands folded in lap. He looks like the headmaster of a particularly tony New England prep school. Segal works at her desk against the wall—which means she’s about four feet away from McCune in this little world—reading, clipping, listening to every word said in the room. Sometimes she hunts down a file from a clanking metal cabinet. And she fills in the blanks when McCune’s memory fails:
“The presidential candidate who backed a state religion? That was John Anderson.”
“Mr. X?” she says, mentioning the name of a conservative famous for his deep pockets. “Nobody had heard of him when he emerged in Iran-contra. He was a big right-wing fund-raiser. He’s dead now. AIDS, I think. Better not print that.”
McCune belongs to the only group of Democrats that the Gingrich Republicans haven’t denounced yet. He’s not a Clinton “New Democrat,” not a Carter/Mondale/Dukakis liberal, not a Great Society Johnsonian, not a Kennedy idealist, not a Stevenson egghead. No, McCune traces his liberalism all the way back to Roosevelt and Truman and to two deals—New and Fair.
“I’m a child of the Depression, a small-town Colorado boy who went to college because there wasn’t anything else to do,” he says. “That attracted me to the New Deal. Activism. Pump-priming. Trying to save the towns and the people I knew.”
McCune began his adult life as a reporter, joining the Washington staff of Newsweek in 1940. After the war, he worked a few years for Time and Life in D.C., then edited for Kiplinger’s Changing Times. In 1948, McCune landed his job in the Truman administration, then served a few years as a Democratic National Committee staffer until the mid-’50s.
In 1961, McCune had his epiphany. He owed it to Ronald Reagan, who would provide him with so much fodder during the next three decades. McCune was working in Denver as PR director for the National Farmers Union when the actor and budding GOP politician delivered a speech in Boulder. “Reagan denounced the current administration—that was Kennedy’s—for drifting toward socialism. I thought, ‘How could anybody believe that?’ I clipped it out of the newspaper. That was the Reagan file’s beginning, and one of the reasons I started Group Research.”
Another reason was right-wing extremists, who were multiplying like rabbits in the ’60s: Billy James Hargis, the Birchers, the Minutemen. “I thought somebody should figure out who they are.”
McCune moved back to Washington in 1962 and began tracking the right. What he’s seen in the last 34 years, he says, is ever-increasing sophistication from his political enemies. Conservatives are not like the Father Coughlins of McCune’s Depression childhood. “Those guys were loudmouths, and they didn’t amount to a whole lot.” The new rightists have learned from the excesses of the old.
“They put out excellent publications, work hard on recruiting, do fund-raising by letters—some are pretty wild, but most are pretty rational—and they really bring in the money. The Christian Coalition has been especially effective.”
McCune and Segal’s crusade may be a little lonely these days—the Report no longer earns enough to support McCune—but the pair of old lefties is not flagging. McCune says liberalism “isn’t dead, just sleeping,” and he can reassure himself that he still has friends and enemies. No less a troublemaker than journalist Christopher Hitchens praises McCune’s “index of the practitioners of the paranoid style.”
And he can relish the caliber of his foes, too. The Liberty Lobby tagged GRI “a sneer and smear outfit.” A Los Angeles Herald Examiner columnist called it “a notorious hate organization.”
And Reagan, who seems to haunt the enterprise, turned up on Meet the Press (admittedly way back in 1966) to denounce GRI as “a very scurrilous organization.”
That’s a badge of honor, isn’t it? Like being on Nixon’s Enemies List. Reagan himself calling you scurrilous….
“Very scurrilous,” chimes in Segal gleefully.