John F. McManus, president of the John Birch Society, came to Pittsburgh on Thursday with a simple message for his membership: Know history and make history.
Addressing about 100 members at the Clarion Hotel in Green Tree, Mr. McManus hammered home the organization's 53-year-old mantra of limited government and personal freedom.
If it's a theme that sounds familiar, it might be because it's been in the news a lot lately under a different label: the tea party movement.
Mr. McManus smiled at the comparison.
"We're glad to see the tea party. It gets a lot of people off the couch," said Mr. McManus, 76, who has been a leader of the John Birch Society since 1991.
"But that action carries with it the responsibility of doing a lot more homework. Reading some books. A lot of people are looking for a quick fix. And there's no such thing."
The John Birch Society, since its founding, has promoted reading of its literature as the best way to enlighten others and advance its cause. It has expanded its message from books, magazines and pamphlets to DVDs and the Internet.
The society is opposed to economic intervention and wealth distribution. It calls for America to get out of the United Nations and wants to bring our troops home.
But it has always been a minority voice. And sometimes, because of stands it has taken, the Birchers have been seen as paranoid believers in radical conspiracy theories.
Again, Mr. McManus smiled.
"They're not conspiracy theories when they're facts," he said. "But is it radical to stand for the Constitution and the Ten Commandments? If it is, then, yeah, we're radical.
"We have an awful lot of blue-collar Ph.Ds. Truck drivers and handymen. These are people who didn't go to college. Some of them didn't even finish high school. But they're readers."
Thursday evening's event followed a day-long meeting of the society's executive committee at the hotel, where the leaders discussed strategy for the movement.
Last year, for example, the society co-sponsored the Conservative Political Action Committee, and it will do so again next year.
Clark Curry, an executive committee member from Oklahoma, said the society also is launching a program of hand-delivering packets of information to state legislators across the country.
The packets include writings on the proper role of government, states rights, the foundations of law and the story of Davy Crockett.
"You need to know exactly what you believe regarding these foundational truths on government, and you need to be able to express it to others," Mr. Curry told the members. "The John Birch Society is not political, we're educational.
"One of the wonderful things, I think, about the tea party movement is that people were sitting there and they started thinking, 'We may lose this country. I can do something.' Fortunately, the John Birch Society has been there providing the tools and ammunition to bring these newbies into the movement."
Jim Barr, 58, of West View, said he joined the society about four years ago.
"I think they're telling us the truth. Nobody else is," he said. "I'm not used to hearing the truth, from either political party. And when you get the truth, you just absorb it and try to get as much of it as you can."
Mr. McManus acknowledged that he often encounters the question: Are you guys still around?
"We run into that. It's painful to hear it," he said. "We don't get press coverage from the big newspapers or the television networks. They blast us as screwballs, crazies, conspiracy theorists. All that kind of stuff.
"But the Birch Society is better known this year than it was three or four or five years ago. It's because of our rising influence and our use of the Internet. And having Obama in the White House didn't hurt.
"We don't go around thumping our chest. We just keep at it."
Still, he said, it wouldn't hurt to have an opportunity to spread their message to a wider audience.
"We experienced out greatest growth when we were being attacked the most, in the 1960s," he said. "We sometimes sit around and ask ourselves, what can we do to get attacked?"
Dan Majors: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1456. First Published February 4, 2011 5:00 AM