Jonestown Revisited

Podesta’s putdown proves educational.

Brown_JonesClinton veteran John Podesta recently joined the Obama White House and quickly caught the spirit of the place, describing the house GOP as a “cult worthy of Jonestown.” Podesta apologized to House Speaker John Boehner, who duly accepted the apology, but the matter should not end there. Indeed, it abounds in educational value.

In this news report on the putdown, Jonestown emerged as a “Guyana cult colony where, in 1978, a member of Congress was killed. Nearly 1,000 people died in what was described as a mass suicide days later.” It actually was an enforced mass suicide, with armed guards making sure the victims, most of them African Americans, drank a deadly brew of kool-aid and cyanide. The murdered member of Congress, one of five people killed that day, was Leo Ryan, a California Democrat. One of the survivors was Ryan staffer Jackie Speier, now a member of Congress. But there’s still more to it.

Jim Jones was an orthodox Stalinist and member of the Communist Party USA. He was a true believer in “revolutionary suicide” and left the assets of Jonestown and its followers to the Soviet Union. Before that, as John Fund has noted, Jones was a big hit with those Jeane Kirkpatrick called the “San Francisco Democrats.”

Jones launched the People’s Temple in his home state of Indiana but headed west to San Francisco in the 1960s. He drew rave reviews from California Assemblyman Willie Brown, who compared Jones to Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein, and Mao Tse-Tung. The late Chairman Mao is the most appropriate comparison, with the possible exception of Davis, who twice ran for vice-president with the Communist Party USA, on the bottom of the ticket with white Stalinist Gus Hall.

Jones also hung out with Jerry Brown, governor at the time and already making unsuccessful bids for the White House. Walter Mondale met with Jones, as did Rosalynn Carter. Federal HEW boss Joseph Califano hailed Jones’ contributions to freedom and “human dignity.” Closer to home, San Francisco mayor George Moscone appointed Jones to the city’s powerful housing commission. Fund cites evidence that Jones was deeply involved in electoral fraud.

So from his base in San Francisco, supposedly a place of political sophistication, Jim Jones easily faked out Democrats at the local, state, and federal levels. The key was not the bogus healings and such but Jones’ “progressive” credentials. Adulation aside, Jones had another place in mind for the “purest communist” settlement on earth.

He decamped for the remote reaches of Guyana, taking nearly 1,000 followers with him. He ruled the Jonestown gulag in true Stalinist style, but news of Jones’ repressions managed to leak out. When Leo Ryan and his congressional delegation showed up, Jones gave them the tour. They left with a group of defectors, but Jones loyalist Larry Layton opened fire, gunning down Ryan, defector Patricia Parks, NBC reporter Don Harris, NBC photographer Don Brown, and Greg Robinson, a photographer for the San Francisco Examiner. Jackie Speier was wounded but survived by hiding behind an airplane wheel and playing dead. Jim Jones had already ordered the mass suicide that claimed nearly 1,000 victims. It was November 18, 1978.

In 1983 President Ronald Reagan awarded Leo Ryan the Congressional Gold Medal. In 2008, 30 years after Jonestown, Jackie Speier was elected to Congress from Ryan’s district. She has not exactly gone public with any thoughts on John Podesta’s equation of the House GOP to the Jonestown cult, which John Fund called “political malpractice of a high order.” For other observers it was as dirty and low-down as it gets. But maybe Podesta, who was 29 at the time of Jonestown, simply didn’t know what he was talking about.

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