This week, the ostensibly centrist political organization No Labels held a town hall in New Hampshire featuring West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. Concurrently, Robert F. Kennedy, challenging President Biden in the Democratic primary but potentially on the way to his own third-party campaign, drew criticism for suggesting that COVID-19 may have been engineered to spare Chinese people and Ashkenazi Jews. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “The Third Party Problem,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman explored the impact of third-party candidacies on democracy at large. One consequential outsider bid came in 1972, when a long-shot presidential campaign by far-right California politician John Schmitz revealed early forms of the reactionary resentment so present in American politics today. 

Richard Nixon’s performance in the 1972 presidential election is generally remembered as an historic landslide – a zenith before the long fall of Watergate. In the lead-up to Nixon’s victory, however, the president managed two challenges from the right wing. First, he had a primary stand-off from Ohio Congressman John Ashbrook. Then, he faced a general election foe in Orange County’s John Schmitz. 

Schmitz was 42 years old in 1972. Born in Milwaukee, he moved to California after graduating from Marquette in the early 1950s to serve as a Marine Corps helicopter and fighter pilot. Schmitz was outspoken in his support of his home state Senator Joseph McCarthy, even teaching an anti-communism course at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.

Upon leaving active duty in 1960, Schmitz became a history and philosophy professor at Santa Ana College. He quickly became a fixture in the arch-conservative Orange County political scene. He joined the John Birch Society, a then-growing organization named after the first American killed by Chinese Communists that denounced “one world government,” the United Nations, and the Federal Reserve. He also attracted the attention of local far-right businessmen, including Carl Karcher, the founder and namesake of the Carl’s Jr. fast food empire. 

In 1964, Schmitz pivoted to politics, capturing the conservative wave sparked by Barry Goldwater’s nomination as GOP presidential candidate. Schmitz ran for the California State Senate and became the first John Birch Society member to be elected to the body. 

When Ronald Reagan became California’s governor in 1966, Schmitz became one of his fiercest critics from the Right. Schmitz was the only Republican Senate member to vote down Reagan’s 1967 tax program, arguing that proposed taxes were too high. 

Over the next three years, Schmitz took many, often lonely, far-right stands. He argued for eliminating state income taxes altogether. He sponsored a bill to repeal fair housing laws. He argued that there should be no sex education in public schools. He led a successful effort to censure University of California, Berkeley for allowing Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver to speak on campus. He fiercely spoke out against abortion and women’s rights. 

He also continued to buck fellow conservative leaders. Schmitz declined to endorse a presidential candidate in 1968, telling the press, “George Wallace is too moderate for me, Hubert Humphrey is taking a dive, and if I endorsed Richard Nixon he might repudiate it the next day.” 

In 1970, Schmitz mounted a bid for the U.S. Congress. He triumphed, moving his family to Washington and acquiring the townhouse that once belonged to McCarthy, his political idol. 

As he had done with Reagan, Schmitz hit Nixon from the Right. Matters were made more tense given that he was President Nixon’s congressman, representing the Orange County district containing San Clemente. Schmitz was particularly critical of Nixon’s rapprochement with China, telling the press, “I have no objection to President Nixon going to China, I just object to him coming back.” Schmitz vocally backed Ashbrook’s attempt to primary Nixon in 1972. 

Schmitz also began to more vocally embrace out-and-out conspiracy theories. In 1971, he wrote the introduction to Gary Allen and Larry Abraham’s None Dare Call It Conspiracy. The book argued that the Eastern American elites – and particularly Jews therein – were funding global Communism. Allen proclaimed, among other things, that Chase Manhattan Bank President David Rockefeller had personally “fired” Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1964 and that the Anti-Defamation League, an organization committed to fighting anti-Semitism, was in fact helping to control the global banking industry. 

In another conspiratorial move, Schmitz led a Quixotic quest – often during only nominally-related committee hearings –  to “expose” China as the world’s supposed prime exporter of heroin. 

Schmitz’s Nixon criticism and far-out theories came back to bite him during the June 1972 Republican primary. He lost to Orange County tax assessor Andrew J. Hinshaw, a Nixon defender. Unsurprisingly, Schmitz saw a conspiracy afoot, arguing that the Nixon administration had intervened to orchestrate his defeat. Schmitz told supporters that Nixon “told his henchmen to go out and get me.” 

Then, Schmitz got an unexpected opening: In May 1972, an assassin shot and partially paralyzed George Wallace, the segregationist former Alabama Governor. Wallace was running for president for the American Party, a right-wing group formed out of his 1968 third-party run, in which Wallace had received nearly 10 million votes. 

Wallace initially left the door open to return to the campaign trail. At the American Party’s August 1972 convention in Louisville, Kentucky, however, Wallace appeared via telephone and declined the nomination, citing his need to continue his recovery. The 2,000 attendees voted overwhelmingly to replace Wallace with Schmitz, with Georgia segregationist Governor Lester Maddox coming in a distant second. 

Schmitz summed up his basic presidential campaign pitch: “I boiled down our platform to a two-plank platform: There’s a foreign plank that says never go to war unless you plan on winning and a domestic plan that says those that work ought to live better than those who don’t.” 

Schmitz filled his team with fellow far-right ideologues. His running mate was Tom Anderson, a Southern hyper-patriotic farm magazine publisher. His campaign manager was Dan Smoot, a former FBI agent fellow Bircher known for an anti-Council on Foreign Relations book called The Invisible Government. His Finance Director was, bizarrely, Walter Brennan, a famed character actor in Westerns who won three Best Supporting Actor Oscars in the late 1930s and early 1940s. 

As the campaign ramped up, Schmitz continued to tie himself to conspiracy theories. He made much use of his connection to None Dare Call It Conspiracy, which by election season had blown up, selling 5 million copies. Gary Allen even came aboard the campaign, providing his mailing lists accumulated from his book’s success. He also suggested that Arthur Bremer, Wallace’s would-be assassin, was part of a cadre of killers – which also included Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, and Sirhan Sirhan – that was secretly funded and trained by left-wing groups like the Students for a Democratic Society. 

In a New York Times feature just before the election, journalist Stephan Lesher investigated the roots of Schmitz’s support, finding that an upper-class, deeply alienated subsection of white America was behind the candidate’s relative success: “Schmitz’s followers compose a dedicated, generally affluent group of white Americans who deeply believe that the Republic is threatened by a conspiracy masterminded by fat-cat international financiers in league with China and Russia and protected from public view by a Comsymp American press.”  

Lesher also interviewed an American Party official named Del Myers, a 50-year-old insurance salesman in Tucson. Myers offered some fighting words: “This party is a distillation of the John Birch Society, the Christian Crusade and the Minutemen. We’re revolutionaries. We’re getting together to try to work through the system. But I’ll say this. We’ll have constitutional government in this country and if we don’t get it through the ballot box, we’ll get it in the streets.”  

Schmitz countered the extremism of his campaign with a persistent reliance on humorous quips. “The Nixon family motto is, ‘Be sincere whether you mean it or not,’” he told ABC’s “Issues and Answers.” On the subject of taxes, Schmitz jokingly asked, “Do you know why a new-born baby cries? Because he’s naked, he’s hungry and he already owes the government $5,900 in taxes.”

The Wall Street Journal offered a piece entirely devoted to Schmitz’s rhetorical flourishes, entitled “Keep ‘em Laughing is the Motto As John Schmitz Runs for President.” The piece even referred to Schmitz as “sort of the Bob Hope of the ultra-right.” 

Schmitz’s mix of jokes, conspiracies, and righteous indignation at everything he deemed the political establishment garnered decent returns. He managed to get himself on the ballot in 32 states, even as Wallace refused to formally endorse the firebrand. He ultimately received 1.2 million votes in the November 7th, 1972 election, which saw Nixon take 49 states over Democratic challenger George McGovern. It was a fraction of Wallace’s 1968 support, but still a significant number – the seventh-best performance ever for a third party candidate at the time. 

As the returns came in, 600 Schmitz supporters converged at the Disneyland Hotel Convention Center in Anaheim. In his “concession speech,” Schmitz said, “We got one million votes…enough to strike fear in some hearts in this country.” 

After a failed 1976 campaign to get back to Congress, Schmitz managed to regain his California State Senate seat in 1978. He then mounted two failed campaigns for the U.S. Senate in the early 1980s. 

The races, however, showed Schmitz embracing more open bigotry than he had shown in 1972, particularly toward Jews. During the early goings of his final Senate campaign in late 1981, feminist lawyer Gloria Allred presented Schmitz with a leather chastity belt during a state senate committee hearing on abortion. Schmitz responded by issuing a press release calling pro-choice activists at the hearing “a sea of hard Jewish, and arguably female faces,” and shortly thereafter declared, “Jews are just like everyone else, except more so.” Schmitz’s already-tepid support dwindled. 

Then, in July 1982, a month after losing the Senate primary, news broke that Schmitz had fathered two children, one only two weeks old, with a former student – a glaring hypocrisy for a man who so aggressively championed “family values.” In the 1990s, things got even stranger: Schmitz’s daughter, a middle school teacher named Mary Kay Letourneau, became a notorious national figure after she unrepentantly had two children with a twelve-year-old student. 

By the time Schmitz died in 2001, his 1972 moment in the sun was very distant. His all-consuming conspiracies, racist dog whistles, and odd coalition of wealthy rebels, however, feel very close to the landscape that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. increasingly occupies, that No Labels claims to want to stop, and that now dominates so much of American  politics. 

For more on Schmitz’s place within the Orange County conservative movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, check out Lisa McGirr’s 2001 Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right

And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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