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Leap to Extremes: New Mexico Tea Party goes by the book

by John Daniel

W. Cleon Skousen - The man who changed Glenn Beck's life

When it comes to the New Mexico’s Tea Parties, attention must be paid.

After all, many Roundhouse observers are crediting the Tea Parties (or blaming them, depending on one’s point of view) for derailing a bipartisan power-sharing arrangement in the state House of Representatives that would have unseated Speaker Ben Lujan and given conservatives considerably more power in the bargain.

According to those who spoke for the Tea Party’s position, their objection to the deal was one of high principle. Departing from their previous nonpartisan stance, they found it totally unacceptable for any Republican lawmaker to vote for a Democrat for Speaker – in this case, Representative Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces.

The Tea Parties are all about principle – so they say. They claim to be advocating a return to the nation’s founding principles contained in the U.S. Constitution – principles that have been discarded. And how do they read the Constitution?

For some answers, consider this invitation contained in a January 5, 2011 email blast from one of the New Mexico’s major TP groups, the East Mountain Tea Party based in Bernalillo County:

by W. Cleon Skousen

Constituion (sic) Class: $15

Sign up for our seven week course on the Constituion (sic), starting on February 5th, 2011. Discover the 28 fundamental beliefs of the Founding Fathers which they said must be understood and perpetuated by every people who desired peace, prosperity, and freedom. These beliefs have made possible more progress in 200 years than was made previously in over 5,000 years. Thus the title “The 5,000 Year Leap”.

Meet W. Cleon Skousen

The 5,000 Year Leap – published in 1981, was largely forgotten until a little over a year ago when Glenn Beck started relentlessly touting the book on his show, along with the other writings of its author – a controversial figure who resided in the most extreme precincts of the old John Bircher radical Right, starting back in the late 1950s. Willard Cleon Skousen.

Thanks to Beck’s promotion, a new edition of The 5,000 Year Leap, featuring a foreword by Beck, shot to #1 on Amazon.

Who is Skousen?

Well, he’s a hero to Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, the author of that state’s notorious anti-immigrant law, SB1070.

And his book is recommended by Tea Party activist and Las Cruces radio talk show personality Michael Swickard.

The must read, however, is a lengthy piece in Salon by Alexander Zaitchik, which examines the history of the Skousen phenomena.  About The 5,000 Year Leap, Zaitchik offers this assessment:

“Leap,” first published in 1981, is a heavily illustrated and factually challenged attempt to explain American history through an unspoken lens of Mormon theology. As such, it is an early entry in the ongoing attempt by the religious right to rewrite history. Fundamentalists want to define the United States as a Christian nation rather than a secular republic, and recast the Founding Fathers as devout Christians guided by the Bible rather than deists inspired by French and English philosophers. “Leap” argues that the U.S. Constitution is a godly document above all else, based on natural law, and owes more to the Old and New Testaments than to the secular and radical spirit of the Enlightenment.

And what about the author, Cleon Skousen, whose rediscovered writings changed Glenn Beck’s life:

W. Cleon Skousen was not a historian so much as a player in the history of the American far right; less a scholar of the republic than a threat to it. At least, that was the judgment of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which maintained a file on Skousen for years that eventually totaled some 2,000 pages. Before he died in 2006 at the age of 92, Skousen’s own Mormon church publicly distanced itself from the foundation that Skousen founded and that has published previous editions of “The 5,000 Year Leap.”

And as for Skousen’s other writings, here’s just one example:

Toward the end of Reagan’s second term, Skousen became the center of a minor controversy when state legislators in California approved the official use of another of his books, the 1982 history text “The Making of America.” Besides bursting with factual errors, Skousen’s book characterized African-American children as “pickaninnies” and described American slave owners as the “worst victims” of the slavery system. Quoting the historian Fred Albert Shannon, “The Making of America” explained that “[slave] gangs in transit were usually a cheerful lot, though the presence of a number of the more vicious type sometimes made it necessary for them all to go in chains.”

And then there is Skousen’s connection with the most extreme views of John Birch Society founder, Robert Welch:

Robert Welch

When Skousen aligned himself with (John Birch Society founder) Robert Welch’s charge that Dwight Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy,” the last of Skousen’s dwindling corporate clients dumped him. The National Association of Manufacturers released a statement condemning the Birchers and distancing itself from “any individual or party” that subscribed to their views.

But Zaitchik is a liberal, you say, bent on discrediting Beck.  Well, many conservatives are appalled by the Skousen revival as well.

The Hudson’s Institute’s Ronald Radosh, a frequent contributor to the National Review and the Weekly Standard, had this to say:

I believe that it is one thing to argue against admitting the John Birch Society back to respectability as a part of the modern conservative movement — decades after Bill Buckley pushed them out — and adopting Skousen’s extremist Mormon view of history, and yet another to oppose the statist and leftist social agenda of the Obama administration. We can do the latter without adopting the late W. Cleon Skousen’s view of our past, and Glenn Beck’s endorsement of it.

For more on Beck and Skousen, see Sean Wilentz’s piece in the New Yorker, “Confounding Fathers – The Tea Party’s Cold War Roots.”

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