White Wash

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 1999; Page F01

Suddenly, Gordon Baum, Small-Time Race Baiter, Is Big-Time News. Let's Hear Him Explain How Incredibly Reasonable He Is.

BRIDGETON, MO., 3:30 p.m. – Gray snow piles high under a dank, dark sky. A little girl with a smile opens the door to a modest brick home and leads a reporter down a narrow flight of stairs. Her daddy, Gordon Lee Baum, a pudgy man with an oval face, sits behind a desk in a paneled, fluorescent-lit basement office. He's pulling on a cheap, off-brand cigarette, a telephone receiver cradled under his chin.

Baum smiles, waves the reporter to a chair. He's finishing up a telephone interview and he's ready to get a little candid. He's finishing up a telephone interview and he's ready to get a little controversial.

"Now this is – gasp! gasp! – pretty terrible to say," he says into the phone, "but American whites have never been in greater danger of destroying themselves through intermarriage and assimilation."

He wags his eyebrows, looks sideways at the newly arrived Washington Post reporter to see if a few liberal hairs are standing on end.

"We're only 9 percent of the world's population, white Europeans, and our country's going to majority nonwhite soon. Why can't European Americans be concerned with this genocide? Is that racial to say that?

"Is it?"

He looses a laugh that sounds as if he's massaged his larynx with sandpaper. It's Gordon Baum's outpost, this dusky basement room in a working-class suburb of the faded Midwestern city of St. Louis. He's a 58-year-old former auto worker, a small-time lawyer churning out worker's comp cases. A guy whose house is about to become a TWA runway. The airport is buying out Baum's neighborhood, shutting the place down.

But none of that really defines Baum.

Because Baum's real calling is as chief executive officer of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group dedicated to the salvation of White America. To the propositions that Martin Luther King was a "depraved miscreant," that the North waged a War of Aggression on the South and that the Confederate flag is sacrosanct. That affirmative action, intermarriage and black political empowerment are the wormhole through which the White Race is falling.

Baum and his buddies are, in other words, self-styled warriors in defense of "the White Race." Their members led the successful battle against school busing in St. Louis and helped unseat the Republican governor of South Carolina for daring to suggest taking down the Confederate flag that flaps over the state capitol. They even delivered a Rebel flag to French far-rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen last summer.

And right now this curious man and his movement at the center of a bona fide national storm.

A few weeks back, The Washington Post reported that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice (R) and Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) had spoken before the Council of Conservative Citizens. And that Lott, who may or may not be a member, endorsed the group as a "needed" organization to "help protect our flag, Constitution and other symbols of freedom" from the "dark forces."

It took Barr but a day to jump off that train. Although he sat through a council seminar before addressing its members, he issued a "had I known of their views" disclaimer. "The group does harbor some very unusual views that neither I nor any member of Congress endorses," Barr says.

Lott paused just a moment longer before hurling himself off that train as well. He laid claim, initially, to "no firsthand knowledge" of the group. A week later, Lott (his memory perhaps enhanced when several photographs surfaced showing the senator posing with the council's leaders) reconsidered and unfurled the disavowal. "He has absolutely no involvement with them either now or in the future," a senatorial spokesman said.

The past went unmentioned.

Baum watches and listens and gags as the pols backpedal.

Sometimes electoral politics is one large pain in the butt. He has little truck with politicians; the courageous few – George Wallace of Alabama and Lester Maddox of Georgia ever come to his lips – only underline his low regard for the species. (When they were governors in the 1960s, Maddox and Wallace each declared Baum an "honorary aide de camp and colonel," and the framed proclamations adorn Baum's basement office).

"A politician denies us, well, BIG WHOOP!" Baum waves his hand at theinconsequence of it all. "Poor ol' Trent did himself in. His photographer took the picture and gave it to us."

He tosses a glossy black-and-white onto his desktop, a photo of a grinning Lott in his office, shoulder to shoulder with Baum and a few council buddies. It's signed: "Best wishes to Gordon, Trent Lott."

Baum stirs a chuckle somewhere deep in his throat and lights another cigarette. He's not trying to impress anyone.

"Trent Lott is a politician, not Jesus Christ," he says. "You have to be realistic. Most politicians are prostitutes and they'll break your hearts eventually. Why worry?"

In fact, this hullabaloo rather pleases the council, which claims 15,000 members. It seems that every 20 minutes now the telephone rings with another reporter on the line: The New York Times, CNN, Geraldo, talk radio, The Washington Post, a cable station in the Bronx. Baum just picks up the receiver and talks and talks.

Talks about race, about quotas, about affirmative action and history and the devils of immigration and the dangers of intermarriage with blacks. Talks in the long-suffering manner of a man who knows that all his words, all his learned references to science and history, are probably for naught.

To be Gordon Lee Baum and the Council of Conservative Citizens is ever to risk the distorting filter of a liberal reporter's pen. Baum's been chopping cords of words for hours when he pauses, lost in a stemwinder. He peers through a haze of cigarette smokeand smiles, faintly.

"Letting you in here is like the fly inviting the spider into his house. You'll probably just say I'm a little fat guy who chain-smokes and spouts racism."

A Labor of Love

7:15 p.m. Baum's talk turns to St. Louis and political saviors.

He grew up there, a kid of German ancestry in a hard-knuckle Up South city far removed from the Potemkin Village of Budweiser commercials. Then came civil rights, integration, rising crime and blockbusting. His father's house lost much of its value, when blacks moved in, he claims. Unions slowly opened their ranks to working-class blacks. None of this amused him.

All that was left was escape from St. Louis. Baum's resentments bubble still.

"Why'd I move? Because black kids were rolling our kids for lunch money," Baum says. "It's the white working class that suffers. The rich white fobs live in gated communities."

Baum's pedigree runs deep. He took his political baptism with Barry Goldwater. But his transformative moment came in the service of his movement's leader, a revolutionary politician. A tight-faced Alabaman, a little man whose poke-'em-in-the-eye cadences and barroom brawler's instincts spoke to Baum's soul. George Wallace, the late segregationist governor of Alabama.

Baum worked as a field coordinator in Wallace's presidential campaigns of 1968 and 1972, listening and learning as the little Alabaman transformed Midwestern crowds into charged shards of high-voltage electricity and resentment. Against blacks, against liberals, against therich and pointy-headed intellectuals and everyone and everything that infuriated them. It was, Baum recalls with a satisfied drag on the cigarette, culture war at its finest.

"Did Wallace pander to racial feelings? Of course," Baum says. "The Republicans keep telling me it's the economic message that attracts those voters. They're damn fools for not sticking with what the people understand."

He sees in the Wallace formula an electoral catechism for the cultural right.

"You've got to talk crime, talk quotas, talk immigration. You've got to put it down where the chickens can get at it."

This tradition, of right-wing populism and racism intertwined, has a long, often nasty taproot.

"Populism in the hands of Wallace was associated with fears of the Bourbons above and the blacks below," says Michael Kazin, a historian and author of The Populist Persuasion. "Some vicious racists came to power by feeding on such fears."

Meanwhile, Baum remained in partisan trim between elections by organizing for the white Citizens Council, the leading Southern bulwark in the war to preserve racial segregation and create private, all-white academies as the civil rights movement took hold. "If the people of Mississippi in their sound judgment want segregation, that should be their choice," Baum says. "Who died and gave that choice to the Supreme Court?"

The United States Constitution, maybe? (Baum says the Council of Conservative Citizens favors letting the states decide questions of segregation and the like: "We're a group, not a theology").

Baum became the council's emissary to anti-busing battles in Detroit, Kansas City, Louisville and St. Louis; he was a most expert agitator. And so the white Citizens Council, which is based in Jackson, Miss., sent him to Boston during the busing battles of the 1970s.

He says he found a scared working class in the middle of an uprising against the WASP Brahmins. He shared beers and yuks with tough Irish politicians in Southie. Watched a hail of bricks stampede a "bunch of coppers on horseback." Had a hell of a time.

None of this paid much; it was a labor of love. And when the Citizens Council petered out in the early 1980s, as the white Southern business and political establishment realized that integration had not diminished its control of the levers of power (the irony is that white planters and businesses dominated the Citizens Councils; they were never a populist organ), Baum spent a few years kicking around the fringes of a resentful issue or three. Then he rounded up some old movement friends and formed the Council of Conservative Citizens in 1985. It's a curious grab bag of right and further right: right-to-lifers, right-to-workers, gun lovers, populists, creationists, segregationists, John Birch Society members and old-fashioned cultural conservatives.

There's no percentage in being judgmental about the lot of them, even if the liberal press throws a tantrum or two.

"Do we have a few members who might have been in the Klan? Probably – but so what? None are leaders," says Baum, who allows that some Klansmen are a tad too violent for his blood.

"We have alot more coppers and priests."

Wallace's ability to spinal-tap white working-class resentment and angst is one Baum dearly wants to replicate. He's got no truck with the fat-cat Republicans of the Beltway, those capital-gains-cutting fops who wouldn't recognize a true cultural conservative if they ran over one with their Mercedes.

"We aren't some make-believe conservative organization with a couple of talking heads," Baum says. "We want to get out there where the rubber meets the road."

A Rose by Any Other Name

8:45 p.m. Cigarette smoke pancakes along the basement ceiling. A jet rumbles somewhere very close overhead.

Baum's been talking for four hours but he hasn't used the N-word. No no no. He won't say "miscegenation," he won't say "brown glop," he won't say any of those whoop-de-do words that the liberal media have spotted on the council's Web site and now beg him to utter. He's no cracker puppet on a string. Uh-uh.

He smiles, a bit sardonic. "I know what you guys want to hear."

It's true, he does. And he flirts and flickers near that racial flame, a meaty old moth who knows the game. He'll relate an old "folk" saying, but inquire first if you object to the "N-word in that historical context." He asks, Baum the ingenue, if it's okay to call blacks "coloreds." And what, he asks, should he call Mexican immigrants?

Chicanos, he's told. "Chicanos. Right."

There are the fine gradations. A columnist for the council's Web site writes that Preisdent Clinton's sexual misbehavior and "inner black culture" made him "an oreo turned inside out"; Baum says that's not necessarily the organization's view. The organization doesn't necessarily endorse those council members in Tennessee who dedicated a statue to Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Nor does the council necessarily endorse a column by Robert B. Patterson. Patterson is a patriarch of the Old South, a founder of the white Citizens Council, a segregationist of long lineage. Now he writes a column for the council's newspaper, the Citizens Informer.

"No one can deny the importance of the question of miscegenation," Patterson opines in a recent column. "Western civilization . . . would never have achieved its greatness without the . . . creative genius of the white race. Any effort to destroy the race by a mixture of black blood is an effort to destroy Western civilization."

The problem for the Council of Conservative Citizens is that open racist talk has been bled out of the political mainstream. Populism and the notions of a separate white race that must be preserved don't just walk side by side in this group's politics; they're fused at the hip. And that can lead to talking in a peculiarly constipated code.

A cloud of smoke trails Baum as he walks up those narrow stairs to get a slice of pizza in the kitchen. He shakes his head. He feels so darned bad for his old friend.

"I tried to explain to Bob that miscegenation is 1950s talk, it just doesn't work in our new context," he says. "He felt real bad, too. He's an old war horse."

Make no mistake. Baum's talking a difference of tactics, line discipline for the council faithful.

"Jeezum, philosophically Bob and the council aren't faaaar apart," Baum assures a reporter. "Our new rule is that we're not supposed to give our personal views," Baum says. "We were too dang candid. That's what got us into trouble."

Baum points to a more "politically correct" column by another council acolyte known simply as Millard. Here's what Millard writes:

"Take 10 bottles of milk to represent all humans on earth. Nine of them will be chocolate and only one white. Now mix all those bottles together and you have gotten rid of that troublesome bottle of white milk. There too is the way to get rid of the world of whites . . . genocide via the bedroom chamber."

Baum smiles as a reporter reads that. "Now I can live with that analysis," he says.

In fact, Baum doesn't mind "getting a little controversial." Shoot, it's not like he heads the Kiwanis Club. So he'll talk of his support of a poll test because some people are just too dumb to vote. Or his notion that the nation was gulled by the first wave of wealthy, white-skinned Cuban immigrants. Then came the Marielitos, "the typical ones,the normal ones. We saw what was really there."

As for genetics, well, it's just his personal view that blacks, on average, are inferior to whites. And when you mix the two races?

"You get dysgenics."

Say what?

"Y'know, genetic dumbing down."

It may not be science, but it's clear. But most of all, what Baum and the Council of Conservative Citizens seek is another Wallace, another fine young white man who wouldn't mind calling race and guns and immigration as he sees it.

"If a couple of good young people stepped up, it'd become monkey-see, monkey-do for a lot of those white politicians. That's my dream."

Powerful Ties

11:08 p.m. "Lincoln, like Mao Zedong, proved that all power comes from the barrel of a gun."

Baum's talking history now and the thought occurs that this is a rather strange place for Southern adherents to the Party of Lincoln to cavort. Consider the council's view of the 16th president. Its web site is rather explicit: "Abraham Lincoln was a tyrant, surely the most evil American in history . . . ." Lincoln was, this tract continues, anti-religious, mentally aberrant and possibly a bastard.

It's tempting, when reading such stuff, to adhere to a narrative that dismisses the council as a collection of aging and isolated cranks, dying embers of a segregationist South passed into history. But that fails to account for its spider's web of political connections throughout the Deep South, the fact that Republicans as prominent as Lott and Fordice and Sen. Jesse Helms are regular and featured speakers. More than 20 Democratic state legislators in Mississippi are also members.

Lott once served as a legislative aide to an avowedly segregationist congressman, and has an uncle and a couple of cousins in the council. In a 1984 interview, he offered that the "spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the . . .Republican platform." And he has not flatly denied ever having council membership.

The majority leader's spokesman offered a carefully tortured formulation for The Washington Post last week: "Senator Lott has made his distance from the point of view of this group clear and isn't going to comment further."

Baum blinks those hooded eyes and stifles a wheeze of a laugh. He'd like to be sympathetic but it's hard to take politicians seriously when they keep treating those racial issues like a third rail.

"They used to be a stupid party," he says. "Now, jeesum, they're a stupid stupid stupid party."

Undercover Bedfellows?

12:05 a.m. Baum's driving a reporter to an airport hotel across a sludgesicle of a landscape. Ice plates clog the Mississippi. Baum points out the catfish joint where the council meets and cracks the window to let out a thin stream of cigarette smoke.

Nine hours into it, he's still talking, still pumping for a little information on this other Post reporter, this Tom Edsall, who's trying to track down the council's political connections. All day long Baum's fielded calls from members who've heard from Edsall. How silly, how truly silly.

"I mean, the politicians have been coming to us the past two weeks and telling us, don't worry. We're with you."

He fires up a raspy little laugh.

"You think they'll tell him the truth? It's no crime to lie to a journalist.

"Get real."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company