Out of Gear: Remembering John Schmitz, a cheerful extremist.
Friday, January 12, 2001 12:01 a.m. EST

Politically correct attitudes have toned down American political rhetoric. Officeholders all share a private terror that somehow, somewhere they will say something that will offend a political or ethnic minority. Opposition research groups comb through records for out-of-context remarks to trip up presidential nominees. Witness the ludicrous attempts to portray Bush cabinet nominees John Ashcroft and Gale Norton as sympathetic to the Confederacy.

John Schmitz, the former Orange County, Calif., congressman and presidential candidate who died Wednesday at 70, didn't give a hoot about political correctness. He was one of the funniest, most outrageous and most candid politicians ever to mount—albeit briefly--the national stage. We will not see his like again, and our politics are duller and less effervescent as a result. We have people as extreme as John Schmitz in politics today (think of Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters and James Traficant) but they tend not to have a sense of humor. Unlike Schmitz they rarely smile when they goad their adversaries.

It was often said of John Schmitz that he knew how to make political enemies who often liked him personally. One of those was Richard Nixon. He became infuriated when Schmitz, a John Birch Society member, was elected to Congress in a 1970 special election to represent San Clemente, Calif., site of Nixon's Western White House.

Schmitz promptly made waves in Congress, introducing the very first constitutional amendment sanctifying the unborn, a full six months before the Roe v. Wade decision. He wrote the introduction to Gary Allen's 1971 book, "None Dare Call It Conspiracy," which eventually sold six million copies.

But his biggest splash came in January 1972, Schmitz made headlines when he was asked if as a staunch anticommunist he objected to Nixon's trip to China. "I have no objection to President Nixon going to China. I just object to his coming back," Schmitz cracked. Nixon promptly recruited Andrew Hinshaw, a moderate Orange County supervisor, to challenge Schmitz in that summer's GOP primary. Fueled by questionable campaign contributions funneled to him by Nixon loyalists, Hinshaw narrowly beat Schmitz. (Hinshaw was later convicted of bribery and defeated in the 1976 Republican primary. He left Congress in disgrace.)

Schmitz didn't take his defeat lying down. He promptly secured the last-minute presidential nomination of George Wallace's abandoned American Independent Party and launched a national campaign in which he warned that Nixon was subverting the Constitution. "I first supported impeachment when Nixon imposed wage and price controls in 1971," he recalled. "Watergate was just the unethical icing on that cake."

Schmitz ran a cheerful campaign, and even raised enough money for a nationally televised appeal just before Election Day by noted Western actor Walter Brennan. The Schmitz campaign platform was distilled into three points: 1. In foreign affairs, we should always treat our friends better than our enemies. 2. Never go to war unless you plan on winning. 3. Domestically, those who work ought to live better than those who won't.

A quarter century later, after Ronald Reagan helped topple the Soviet Empire without firing a shot and a Democratic president signed legislation abolishing welfare as a federal entitlement, that 1972 platform sounds mainstream. Schmitz wound up winning more than a million votes, 1.4% of the national total. In Idaho he won nearly 10% of the vote, besting Democratic nominee George McGovern in some counties. Later, after Nixon's resignation from office, he would often be approached by staunch Republicans who would tell him, "You were right about Tricky Dick."

John Schmitz never wavered from his staunch, unyielding conservatism. He would tell more-moderate Republicans he was doing them a favor. "The middle of the road is determined by how far either side, left or right, is willing to push," he said. "If no one is going to push to the right, then the middle of the road is going to move closer to the left."

Schmitz's political career began in 1962, when as a 32-year-old Marine Corps instructor at the El Toro Air Station, he disarmed a man who had attacked a woman with a knife with just the stern authority of his voice.

In 1964 he was elected to the California Senate while Barry Goldwater was sweeping Orange County, a place, Schmitz marveled, "so conservative that voters can't tell their right hand from their extreme right hand."

For the next six years, Schmitz was a conservative firebrand advocating the abolition of sex education in schools and the right of citizens to carry loaded guns in their cars, and suggesting that the student unrest of the 1960s be handled by selling public universities to private corporations, which would establish rules of conduct.

But in 1978, Schmitz was able to revive his political career by winning back his old state Senate seat. He chaired the Constitutional Amendments Committee, but his behavior became increasingly erratic. He became an equal opportunity offender with off-the-wall comments about Jews ("like everybody else, only more so."), Hispanics ("I may not be Hispanic, but I'm close. I'm Catholic with a mustache"), and feminists ("can't get a date").

His downfall began in 1982, when he told a TV interviewer that he feared for his country and that it might be time for a military coup. “Not a bad military coup, mind you. But a good one, like Pinochet's in Chile." Then came a confrontation with feminist lawyer Gloria Allred at a hearing. An aide to Schmitz wrote a press release headlined "Attack of the Bulldykes." It called Allred a "slick butch lawyeress" and described her supporters as "a sea of hard, Jewish and (arguably) female faces." The aide said Schmitz had approved the release, and the senator didn't deny it.

A political earthquake ensued, during which Schmitz was formally reprimanded by his Senate colleagues and stripped of his chairmanship. Even the John Birch Society kicked Schmitz off its national council for "extremism." He eventually had to pay Allred $20,000 in a legal settlement.

Schmitz didn't give up. In 1984 he ran in the GOP primary for his old congressional seat, this time challenging former Rep. Robert Dornan, another conservative firebrand, from the right. "A major disagreement was that Dornan thought the IUD contraceptive device could remain legal, and Schmitz didn't," recalled Ken Grubbs, then editorial-page editor of the libertarian Orange County Register.

After his defeat, Schmitz retired to Washington, where he started a winery in the Virginia countryside and also worked one day a week as a wisecracking guide and clerk at a political memorabilia shop in Union Station.

Among the buttons he would show visitors was a rare one from his 1972 presidential campaign that played off a popular beer slogan he learned growing up in Milwaukee: "When you're out of Schmitz, you're out of gear."

His last years were often marked with tragedy. In 1997 his daughter Mary Kay LeTourneau, a Seattle teacher, was convicted of child rape for carrying on a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old student. That same year he was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him.

But throughout his troubles, John Schmitz kept his trademark good humor. He showed up at a fancy dress ball in Washington last year in formal wear set off by a cape, top hat and pearl-handled cane. He expressed dismay that Republicans were about to nominate George W. Bush, noting that "that party has had a Nixon, Dole or Bush on its presidential ticket in every election since 1948, save the time Goldwater ran."

John Schmitz, outrageous, extreme, funny and a patriot, was an example of a more forgiving, less judgmental political climate. He wouldn't be allowed near major office today, and perhaps one consequence of that is our politics has become so programmed and filled with blow-dried careerists who can't utter a spontaneous thought. As a political writer who grew up in California, I can say John Schmitz provided my early attempts at journalism with a lot of good copy.