By Edward Mackie, Daily Nexus, November 20, 1975
This is the final article in a series on the life and times of Thomas Storke.
[There are a total of six articles in this series; however, the fourth article was not able to be found in online archives.]
Thomas Storke was not alone in his fight against the John Birch Society. The catalogue of community support for the anti-Birch position proved stunning, if not belated.
Santa Barbara was among Robert Welch’s earliest targets. Welch, the self-styled dictator of an ultra-conservative organization that envisioned Red ghosts in every high office and under every bed, was cunning, fanatical and well-financed.
In the heyday of the Birchers, 1959, Welch had solemnly pronounced President Eisenhower “a dedicated, committed agent of the Communist conspiracy.”
Welch’s attacks were always bold, always sweeping, always invincible: unfortunately, they were also false in the same measure.
As providence would have it, though, Justice began to move — with its vast, overwhelming profundity of scathing, seething outrage. The Bircher controversy was not to be simply an academic matter for academics and critics alike to decide upon in the private drawing room; it was to be fought out in all the heat and bitterness of popular indignation on the public stage — thanks to Thomas Storke.
“You can’t kill a rat with a feather duster,” boasted Storke, editor of the News-Press. “In the years I have published my newspaper I have learned… one lesson well — that a newspaper will not be listened to or win respect if it pussyfoots in stating its editorial beliefs.”
“The first Amendment does not guarantee the press the right to say nothing because ‘it might stir things up.’ The spirit of the guarantee implies that newspapermen will question and probe and dig…” And dig he did.
In late 1960, Storke, then 86, was approached by a member of the Society, Dr. Granville Knight, who insisted that the community be informed of the Society’s grandiose designs.
‘Die on Vine’
Storke was disturbed. In one respect, he felt compelled to stand aside. “I’ve seen these crackpot outfits come and go,” he declared. “The less written about them the better. Maybe they’ll die on the vine.” Conventional rules prevailed, however; it did not die.
The extraordinary fury of the Society’s attacks on an old friend of Storke, Chief Justice Earl Warren, finally prompted the editor to let the public in on the act. In a series of articles on January 22 and 23, 1961, the News-Press exposed the intricate dealings of the Society, mostly in its own words.
The following month, in a front-page editorial entitled “High Noon,” Storke challenged the Society to come out and fight. He reminded his readers of a pioneer generation when men were men and when such slanders (as the Society’s) often called for a “visit from a courageous and irate group” brandishing a bucket of tar and feathers.
More than 20,000 requests for reprints flooded in in the editorial’s wake. Letter-writers from all over the country complained that their own community editors feared to take on the Society.
Financially, the News-Press lost only a three-inch Dr. Ross dog food ad as a result of the Birch Society coverage. But more than 3,000 new subscribers were quickly added to the News-Press roster, which compensated a good deal.
Hardly three months later, while Storke was home in bed nursing a head cold, he received an unexpected telegram from Columbia’s president, Grayson Kirk, “I have the honor to advise that Columbia University Trustees have awarded you the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.” Two additional awards came in: the Elijah Lovejoy Fellowship and the Lauterbach Award for championing civil rights.
In a mixture of amiability and criticism, Harry S. Ashmore of the Arkansas Gazette, himself a Pulitzer-Prize winner, summed up the career of this editor, “Storke included in his personal responsibility all the public, and a good many of the private affairs of his town. His course was sometimes erratic, and among his victims the pure in heart have been counted along with an assortment of scoundrels and poltroons, but no one could ever doubt where he was, or what he was after.”
At age 85, this remarkable being had become the dean of American journalism.