In 2018, Republicans suffered a significant setback when they lost control of the House, losing forty-one seats. One of the most notable events in this election was their loss of all the congressional districts in Orange County. This was unthinkable as recently as ten years ago, but Orange County has been changing and its starting to shed its staunchly conservative reputation. In 2016, the county actually voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, a bad reaction to his brand of Republican politics. Although the county had voted Democrat for FDR in the 1930s, it had subsequently turned Republican…very Republican. Most symbolic of the county’s conservatism was its 17-year Congressman James B. Utt, who contributed to this perception of Orange County.
Elected in 1952, Utt quickly developed a hardline conservative reputation. After 1953, he proved consistent in his opposition to foreign aid and in the 1960s he sponsored a resolution that US should leave the UN. He also proved a consistent opponent of federal aid to education, not swayed by President Eisenhower’s support of it. Although he reportedly had concerns about the admittance of the state of Hawaii over the alleged favorable attitudes of its citizens to communism and that there weren’t enough white Christians, he nonetheless twice voted to admit the state. Utt was one of the staunchest foes of JFK’s New Frontier and LBJ’s Great Society programs, believing that the federal government’s role in social welfare should be limited. As the second ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, he pushed back against the Kennedy tax cuts as he and other conservatives feared they would be inflationary. Their fears of inflation would prove correct by the end of the decade. Instead of backing JFK’s tax cuts, Utt authored his own “Liberty Amendment” to the Constitution, which would remove the federal government out of all activities save those specified by the Constitution and repeal the personal income tax. In 1963, Utt praised a bill to eliminate government competition with private sector functions and stated that the federal bureaucracy is “the invisible government which really governs the country”. He was no slouch on social conservatism either, as he regarded public school sex education as a threat to the moral fiber of the nation.
The Controversies of Utt
James B. Utt was an outspoken figure of the right and thus got into many controversies in his day, including on the John Birch Society, civil rights, and his defense of the funeral home industry.
The John Birch Society and Extremism
Although Congressman Utt was never a member of the John Birch Society, he voiced support for the organization and the views of its leadership. This was rather fitting for Orange County as many chapters of the John Birch Society had sprung up there. In 1966, he received the “Statesman of the Republic” award from Liberty Lobby, which I have covered before as a neo-Nazi front organization that masqueraded as a conservative lobby. His successor in Congress would be even more extreme – John G. Schmitz was not only a member of the John Birch Society, he was later kicked out for his offensive public statements and appears to have been a holocaust denier.
Utt’s civil rights record stands as the most negative of the members of the California delegation to Congress during the Civil Rights Era. Although in 1956 he voted for an Eisenhower-backed voting rights bill and supported Powell Amendments (cut off federal funds to segregated schools) twice, most of Utt’s record was negative. It was so negative that he voted against the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, 1964, 1968, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For the latter, he was one of only five Republicans outside the South to oppose it on both votes. In 1967, Utt was one of only six Republicans outside the South to vote against a bill that provided criminal penalties for intimidation and violence based on race against people exercising their civil rights, including voting. He firmly believed that blacks and civil rights activists were being manipulated by communists to further their ends. This stance aligned perfectly with the John Birch Society’s position on the issue. Strangely enough, however, in 1969 Utt voted against eliminating the Philadelphia Plan, which was a precursor policy to affirmative action.
The “Barefoot Africans” Rumor
In 1963, Utt stated through his newsletter that the United Nations may be training “barefoot African troops” in Georgia to participate in an invasion of the United States. This resulted in many rightist publications and radio broadcasts to warn people about the dangers of the UN and led to the CBS documentary “Case Study of a Rumor”, which placed the weight of the blame for the rumor on Utt. He denied originating it and filed suit claiming his reputation had been damaged. However, Utt’s lawsuit didn’t succeed, with 10 of 12 jurors siding with CBS.
Utt, The American Way of Death, and his Death
In 1963, Utt denounced Jessica Mitford (the “red sheep” of the staunchly right-wing Mitford family of Britain) for her book The American Way of Death, an expose of the funeral home industry for emotionally manipulating the bereaved. He proclaimed her to be a “pro-Communist anti-American”, that her book was a “blow at the Christian religion”, and that the book’s profits would “no doubt find their way into the coffers of the Communist Party U.S.A.” (New York Times). The truth in this denunciation is that Mitford had been a Communist until she resigned the party in 1958 over the revelations of Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech”. Whether she was “anti-American” as Utt claimed depends on whether she continued to hold the same sort of Stalinist views of the US as she did as a member of CPUSA. Utt himself would suffer from poor health starting in the late 1960s and on March 8, 1970, he died of a heart attack at home. His funeral itself could have been a textbook case for Mitford’s book, as it was a tremendous affair (in scope and expenses), with Governor Ronald Reagan in attendance.
James B. Utt was a staunch conservative who never shied away from controversy. While I strongly approve of his staunch anti-Communism and his opposition to expansive federal government, his staunch opposition to most civil rights legislation is troublesome as is his susceptibility to conspiracy theories. For better or worse, he was representative of the political environment and attitudes of post-war Orange County.
Congressman James B. Utt Defends ‘Liberty Amendment’. (1963, March 27). La Habra Star.
Pearson, D. (1966, September 26). Antics of Congressman Utt. Madera Tribune.
Rep. James B. Utt of California, 70. (1970, March 2). The New York Times.