It was just about the most ordinary-looking group of people you could picture. Thirty folks, the personification of middle America, happily networked in a private room at a popular Cheshire Bridge eatery, Taverna Plaka.
A marketing executive, a retired real-estate appraiser, a woman touting libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul, an Army major, a chiropractor, lawyers – all there to hear a veteran Canadian educator. Early banter of the evening was as American as grits and barbecue – including good-natured joshing over religion between the Catholic speaker and his Presbyterian host.
Oh, sure, the picture got knocked a little askew when I spied a big hulking guy with a semiautomatic pistol strapped to his right hip, extra ammo on his left. But, hell, this is Georgia, and people do like their guns. Still, I gave Mr. Well-Armed a wide berth.
A few minutes later, I was accosted by John Weatherman: a lanky, friendly sort in blue jeans who wanted to chat about the media. "Does your Jewish editor, Ken Edelstein, approve of you being at a meeting like this?" Weatherman inquired.
Before I could answer, another conversation jostled its way between Weatherman and me. (But to belatedly answer Weatherman's question, "Yes.") "That gentleman in the orange shirt, he has a pretty neoconservative attitude about Israel," the guest of honor, Paul Fromm, complained to the evening's host, Atlanta lawyer Sam Dickson. Neo-cons, in case you were in a coma during the last six years, are ardent supporters of Israel.
"Yeah, yeah," Dickson replied. "He married a Jewish woman, but he's with us on most things. I'll go over and talk to him. It'll be OK."
The picture now should be coming into focus. This was not a Rotary Club confab, although if you muted the sound and ignored a literature table, that's what the gathering resembled. This was an informal gathering of ... well, some would call them racists and white supremacists. And much of what they have to say justifies the description -- but it's also a message that is often indistinguishable from the language of Ann Coulter, Neal Boortz or Lou Dobbs.
You could also call the group an "uptown Klan" – a phrase applied to "respectable" Southerners who looked down on the lowbrow rednecks in hoods and sheets but nonetheless shared the same racial views. At least one celebrity of the evening, Marietta chiropractor Ed Fields, had once sported the robes of a Grand Dragon during the days when he was a sidekick to the church-bombing, firebrand Georgia lawyer J.B. Stoner.
In their own lingo, this was a convocation of "white nationalists." These are not the crazies who haunt the shadows of political extremism, left and right. They are educated, polite and urbane. I was the only one there whose hairless pate resembled the coifs of the insanely violent skinheads. No one brandished racial slurs. Indeed, one twentysomething marketing exec told me that believers in the hyper-racist "Christian Identity" sect – which teaches that Jews descend from a union of Eve and Satan – are "total nut cases. We have nothing to do with them."
That marketing man pretty much summed up the political background of many at the meeting. "I grew up in Peachtree City," he said. "It was a bubble, a homogenous bubble, a pretty nice bubble. Everyone I knew was like me. I grew up with a distrust of what multiculturalism brings. I think that perception is correct." (The only condition placed on me was not naming people who wanted to remain anonymous.)
A retired real-estate appraiser offered: "I've always been a right-winger. Do I hate other people? No. I just want to live with my own kind, the people who founded this nation."
The disconcerting part of the evening was that there is common ground with mainstream attitudes. This was a decidedly anti-war crowd – and much of the table chatter could easily have taken place at a MoveOn.org meet-up. The Army major, a veteran of three Iraq tours, recalled scraping a friend's brains off the side of a truck after a roadside bombing. "We don't belong there," the soldier said. "They don't want us there. We'd hire contractors to build schools during the day, and the same guys would come back in the evening and blow up what they'd just built."
But there were unvarnished attitudes festering not far below the surface. Fields, the ex-Kluxer chiropractor, talked about "not wanting Americans to die in Iraq for the Jews." One of Fields' more famous statements, published in a newspaper he runs (at one time called the Thunderbolt, now dubbed The Truth at Last), was: "Every Jew who holds a position of power or authority must be removed from that position. If this does not work, then we must establish [the] Final Solution!!!"
The primary message for the evening was a spirited defense of free speech. Referring to Fromm's home in Canada, Dickson said, "They have a system where the government can and does pass laws against what you say and write." In Canada and Europe, "hundreds, maybe thousands are in jail for what they've said about the interplay of Jews and Christians, about the Holocaust."
Indeed, Canada does have laws against "hate speech." The European Union has banned "publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivializing crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes."
Fromm, the guest speaker, was fired from his teaching post in Canada – and is fighting now to keep his educator's credentials – because of his race-baiting activism. Earlier this year, two militants from the Jewish Defense League were arrested after assaulting Fromm.
I asked Fromm – who is widely reported to have participated in a celebration of Hitler's birthday – if he is a neo-Nazi. "No," he said. "I am not a follower of Adolf Hitler." I queried if he was a Holocaust denier, to which he replied, "I am skeptical about the official version of World War II."
Fromm's message – which easily could have passed for talk-radio demagoguery – is that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are part of a plot hatched by Communists in the 1920s in Frankfurt, Germany. "These are symbols being shoved down your throat," he said, "symbols of your dispossession. ... The goal is to achieve widespread acceptance of a radical feminist and a crypto-Moslem of mixed parentage."
Sort of sounds like Sean Hannity, doesn't he?