Jim Jones
© AP
Jim Jones
Do you remember that time the entire Democratic Party in California behaved like cultists, enraptured by Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones?

If you lived through the bizarre suicides of 918 people in Guyana on Nov. 18, 1978, it's hard not to remember where you were when you heard the news. It would be like forgetting about the Challenger explosion or Sept. 11.

But collective amnesia over just who aided and abetted Jim Jones is much easier to explain. The same influence used on Jones's behalf during his life helped after his death to erase the causes and candidates he supported.

"Such greatness I have found in Jim Jones's Peoples Temple," Harvey Milk gushed. Yes, that Harvey Milk.

Willie Brown, later speaker of the California assembly and mayor of San Francisco, compared Jim Jones to Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. Dianne Feinstein joined the rest of the San Francisco board of supervisors in honoring Jones "in recognition of his guidance and inspiration" in furthering "humanitarian programs."

Jerry Brown, California governor then as now, actually spoke at Peoples Temple. George Moscone, who owed his position as mayor of San Francisco to Jones, appointed Jones to San Francisco's Housing Authority Commission, where he quickly became chairman.

Left-wing lawyers Charles Garry and Mark Lane depicted Jonestown as a paradise and aggressively defended Jones in the media. Jane Fonda joined other luminaries in expressing that she was "familiar with the work of Reverend Jones and Peoples Temple and have no hesitancy in commending them for their example in setting a high standard of ethics and morality."

Herb Caen, a Pulitzer Prize winner who long served as one of San Francisco's most admired newspaper writers, acted as a hype-generator for Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple.

The local enthusiasm for Jim Jones proved contagious for national Democrats. Rosalynn Carter called Jones at her husband's behest. She held a private meeting with him, put him in touch with sister-in-law Ruth Carter Stapleton, and had the Peoples Temple leader introduce her at a 1976 campaign event.

Jimmy Carter's running mate, Walter Mondale, met with Jones on the tarmac in San Francisco.

Before Jim Jones's victims drank the lethal Flavor Aid in South America, the powerful in San Francisco had already drunk the Kool Aid themselves. In fact, the latter facilitated the former.

I interviewed a number of Temple survivors as part of researching my new book, Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco. They reflected that Jones's associations with the mighty both legitimized him and struck fear into them. Without powerful politicians, in the U.S. and Guyana, running interference for him, Jones could never have been so bold with the murders he committed. And the politicians cozied up to Jones because Jones provided rent-a-rallies for free. He flooded campaign headquarters with "volunteers." He spoke forcefully for fashionable causes.

He preached the gospel according to Karl Marx. "I call capitalism the devil," Jones said from the pulpit, "and socialism is God." The Symbionese Liberation Army, Jones maintained, "moved us a little closer to change."

Upon a pilgrimage to Cuba, Jones claimed through his newspaper that the island-prison had succeeded in abolishing racism, but he criticized it for not providing enough "freedom of choice" on abortion — a Temple commandment for women who became pregnant. "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty," he told parishioners. "No, my country 'tis of thee, terrible land of inequity, that's what it is."

The people of Peoples Temple paid a terrible price for idolizing Jones. But the politicians who elevated him escaped consequences. Willie Brown, who had endorsed Jones as "a close personal friend and a highly trusted brother in the struggle for liberation" in a 1977 letter to Fidel Castro, characterized the Peoples Temple leader as "an obscure but charismatic San Francisco religious cult figure" in his 2008 memoirs. In a don't-look-at-me passage, he wrote that "the enormity of the tragedy involving his followers makes one wonder how politicians and police failed to notice his sinister hold on people."

But they failed to notice because Brown, Milk, and other powerful people in San Francisco lionized Jones, treating him as a hero rather than a villain. And after using their power to make Jim Jones, they used it to make his memory disappear.
Daniel J. Flynn, a senior editor at The American Spectator, is the author of Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco (ISI Books, 2018).