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Call me sick, but I had to laugh sometimes while I was reading American Fuehrer: George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party. Laugh the way I would at, say, Charlie Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel in his 1940 Hitler spoof, The Great Dictator, because you can't believe someone that depraved, that clownish, that peerlessly narcissistic can win over a single person, much less crowds. Rockwell (1918-1967) was pathetic and probably mentally ill, but he had charisma. This advertising man, freelance writer, navy flier, Brown University alumnus and son of a renowned vaudevillian -- Groucho Marx and Jack Benny came to Georgie's christening -- knew all about wild statements and PR ploys.
To rile the Freedom Riders crusading for Civil Rights in Mississippi in the early '60s, for instance, Rockwell got racist musicians to perform at nearby "Hate-o-nannies." He liked to claim that "Jewish agents like Benny Goodman" foment "cultural anarchy" and that "any pansy can be a pink" but "it takes a MAN to be a Nazi." In the mid-'60s, trying to wrap his party in the shawl of Christian justification, he noted "the amazing similarity between the name of the birthplace of the great Prophet ... which is NAZareth" and his party's name. "Change just ONE letter and it becomes NAZIreth! Surely the Almighty is telling us something!"
If you know of Rockwell, it's probably from his infamous 1966 Playboy interview with Alex Haley or from his Gordon Liddyesque college-circuit lectures, or maybe from his coining of the phrase "White Power" right after Stokely Carmichael came up with "Black Power." If you've never heard of him, it may be because in his heyday major Jewish organizations vigorously pursued a policy of "quarantine," as they called it, urging members and the press to ignore Rockwell's antics in order to dry up his lifeblood of publicity.
Rockwell's strength didn't lie in the number of his adherents (a heartening fact, that). Author Frederick J. Simonelli, a professor of history at Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles, thinks the American Nazi party never boasted more than 200 members. Rockwell was perpetually broke; how many other party leaders do their own laundry? Indeed, he was assassinated outside a seedy Arlington, Va., Laundromat, not far from his old headquarters which had been seized by the IRS for nonpayment of taxes.
Simonelli, an energetic writer and reporter, is to be commended for tracking down many of Rockwell's surviving associates. He's created a compelling narrative. One might wish for a bit more psychological probing, though various red flags do snap forth. Rockwell hated his also-beyond-narcissistic father, rebelled histrionically against authority from the get-go (in prep school, he burned a teacher in effigy) and read Mein Kampf a dozen times (it "was like finding part of me," he wrote) while serving at a naval base in Iceland.
He drank too much, battled depression, was left by several wives, became estranged from his family and spun further and further out of control; you'll wince at the passages in which his goodhearted brother and William F. Buckley, whom Rockwell hounded, try to get him help. In the succinct summation from a 1967 volume that that Simonelli cites, Rockwell gave in to "the ageless impulse of men and women eaten by the disease of hatred to find a political expression or rationalization for their malady."
Another nutbar, then. Why should we care? Because, Simonelli stresses, in a nation on which Timothy McVeigh and Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris inflict themselves, Rockwell types still cut a swath. Or, for a less directly violent legacy, there's David Duke, an early party disciple of Rockwell's. The white-supremacist Louisiana pol absorbed the homegrown Nazi's most lasting lesson: Ditch the Nazi uniform for the business suit, trade the swastika for an American eagle and you'll get somewhere.