Growing Up Utt
I was told at our family reunions that the name Utt was of German origin, perhaps originally spelled “Uthe” when the first of my grandfather’s relatives came here from Germany, right before the Revolutionary War. My ancestors were very proud that our family pre-dated the American Constitution. Wherever our name came from, it was unusual, if not downright odd. It rhymed with “cut,” but most people pronounced it as if it rhymed with “cute.”
From 1953 to 1961, James B. Utt, my grandfather, was Orange County’s only congressman. From 1961 until his death in office in 1970, he was one of only two Congressmen. During this time, his distinctive name had recognition, respect, and power in what has been termed one of the most conservative counties in the nation.
Growing up, whenever my name was read or spoken by someone for the first time, such as the first day of school, Little League signups, Boy Scout meetings, there was almost always the question, “Are you related to Congressman Utt?” This, of course, made the pre-adolescent me feel very special because the people who asked were generally great admirers of my grandfather.
Lisa McGirr’s excellent book, “Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right,” includes ample references to my grandfather and thousands of middle-class suburbanites organizing themselves into a powerful conservative movement. There were anti-communist reading groups, stop sex education groups, and an explosion of evangelical churches that believed in Biblical inerrancy. I attended such churches in my youth. Well ingrained in the county’s DNA was a xenophobic nationalism, a fear of the “other,” be he dark-skinned or Jewish. This was fertile ground for the John Birch Society, an archconservative organization that was radical in its anti-communism and desire for limited government. The founder, Robert Welch, suggested President Eisenhower could have been a tool of the “communist conspiracy.” They fervently opposed the civil rights movement, alleging that there were too many communists involved in it. The schools even released students early from classes so they could attend Fred Swartz’s “Southern California School of Anti-Communism.”
In the presidential election of 1964, Johnson won the state of California with 60% of the vote. In Orange County, Goldwater got 57% of the vote. In 1968, Fortune Magazine labeled the county “nut country.” This was the district that routinely returned my grandfather to Congress every election cycle. Ms. McGirr tells her story of Orange County, and people like my grandfather, from a scholarly point of view. That was not mine.
As an elementary school student, I ingested, without question, the absolute fear of those my grandfather crusaded against: communists, pinkos, and “other lefties.” I learned that Jews had killed Jesus, and that the Old Testament was righteous, historically accurate, and not to be questioned. Civil rights for Negroes were a dangerous trend and young Martin Luther King Jr. was, very likely, a communist. In the 1960s, my grandfather received an honorary degree from Bob Jones University in South Carolina, an institution of higher learning that almost every Republican presidential candidate visits, and did not allow blacks to enroll until 1971. I did not know about the restriction on enrollment or that interracial dating was forbidden. My grandfather was getting honorary degrees that seemed pretty impressive to me.
More exciting still were the people I got to meet. Walter Knott of Knott’s Berry Farm was a fellow archconservative whom I got to meet several times. One time, my grandfather arranged for me to take a ride on the Disneyland monorail with Walt Disney himself, just the two of us in the front seats. There was also Ronald Reagan, who, before he became governor, would often speak at my grandfather’s campaign rallies. On a trip to Washington in sixth grade, I was introduced to Senator Goldwater and Vice President Richard Nixon. This was all pretty heady stuff for a kid who was yet to sprout his first pimple.
“Why, yes, I am related to the congressman,” I would proudly say. These were the days of hero worship. A picture of my grandfather shaking hands with President Eisenhower hung over my bed. He would send me excerpts of his speeches from The Congressional Record. I would wait up late to see him appear on some local talk shows. I was a true believer and parroted his views.
No discussion of my childhood would be complete without mentioning my father. He was immature, weak, and hurtful. My grandfather knew that his only child would never scale to great heights. I think that my father knew this, too. The only success he had was his dad’s name. One time in Las Vegas, he was drunk and bragged about who his father was. He threatened the casino workers that they better “treat him right.” They took him to the city limits and dumped him in the desert. He was lucky the mob didn’t do worse.
Indeed, it would not be my father, but me whom my grandfather would groom for excellence. As a congressman, he had the power to appoint me to one of the military academies. He hoped that I would wear an officer’s uniform and be another soldier for God and country.
From junior high school through the first three years of high school, my ultra conservatism was my shield, my identity. I had a famous grandfather. I had met important people. I knew the real danger of the communist menace. When assignments or discussions took a political turn, I always took the far right stance. There was one debate where I faced off against an actual liberal Democrat, and a very smart one at that. To the best of my memory he easily bested me and ended his statement with, ”Unfortunately, there will always be people like Jim Utt.” Shaken and mad, I returned to my seat. No one had ever challenged my grandfather’s views to my face before.
It was not a Saul on the road to Damascus moment. It was more a gradual questioning that led to a crumbling of the political ground upon which my grandfather had placed me. In 1963, when I was a sophomore, CBS did an hour-long special entitled, “Case History of a Rumor,” narrated by Roger Mudd. In this hour-long devastation of my grandfather, Mudd reported that Mr. Utt claimed “a large contingent of barefoot Africans” might be training in Georgia as part of a United Nations military exercise to take over the United States.
I began to wonder if my grandfather was a bit too extreme, too much on the fringe. But even after the CBS special, Orange County was still “Utt Country,” and he kept racking up huge electoral victories. The general view was that liberal CBS had done a “hit piece” on the gentleman congressman. The more I learned about his voting record, the more uncomfortable I became with the hero worship I had heaped upon him.
Shortly after the CBS program, I learned that my grandfather had helped write a House minority report that advised voting against admitting Hawaii to the United States. Part of the reason for his position was that Hawaii had “an atmosphere of tolerance, appeasement and encouragement for communism.” I overheard from family discussions that he was also concerned that there were too many non-whites and not enough Christians in this archipelago.
In 1963 and 1964, I witnessed on our scratchy black and white television how Negroes were treated in the South as they marched for basic civil rights: Sheriff “Bull” Connor, police dogs, fire hoses, and jeers by racist thugs. Who could not be moved by such scenes? Yet my grandfather voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, which would outlaw discrimination on the basis of race in public accommodations.
“We have to protect property rights,” he said. He never mentioned human rights.
I remember watching on our scratchy black and white television the March on Washington, where King gave his stirring “I Have A Dream” speech. The only thing I remember my grandfather mentioning from this historical event was that the marchers left a lot of trash behind. There were also rumors of interracial sex, a subject of great concern to him, and to many who lived in Orange County.
In 1965, the nation saw the violence that occurred at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on “bloody Sunday,” as peaceful marchers, supporting the right for black people to vote, were violently set upon by the police. Yet, my grandfather voted against the 1965 Voting Rights Bill. “Too much federal interference in the business that should properly fall to the states,” he said.
By the time I graduated high school, I had decided that the death penalty was wrong. Of course, I kept this view from my grandfather. In 1965, I was in the first class at the University of California at Irvine. The day before classes began, I went to purchase the textbooks. I passed by the magazine rack and saw a cover story: “Mr. Utt’s War with the 20th Century.” I chose not to buy a copy. Instead, I wrote a letter to the editor in which I praised UCI, defended public education, and questioned the wisdom of The Orange County Register. The next time I saw my grandfather, he told me that he could no longer financially support my college education because our views were so divergent.
The Vietnam War raged with increasing intensity as the ‘60s moved on, and I faced the distinct possibility of the draft when I graduated from college. I was an opponent of the war, while my grandfather saw it as a life and death struggle between the free world and communism. His position was similar to that of General Curtis LeMay, George Wallace’s running mate for the American Independent Party. “We should bomb them back to the Stone Age” was their slogan.
I believed that the war poured more and more Americans into the meat grinder that was Vietnam, a war that was only causing misery for all, especially the Vietnamese. By 1968, my grandfather and I stood at opposite ends of the political spectrum. I simply could not believe an elected official could hold such views.
Although he had cut me off financially, we still had contact on occasion. I went over to his house, and the inevitable political discussion began, with my answers only provoking more angry questions. Finally, my grandmother asked, ”Would you even vote for your grandfather?”
I replied, “No, I don’t think so.”
My grandfather, who had been quiet up to this point of the conversation, looked at me coldly and said, “I would rather see you dead and buried in Vietnam than think the way you do.”
My grandfather’s health began to decline around this time. Members of his side of the family put much of the blame on me. “What a betrayal he must have felt when his own grandson turned against him!” “How could he be so ungrateful?” “You know how a broken heart can weaken your health.”
Congressman James B. Utt died in 1970, still in office, the majority thinking that he was doing a fine job. I attended his funeral, which was held at the Crystal Cathedral. Governor Reagan was very gracious to my sisters and me. After the service, a large procession of cars snaked its way through the cemetery. I was in a limo with one of my grandfather’s senior aides. Noticing that the police had closed the freeway for the funeral, the aide turned to me and said, “How nice and respectful. I wouldn’t even mind if they did this for a Negro funeral.”
I am afraid that my grandfather would have agreed with his aide’s comment. While I would always carry the name ‘Utt,’ I will never be the man he was.
James Utt is a retired social science teacher who has lived in Laguna Beach since 2001.