Sitting in federal court watching the militiaman trial, I wondered: What advice would Joe Vogler have had for the three Fairbanksans charged with conspiring to kill federal officials?
Gold miner, real-estate developer, founder of the Alaska Independence Party Vogler wasn't the first to plant hostility toward the federal government along the banks of the Chena River. Uncle Sam was Public Enemy No. 1 long before Vogler arrived in the Interior during World War II. But Vogler, a master of using the media to attack government bureaucrats, elected officials and other policy makers whose decisions rubbed him wrong, reaped a hardy crop of anti-government rage from angry followers who idolized him.
Vogler was a tall, lean man with a booming voice, a well-developed vocabulary and a gift for metaphor. He once said "The fires of hell are frozen glaciers compared to my hatred of the American government." Defendants Schaeffer Cox, Coleman Barney, and Lonnie Vernon said nothing so vivid while verbally abusing the feds. Cox, who briefly enjoyed a reputation around the Golden Heart City as a frontier soothsayer, was an amateur rhetorician compared to Vogler. For one thing, he resorted to casting himself as a victim to illustrate the government's evil. Joe Vogler had too much pride to walk the public stage a victim.
It's often forgotten that Vogler had a law degree from the University of Kansas. He never practiced law, but he understood legal principles and was a frequent litigant in the Fairbanks courts. He also ran for governor under the AIP banner three times. As a candidate, he was able to reach every corner of Alaska with his views although he spent modestly while campaigning. Vogler used free media shrewdly -- newspaper op-ed pages, press conferences, televised debates. He never was elected to anything, but the rolls of the AIP grew.
Vogler spoke with a burning passion that could lead those unfamiliar with him to conclude violence lay ahead. And he did have an apocalyptic streak, which came out in occasional rants about what he would do to trespassers who approached his door (i.e. meddling feds). But he was fundamentally a man of words, long on denunciations, short on action unless the action was clearly theatrical or symbolic. He used his D-9 Cat not just to clear his property but as an occasional prop for his defiance of the government.
The three militia men on trial, guilty or innocent, are obsessed with firearms. I had many conversations with Joe Vogler -- including in his house where he had firearms -- but I don't think the subject ever came up. He was too busy arguing finer points of history and the law or preparing his latest petition to the United Nations, which he somehow believed would free Alaska from the American yoke.
Joe Vogler never shot anyone, never seriously considered shooting anyone as far as I know. His story ended in 1993 when he was shot by a disciple with a criminal record, Manfred West. West hid the body, which was not found for months, and for months some Fairbanksans speculated old Joe had been kidnapped by a government black-ops team (or space aliens).
So what would Joe Vogler have to say to the militia men? It's my guess he would tell them something like this:
"Boys, you are headed in the wrong direction. Go home, make sure your families are tended for, read law, develop your public speaking skills, and take your case to the people. You will always have an audience as long as you are talking about your rights. That gun and grenade talk is loco talk. I don't give a damn what caliber you're packing, boys, the first shot you fire at the government will be pretty darn close to your last."
Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.