This may sound off the wall, but how about the straight dope on the Trilateral Commission? All my life I’ve heard about this “secret” organization that supposedly actually runs the world. What’s the real story? –Alton Fischer, San Antonio, Texas

Alton, you wound me. You should know by now the only person remotely together enough to run the world is . . . well, modesty forbids, but you just wouldn’t believe what you can accomplish with a home computer these days. (Sorry about that blip in the stock market, by the way–I definitely gotta keep those floppies out of the taco sauce.) But on to the Trilateral Commission, or TLC, as it’s often coyly referred to: First, unless you’re a lad of very tender years, it’s a safe bet you haven’t been hearing about the commission all your life, inasmuch as it was founded in 1973. Second, as you probably already recognize, an organization that everybody already knows about hardly qualifies as “secret.” They’re in the New York phone book, and if you ask they’ll send you a bunch of literature about the organization. Third, while it’s your constitutional right to be paranoid, you might at least try to be paranoid about something reasonably up-to-date. The TLC-as-world-conspiracy theory peaked during the early 80s, and has now pretty much gone the way of the hula hoop.

The Trilateral Commission is based on the quintessentially American notion that if we could just get together and talk about stuff, we could solve all the world’s problems. Accordingly David Rockefeller, chairman of the Chase Manhattan bank, got together several hundred opinion leaders from North America, Western Europe, and Japan (hence the “tri-” in trilateral), who meet annually to hear speeches, participate in seminars, and exchange idle gossip. In between times the commission puts together task-force reports on pertinent issues and publishes a magazine.

The TLC’s first executive director was Zbigniew Brzezinski, and such well-known figures as Walter Mondale, Caspar Weinberger, and Paul Volcker have been members. Also on the rolls at one time, mainly because the commission needed some representation from the south, was the governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. The prospect of spending hours cooped up with the likes of Walter Mondale would probably send most of us screaming for the exits, but Carter was an impressionable sort who found both the commission’s meetings and its members deeply fascinating. He got chummy with many of the latter and appointed more than a dozen to posts in his administration, including Cyrus Vance, Michael Blumenthal, and of course the redoubtable Brzezinski.

All of this was noted with great interest by the conspiracy buffs, but what really got their juices flowing was the revelation during the 1980 presidential campaign that not only was Carter a member of the commission, so were two of his potential opponents, John Anderson and George Bush. Holy Illuminati, they screamed, the power elite is conspiring to enslave us! They heaped poo on Jimmy and friends and flocked to nonmember Ron Reagan. But then Ron went and signed up Bush and Weinberger, which set off the howling anew.

Among true believers, opinions about what the Trilateral Commission is up to fall roughly into two categories: the merely dubious and the totally insane. The John Birch Society and its confreres see the commission as the latest manifestation of the international conspiracy that is trying to create a one-world totalitarian state, or at least a New World Economic Order. (Before the TLC it was the Council on Foreign Relations and an annual meeting of Western business leaders called the Bilderberg Conference.) The less extreme view is that while the Trilateralists may be well intentioned, the clubby atmosphere tends to create a climate of opinion (either socialist or fascist, depending on whether you’re on the far right or far left) that is inimical to America’s real interests. The controversy died out after a short time; Reagan even had a reception for commission members in the White House in 1984. But obviously in a few dark corners the anti-Trilateral flame still burns bright.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

Cecil Adams is the world’s most intelligent human being. We know this because: (1) he knows everything, and (2) he is never wrong. For more, see The Straight Dope website and FAQ.