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Monday, 29 September 1997

EVESDROPPING ON PAT ROBERTSON'S CHRISTIAN COALITION



By Matthew Freeman,
People for the American Way


 

People For the American Way's

Right Wing Watch #1.10 September 13, 1997

Following is People For the American Way's coverage of day one of the Christian Coalition's Road to Victory Conference:

Reed Dinner Kicks Off Christian Coalition Event

By Matthew Freeman, PFAW

The Christian Coalition's 1997 Road to Victory Conference got off to a fast start this evening, as an audience of approximately 1,000 conference-goers gathered in the Ballroom of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis to honor the group's outgoing executive director, Ralph Reed.

For several years now, Road to Victory has been the premiere event on the Religious Right circuit. A couple things have reshuffled the deck this year. First, is the departure of the group's master strategist and executive director. Second, is that the group apparently misfired earlier this year when it announced that the event, a roaring success when staged in Washington for several years running now, would instead be converted into a road show, with separate events in three cities.

Later in the summer, perhaps in response to sluggish registrations, the group announced it was "collapsing" the three events into one, and so it is that the group's state and local leaders, joined by some of their most committed members, are here in Atlanta.

The official opening of the conference was tonight, but many of the group's state and local officers began gathering here at the Marriot yesterday for a series of leadership workshops. Then, this afternoon, general registration got under way, and vendors and exhibitors began setting up their wares in the exhibition space.

A few thoughts about exhibition row. First, it must be noted that, at least to my eye, far fewer are in evidence this year than last. But some of them were every bit as interesting. A range of Far Right groups set up shop, including Gary Bauer's Family Research Council, the Young America's Foundation, the National Right to Life Committee, Wall Builders, Ollie North's Freedom Alliance and others. These groups brought a small library of publications and propaganda sheets and passed them out happily to all comers. Among the most curious items was a promotional flyer for the "Third Annual Common Sense Conservatives at Sea Cruise." Evidently a joint effort of the Young America's Foundation and the Freedom Alliance, the cruise will be a seven-night tour of various Caribbean ports of call featuring a lecture series from a group of first rate right wingers. The agenda advertised that paying customers would get to rub elbows and hear speeches from disgraced author and right wing idol Gary Aldrich, ex-Senator Steve Symms, and Virginia school board chairman Michelle Easton. But the real headliner of the affair is North himself, who is pictured on the flyer with his wife.

Also in the vendor hall was a promotion from Cable and Wireless, Inc., evidently promoting some sort of telephone service. When asked if the service was also available to the other side of the political spectrum, the fellow behind the counter reached behind the pipe and drape and produced a copy of a letter in which the company went on record in favor of "traditional family values." As he put it in my hand, he emphasized his point: "not just family values, but traditional family values." Another vendor offered what appeared to be some sort of combination Internet access service that also screened out web sites that aren't "safe." Another promoted some pretty sharp looking software to help you write letters to your Members of Congress; the brochure called it "for conservatives, by conservatives."

The Reed dinner was in the hotel ballroom, and it had that certain Christian Coalition touch. A two-tiered head table stood at the front of the room atop a large platform, backed by pipe and drape with an enormous hanging Christian Coalition logo and the similarly large name of the group. On either side of the room were what looked to be 8 foot by 8 foot projection television screens, set up for a video presentation or two and also to display the in-house feed of the speakers. Diners entered to a series of patriotic songs John Philip Sousa-ing their way over the sound system, and a light show displayed a minor galaxy of stars on the walls. At various points in the evening the stars would swirl around the stage and into the audience. And, for good measure, the music would reappear whenever a speaker was introduced or finished.

After the diners were seated, the head table attendees were individually announced. Kremlinologists might be interested in two points here. First, Randy Tate, the new executive director, was seated on the lower of the two rows, and never got a chance to speak, while Don Hodel, the new president, emceed the event and had plenty of mike time. Second, the most excited round of applause during the introductions (not counting that for Reed) went to House Budget Committee Chair John Kasich (R-OH).

After the introductions, the group was led in the Pledge of Allegiance (at its end, someone augmented the last line -- with liberty and justice for all -- by shouting out, "born and unborn"). That was followed by a prayer from Christian Coalition board member and unrepentant David Duke supporter Billy McCormack, and then the national anthem.

Dinner followed. At my table, the conversation had two particular low points. One came when one of the diners wondered allowed what picketers out front meant when they proclaimed that "hate is not a family value." The fellow next to her answered that it was "a lesbo thing." Later on, the same gentleman complained about C-SPAN letting Dr. Cornell West, and African American, "mouth off." Perhaps it was just my progressive ears that heard a little racial ugliness in the choice of words.

After the meal, an unbilled speaker surprised the crowd: Jack Kemp. Last year's Republican vice presidential nominee offered a kind tribute to Reed, praising him for his outreach efforts to minorities. Don Hodel then introduced Pat Robertson saying that wise historians of the future will study "the profound impact of Pat Robertson." (Actually he initially misspoke and called him "Robinson," but quickly corrected himself. Still it did blunt the moment.)

Robertson used his time to sing the Christian Coalition's accomplishments, saying that the group was "the most powerful force in American politics." At one point he joked about the "lack of direction of the leadership in Congress," but then quickly withdrew, saying, "I won't get into that; it might sound critical." Robertson drew a big ovation from the crowd when he declared that "we want an America where children are cared for by two married, heterosexual parents." Emphasis on the "heterosexual." He cited what he described as two major issues for the group to work on. First was the "Religious Freedom Amendment" -- some call it the "Christian Nation Amendment," because it would gut church-state separation. Second was doing something about "judicial activism." Decrying activism "so intense it begins to call into question the very legitimacy of our judicial system," Robertson then launched into his ritual attack on a 1960s Supreme Court decision on the right to privacy. The other example he cited was more recent, but he did mangle the facts a bit. The example was a decision striking down the Communications Decency Act, which he described as a decision by a single judge. That was true, right up until the Supreme Court upheld the ruling earlier this year.

He went on to complain about there being too many "hyphenated Americans," by which he meant that we shouldn't think of ourselves as African American or Italian American but rather as American. The overwhelmingly white audience applauded loudly.

In the evening's only real news, and a slender reed of news it was (pun sheepishly intended), Robertson set as the goal for his new leadership team that they double the group's 1.9 million membership and double its $24 million budget. And then in one of many thinly veiled acknowledgments of the group's partisan electoral mission, Robertson said that "we want to elect lots more people to office who share our values." Seconds later, he set his goal for "the next few years: we are going to have a pro-family conservative in the White House."

Next up was Representative Kasich, who also seemed to implicate the Christian Coalition in partisan politicking. Joking, Kasich said that in 1996 then-candidate Randy Tate had complained that he was getting too little support from Christians in his district. Kasich said he promised to talk to Reed to get his help.

After touching on religious persecution abroad and the need for the Christian Nation amendment at home, Kasich went on to note that he thought that school vouchers as an issue are "almost a done deal." Then, after praising Reed for his strategic and media skills, he was done.

He was followed by Kay James, an anti-choice activist, now in Robertson's employ at Regent University. She offered a rather touching tribute to Reed, and was the only speaker other than Kemp to use the words "Samaritan Project." Given that just eight months ago Reed held a major press conference to announce that the Project was the group's top priority for the year, it has been awfully invisible lately.

A letter from Elizabeth Dole praising Reed was next, and after that a video tribute from Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research Council, and one of the Religious Right figures who stands to have a higher media profile with Reed out of Washington. Bauer announced that he was giving Reed the Council's "highest award," the Family, Faith and Freedom Award.

A very chipper David Beasley, Republican governor of South Carolina was next, and he painted a picture of himself, his wife and Reed spending hours sitting on a couch in the governor's mansion talking of politics, polls, family and God.

A video tribute to Reed was then offered. Included in the video were virtually all of the key leaders of the Republican Party in Congress: Sen. Trent Lott (MS), Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA), Dick Armey (TX) and Tom DeLay (TX). A recorded Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) got the best laugh of the evening by noting that Reed's firm promised top-notch consulting services at reasonable rates. Said Hutchison: "now that would revolutionize this industry: Neiman-Marcus political advice at Walmart prices." She also gave Reed and the Coalition credit for helping Republicans take both houses of Congress in 1994, a curious thing for the group to include on one of its videotapes given that it will shortly be in court fighting off the charge that it is illegally in the business of electing candidates. Also on the tape were Rep. J.C. Watts (OK) and Sen. James Inhofe (OK). And a picture of Sen. Jesse Helms (NC) drew spontaneous applause from the audience.

Finally, Reed rose to speak, and after a Buddhist Temple fundraising joke, he ran through a list of issues that still needed the group's attention. They included making a divorce more difficult to obtain, banning abortions, and more. And in a dig at President Clinton, he said that "Until this nation has a president that we can point to and say to our children, 'that is how you should behave,' our work is not done."

Anyone who'd seen Reed at the group's Samaritan Project event in Baltimore could hardly fail to notice that after quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with great frequency and to great effect before an African American audience there, Reed traveled to Dr. King's birthplace and never once mentioned his name to a largely white gathering.

Reed was then presented with a crystal eagle, and a benediction was offered by McCormack to close the evening.

Tomorrow holds a packed schedule, featuring a number of would-be presidential candidates and other conservative luminaries. We'll send a report along Sunday morning.

People For the American Way's

Right Wing Watch #1.11 September 14, 1997

Following is People For the American Way's coverage of day two of the Christian Coalition's Road to Victory Conference.

Presidential Candidates Seek Christian Coalition Blessing

by Matthew Freeman, PFAW

A long day of speechifying got under way early here in the Atlanta Marriot Marquis, as Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition began the post-Reed era by hearing from various Republican nominee wannabes.

As they did last night, the group's staging experts put together a television-friendly platform. It featured a political convention-style wide-body lectern, with the group's name emblazoned just within easy sight of the camera. Over the speakers' heads hung an enormous Christian Coalition logo, with the name of the group again suspended on the pipe and drape. The last design element was a pair of eight-foot-high columns - intended, I suppose, I suppose to suggest something ageless and solid.

On either side of the ballroom used for the affair were two huge television projection screens that carried a live feed from the stage. The same feed was provided to a press room nearby and to television sets throughout the hotel. Across from the stage, a media area with a number of cameras from various outlets was cordoned off from conference-goers.

As the approximately 3,000 (that's my very rough estimate) attendees came into the room in the morning, they were greeted by a series of patriotic marches and songs. It was the same one used last night, and if my sonic memory is any good, it's the same one used last year at the Road to Victory Conference. It was, however, decidedly not the tape used by the group at its Baltimore Congress on Racial Reconciliation and Justice. For that, the music bent to gospel. Alas, the group's music isn't any better integrated than its conferences.

The program got off to a not particularly brisk start. In welcoming remarks, Rep. John Linder (R-GA) said that C-SPAN cameras were in the room and that they would "give Washington an opportunity to ridicule the efforts of people of faith." And in a bit of conservative stereotyping, he said that while "our allies" go home at night to coach Little League and to lead Boys and Girls Clubs, "most of our opponents go home and write scathing letters to the editors."

Following the pledge of allegiance (again, somebody shouted "born and unborn" at its conclusion), a prayer and the national anthem, Pat Robertson came to the platform to a rush of music and with lights swirling around the room. His remarks were a bit less temperate than they usually are for these events, perhaps reflecting the absence of Reed's vetting. Proceeding from the premise that Christians are a persecuted minority in the United States, he said that "Christians are Americans, too. They deserve a place at the political table." And claiming the political endorsement of God, he thundered, "We represent Jesus Christ, and I'm not ashamed of Jesus Christ." As he often does on his television show, he said that "The religious values we hold dear are under attack," and went on to say that it was the courts and the media, among others, that were doing the attacking.

Looking to the future, Robertson praised his new leadership team of Don Hodel and Randy Tate, and said "we haven't even scratched the surface of what we're going to do in the next few years." Then, again shedding all pretense of nonpartisanship, he said that "we don't want to give the Congress back into the hands of the liberals in 1998," and said that the "time has come to clean house at the top of our nation and get a new president." The audience clapped loudly. It wasn't clear whether he expected the president to seek a third term and wanted to nip it in the bud, or whether he had impeachment in mind! But he did note that when he was luring Hodel to the group's leadership, he told him that he hoped Hodel would play a role in choosing the next president.

After Robertson, Hodel mounted the platform to the strains of "Stars and Stripes Forever." After a joke or two, he sorted out the job responsibilities for Tate and himself. Tate, he said, would do the legislative activities and grassroots work, and Hodel would handle the management duties. So far it appears that "management duties" include most of the national media.

His task this morning was to lay out the group's vision, he said, and his vision included an America where "we know what a family is: it's a man and a woman, married to each other." He said the vision did not include an armed forces that has to "play out somebody's experiment of how the genders are going to relate to each other," and that his America was a place where "abortion is abolished." And he reiterated the group's opposition to international family planning, religious persecution abroad and gambling here at home.

Randy Tate was up next, to utter his first words of the weekend, having never been asked to speak at last night's dinner. Again the staging seemed to make clear that Tate is playing a distant second fiddle to Hodel: while Pat Robertson introduced Hodel, Tate was introduced by the staff public relations director. Tate offered remarks as laden with Biblical references as any I've heard from the Christian Coalition in a while. At times he seemed to struggle to ingratiate himself, as when he began by saying, "What a great day! What a great crowd! What a great God we serve!" In the next sentence he praised his mother, and went on to say of his childhood, that "We Tates love God, and we love America."

Most of the rest of the speech was given over to a series of crowd-pleasing but quick references to various issues. And picking up on Robertson's overt politicking, Tate said first that "we need to find men and women [for public office] that don't just sound like us, but ARE like us," and then that "we need to bring into office men and women who are going to represent you."

In the wake of last night's gala banquet sendoff for Reed, the most noticeable thing about the first few speakers was that nobody seemed to know that Reed had ever even existed. First Robertson, then Don Hodel, then Randy Tate took to the microphone, and not one of them ever mentioned Reed. Robertson even retold a story from the previous evening about the group's founding. Last night it was told to demonstrate how central Reed was from day one. Today, Reed was gone from the story.

Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ followed the Christian Coalition's leaders to the microphone, and offered relatively gentle remarks, much of which focused on his personal experiences with 40-day fasts with prayer. In the most political moment of his speech, Bright asserted that the "enemies of the Gospel have stolen our schools" and the media.

Rep. John Kasich (R-OH) followed, getting a very warm reception from the crowd. His speech had a relatively moderate tone to it, and at one point he quieted the crowd by saying that there were some government programs that he rather liked. This was, after all, a crowd that had been fed a steady anti-government diet. When he went on to say positive things about environmental protection, the civil rights movement, Social Security and Medicare, you could have heard a pin drop.

He brought the crowd back to life by saying that he thought "the legal system needs major reform; frankly it really needs 'loser-pays.'" Subsequent attacks on the IRS, the B-2 (cast as an example of wasteful government), and a school prayer amendment earned the audience's favor as well. Representative Kasich was also one of only a few speakers who challenged the group to do something particular: asking for their support in a challenge to corporate welfare, saying that "we've gotta get that on Pat Robertson's agenda."

After Kasich, the president of the South Carolina Christian Coalition introduced her home-state governor, David Beasley, by saying that "the liberal media attacked our next speaker because of his faith." The governor was played onto the stage by the theme from "Gone With the Wind." Much of Beasley's time was devoted to bemoaning divorce, and his arguments took a peculiar turn when he lifted up the late Seattle grunge rocker Kurt Cobain as a champion for marriage, relating a moment when Cobain put a gun to his head and told his wife that he would kill himself if she insisted on divorcing. Since Cobain eventually killed himself, it was hard to know how to take the tale. The governor seemed persuaded by it, however, and returned to it at least twice more.

Lamar Alexander was next, and he was the first of the morning's speakers to mention Ralph Reed's name. His speech included attacks on affirmative action (which he called "reverse discrimination"), religious persecution abroad, and drugs. He also won applause by saying that children "should learn to speak a common language."

He spent a fair amount of time on school vouchers, at one point attributing the effects of a series of reforms within the public schools in Milwaukee to an unrelated voucher program. He also said that public schools should "bend over backwards to help" home-schooling parents.

Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-GA) followed Alexander, and put in a plug for his "Educational Savings Accounts" bill, legislation regarded by many as a back door to vouchers. He earned the distinction of being the first of the speakers to mention Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his home town.

Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (R) argued at some length that character matters, not just for presidents but for all Americans. He then touched on a few red-meat issues: "partial-birth" abortion, same-sex marriages, home-schooling, church arsons and lower taxes.

By this point, the conference was running far behind schedule. So as the Rev. Earl Jackson, head of the Christian Coalition's "Samaritan Project," its political outreach effort to minorities, came to the podium with a panel of several presenters to follow, the audience was getting a bit restless. Reverend Jackson, however, captured the crowd almost immediately, appealing on the basis of faith. The panel included Alveda Celeste King, the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who has of late broken with the family and begun speaking out for right-wing causes.

Malcolm "Steve" Forbes Jr. was next at the microphone, and offered a lively speech. He won sustained applause by attacking the Internal Revenue Service, saying that he favors "the end of the tax code_and the end of the IRS itself." Lest anyone was uncertain what he meant, he said of the IRS that he wanted to "kill it, drive a stake through its heart, bury it and hope it never rises again to terrorize the American people."

He also earned the audience's approval by noting a newspaper story last week reporting on a study that found that children do better when they spend time with their parents. Forbes sank his teeth in with gusto, asserting that the government-funded study was an example of how parents are working too hard so they can pay taxes, and therefore spending too little time with their children, all so the government can pay "a village of bureaucrats" to tell them they should spend more time with their children. "Thank God," he said, "Bill and Hillary are lame ducks." And no conservative ever lost ground with the Christian Coalition's members by attacking Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The afternoon brought a series of lesser-knowns to the podium. A few comments stood out. The head of the Dade County, Florida, Christian Coalition said, "we are engaged in a culture war for the very soul of America, and to the winner goes the right to teach the next generation." Another Florida Christian Coalition member offered a reading that complained that "Marxist professors" had taken over American campuses, that "religious institutions [had been turned] into cesspools of liberalism," and our "once great public schools turned into propaganda institutions espousing atheism."

At one point, one of the Christian Coalition's lawyers was allotted five minutes to assure the crowd that the group's voters guides were perfectly legal for the group to publish, and for churches to distribute. "Pastors," he said, "need not be concerned." His legal advice is, to put it generously, a minority view.

Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK) joked that he was going to be different from other speakers because "I'm the public official here to speak with you who is NOT running for president."

Most of Istook's remarks were devoted to promoting his "Christian Nation" amendment, or as he calls it, the Religious Freedom Amendment. He argued that "the courts have sought to sanitize" religion, and that "we have to reverse what the courts have done."

Randy Tate then took the stage to introduce Speaker Newt Gingrich, and endorsed Istook's amendment, citing a case in which he claimed that a schoolchild had been given an "F" on an essay "just for writing on Jesus." In fact, a district court and a subsequent appeals court found that the child failed the assignment because she didn't follow directions. Specifically, she changed topics without permission and chose a topic with which she was already familiar when the assignment was to write about a new topic. The story is one of several distorted tales popular with the Right.

Gingrich entered with the theme from "Rocky" playing loudly over the sound system. The Speaker's remarks seemed a bit defensive. He took some pains to argue that the tax cuts that were part of the budget deal were sufficiently large. For those who weren't buying it, he said he intended to push for a tax cut every year, and the audience seemed to approve. While in the neighborhood, Gingrich spent a bit of time bashing the IRS, and said he wanted to replace the existing tax code. He asked the Christian Coalition to join in a "dialogue with America about a simple and fair replacement for the Internal Revenue Code to get to a safe and fair" tax system. Other elements of the speech included a standing ovation for his promise to bring another vote on the "partial birth" abortion bill; a veiled reference to the October 4 Promise Keepers march on Washington. He also announced that "we" had created a "Faith and Freedom Guide," that could be used by visitors to Washington to understand various Washington landmarks in the context of their "orientation to a Creator."

He closed with a pitch for vouchers, and a grip-and-grin photo moment with Randy Tate.

The group then broke into state caucuses, too many for our handful of monitors to cover all, but a few lowlights emerged. In one caucus, one of the organizers explained that the beauty of the Christian Coalition's voters guides is that they go only to church-goers, and that those people agree with the Coalition.

In the Virginia caucus, the group's leaders unveiled some of their plans for this fall's gubernatorial campaign. Evidently the group has already mailed state legislative scorecards to churches around the state, and is now sending voter registration materials. In addition, the leaders said they have prepared get-out-the-vote radio advertisements to run, presumably on Christian radio stations, in the last two weeks of the campaign.

The evening session featured another would-be presidential candidate, Sen. John Ashcroft (R-MO). Unlike the other Republicans weighing runs for the White House, Ashcroft found reason to bring up his decision-making process several times. His speech reached for the same hot-button issues his competitors went after: religious persecution in China, abortion, the Internal Revenue Service, and home schooling. He won the honors for being the only speaker to offer his praise for phonics instruction in reading classes, one of the Right's well-developed shortcut buzzwords for bad education reforms.

Keith Fournier of the Catholic Alliance, a group launched by the Christian Coalition to much fanfare, but then set loose to drift on its own. Fournier began by announcing, "I'm Catholic and I vote." He went on to attack the late Justice William Brennan, saying that he had "a legacy that will live in infamy." He did concede that Brennan should not be denied last rites. Fournier was the only speaker to make more than a passing reference to the death of Mother Teresa and to her funeral this morning.

Crowd-pleaser Oliver North told a series of jokes that the crowd gobbled up, and then went on to make the day's most overt extension of the religious persecution issue. For years, Pat Robertson has told his television audience that Christians in America are the victims of persecution. Since the Christian Coalition announced it will support legislation to curb religious persecution abroad, watchers of the right wing have been wondering how they would make the link between their trumped-up or overstated examples of religious discrimination in America and the legitimate examples of life-threatening persecution abroad. North managed to speak of them with equal passion.

Jay Sekulow, head of Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, offered a breathless run-through of several legal cases in which the group is involved, two of which were of particular interest to the audience: the Hawaii same-sex marriage case and the dispute over an Alabama judge who refused to obey a court order to remove the Ten Commandments from his courtroom, which he says he posted for plainly religious purposes.

Tomorrow will be getaway day, for both the Christian Coalition as well as the small army of right-wing watchers who came to Atlanta to keep an eye on the Christian Coalition.

PFAW

People For the American Way -- 2000 M Street #400, Washington, DC 20036 --(202) 467-4999 | http://pfaw.org | pfaw@pfaw.org

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