Saturday, May 19, 2007

FRANK RICH: The Reverend Falwell’s Heavenly Timing

HARD as it is to believe now, Jerry Falwell came in second only to Ronald Reagan in a 1983 Good Housekeeping poll anointing “the most admired man in America.” By September 2001, even the Bush administration was looking for a way to ditch the preacher who had joined Pat Robertson on TV to pin the 9/11 attacks on feminists, abortionists, gays and, implicitly, Teletubbies. As David Kuo, a former Bush official for faith-based initiatives, tells the story in his book “Tempting Faith,” the Reverend Falwell was given a ticket to the Washington National Cathedral memorial service that week only on the strict condition that he stay away from reporters and cameras. Mr. Falwell obeyed, though once inside he cracked jokes (“Whoa, does she look frumpy,” he said of Barbara Bush) and chortled nonstop.

This is the great spiritual leader whom John McCain and Mitt Romney raced to praise when he died on Tuesday, just as the G.O.P. presidential contenders were converging for a debate in South Carolina. The McCain camp’s elegiac press release beat out his rival’s by a hair. But everyone including Senator McCain knows he got it right back in 2000, when he labeled Mr. Falwell and Mr. Robertson “agents of intolerance.” Mr. Falwell was always on the wrong, intolerant side of history. He fought against the civil rights movement and ridiculed Desmond Tutu’s battle against apartheid years before calling AIDS the “wrath of a just God against homosexuals” and, in 1999, fingering the Antichrist as an unidentified contemporary Jew.

Though Mr. Falwell had long been an embarrassment and laughingstock to many, including a new generation of Christian leaders typified by Mr. Kuo, the timing of his death could not have had grander symbolic import. It happened at the precise moment that the Falwell-Robertson brand of religious politics is being given its walking papers by a large chunk of the political party the Christian right once helped to grow. Hours after Mr. Falwell died, Rudy Giuliani, a candidate he explicitly rejected, won the Republican debate by acclamation. When the marginal candidate Ron Paul handed “America’s mayor” an opening to wrap himself grandiloquently in 9/11 once more, not even the most conservative of Deep South audiences could resist cheering him. If Rudy can dress up as Jack Bauer, who cares about his penchant for drag?

The current exemplars of Mr. Falwell’s gay-baiting, anti-Roe style of politics, James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, see the writing on the wall. Electability matters more to Republicans these days than Mr. Giuliani’s unambiguous support for abortion rights and gay civil rights (no matter how clumsily he’s tried to fudge it). Last week Mr. Dobson was in full crybaby mode, threatening not to vote if Rudy is on the G.O.P. ticket. Mr. Perkins complained to The Wall Street Journal that the secular side of the Republican Party was serving its religious-right auxiliary with “divorce papers.”

Yes, and it is doing so with an abruptness and rudeness reminiscent of Mr. Giuliani’s public dumping of the second of his three wives, Donna Hanover. This month, even the conservative editorial page of The Journal chastised Republicans of the Perkins-Dobson ilk for being too bellicose about abortion, saying that a focus on the issue “will make the party seem irrelevant” and cost it the White House in 2008. At the start of Tuesday’s debate, the Fox News moderator Brit Hume coldly put Mr. Falwell’s death off limits by announcing that “we will not be seeking any more reaction from the candidates on that matter.” It was a pre-emptive move to shield Fox’s favored party from soiling its image any further by association with the Moral Majority has-been and his strident causes. In the ensuing 90 minutes, the Fox News questioners skipped past the once-burning subject of same-sex marriage as well.

What a difference a midterm election has made. The Karl Rove theory that Republicans cannot survive without pandering to religious-right pooh-bahs is yet another piece of Bush dogma lying in ruins, done in by two synergistic forces. The first is the raw political math. Polls consistently show that most Americans don’t want abortion outlawed, do want legal recognition for gay couples, do want stem-cell research and never want to see government intrude on a Terri Schiavo again. On Election Day 2006, voters in red states defeated both an abortion ban (South Dakota) and, for the first time, a same-sex marriage ban (Arizona).

But equally crucial is how much the “family values” establishment has tarnished itself in the Bush era. Some of that self-destruction followed the time-honored Jimmy Swaggart-Jim Bakker paradigm of hypocrisy: the revelations that Ted Haggard, the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, was finding God in the arms of a male prostitute, and that the vice president’s daughter and her partner were violating stated Bush White House doctrine by raising a child with two mommies. But a greater factor in the decline and sullying of the Falwell-flavored religious right is its collusion in the worldly corruption ushered in by this particular presidency and Mr. Rove’s now defunct Republican majority.

The felonious Jack Abramoff scandals have ensnared a remarkably large who’s who of righteous politicos, led by Mr. Robertson’s former consigliere at the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed, who was so eager (as he put it in an e-mail) to start “humping in corporate accounts.” Among the preachers who abetted (unwittingly, they all say) the bogus grass-roots “anti-gambling” campaigns staged by Mr. Abramoff to smite rivals of his own Indian casino clients were Mr. Dobson, the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association and the Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition. Tom DeLay, a leader of the Schiavo putsch in Congress, was taken out by his association with Mr. Abramoff, too. Mr. DeLay’s onetime chief of staff, Edwin Buckham (an evangelical minister, yet), pocketed more than $1 million, largely from Abramoff clients, that was funneled through a so-called U.S. Family Network, ostensibly dedicated to promoting “moral fitness.”

The sleazy links between Washington scandal and religious-right hacks didn’t end when Mr. Abramoff went to jail and Mr. DeLay went into oblivion. The first Justice Department official to plead the Fifth in this year’s bottomless United States attorneys scandal — Monica Goodling, a former top Alberto Gonzales aide — is a product of Pat Robertson’s Regent University School of Law, formerly known as CBN University School of Law, after the Christian Broadcasting Network. As The Boston Globe discovered, Regent’s Web site boasts that some 150 of its grads were hired by the Bush administration, and not, it seems, because of merit. In Ms. Goodling’s graduating class, 60 percent failed the bar exam on their first try. U.S. News & World Report ranks the school in the fourth — a k a bottom — tier.

Having been given immunity, Ms. Goodling is scheduled to testify before House inquisitors this week. We know already from The National Journal that she was so moral that she put blue drapes over the exposed breasts in the statuary in the Great Hall of the Justice Department (since removed). The Times found that she had asked civil-service job applicants, “Have you ever cheated on your wife?” Yet her strict morality did not extend to protecting the nonpartisan sanctity of the American legal system. An inexperienced lawyer just past 30, Ms. Goodling exercised her power to vet some 400 Justice Department political appointees by favoring Republican and Rovian loyalty over actual qualifications. Though the Monica at the center of the last presidential scandal did enable a husband’s cheating on his wife, at least she wasn’t tasked with any governmental responsibility more weighty than divvying up pizza.

Mr. Giuliani’s rivals for the Republican nomination just can’t leave behind the received wisdom that you still have to appease the Robertson-Dobson-Perkins axis of piety that produces the likes of a Monica Goodling. They seem oblivious to the new evangelical leaders who care more about serving the ill, the poor and the environment than grandstanding in the fading culture wars. They seem oblivious to the reality that their association with the old religious-right taskmasters diminishes them, however well it may play to some Iowa caucus voters. Mr. Romney, a former social liberal whose wife gave money to Planned Parenthood, is crudely trying to rewrite his record by showering cash on anti-abortion-rights groups; he spoke at Regent U. even as a Pat Robertson Web site mocked his religion, Mormonism, as a cult. Mr. McCain, busily trying to disown past positions unpopular with the declining base, is trapped in a squeeze play of his own making: he’s failing to persuade the hard right that he’s one of them even as he makes Mr. Giuliani look like a straight-talker by comparison.

“America’s mayor” has so much checkered history in his closet — by which I mean Bernard Kerik, among other ticking time bombs, not the gay couple he bunked with before 9/11 — that he is hardly a certain winner of his party’s nomination, let alone the presidency. But whatever his ultimate fate, the enthusiasm and poll numbers Mr. Giuliani arouses among Republicans to date are a death knell for the political orthodoxy of the Rove era. The agents of intolerance are well on their way to being forgotten, even in those cases when they, unlike Jerry Falwell, are not yet gone.

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