You just never know whom you will run into in a Washington restaurant. The Thursday before the annual Christian Coalition "Road to Victory" Conference, I noticed Pat Robertson having dinner across the way from where I was chowing down. Since I saw him, I was relatively sure he saw me. After dessert, I thought I should go visiting, and even before I reached his table, he was rising to greet me, thanking me for coming to his event.
I noted that I wanted to "swell the crowd" and then mentioned that my mother actually is a viewer of "The 700 Club," his daily syndicated television "news" and "information" show.
"Smart lady," he responded.
Not wanting him to get too excited, I noted that Mom "doesn't understand why Pat Robertson says those nasty things about me." He chortled that maybe she could come and visit him and they'd straighten things out.
The rest of the Christian Coalition conference went about as I expected. Republican presidential hopefuls showed up to woo the crowd, although no "straw poll" of favorites was taken. The display area had booths hawking expected wares, ranging from anti-pornography computer software to anti-abortion bumper stickers.
This year, Y2K fears brought out some new dealers. Chesapeake, Va., meteorologist Jonathan Cash was there with his book, The Age of the Antichrist. ("It's fiction," his wife said to me, which was a helpful assurance that I hadn't missed something really big on CNN). A gold-coin-dealer-turned-survival-food-vendor gave me a brown bag of turkey chili with a self-heating chemical around the food so that a simple pull of a string would activate a boil-up of the stew. (The cost for a family of four for a year is roughly $12,000, which may explain why he did not receive a single order for the product during the convention.)
As usual, I walked around the Coalition conference chatting with journalists and television reporters who were looking for "another side" of the event. Immediately after Robertson's opening address, I remarked to some news media representatives that it was "the most pro-Republican speech I have ever heard him give" and that he seemed Amore interested in the G-O-P than G-O-D." That line got picked up in many places. Even Robertson saw it.
I know he saw it because he sent me a lengthy letter on the topic, cast as "an explanation to your mother." Robertson juxtaposed my comments with coverage of his speech by major media outlets. For example, he said, The Washington Post "listed line by line criticism of Congress" and CNN "played repeatedly my comments criticizing the Republican Congress." He added that "roughly 40% of my remarks dealt with...world poverty, disease, hunger and the disparate allocation of the world's wealth..." and 20-25 percent was about school vouchers.
Now, here is where it gets a little nasty. He concluded the epistle: "Barry, what you need to tell your mother is that, unfortunately, when you were a little boy, she didn't teach you to tell the truth, and this is the reason Pat Robertson says unkind things about you from time-to-time."
It is one thing to call me a liar; it is something else to insult my mother's child rearing. So, naturally, I had to correct him by return mail.
I began by pointing out that I wasn't giving a word count analysis of his speech to reporters; I was telling them about its partisan tone. Here is a man who in past addresses has made the admittedly laughable claim that his is a Anon-partisan" operation and who in press conferences has carefully labeled his voter turnout campaigns as an effort to spur "pro-family" voters to the polls. By contrast, at this year's "Road to Victory," he blatantly stated, "We are back. If we aren't in the field this coming election, the Republicans are going to lose. I don't think there is any question about it. We will be the margin of victory in the key races."
In fact, I added, his alleged criticism of Congress was primarily "personal," complaining that since he was responsible for electing the majority Republicans, they ought to do what he says. It is hardly as if electing Independents or Democrats would make him happier.
People can disagree because they start with different principles and end up with different conclusions. That leads to robust debate. We can also disagree about the meaning of evidence. To allege, however, that I am an inveterate, childhood-to-middle-aged liar because I emphasized some comments in his speech more than others, is bizarre.
I concluded my letter by noting that twice on his TV show he has quoted me as saying, "If your church is on fire, the municipal fire department is not allowed to put out the fire because of the separation of church and state." I neither said nor believe this ridiculous statement.
Since Brother Robertson is so intrigued by "truthfulness," I asked him to apologize on-air for that fabricated quote. I'll let you know if I hear back.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of
Americans United for Separation of Church and State.