On October 1, 1987, TV preacher Pat Robertson stood before a bank of microphones in Brooklyn and announced his intention to seek the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States.
Robertson's campaign was short-lived but nasty. During the race, his campaign was accused of launching numerous "dirty tricks" against fellow GOP hopefuls. This year Robertson's name is not on the ballot but his legacy of "dirty tricks" lives on.
A spate of religiously based political attacks altered the course of the presidential campaign in late February and continued into March, temporarily turning the Republican contest into something of a holy war as the two main contenders, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain, traded accusations of religious bigotry. Robertson was right in the middle of the political slugfest. Before it was over, his Christian Coalition stood accused of taking its partisan attack machine to unprecedented depths to discredit McCain.
The holy war began as fallout from a Bush visit to Bob Jones University Feb. 2 in advance of the South Carolina primary. The militantly fundamentalist school, located in Greenville, is controversial because it bans interracial dating and has repeatedly attacked the Roman Catholic Church, referring to the pope as the "Antichrist."
Despite the controversial nature of BJU, Bush's visit to the school did not attract big headlines right away, garnering only brief mentions in a few major newspapers. The first candidate to criticize Bush for speaking there was Democrat Bill Bradley, who raised the issue Feb. 3 while campaigning in San Francisco. But the BJU appearance soon became a full blown controversy when McCain's camp picked up the drumbeat.
McCain was eager to find an issue to use against Bush after the Arizona senator's drubbing in the Feb. 19 South Carolina GOP primary. Bush won the contest handily, with the help of fundamentalist Christian voters who were energized by Robertson. An exit poll done for The New York Times indicated that two-thirds of GOP voters who identified themselves as "Christian conservatives" voted for Bush. Among Republican voters who did not identify with the Religious Right, Bush and McCain split evenly.
Robertson pulled out all the stops to help Bush in South Carolina, one of the few states where the Coalition still wields a good deal of influence. He claimed that Roberta Combs, a South Carolina native who now serves as executive vice president of the Christian Coalition, had organized every county in the state. In addition, Robertson attacked McCain daily on his nationally televised "700 Club" show during the week leading up the primary.
Two days before the election, Combs held a press conference to denounce McCain's association with former U.S. Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.). Rudman, who is Jewish, served as a senior adviser to the McCain campaign. Robertson attacked Rudman because he dared to criticize the Religious Right in his 1996 memoir Combat: 12 Years in the U.S. Senate.
In the book Rudman wrote, "Politically speaking, the Republican Party is making a terrible mistake if it appears to ally itself with the Christian right. There are some fine, sincere people in its ranks, but there are also enough anti-abortion zealots, would-be censors, homophobes, bigots and latter-day Elmer Gantry's to discredit any party that is unwise enough to embrace such a group."
The South Carolina results were a setback for McCain, who had trounced Bush by 19 points in the New Hampshire primary. Looking to regain momentum, McCain cast his eye on Michigan, a state not known for having a large percentage of "born-again" voters but which does have many Catholic residents. He chose to hit Bush hard on the Bob Jones issue. Many Michigan residents reported receiving calls informing them that Bush had spoken at the school and pointing out that the university has made anti-Catholic statements. Although McCain at first denied being responsible for the calls, he later admitted his campaign had arranged them.
At the same time, Robertson was busy making calls on Bush's behalf. The Virginia Beach televangelist has been a vociferous critic of McCain throughout the election season, even though the Arizona senator just a few years ago received a "Friend of the Family" award from the Christian Coalition of Arizona. Robertson opposes McCain's plan for campaign finance reform, but a more pragmatic reason for his venom is that the religious broadcaster decided more than two years ago that Bush should be the anointed GOP candidate. The volatile Virginia evangelist got angry when McCain tried to upset the applecart.
(Some might say Robertson's enthusiasm for Bush is a tad ironic, considering what the TV preacher wrote about the Texas governor's father, President George Bush, in his 1991 book, The New World Order. In that infamous tome, Robertson charged that it may be possible that the senior Bush was among a small coterie of U.S. leaders who were "unknowingly and unwittingly carrying out the mission and mouthing the phrases of a tightly knit cabal whose goal is nothing less than a new order for the human race under the domination of Lucifer and his followers.")
In automated phone calls to Michigan voters, Robertson accused McCain of hiring "a vicious bigot who once wrote that conservative Christians in politics are anti-abortion zealots, homophobes and would-be censors" a reference to Rudman. In the automated message, Robertson told listeners, "John McCain refused to repudiate these words."
McCain staffers fired back, accusing Bush of being in league with Robertson. "Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed hand delivered Gov. Bush's victory to him in South Carolina," said McCain spokesman Todd Harris. "The people of Michigan have an opportunity to repudiate these kinds of negative smears."
For his part, Bush tried to distance himself from the Robertson effort. "We are not making any Pat Robertson calls," Mindy Tucker, a Bush spokeswoman, told the Associated Press. "Our campaign doesn't know anything about it."
Bush, in fact, came to view the calls as counterproductive. After the Texas governor lost both the Michigan and Arizona primaries to McCain Feb. 21, some of his advisors were quick to blame Robertson.
"This Robertson stuff and the hard turn to the right really hurt him," U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), a Bush supporter, told The New York Times. "I think Bush is still the favorite if you're at the betting table. But he's got to change his message and be inclusive."
Scott Reed, who ran former U.S. Sen. Robert Dole's GOP campaign for president in 1996, was more blunt, telling The Times, "He [Robertson] needs to be put back in the bottle. Somebody needs to pick up the phone and tell him to stop."
In the wake of the twin defeats in Michigan and Arizona, Bush's campaign did essentially that. With the Virginia primary fast approaching, campaign officials apparently told Robertson to back off. One anonymous Bush aide, speaking of the phone calls in Michigan, told the Los Angeles Times, "It was hurtful and never should have been done. On a staff-to-staff level, we have asked him to back off. The Robertson people were contacted and asked to knock it off."
But this situation raised a new set of complications. Under federal election law, campaigns are not allowed to "coordinate" their activities with outside non-profit groups. Thus, if Bush operatives really did call the Christian Coalition and demand an end to the calls, it may have violated the law. Asked about the matter by The New York Times, Bush was coy, saying only, "It's against the law to coordinate."
Bush's campaign communications director, Karen Hughes, also dodged the question about possible contact between the Bush campaign and the Christian Coalition. Asked about it twice by Bob Schieffer on CBS's "Face the Nation" Feb. 20, Hughes would only say, "I do not know that that has occurred."
Perhaps emboldened by his success in Michigan, McCain stepped up his attacks on the Religious Right and traveled to Robertson's own backyard to do it. During an address at Cox High School in Virginia Beach Feb. 28, the Arizona senator called Robertson and fellow Virginian Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance." He accused both of distorting his record "because I don't pander to them."
Continued McCain, "The political tactics of division and slander are not our values. They are corrupting influences on religion and politics and those who practice them in the name of religion or in the name of the Republican Party or in the name of America shame our faith, our party and our country. Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right."
Concluding, McCain said, "We are the party of Ronald Reagan, not Pat Robertson. We are the party of Theodore Roosevelt, not the party of special interests. We are the party of Abraham Lincoln, not Bob Jones."
During his remarks, McCain tried to differentiate between the Religious Right's leadership and its rank-and-file members. He lauded Religious Right leaders James C. Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, and Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship. McCain also enlisted help from Gary Bauer, former head of the Family Research Council and a one-time contender for the GOP nomination himself.
Bauer, who dropped out of the race after a last-place showing in the New Hampshire primary, had endorsed McCain. In doing so, he brought the wrath of the Religious Right establishment down on his head. In February, Dobson released two statements on P.R. Newswire, a company that circulates press releases for business and non-profit groups, criticizing Bauer for the move.
The first statement, issued Feb. 17, attacked McCain's stand on various issues, accused him of being an adulterer and of having a hair-trigger temper and implied that he is not really anti-abortion. Dobson, "speaking as a private individual and not as the president of Focus on the Family," issued the statement to "clarify his lack of support for Senator McCain" and express "disagreement" with Bauer's endorsement.
The next day, Dobson and Falwell issued a joint statement again attacking McCain and criticizing "Bauer's confounding decision to endorse McCain's presidential bid."
The release quotes Falwell as saying, "McCain is anything but a social conservative, and Gary Bauer's endorsement of the McCain campaign is sending a confusing message to conservative Republicans. I personally endorse Texas Gov. George W. Bush based on his commitment to uphold the conservative agenda that has always characterized the Republican Party."
Bauer apparently started to get a little uneasy after McCain's attack on Falwell and Robertson. A few days after the speech, he told The New York Times that McCain's comparison of the two Virginia televangelists to Farrakhan and Sharpton "was unfounded and unwise. Such rhetoric serves only to divide the party and plays into the hands of the liberal elite to falsely depict Christian conservatives as intolerant extremists."
Regardless of Bauer's input, McCain's anti-Religious Right strategy backfired in Virginia. In Michigan, McCain was carried to victory by large numbers of independents and Democrats who voted in the state's open primary. Virginia also has an open primary, but few non-Republicans participated. In addition, Religious Right Republicans were energized for Bush by McCain's attack. They went to the polls in large numbers and voted by an 8 -1 margin for Bush. McCain, beaten badly, turned his attention to the wave of states up for grabs on March 7 -- Super Tuesday --particularly delegate-rich New York and California.
At first, McCain indicated he would be defiant in the face of Religious Right attacks. Speaking to reporters on his campaign bus the day after his Virginia speech, McCain said, "To stand up to the forces of evil, that's my job, and I can't steer the Republican Party if those two individuals [Robertson and Falwell] have the influence they have on the party today."
But before hitting California, McCain, apparently under pressure from Bauer, issued an apology and conceded he had gone too far in his remarks about Robertson and Falwell. "I do not consider them evil," he said, "and I regret that my flip remark may have mistakenly created that impression. In my campaign, I often joke about Luke Skywalker, evil empires and death stars. It was in that vein that I used the phrase yesterday."
On March 3, Falwell accepted McCain's apology, but Robertson and his Christian Coalition were in no mood to mend fences with the senator. In fact, the Coalition seemed determined to stop his campaign in California. To do that, the Coalition issued a voter guide purporting to compare the views of Bush, McCain and minor GOP candidate Alan Keyes along with Democratic hopefuls Vice President Al Gore and former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley.
The guide was clearly stacked to make McCain look like a liberal who has more in common with Gore and Bradley than Bush. This occurred even though on social issues, McCain and Bush have virtually identical views.
On abortion, for example, McCain and Bush hold the same stance. Both oppose legal abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and a threat to the life of the mother. To get around this problem, the guide does not address abortion directly even though this has always been a top issue for the Coalition. Instead, it purports to survey McCain and Bush on the issue of using tissue from aborted fetuses in medical research and the question of spousal notification for abortions, where McCain and Bush differ.
The guide also gets some information wrong. It states that McCain opposes tuition tax credits for private education, when in fact he introduced legislation establishing a tuition tax credit plan in the Senate last year.
An analysis of the guide undertaken by Americans United showed that the document was clearly stacked to favor Bush's candidacy. The guide attempts to portray McCain as holding political views identical to Gore and Bradley. All three men, the AU analysis noted, have served in the Senate, and any fair analysis on their voting records would clearly show that McCain has compiled a far more conservative voting pattern than Gore and Bradley. (In 1996, for example, McCain's approval from the American Conservative Union was 95 percent. His rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action was 0.)
Despite the clear partisan slant to the guide, the Coalition claimed that it had lined up hundreds of California churches to distribute it. Just days before the primary, Ross Bradder, the California field director for the Coalition, told the San Francisco Chronicle that 2.3 million copies of the guide had already been distributed in churches all over the state. (Americans United issued a statement warning churches that distribution of the guide could cost them their tax-exempt status.) Bradder called the fact that the guide showed McCain as holding views similar to Gore and Bradley "a coincidence."
McCain had pinned his hopes on strong showings in New York and California, but they never materialized. His campaign collapsed after a poor showing on Super Tuesday. Political analysts at CNN noted that McCain was able to carry only a handful of New England states where the Religious Right makes up less than 15 percent of the Republican vote. Bush won every state where it topped 15 percent.
A gloating Robertson was happy to take the credit for Bush's big win. Appearing on CNN the night of the primary, the television preacher called Bush a man of "strong faith," labeled McCain "a divider" and made it clear his Coalition will work on Bush's behalf throughout the campaign season.
Robertson also said he and his activists had helped the GOP take control of the Virginia legislature and said he hopes to take that model nationwide. "I had worked very hard the last 10 years to build the Republican Party," Robertson said. "You know, in Virginia for the first time since Reconstruction we have Republican control of the legislature. We have Republican control of all the top offices in the state. I have personally spent of my own resources over $500,000 bringing that to pass. We've worked like beavers for the last few years here in Virginia and in other states."
Robertson told the CNN audience that he doubts that "the Republicans would have won a majority [in Congress] if it hadn't been for the work of the Christian Coalition and other of the religious conservatives."
The following day on his "700 Club" show Robertson observed, "McCain's intemperate remarks made in Virginia Beach the preceding week just killed him." He called religious conservatives "the margin of victory for Bush" and opined that McCain had a shot at winning the nomination until "he did what he did."
As the general election approaches, Americans United has called for a moratorium on religiously based political attacks. Observed Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, "Recently voters in Iran took steps to try to separate religion and government. Unfortunately, here in the United States, we appear to be going in the opposite direction. Politicians should not divide our people along religious lines."