Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson bounded to the microphone and unleashed a blistering attack on Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore.
Following a string of jokes about Gore, Nicholson asserted that the vice president inhabits a world alien to most Americans.
"Today's world is one where black is white, where up is down and where good is evil," he said. "We might call this Al Gore's world, Al Gore's America.... Al Gore's America is an America gone awry. In Al Gore's America, the Ten Commandments are renamed the Ten Suggestions, Boy Scouts are booed when they lead the Pledge of Allegiance at his own convention and school children who want to pray at high school football games find their microphones turned off by the government. The good news is that in 38 days we can bring Al Gore's America to an end and replace it with George Bush's America."
Inspired by Nicholson's rhetoric, the crowd of approximately 1,200 he was addressing began chanting in unison, "No more Gore! No more Gore!" As the noise died down, Nicholson said, "I need your help in this, and I come here to ask for it."
If you closed your eyes, you would have sworn you were in Philadelphia at the Republican National Convention. But Nicholson's appearance didn't take place at an official party gathering. Rather, he was addressing an allegedly "non-partisan group" the Christian Coalition, which held its annual "Road to Victory" Conference Sept. 29-30 in Washington, D.C.
Despite the group's claims of non-partisanship, this year's Coalition event was essentially a two-day rally for Bush and other GOP candidates. Speaker after speaker alternately ridiculed and assailed Democratic nominee Gore and pleaded with attendees to do all they can to help elect the Texas governor and keep the House of Representatives and Senate under Republican control.
Although the Coalition, founded and run by TV preacher Pat Robertson, has always had a GOP cast, the 2000 trip down the "Road to Victory" was so partisan in tone it reached the suffocation point. In past years, Coalition leaders have gone through the motions of putting a token conservative Democrat or two on the program. This year they didn't even bother. Instead, attendees heard from a star-studded line-up of GOP heavy hitters: House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Dick Armey, Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and a number of other Republican members of Congress. Also on the program was Lynne V. Cheney, wife of Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney.
Strangely enough, Bush himself snubbed the group. Officially, the Republican candidate's excuse was that he was too busy preparing for the first presidential debate, but the general perception was that Bush, who has worked hard to portray himself as a "compassionate conservative," did not want to be too closely identified with Robertson's fire-breathing right-wing crowd five weeks away from the election. (Even Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition executive director who now serves on the Bush campaign staff, failed to show up.)
A few days before the Coalition conference, Robertson tried unsuccessfully to turn up the heat on Bush by telling The New York Times that the Texas governor has failed to ignite religious conservatives. Robertson said Bush's chances of winning were "very iffy" and groused, "It takes a lot of energy and effort to get out and work the precincts and lick envelopes and go to churches. If you want the troops to go out and fall on their swords for you, it doesn't hurt for the general to stand up and say, 'I need your help.'"
Eventually, a compromise was struck. After announcing that he would not appear at all, the Texas governor backtracked and agreed to provide a short statement via videotape. It was aired on Saturday morning.
The Coalition's inability to persuade Bush to appear in the flesh may be further signs of the group's ongoing deterioration. This year's "Road to Victory" drew the smallest attendance since 1992. Previous sessions have seen crowds topping 4,000. This year, only about 1,200 people showed up and that included a large contingent of students bused in from Robertson's Regent University and other fundamentalist schools. (To make the Washington Hilton ballroom appear full, the Coalition arranged to have long tables placed between rows of seats. Roberta Combs, executive vice president of the group, said this was done to facilitate note taking. It also had the advantage of eating up a large chunk of the seating space, avoiding the picture of a conference that was sparsely attended.)
The exhibit hall, which in past years was packed with vendors and Religious Right allies doing brisk business, was at least half empty this year and for much of the conference resembled a ghost town.
Many state caucus meetings were poorly attended. A joint meeting of Coalition members from New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and the District of Columbia drew an anemic attendance of about 35 people. Attendees were told that none of those chapters currently has an executive director.
Interest from the national media was also down sharply. A special seating area roped off for members of the press was busy during the first morning, but remained nearly empty during most of the conference. The New York Times and The Washington Post ran only brief stories about the event. USA Today published a short wire service story two days after the event. C-SPAN taped the conference and aired it later, but CNN showed little interest.
Despite the reduced crowd and his behind-the-scenes tensions with Bush, Robertson pasted on a happy face for the attendees. During a kickoff address Friday morning, the ever-smiling evangelist promised attendees the "greatest Road to Victory in the history of the Coalition." He acknowledged the group's recent troubles and noted that the organization has slashed its budget and laid off staff but insisted that the Coalition is "geared for the biggest thrust ever in this election" and is poised for a comeback.
The balance of Robertson's remarks focused on taxes and his claim that reckless government spending by Democrats and Republicans alike threatens to leave America's children with a crushing debt. He mentioned social issues only in passing, blasting the Supreme Court for recent decisions striking down school-sponsored prayers before football games and upholding so-called "partial birth" abortions.
"We have the privilege of a very clear choice this year," Robertson said, adding, "This election can be the most important in the past 100 years."
Robertson's comments were no doubt deliberately muted because he was aware that reporters were in the room. Later in the conference, during an invitation-only meeting for pastors and at the conference banquet, which were not covered by the media, Robertson returned to his standard themes, ratcheted up his rhetoric and talked extensively about abortion, homosexuality and other Religious Right themes.
During the pastors' luncheon, Robertson compared the United States to Nigeria, a country he said suffered for years under a repressive military regime. The dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, was "one wicked dude," Robertson said. But after a revival swept the nation, Robertson said, Christians began to pray for him to be replaced by a "righteous government."
"God heard their prayers and not only did he hear their prayers, but God has a sense of humor," Robertson said. He explained that Abacha had a fondness for Indian prostitutes and "while he was in the act with one of them, he fell dead of a heart attack, and he died." Amid the crowd's laughter and cheers, Robertson claimed that Nigeria's new president is a born-again Christian.
"You don't have to continue to suffer in bondage," Robertson said. "Like it or not, the Christians of America are in bondage. We're in bondage to nine old men [sic] in black robes of the Supreme Court. We're in bondage to the ACLU, we're in bondage to Planned Parenthood, we're in bondage to a bunch of homosexuals.... How did they get this power? We are under bondage, and it's time the Christian church stood up and said, 'No more!'"
Continued Robertson, "We vastly outnumber the atheists.... Why should we put up with abortion? Why should we put up with all of these laws that are being put on us? Why should we submit to unrighteous laws and unrighteous government and take it lying down? We shouldn't, we shouldn't!"
Political action, Robertson asserted, is the key to changing things. He said too many conservative Christians are apathetic about politics and told a story about a Republican committeewoman in Nevada who lost her reelection bid by a handful of votes because several fundamentalist Christians went to a prayer meeting instead of the caucus.
"I mean, man, I'm all for prayers, but for heaven's sake, put the woman in office and then go pray about it, you know," thundered Robertson. "God will listen to us. You can pray in the morning, you can pray in the afternoon, but the caucus is 7 p.m. Go to the caucus and pray at 8! Pray at 6, but go to the caucus!"
Robertson highlighted similar themes during his banquet address, asserting that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation but that decades ago a coalition of communists and atheists teamed up with the federal courts to drive all vestiges of religion from public life.
Despite Robertson's extreme views, top Republican congressional leaders appear convinced that the Coalition remains a powerhouse that must be courted. Thus they dutifully put in appearances during the "Road to Victory."
Hastert, like other speakers, noted that much is at stake in this election since the next president might have the opportunity to name several Supreme Court justices. Although he talked mostly about tax issues, Hastert did assert near the end of his remarks that the country needs a president who will "appoint members to the Supreme Court that believe in the sanctity of life and family values."
Hastert's Senate counterpart, Lott, raised similar themes. Referring to the election, he urged Coalition members to "prepare for the great battle ahead." President Bill Clinton, according to Lott, "has demeaned the Oval Office." He added, "We are at a fork in the road.... Are we going to turn to the left, steadily and surely toward more socialism or will we will be a God-fearing country? That's what's at stake in this election."
Lott reeled off a string of GOP Senate incumbents and candidates that he said need Coalition support, listing races in Florida, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Ohio, Washington, Texas and Montana.
"I am worried about our future," said Lott. "We could lose it all not from some external 'ism,' but because we are eroded and corroded internally. This is the most important election of my lifetime. With God's grace, we will have a great victory."
Armey began his remarks with a string of jokes ridiculing Gore and bemoaning the fact that the vice president's running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, has been criticized for interjecting too much religiosity into the campaign.
Like other speakers, Armey asserted that the election is crucial because of the potential to appoint new members to the Supreme Court. He called for "a conservative judiciary" that will uphold "the original intent" of the Constitution. Gore, he asserted, "doesn't respect who we are."
In his remarks, which were somewhat rambling and disjointed at times, Armey also said that Gore wants to take away people's sport utility vehicles and force Americans to pay three dollars for a gallon of gas. He asserted that Gore favors "socialized medicine, like they have in Europe."
At another point, Armey called for private school vouchers so that parents will not have to choose among the "least worst" public schools but can instead send their children to the school that is "the most best."
The final GOP congressional speaker on Friday morning was DeLay. The Texas representative, keeping with the theme, called the election the "most important since the Civil War." Charging that the Supreme Court had "approved infanticide" and "won't let kids pray before football games," DeLay called on attendees to resist the liberals' "cultural coup d'etat" and said, "My friends, enough is enough." He charged that the United States must choose between the "biblical worldview" and the competing "worldviews of humanism, materialism, sexism [sic], naturalism, post-modernism or any of the other -isms."
DeLay's sermonizing was ironic, coming as it did on the heels of a trip to Las Vegas he made with a bevy of lobbyists just days before the Coalition event. According to The Washington Post, DeLay flew "more than 30 lobbyists to Las Vegas for a golf tournament and a round of partying." DeLay's suite at the Rio Hotel and Casino, equipped with a hot tub and bar, was the site of a raucous late-night gathering well lubricated by champagne. The Post reported that one lobbyist poured champagne on DeLay's daughter, Dani Ferro, who serves as manager of DeLay's re-election campaign, while she was in the hot tub. (DeLay staffers say he did not attend the party.)
Friday afternoon Coalition attendees also heard from Lynne Cheney, wife of the GOP vice presidential candidate. Cheney, who ran the National Endowment for the Humanities during the Reagan and Bush years, ridiculed Gore and like nearly every other speaker remarked, "This is one of the most important elections ever."
Cheney accused Gore and Lieberman of being tools of a Hollywood establishment eager to foist sex and violence on America's children. She asserted that Gore stretches the truth and blasted legal abortion. Bush and her husband, she said, will "value life" by banning late-term abortions.
Cheney also said that Bush will take federal money earmarked for educating disadvantaged children and turn it over to parents if there is no improvement in a child's school within three years. The parents would then be free to use the money to pay tuition at any parochial or private school. In describing the plan, Cheney, like Bush, never used the term "voucher," though that is clearly what she proposed.
Cheney was one of many Coalition speakers who criticized late-term abortion specifically. The Coalition's position is that all abortions should be banned, yet most speakers, knowing this extreme position does not sit well with the American public, gave Bush cover by limiting their remarks to the type of late-term procedure the Religious Right calls "partial-birth abortion." (Polls indicate majority support for banning late-term abortion but not for banning all abortions.)
But a few speakers did stray from the script. Among them was Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), perhaps the most vociferous anti-abortion voice in the House. Smith noted that the day before the conference began the Food and Drug Administration had approved the French drug RU-486, which he called "a baby poison made in China to kill American babies." Asserted Smith, "Believe me, it will be a nightmare if Gore gets in. He is absolutely committed to the abortionists' agenda." According to Smith, that agenda includes the right to kill "the newly born."
Multi-millionaire and failed GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes also played up his opposition to all abortions. Forbes, who used to be at least vaguely pro-choice, has been kowtowing to the Coalition on this issue for years in the hope that it will boost his sagging political fortunes. During his remarks, he called for banning late-term abortion to "use it as a beachhead to move forward and finally put a stop to all these killings."
Similarly, the Rev. Frank Pavone, a Roman Catholic priest who runs the anti-abortion group Priests for Life, told the Coalition crowd that all abortions must be banned and that every politician seeking public office must oppose legal abortion.
"We proclaim that any candidate for any office on any level must have the right position on abortion," Pavone said. "Why? We maintain you cannot be a public servant if you turn your back on people who are being destroyed."
Politicians who hold a pro-choice view, Pavone asserted, "are not fit for public office." Christians of any denomination who support it, he said, are "a scandal to the gospel of Jesus Christ." Finally, non-Christians and non-believers who favor legal abortion are violating the Declaration of Independence, which grants people the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Other speakers on Friday included Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, a Jew who has been a Religious Right apologist for a number of years, ultra-conservative newspaper columnist Don Feder, U.S. Sen. Rod Grams (R-Minn.), U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Iran-Contra figure and radio/television talk show host Oliver North, anti-welfare activist Star Parker (who asserted that forcing people to contribute to the Social Security system violates biblical commands against stealing), Religious Right stalwart Phyllis Schlafly and far-right talk-show host Armstrong Williams.
McConnell, one of the Senate's strongest opponents of campaign finance reform, blasted efforts to ban so-called "soft money" from elections. While reformers have argued that these huge contributions from outside groups have tainted the political process, McConnell defended the money flow, asserting that it was soft money that helped build up the Christian Coalition.
Also on the Friday speakers' roster was the Rev. Jerry Falwell, marking his first-ever appearance at a "Road to Victory" gathering.
Calling the upcoming election "a spiritual battle," Falwell asserted that if Gore is elected and abortion continues unabated, the nation will feel God's wrath. He maintained that the country has "legalized infanticide" and referred to the Supreme Court as "those nine idiots."
Falwell seems unimpressed by polls showing that nearly 85 percent of Americans say they are Christians. He insisted that, "We are entering the post-Christian era headlong. We are about to become what Western Europe now is.... We are about to become pagans and secular."
Some of Falwell's tangents were even more peculiar. At one point he blasted scientists who say the planet is getting warmer and that the ozone layer is depleting. Falwell said he does not believe this is happening, and told the crowd that when he puts on hair spray in the morning, he shoots some up into the air "just to say, 'In your face'" to the environmentalists.
Saturday's sessions featured slightly better attendance but an equal level of partisan rhetoric. The lead speaker was RNC Chairman Nicholson, who, borrowing a line from former President Ronald Reagan, told the crowd, "I know that you can't endorse us, but we endorse you."
Nicholson went on to make the by-now-familiar claim that this is the most important election in his lifetime, adding, "I need your help to make sure that America makes the right decision...."
Other Saturday speakers included Jay Sekulow, head of Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, who told the crowd an outright falsehood: that a federal court has declared the Christian Coalition's voter guides non-partisan and thus they are perfectly acceptable for distribution in churches. Sekulow repeated this claim during the closed-door pastors' lunch, this time increasing the number of courts that have allegedly made this claim to two. (In fact, no federal court has ever said that Coalition voter guides do not violate federal tax law or that they are non-partisan.)
Also on the program was David Barton, a historical revisionist from Texas who offered his standard America is a "Christian nation" spiel. As is his custom, Barton asserted that the Constitution does not separate church and state. His views were echoed by Tony Nassif, who spoke later that day at a breakout session about his book Jesus, Politics and the Church. In the volume, Nassif writes, "Many ask how the 'separation between Church and State' would be applied in the context of Christian involvement in politics. The answer is simple: It doesn't. There is no separation between church and state. He who created one also created the other."
On balance, most of Saturday's speakers stuck to the script and played up Bush, stressing the "this-is-the-most-important-election-ever" angle. But one speaker apparently didn't get the "push Bush" memo and deviated sharply from the party line. Oddly enough, it was Robertson's own wife, Dede.
During brief remarks, Dede Robertson called the presidential campaign "lackluster" and implied that she is less than thrilled by Bush. Dede Robertson is apparently still smarting from negative remarks U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) made about her husband during the primaries, and she needled Bush as a "candidate who has distanced himself from his supporters and pals around with John McCain."
Dede Robertson's criticism of Bush went over like the proverbial lead balloon. As she spoke, an icy silence reigned in the ballroom, and dozens of people stormed out the door. One woman was heard to huff as she stomped off, "This is a downer! I don't need to hear this!"
In the space of just 10 minutes Robertson's wife, who has just recently been named chair of the Board of Directors at her husband's Regent University, managed to ramble over several topics, at times barely making sense. The multi-millionaire televangelist's wife asserted that many people don't want to work today because "why work when you can make more money on the dole?" She then asserted that Gore wants to take people's cars away and force them to ride bicycles. ("The only bike I want to ride is in the exercise room," she quipped.) She added that the very idea of Gore's election frightens her.
"I just throw up my hands in horror," she said. "We'd probably have sex in the streets, we'd have pornography everywhere. Our children would never be taught right from wrong." Gore, she asserted, could get the chance to put "three more liberals" on the Supreme Court "if Jesus doesn't come sooner."
Bush's video presentation followed Dede Robertson's remarks. It was only about four minutes long, and in it Bush simply rehashed his campaign promises of lower taxes and better schools. He mentioned abortion once, saying he will "lead our nation toward a culture that values life, the life of the elderly and the sick, the life of the young and the life of the unborn."
The speakers' roster featured many Religious Right stalwarts, but one man was notable for his absence Pat Buchanan. Although the conservative commentator has been a popular speaker at past "Road to Victory" conferences, this year Robertson wanted Buchanan nowhere near the podium. Buchanan's request for a chance to address attendees was rebuffed, although his campaign was permitted to rent two tables in the exhibit hall.
Robertson is undoubtedly worried that Buchanan's upstart Reform Party candidacy will siphon votes away from Bush. Not to be deterred, Buchanan rented a room at the conference hotel and had supporters circulate among the crowd, passing out fliers announcing that Buchanan and his running mate Ezola Foster would speak Saturday afternoon. More than 200 Coalition members attended the speech, but not all were enthusiastic. During Buchanan's remarks, one man yelled into the room from the hallway, "You're helping Gore, you [expletive deleted]!" A non-plussed Buchanan remarked dryly, "That gentleman's not filled with the spirit of the Lord."
The day after the "Road to Victory" Conference, Robertson decided to apply more pressure to Bush by appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation" to critique his campaign. Robertson made it clear that he is not pleased with the direction it has taken.
Asked if he was offended that Bush did not attend the Coalition event in person, Robertson replied, "I'm sophisticated enough, I've been around the track enough, to understand what they're doing. They figure they've got the conservative base locked up and they don't have to worry about it.... It's a dangerous strategy to ignore your base, especially to play like something you're not, and that's what the [GOP] convention was. It was 'Democrat lite' in Philadelphia. You know, that I mean, we were we were sort of hiding the congressmen. They wouldn't let Dick Armey and people like that get on the platform."
Robertson urged Bush to be more aggressive, "He's got to come out swinging like a fighter," he said. "And if he doesn't do it, if he continues this sort of 'be nice' sort of approach, I think he's going to lose."
The following day, on his nationally broadcast "700 Club" program, Robertson adopted an even harsher tone. The program ran a news-style segment on the Coalition meeting, after which anchor Lee Webb told Robertson that Bush seems to "be hiding from Christian conservatives now."
"I think you're speaking the truth, sir, in this regard" a dispirited-sounding Robertson replied. "I think it's a strategic move by the campaign to woo the independent voters, but in the process there's severe disaffection among the base. The Christian Coalition membership, of course, are activists and they were very excited about being in Washington and sharing together the common goal of preserving the moral values of this nation. But I'm not sure that they're exactly happy with the conduct of the Bush campaign and there may be some defections.... I think he's running quite a risk in that regard."
Robertson compared Bush's relationship with the Christian Coalition to a marriage, remarking, "I think it's, you know, it's like how many times a year would you like to hear your husband say, 'Well, I appreciate what you're doing and I love you'? But they don't say we appreciate you, and they're not saying anything."
Continued Robertson, "My message was in the press, 'If you want these people to support you, it would be nice if you came out and asked for their help,' and so far he's not doing that, and I think the campaign what Lee said is exactly right they're avoiding evangelical Christians. Every single opportunity since the convention all the way through they have distanced themselves from evangelical Christians for fear of offending The New York Times, The Washington Post and the so-called independents, whoever they are...."
Several members of the Americans United staff attended the "Road to Victory" Conference to monitor developments and learn about the Coalition's plans. AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn was there both days and gave interviews to several reporters looking for an opposing view. On Friday afternoon, Lynn held a press briefing at the conference hotel where he denounced the Coalition as an extreme and wholly partisan operation seeking to mislead America's religious leaders about its character and agenda.
"If sleazy politicking were an Olympic event, Robertson would win the gold medal every time," Lynn said. "Robertson is on a crusade this year, but it's aimed at filling the White House, not God's house."