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Pat Robertson's Big Lie

By James Still (2/22/00)

On February 22, the day of the Michigan state Republican primaries, Christian Coalition Founder Pat Robertson taped a telephone message for a "shadow" campaign in support of Presidential candidate George W. Bush. The message, which went out on phone banks to thousands of Christian Coalition supporters in Michigan, warned that Bush's rival John McCain was against the First Amendment, that he was pro-labor, and that a McCain victory would destroy the Republican Party. Robertson also called McCain's campaign chairman, former New Hampshire Senator Warren Rudman ( who is an observant Jew), "a vicious bigot" because Rudman wrote in his 1996 autobiography that the religious right is intolerant. Robertson hoped that his character assassination of Senator McCain would depress voter turnout and swing the closely-contested primary toward Bush, his hand-picked man. But something went wrong. Voter turnout was enormous and McCain carried both Michigan and his home state of Arizona. 

Robertson had just enough rope to hang himself. On CNN's Larry King Live , which aired on February 22, Robertson appeared uncomfortable as he defended his telephone message. He tried to "aw-shucks" away from some of the vicious allegations that he had made against McCain while continually going back to an obscure point about Rudman's characterization of Christians as zealots. Robertson said he was "deeply offended" by Rudman's remarks and demanded that McCain apologize publicly for them. When CNN's Jeff Greenfield asked if George W. Bush should not also apologize for speaking at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, a segregationist stronghold that bans interracial dating and whose leaders have called Catholicism a cult, Robertson replied "not really", and said only that Bush is free to speak wherever he wants. 

A double standard? Call it Pat Robertson's big lie under the guise of Christian morality. His hysterical telephone message would be comical if it weren't for the deep negative cynicism that it sows. Of course, don't believe for a minute that on the eve of an important presidential primary Robertson was truly offended by something someone wrote way back in 1996. Robertson's mud slinging was an attempt to rescue Bush, his hand-picked man, from his current campaign malaise. Washington Post's Bob Woodward said it best when he called Robertson's message a "smear tactic" in which the "facts just weren't there." Bill Bennett, religious-right favorite son in the Reagan Administration, admitted that Robertson's phone call was "a problem" and went on to say that Robertson had taken the passage from Rudman's book out of context. In his book, Rudman did indeed write that some members (but certainly not all) of the religious right were zealots. But he said this in the context of those vocal critics who refused to support Colin Powell because of his pro-choice stance on the abortion issue. Bennett pointed out as much on CNN when he said that Rudman's book was not meant to be a sweeping generalization against all Christians as Robertson pretended. Former Texas Governor Ann Richards was more forthright in her analysis of Robertson's telephone message. "These people [the Christian Coalition] are zealots," she said. " To them it's either their religion or no religion, their views or no one's views."

Are we seeing the demise of Pat Robertson's influence in America? The Christian Coalition brags incessantly about the millions of voter guides printed every election as well as its huge database of supporters. Robertson's opinion is supposed to carry some weight among those hundreds of thousands in the religious right. Yet, his telephone message clearly backfired and Robertson learned that his race-baiting and red scare tactics didn't work in Michigan like they did in South Carolina. Kudos goes out to the rank and file Michigan voter who refused to cater to Robertson's sleaze and instead voted on real issues that mattered to them most.

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