Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A Falwell farewell

I once had a long conversation with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, in November of 1987; at that time, he was riding high but feeling low. He wore a Jesus First pin in his lapel, and chewed on a succession of Certs mints. He wore an expression of strained serenity, a cherub in pin stripes. He looked like the actor Tom Bosley on Happy Days, but apparently these were not happy days for him.

Even though Falwell was arguably at the peak of his fame – in 1980, his nascent Moral Majority crusade had prompted millions of evangelical Christians to cast ballots for Ronald Reagan, and all his ‘80s utterances were routinely circulated by the establishment media - he nevertheless seemed quite exasperated on the day we met. He even said he was planning to go “back to the basics” and give up politics, retreating to the pulpit, to what he called “the spiritual hospital business.”

I had my doubts, probably because he reminded me of Frank Sinatra, who at the time always seemed to be “retiring,” only to return to the limelight for yet another fix. But Falwell insisted that he was serious, although he said it had nothing to do with the fact that he was broadly unpopular (Gallup said that autumn that only 38 percent of Americans viewed him favorably), or the fact that 63 percent of Americans distrusted televangelists.

The problem, he said, was that he was deeply embarrassed by Jim Bakker, a prominent TV preacher who had managed to make the whole business look bad. It turned out that brother Jim had been skimming money from the God-fearing folks who had responded to his TV pitches - $3.7 million went into his pocket – and that Jim had canoodled in a motel with a church secretary named Jessica Hahn, who later received $265,000 in exchange for keeping her mouth shut. Falwell had volunteered to intercede, to clean up Bakker’s financial mess, to make amends to the swindled donors, and to generally repair the image of televangelists everywhere. (Although he hadn’t always been Mr. Clean himself. Years earlier, Falwell had mailed out academic catalogues of his Liberty Baptist College campus; the problem was, in reality there was no campus. The greenery in the photo was from a city park.)

Anyway, Falwell was in contrition mode when we met. He said that he wanted to live the quiet life of a preacher again - some evangelical leaders, he grumbled, “are as fraudulent as the Mafia” – and he did dissolve Moral Majority not long after. (His group was soon supplanted by a rival, the Christian Coalition, which proved to be far more powerful than Falwell’s operation ever was.)

In our conversation, Falwell even seemed to regret some of the harsh things that he had said during his ‘80s heyday: “My rhetoric was very strident, because evangelicals weren’t accepted as full partners in the political process. We had to kick the door down in order to get in. If I could relive the past 10 years, I’d be just as strident. But I’d be a lot less personal (about liberals and other Falwell targets). I think, in the process of maturing, you stop all that personal business.”

That all sounded very noble, this talk about “the process of maturing.” But it turned out, of course, that Jerry Falwell could not resist the limelight any more than Sinatra could swear off booze n’ broads. And as for his solemn pledge to forego personal attacks… well, that didn’t last very long. In 1994, Falwell co-financed and distributed a video entitled “The Clinton Chronicles,” which alleged that President Clinton had ordered the murders of various people who might have been threatening to expose his purported role in a purported cocaine-smuggling scheme. (Falwell later insisted that “I do not know the accuracy” of the video's allegations.)

Falwell also kept telling people that the anti-Christ would come back to earth as a Jew, which I suppose was not a personal attack, since it didn’t focus on any particular Jew.

And, more recently, perhaps you might remember Falwell’s take on the 9/11 attacks. Guess who he blamed for the tragedy: “The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the Pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”

After Falwell died yesterday, the ’08 Republican candidates jockeyed predictably for the honor of being the first to praise his fine work and pander to Falwell fans in GOP primary states. The winner for quickest email – no surprise – was John McCain, who extolled Falwell’s contributions to “faith and country.”

But, at the risk of disrespecting the deceased, I’ll offer a counter-assessment from Marc Tanenbaum of the American Jewish Committee. Tanenbaum, who had met frequently with Falwell, said this to me 20 years ago:

“Mr. Falwell has been a polarizing figure in American life. He is talented, but I don’t think he understands the fragile nature of pluralism. You can’t constantly hammer away that the opposition is aligned with Satan, and not expect to weaken the democratic center. That’s murderous rhetoric.”


The '08 Republican presidential hopefuls debated again last night, this time on Fox News, and the general consensus, at least within much of the conservative media, is that Rudy Giuliani scored, big time.

He's getting plaudits for handling the abortion question in a more coherent fashion (although I keep waiting for one of his GOP admirers to point out that his position - yes on the right to choose, and yes on the urgent need to reduce abortions - is basically the same as Hillary Clinton's position).

And he's being lauded today for the way he showed unscripted passion about 9/11, lashing out at fringe candidate Ron Paul's claim that we may have brought the attack on ourselves because we'd been bombing and containing Saddam Hussein's regime for 10 years. Debates are generally so artificial that we tend to applaud any candidate who creates a moment of spontaneous drama, and that's what happened when Giuliani interrupted Paul and said, "That’s really an extraordinary statement. That’s an extraordinary statement, as someone who lived through the attack of September 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. I don’t think I’ve heard that before, and I’ve heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th. (Big applause.) And I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn’t really mean that.” (More applause.)

I could point out that Ron Paul was easy pickings - after all, it's well established that Saddam Hussein had no role in 9/11, and that the al Qaeda plotters weren't acting to avenge him - and that, by beating up on Paul, Giuliani was scoring a victory about as impressive as Michael Jordan dribbling past a midget. But that 10-second video clip will look good for awhile, and that's how the game is played.

Ditto for Giuliani's response on torture. When asked by Fox News whether he would endorse torturing a terrorist suspect who might know about new imminent attacks on the homeland, he replied: "I would tell the people who had to do the interrogation to use every method they could think of. It shouldn't be torture, but every method they can think of (including water-boarding)...I'd say every method they could think of."

The audience loved it. John McCain moments earlier had offered a more cerebral response, but, in the competition to appeal to the party base, it usually pays to be visceral. For one night, anyway, Rudy had won the Jack Bauer primary.