Ralph Reed is going to own this room. Granted, it’s only a standard-issue campus auditorium at Emory University, half filled at best for the annual Georgia College Republicans convention. But to the former boy wonder of evangelical politics, it looks like heavenly shelter on this drizzly February morning. The Christian Coalition co-founder’s first campaign for public office–lieutenant governor of Georgia, a position Reed and his fans envision as a stepping stone to bigger things–has turned into a waking nightmare. Every week brings a new revelation about the millions in dirty money Reed earned by duping his fellow evangelicals into putting their political muscle behind “Casino Jack” Abramoff’s gambling clients. Reed’s huge leads in both popularity polls and fundraising have almost disappeared. Instead of making his triumphant debut as a politician, the man Time magazine called “The Right Hand of God” is fast becoming the new poster boy for Christian-right corruption.
But here, Reed expects a hero’s welcome. As an undergraduate dynamo at the University of Georgia in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Reed turned the Georgia CRs into a political machine that helped elect the state’s first Republican US senator since Reconstruction. “Tricky Ralph,” as he was known on campus, went on to make a similar splash with the national CRs, teaming with the equally tricky pair of Abramoff, who was national CR chairman in the early 1980s, and Grover Norquist, whose Americans for Tax Reform is also caught up in the scandal.
Those associations go unmentioned in the introductory roll call of achievements that Reed listens to, beaming, before he bounds up to the podium, spreading wide his Howdy Doody grin. “It’s great to be back home,” he chirps, fondly recalling how in 1980 he ran a mock campus election in which Ronald Reagan surprisingly beat President Jimmy Carter, Georgia’s native son–and timed the results perfectly for maximum impact. “Right before Ronald Reagan walked out on stage for his one and only debate against President Carter,” he says, “they distributed a news release announcing Reagan’s victory in Georgia!”
This is vintage Reed, the incorrigibly boastful, smooth-talking operator who long dazzled–and blinded–evangelical Christians, big-money Republicans and mainstream journalists. Now 44, he still looks like a million bucks, his elfin face perma-tanned to a brick red, his pencil-thin body subtly bulked out by a well-tailored suit. Only one thing is missing: applause. Maybe some CRs know the real history of that 1980 mock election from Nina Easton’s book Gang of Five, in which Reed’s first big political triumph is revealed to have been rigged–his first notable act of mass deception. Maybe they’re just waiting for Reed to finally offer a satisfying explanation of his star turn in the Abramoff scandal. But his mea culpa smacks more of false piety than genuine gut-spilling.