With the Party of Dobson
The day before Rosh Hashanah, Senator George Allen of Virginia addressed the "Value Voters Summit 2006," a gathering of 1,700 Christian-right devotees of Dr. James Dobson designed to rally the Republican base ahead of November's midterm Congressional elections and preview potential Republican presidential candidates for 2008. Earlier in the week, Allen had said reports of his Jewish lineage were "aspersions" before acknowledging they were true. Immediately after his speech, as he stomped down a hallway of Washington's Omni Shoreham hotel, I approached Allen and asked him how he was planning to celebrate the upcoming Jewish holiday. Allen scowled, his face turning beet red. Pausing for a moment to regain his composure, he blurted, "I'll be with my family!" He rushed away at a quickened pace.
Further down the hallway, Allen was surrounded by a media gaggle and bombarded with further questions about his Jewish lineage. He responded by mentioning an award he once received from the Greater Washington Jewish Council and said, "As far as the Jewish faith, I suspect I have a lot to learn." Finally, Allen was plucked out of harm's way and escorted into a waiting car by his self-described "A-Team" of grim thirtysomething aides. (This "A-Team" did not appear to be wearing the distinctive "lighting-bolt lapel pins" the Washington Post reports its members wore when Allen was governor, displaying a universal symbol of white supremacy inspired by the insignia of the Nazi SS.)
Battling for his political life against his Democratic challenger, former Reagan-era Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb, Allen did his best to endear himself to the "value voters" crowd, entertaining them with the football metaphors that have become staples of his stump speeches. (Allen's father, George Allen Sr., was the coach of the Washington Redskins.) "Count on me to be an ally, a teammate," Allen pledged. Then he praised Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, Americans United to Preserve Marriage president Gary Bauer and the American Family Association's Don Wildmon, as "The Four Horsemen," a reference to Notre Dame's legendary 1924 backfield--or perhaps the original quartet from the Book of Revelations.
But as Allen sought to dampen the public controversy over his mishandling of his Jewish heritage, his association with these "Four Horsemen" simply called attention to Dobson's and Perkins's problematic utterances. Dobson's Focus on the Family, for example, published an article in its Citizen magazine last February attacking the parents of federal judge Stephen Reinhardt (whose step-grandfather was a Holocaust survivor) for telling their son "tales of horrific violence" about the Holocaust "that lacked the redemptive power of Christ's atonement." The Anti-Defamation League has repeatedly condemned Wildmon for his conspiratorial diatribes against "secular Jews." And Perkins, for his part, paid $82,500 to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke for his phone-bank list and then spoke at a 2001 fundraiser for the Council of Conservative Citizens, America's largest white supremacist organization. (When I asked Perkins about his links to Duke and the CCC, he replied tersely, "There are no links.")
After his speech, Allen huddled in a corner with Perkins and one of the summit's few African-American participants, right-wing pastor and former NFL linebacker Ken "Hutch" Hutcherson. Without prompting, Hutcherson offered Allen a briefing on abortion, race and civil rights. "Too many black babies in the last few years have been aborted," Hutcherson told Allen. "So you wonder why we have a slow population growth."
"So what you're saying is it's [the black abortion rate] twice as high as other races?" Allen asked with a look of astonishment.
Hutcherson nodded, then went on: "Jesse Jackson and others were against these things early on, but because of where they get their money from, they're for it now." Allen, who would later be confronted with a story by Salon's Michael Scherer citing Allen's former high school football teammates who claim he used to use the word "nigger," politely smiled.
Another speaker at Dobson's convention, William Bennett, has been equally outspoken on abortion and race, declaring last year on his radio show that "you could abort every black baby in America, and your crime rate will go down." But Bennett stuck to the script at the summit, casting aside eugenics in favor of the more politically salient shock-and-awe themes of "national security" and "terrorism." Discussing the gruesome murder of American private mercenaries in Fallujah in 2004, Bennett stated matter-of-factly, "When four Americans are hanged...you take out Fallujah. You flatten the city! You have to teach them that American life is not cheap."
Allen was only one of many Republican presidential hopefuls to present himself as a kulturkampf warrior before the "values voters" summit. Others included Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Kansas Senator Sam Brownback. (Arizona Senator John McCain, despised despite his recent prostration before Jerry Falwell, and Rudy Giuliani, the pro-abortion, pro-gay rights, cross - dressing former mayor of New York City, were pointedly uninvited.) Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, was alone in challenging the audience's backlash sensibility, calling for "an evangelical version of shock and awe that will show Americans that we are not just angry people." His call for moderation drew no response.
The speakers vied with one another to throw red meat to the crowd. Brownback hailed Dobson as "a gift to this country." Romney delivered a speech peppered with derisive references to his home state of Massachusetts, as a predicate for his announcement of the "number-one threat facing America": gay marriage. Romney's warning of the pink menace within was also echoed by a close Dobson ally, the Bishop Wellington Boone, who exclaimed to hosannas from the assembled, "Back in the days when I was a kid, and we see guys that don't stand strong on principle, we call them "faggots." A punk is--and our people, I'm from the ghetto, so sometimes it does come out a little bit."
The spectacle of the Republican presidential prospects competing for Dobson's affection underscored the surprising remarks that the former Republican House Majority Leader Dick /> Armey made to journalist Ryan Sager a year ago in the wake of the /> Terri Schiavo affair. Asked for his assessment of the 109th Republican Congress, Armey singled out the special bill legislators had introduced to preserve the brain-dead Schiavo. "That was pure, blatant pandering to James Dobson," Armey said. "Nobody serious about the Constitution would do that. But the question was, Will this energize our Christian conservative base for the next election?" Armey added, "Dobson and his gang of thugs are real nasty bullies."
Now Dobson was perched on the Washington stage, Republican hopefuls parading before him, and his political prot&ecaute;g&ecaute;, Tony Perkins, the former Baton Rouge policeman suspended from service for joining a violent abortion protest while on duty, sitting at his right hand. Dobson recounted before his rapt audience a canned hunt in which he and his son Ryan, a "youth speaker" and author of a book entitled Be Intolerant: Because Some Things Are Just Stupid, recently participated, during which Dobson killed a herded bear at close range. "It was a liberal bear," Perkins interjected. "It's a dead one now," said Dobson. The crowd hooted with approval.
Dobson's tone shifted swiftly from self-satisfaction to agitation when he mentioned that his self-declared nemesis, the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, was in attendance. He spent the last ten minutes of his speech blasting Lynn for his plan to send more than 100,000 letters to pastors warning that using church resources for electioneering is illegal.
I encountered Lynn in the hallway outside the ballroom where Dobson spoke. He was somewhat astonished at the amount of free promotion Dobson had afforded him. "Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed used to have a rule never to mention me," he told me. "I can't believe Dobson would say my name so many times.... This conference has all the feel of a Republican convention," he continued. "It's so bewildering to hear someone say, 'I'm nonpartisan, but if the GOP doesn't hold the House or Senate, there will be a disaster.'"
A day before appearing at the summit in Washington, Dobson held a stadium-sized get-out-the-vote jamboree in Pittsburgh, disguised as a supposedly nonpartisan "Stand for the Family" rally, on behalf of one of his staunchest backers, Senator Rick Santorum, who trails his Democratic opponent, State Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. There, Dobson took to the podium to warn wavering "value voters": "Whether or not the Republicans deserve the power they were given, the alternatives are downright frightening."
Without any immediately scheduled Congressional debates on social-issue legislation to energize its base, the Christian right has adopted President Bush's messianic "struggle for civilization" as a central feature of its culture war rhetoric going into the midterm elections. Perkins framed the issue by linking liberal evildoers with Islamic extremists, warning that "we are facing threats from within and from without." Bauer described how the passengers of United Flight 93 heroically ran toward the cockpit on 9/11, reminding the audience, "All you have to do is run to the voting booth."
Having been instructed on their motivation, summit attendees headed to a series of breakout sessions for their marching orders. At one session, "Getting Church Voters to the Polls," veteran Christian-right operative Connie Marshner distributed an eighteen-page pamphlet to participants she said was originally prepared for Santorum's 2000 senatorial campaign. The pamphlet advises church members to use their church directory to organize calls to fellow parishioners from a phony company called "ABC Polls" in order to create a data bank of "pro-family" voters. Only those voters should be reminded to vote on election day, Marshner said. She added, "Even if you have a pastor like that who doesn't want to do politics, you can use this plan."
Marshner's plan is an essential element of the Republican ground game for November. It might be deceptive, sleazy and possibly illegal. But that doesn't matter to the "value voters." As White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, who officially blessed the gathering, said in his speech, "What matters most are the victories we forge together."