It appears that the only Americans who are not embarrassed by their associations with Pat Robertson, the former presidential contender and longtime host of the Christian Broadcasting Network program The 700 Club who lately has taken to recommending that the United States get back in the business of assassinating foreign leaders, are President Bush and Republican leaders in the House and Senate. Notably absent from the recriminations regarding Robertson's call for the "taking out" of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez were statements of condemnation from Bush, House majority leader Tom DeLay, Senate majority leader Bill Frist and the rest of the GOP leadership team.
Despite the fact that the President and his Congressional allies have failed to speak up in any significant way about Robertson's ranting, most responsible players in the national debate have done so. Denunciations have come from the progressive National Council of Churches and the more conservative National Association of Evangelicals--the leader of which said of Robertson: "He does not speak for all Christians or evangelicals"--as well as newspaper editorial pages and broadcast commentators on the right and left.
One of the toughest condemnations came from the Chicago Tribune's conservative editorial page, which declared that "Robertson's remarks should be taken for what they are: the ranting of a TV preacher who relies on controversy to keep the coffers full."
The widespread criticism of Robertson's advocacy for assassination has been heartening, as it suggests that most Americans have not degenerated into the indefensible relativism that would have the world's most powerful country offing critics like some sort of global organized-crime syndicate. The outcry is a reminder that the anger generated by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chair Frank Church (D-Idaho) and his detailing of five attempts by US operatives to assassinate foreign leaders during the 1960s and '70s was no fluke--and that Robertson is on the wrong side not just of history but of the American mainstream.
At a time when some pundits have suggested that the United States might want to abandon its three-decades-old ban on assassinating presidents and prime ministers, the broad rejection of Robertson's rant has to be seen as a welcome signal. Even if the President and his compatriots do not quite "get it," they have to recognize that Americans would not take kindly to any official effort to sanction state-sponsored "hits."
Now, however, comes the touchier question: Should Robertson be allowed to continue spewing his goofball theories and wrongheaded strategies on national television?
The so-called "Christian broadcaster" initially attempted to lie his way out of a tough corner--he claimed he hadn't brought up assassination, when in fact he had, saying that "if (Chávez) thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it"--did not inspire confidence in him as an credible or honorable individual.
But Robertson finally offered a half-hearted apology in which he said, "Is it right to call for assassination? No..." So it appears that the man who sought the 1988 Republican presidential nomination has not lost all grounding in reality, even if his touchstone is more likely self-interest than recognition that he was wrong.
Still, decisions about who should or should not be heard cannot be made on the basis of the presumed moral failings of a particular broadcaster.
As such, it was right that executives with the "ABC Family" cable television channel rejected a call from Media Matters for America for the network to stop airing The 700 Club. Instead, the network quietly added a disclaimer that reads, "The preceding CBN telecast does not reflect the views of ABC Family"--a clear acknowledgment that the Media Matters folks were making an important point about Robertson's faults that stopped short of bumping his program off a popular cable channel.
Of course, if a progressive player in a similar position had called for killing off the troublesome conservative leader of some foreign land, cries for removing that individual from the public square that cable television has become would have been deafening. But progressives ought not embrace the politics of censorship that is so popular with the right these days.
Misguided as his initial statement may have been, Robertson's apology made talk of canceling the long-running television program of so prominent a figure extreme.
Wrong as he so frequently is, Robertson has a right to be heard until the marketplace of ideas finally rejects the damaged goods he so frequently peddles. Indeed, the outcry over Robertson's remarks reminds us that even right-wing broadcasters are sometimes held to account.