The Swift-boating of Mitt Romney

The Swift-boating of Mitt Romney

Christian conservatives play the porn card in an attempt to discredit Mitt Romney and advance the cause of Fred Thompson.


With onetime Republican presidential frontrunner Senator John McCain in meltdown, Mitt Romney suddenly finds himself under fire from some of the Christian right’s most influential activists. Romney’s evangelical critics claim the former Massachusetts governor and devout Mormon was complicit in the Marriott hotel chain’s sale of pay-per-view porn on its in-room television sets when he served on the corporation’s board of directors from 1992 to 2001. Two Christian-right operatives involved in orchestrating the charges have enlisted as Internet organizers for former Senator Fred Thompson, who is preparing to enter the race formally. The tactics of these religious-right players, targeted below the radar against Romney, are calculated to alter decisively the outcome of the Republican primary contest.

The assault was launched on July 5 with an opening shot in the form of a breathless press release issued through the mega-ministry Focus on the Family. In it, veteran antiporn crusader Phil Burress called Romney’s failure to take action against pay-per-view hotel porn during his tenure on Marriott’s board “extremely disturbing.” That same day, a Focus on the Family spokesman took to the radio airwaves to ask whether Romney would “turn a blind eye” to pornography if elected President. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, which functions as Focus’s Washington lobbying arm, immediately joined the pile-on. He briefed the Associated Press on the record, explaining that Romney must “take some responsibility” for his supposed connection to Marriott’s porn profiteering. The AP report on the accusation against Romney was subsequently reprinted in the pages of major outlets from the Boston Globe to the Washington Post. It only took a full six years after Romney resigned from Marriott’s board for the Christian right’s leading lights to profess their outrage–and only hours for the press to echo it.

This carefully sequenced attack on Romney over hotel porn is just the opening volley in what appears to be a concerted effort to doom his candidacy. Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association’s Michigan chapter, told me, “This is just part of a broader pattern of concern over Mitt Romney’s record of aggressively promoting abortion on demand, the homosexual agenda and gun control. We are judging Romney by his record.” Glenn is a leading Christian-right operative in the home state of Romney’s late father, former Republican Governor George Romney, one of Romney’s bases within the Republican Party. Glenn is also a member of the DC Group, a conference of fifteen antiporn activists that meets four times a year to plot political strategy. The DC Group devised its plan to undermine Romney at its most recent gathering, Glenn revealed to me.

The hostility of segments of the Christian right to Romney coincides with its mounting interest in Fred Thompson. Less than two weeks before Focus on the Family launched its attack on Romney, the Family Research Council began an informal campaign to rally support for Thompson. Without fanfare, the Family Research Council’s director of web communications, Joe Carter, and the group’s web editor, Jared Bridges, founded Blogs for Fred, a website that alternately shields Thompson from criticism and promotes him as the Great Right Hope. When Carter and Bridges are not plumping for Thompson, they blog on the website of the Family Research Council, advancing the causes of faith, family and freedom for the purportedly nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization.

In the meantime, Carter has found time to attack other religious-minded bloggers for alleging that the Family Research Council’s criticism of Romney is motivated by political partisanship. When The Rev. Dan Schultz, author of the progressive Christian blog Street Prophets, said, “The Religious Right has decided to stick a shiv in Romney’s campaign,” Carter posted a petulant response on Schultz’s blog accusing him of having a “conspiratorial mindset.” Carter also went out of his way to defend his boss, Tony Perkins, from charges that the Family Research Council president might be involved in a plot against Romney, despite his having trashed Romney to the AP. “There is no vast right-wing conspiracy,” Carter said. “There are just people advocating for their positions.”

Technically, because Thompson is still undeclared, Blogs for Fred is not yet an official entity of his campaign machine. But that may soon change. Carter and Bridges recently have begun offering free pro-Thompson paraphernalia to bloggers who promise to sign on as Thompson supporters. A Kentucky consulting firm, GOP Campaign Masters, provides the campaign knickknacks through a retail outlet called The Fred Store. The firm, as one of its spokesmen admitted, openly seeks a lucrative contract with the Thompson campaign. “We’re big supporters of Fred Thompson, and we’ve had communications with people who are in his [presidential campaign] committee,” GOP Campaign Masters director of communications Brien Shea told me. “We’re hopeful that we’ll be formally affiliated with his campaign in the future.” Shea eagerly volunteered that he is a close friend of Bridges.

To be sure, on paper Thompson is by no means the Christian right’s perfect candidate. A July 7 Los Angeles Times story revealed that he lobbied in 1991 on behalf of the prochoice National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. Fortunately for Thompson, he has Carter in his corner to attempt to protect him from the fallout. On Blogs for Fred, Carter composed a point-by-point refutation accusing the LA Times of “sloppy” reporting, while attacking the story’s source, Judith DeSarno, as unreliable because of her contributions in the past to the political campaigns of Hillary Clinton. Glenn, of the American Family Association, echoed Carter’s line of defense, advising me when I raised the issue of Thompson’s prochoice lobbying to “consider the source of the story”–the old bogeyman, the liberal media.

Yet another potential source of friction between Thompson and the Christian right may be his second wife, Republican lawyer/lobbyist Jeri Kehn Thompson. Kehn Thompson is nearly a quarter-century younger than her husband–younger than his daughter from his first marriage–and her revealing dresses have raised eyebrows at Washington galas. A July 8 article in the New York Times Fashion and Style section reported as objective fact that Kehn Thompson is a “trophy wife,” posing the question: “Will the so-called value voters accept this union?” If Glenn’s labors succeed, indeed they will.

“Jeri Thompson is very sympathetic personally to the concerns that we [right-wing evangelicals] have about the direction of this country,” Glenn said. “As the mother of two young children, 2 years old and 6 months old, she understands our concern about the culture and society in which our children will have to raise their children.”

Glenn described a May gathering of the highly secretive and influential Council for National Policy, an elite group of several hundred right-wing leaders, as a pivotal moment in the formation of the conservative movement’s opinion on Thompson. After entering the meeting to a standing ovation from the audience of conservative financiers and theocratic activists, Thompson launched into a rambling address denouncing Roe v. Wade, the supposed elimination of “God from the public schools and the public square” and, for several minutes, the prosecution and conviction of Scooter Libby. Afterward, Kehn Thompson worked the room, assuring the conservative power brokers of her solid credentials. According to Glenn, many in attendance found her “very appealing.”

Perhaps the most salient explanation for the Christian right’s sudden swell of support for Thompson may be that he is the lesser of several evils. Glenn explained, “The best way to ensure that Hillary Clinton is the next President is to nominate Rudy Giuliani or John McCain or Mitt Romney, all of whom will give social conservatives sufficient cause to go fishing.”

But Glenn’s allies, who include movement heavyweights such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and his Beltway lieutenant, Perkins, are demanding additional reassurances from Thompson before they leap onto his bandwagon. “Social conservatives are open-minded to the possibility of being supportive of Fred Thompson, but I don’t think anybody’s going to rush to a decision,” Glenn said.

Thus the self-proclaimed shepherds of America’s “value voters” are setting the stage for Thompson. If he lets them write his script, he may hope that he can steal the GOP spotlight. But he will discover that this acting job comes with strings attached.

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