Flexing Political Muscle

"We are the servants of God. Our righteousness is of him," thundered Rev. Earl Jackson from the podium of the annual meeting of the Christian Coalition in Atlanta in early September. Jackson, director of the Samaritan Project, a Christian Coalition program advocating the use of local charities and churches across the country to replace government programs for the poor, had been hand-picked for his post by Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed in January. Reed, who had announced his departure from the Coalition earlier that month was headed for the political consulting business. His departure, to take effect at the September meeting, would leave a gap in the Coalition's leadership. Jackson, revving up the crowd for the new president, couldn't resist pouring on the harsh rhetoric. He announced with happy anger that he was "dedicating the weapons of our warfare to the calling down of injustice, bringing every thought under the kingship of Christ." The crowd roared back its approval as Jackson continued his wandering introduction. Finding a president for the Coalition had been a long process. Through the winter, as Robertson ruminated on his options, a search was underway inside the Washington Beltway to recruit a new public spokesman for the organization.But before that decision could be made, the spring brought bad news for Robertson. Robert Hinkle and Tahir Brohi, two pilots in Robertson's overseas humanitarian program known as Operation Blessing, told the press in late April that most of their flights around central Africa were not to deliver humanitarian assistance.Hinkle and Brohi told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot newspaper that they had instead been flying for African Development Co., Robertson's diamond mining business inside Zaire. Hinkle maintained that of the 40 flights he had supposedly made for Operation Blessing during a six month stay in Zaire -- now the Congo -- only one or two could be considered humanitarian or medical relief flights.A Robertson spokesman in Virginia Beach first denied the charge and then later said that the planes were unsuitable for humanitarian relief and that Robertson had reimbursed Operation Blessing for the time the mining operation had used them.Robertson is the president and lone shareholder in African Development, which is located in the Congo capital of Kinshasa. Robertson's plan was to dredge diamonds and other precious stones from jungle riverbeds in remote areas of the country. It is unclear what effect the civil war earlier this year had on the diamond mining operations of African Development. In the end the company turned out to be a financial disaster, with Robertson suing the company that had sold the mining equipment to him.With that bit of bad news more or less behind him, Robertson, by mid-June, had decided to sell his Family Channel to Australia-born media magnate Rupert Murdoch's Fox Network. The $1.9 billion deal under which Fox bought the network allows Robertson to stay on as co-chairman of the parent company, International Family, while at the same time netting Robertson a $126-million profit from the sale of his 3.6 million shares of International Family stock to Fox. Robertson's 700 Club will stay on the channel for at least the next five years.The African Development diamond mining operation and the sale of the Family Channel were only the beginnings of maneuvers by Robertson in his attempts to reposition himself in the American corporate mainstream. This new strategic thinking of Robertson would be underlined by his choice to head his fundamentalist Christian group as a means to take his organization into a new partnership with politically and economically connected corporate players on the hard right. So after the extended and raucous introduction, the foot soldiers of what Earl Jackson had called "our warfare" were primed for the arrival of Donald Hodel, Robertson's choice to head the Christian Coalition. By contrast, Hodel's inaugural speech was a mostly low-key, feel-good recitation of Christian right ideology and recommendations of "hating the sin, but loving the sinner," when it came to political opponents of the Coalition. Hodel, a corporate executive with a background in Western oil and gas companies, had been Energy Secretary and later Interior Secretary in the Reagan administration. And his ascendancy to the presidency of the Christian Coalition represented a high-profile victory for the right's foundation and think-tank apparatus.How the selection of Hodel was made is revealing of Pat Robertson's growing connections to the Washington right political labyrinth. Robertson had sought out the advice of former Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese on the decision to appoint a replacement for Ralph Reed. Meese's recommendation was a full-fledged endorsement of his old friend Hodel, with whom Meese had worked during their days together in the Reagan cabinet. Meese also knew that Hodel, along with being a born-again Christian, was a conduit to the oil business and a number of conservative corporate insiders, including the Coors family of Colorado. And unlike Robertson, who would likely be taking more of a behind-the-scenes role, Hodel knew how to stay on message and not ramble through a political attack with off-the-cuff remarks the way Robertson and some of his 700 Club personalities were known to do.Before making his final decision, Robertson consulted with former Colorado Republican Senator William Armstrong, a board member of the Free Congress Foundation in Washington. Free Congress' Chairman is Jeffrey Coors, an heir to the Colorado beer fortune. The president of the Free Congress Foundation is Paul Weyrich, a long time anti-abortion activist and co-founder, with Jerry Falwell, of Moral Majority in the early 1980s. While Armstrong apparently turned down an offer to head the Coalition, he also recommended Hodel. With the Meese and Armstrong endorsements, Robertson decided he had his man.In taking Hodel on as president, Robertson hoped to marry the Coalition's decision-making process closer to that of the Free Congress Foundation and the Heritage Foundation, the conservative Capitol Hill think tank where Meese resides as a "distinguished scholar." Joseph Coors was one of the founders of Heritage back in 1973. His son, Grover Coors, has been on the board of the Heritage Foundation since 1991. Just how closely the Christian Coalition was wedding itself to these two Republican oracles, and the future of the Republican party, was revealed a few days after the Atlanta meeting when a secretly recorded speech by Robertson to a closed door group of 100 leaders of the Coalition was released by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The tape reveals the extent of Robertson's rage against losing GOP presidential candidates in the last two elections and his unrelenting quest to make the Coalition the defining force within the Republican party. That quest, the transcript shows, includes the search for an ultra-conservative Republican presidential candidate that will not deviate from the Coalition's official line and not divide religious conservatives in the primary battles for 2000.Robertson complained, "We have had a couple of so called moderates, (George Bush and Bob Dole). And moderates lose ... We've had two major losers ... and I want a winner ... So we need to come together on somebody that reflects our values and has the stature to be president. " In referring to his long term strategy Robertson saw the Coalition ahead of schedule."We said back in 1990 when we had the first Road to Victory (meeting), I laid out some goals for the Coalition. We said we'd have conservative control of Congress by '96; we did it in '94. We've had a major presence in one of the major political parties; we still haven't gotten the influence I think we ought to have inside the Republican Party; we're still not totally like we should be. And we also said by the year 2000 we'd have the presidency, and that to me is the next goal." In the speech Robertson said he had told the incoming Coalition's president Hodel, "'My dear friend, I want to hold out to you the possibility of selecting the next president of the United States, because I think that's what we have in this organization."' As the speech progressed, Robertson digressed about the presidential chances of Al Gore in 2000 and dismissed them by saying "Ozone Al is out of it, I mean he's gone ... So I don't think at this time and juncture the Democrats are going to be able to take the White House, unless we throw it away." Robertson added, "We need to be like a united front. I know that these laws say that we've got to be careful, there's nothing that says we can't have a few informal discussions among ourselves. Maybe it won't be the 'Coalition.' ... "In responding to the release of a transcript of the tape, a Coalition spokesman did not contest its accuracy.A favorite topic of Robertson's, the Religious Freedom Amendment, a bill to put prayer into public schools and give tax dollars to religious schools, was cast in terms of making Republican lawmakers deliver the goods. Robertson continued, "Look, we put you in power in 1994 and we want you to deliver ... This is your agenda ... And we're going to hold your feet to the fire while you do it."Robertson went on with a call to religious conservatives that they emulate the political machine of New York City's Tammany Hall, which maintained a tight grip over New York politics for decades in the early part of this century through corruption and intimidation.Sounding a lot like the character of financier Gordon Gecco in the movie Wall Street, Robertson described the tactics he would use to implement his strategy. "You know the principle of warfare that has been used forever by those who wish to beat another enemy is, you know, divide and conquer. If you can split their forces, that was Sun Tzu's maxim you know, whenever possible avoid what he calls a juncture of forces. Don't let your enemy join together. So always get yourself in the middle to keep them split. And that technique came be used on others ... "Robertson then attacked an investigator sent by the IRS to determine the Coalition's tax exempt status as "a great big Valkyrie-like woman ... wearing a great big NOW belt buckle." Robertson maintained that the investigator had since left the IRS and moved to Pennsylvania to open a lesbian bookstore. He added, "columnists are just salivating to get that information."The mission to implement Robertson's agenda already has some ardent religious conservatives on board. Republican Governors Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and David Beasley of South Carolina both made stem-winding speeches at the Atlanta convention. Beasley, after conducting a campaign of political threats against South Carolina Democratic state legislators in their 1994 re-election bids that included veiled references to smear campaigns on hot button issues like abortion and school prayer, induced half a dozen white Democrats to switch parties, a move that has helped racially polarize South Carolina politics. The Beasley political machine in South Carolina may be a model for the future of the Christian Coalition. The kind of Tammany Hall-like operation -- with a religious zealotry thrown in -- that Pat Robertson was calling for in his privy council conference with the Christian Coalition leadership in Atlanta. An IRS review of the Coalition's provisional tax exempt status is pending. The release of the transcript of the closed door Robertson speech may cast doubts on the continuation of that tax-exempt status.Craig McGrath is a free-lance investigative journalist living in Washington, D. C.


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