Capital Letters: Sermons on the Hill

In which our man in Washington checks out various political preachers


Date: Thurs, March 18, 1999 7:15:17 PM
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
Subj: The Radical Rabbi's War

Everything in life–politics, art, culture, family relations, economic order–flows from the answer to this question: Where did human beings come from? "There are only two potential answers," Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition and author of America's Real War, told about 15 Washingtonians gathered at the Heritage Foundation Tuesday night.

One possibility is "over billions of years, in a process of unaided materialistic evolution, we evolved from primitive protoplasm into Bach and Beethoven," a proposition that elicited muted chuckles. "The other answer is God created us in His image and breathed the breath of life into us and made us the pinnacle of creation and put us on Earth." Rabbi Lapin continued, "How you run your life, and how you choose and make decisions throughout your life, flow directly from this." And, the rabbi contends, which side you choose in America's next civil war will hinge on this as well.

Politically active religious conservatives have been a bit down lately. Impeachment didn't go their way, prompting the coiner of the phrase "Moral Majority," Paul Weyrich, to declare that there is no such thing. Introducing Lapin, the always intense Joe Loconte, Heritage's William E. Simon Fellow for Religion in a Free Society, pointed to a post-impeachment Wall Street Journal op-ed by former Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed as evidence of decline: "This is what Ralph says about the whole moral agenda in a 1,300-word op-ed: "Moral issues will require consistent attention. Not election-eve histrionics.'"

But Lapin, who was scheduled to speak on "Beyond Affluence, Decadence and Depravity: Focusing on the Road Back," is optimistic. At first it wasn't clear why.

A skilled orator, Lapin spent his first 10 minutes comparing the march of liberalism to that of Hitler's Europe and Japan's Pacific. "The left has managed to avoid waking the sleeping giant of American conservatism," said Lapin, after explaining how Hitler had done the same with France and England until it was too late. "It has taken victory after victory, gain after gain. It has managed to dominate stage by stage each and every institution of American society, until we look a lot like the Pacific looked before Gen. Douglas MacArthur began his return. Every island in our culture is held and dominated by the left: the schools, higher educational institutions, the courts, entertainment, the news media," he continued, later adding, "And at no stage have we been willing to take it seriously enough to go to war over it."

As I listened to Lapin, drinking my Coors and taking notes, two thoughts rambled through my head: This guy spends a lot of energy on war metaphors–and I hope they are metaphors–and his picture of America sure is bleak. I couldn't quite locate his optimism. But then he told us straight out: He's optimistic because good Americans, those who pick the second answer, at last know there is a war. "There is a war," he said. "And the war is between the people who recognize that there are two different Americas."

Only two? Yes, two. "There are two nations occupying the same piece of real estate. There is the America that listens to Tom Leykis and Howard Stern. And there's the nation that listens to Christian broadcasting, Dr. Laura, and Rush Limbaugh." To whom one listens, and few listen to both, is determined by the fundamental question: "Are human beings unique God-made creatures, or are they sophisticated animals?" Lapin recognizes there's a spectrum but claims the center is getting thinner and thinner, as Americans sort themselves based on their view of how they got here.

I found myself getting a bit nervous as the rabbi posed rhetorical questions. He said that we were among friends, but I began to feel like an unwelcome ambassador, perhaps a spy or an infiltrator, from the other America. And this was even before he posed the "Where do we come from?" question, which didn't emerge until the last third of his hour-long speech.

Lapin offered a choice of crowded elevators: "You are about to be stuck in a small elevator for eight hours with seven other people. You may choose if you want it to be with seven people with Hour of Power from Jerry Fawell or seven people from the audience of Jerry Springer. That's your choice. Which Jerry do you want?"

Obviously, one doesn't like either option–even Jerry Seinfeld would be better. But Lapin said we had to choose. And, I must say, I would take the Springer elevator: It holds more possibilities.

Stern or Dr. Laura? Not even a choice. So too with the rabbi's other question: "Would you prefer to live in parts of this country that bear the stamp of 35 years of left-wing socialistic experimentation? Or would you rather live in parts of this country that are still considered the Bible Belt of America–what I consider its safety belt?" I say unbuckle that belt and send me, by bus even, straight to San Francisco.

Lapin's speech was eclectic. One minute he was trying to make sense of a world where the "most appalling and gruesome concoction of unrestrained and unlimited pornograph[y]…Pulp Fiction, for instance," could exist alongside "the most beautiful and uplifting and noble Jane Austen movie." The next minute he was explaining, based on the answer to the central question, why public housing is uniform; why nonbelievers, if not "selfish bastards" or "thoroughly, horribly depraved," will be redistributionists; and why farmers are entitled to all of their cows' milk.

He also kept getting back to war, which made me and at least a few others in the room nervous. "I am absolutely convinced that God is far from finished with the story of the United States of America," he said by way of summation. "First of all, [there's] the matter of the little battle that must be fought, just as it was in the 19th century." There were, and are, "two incompatible moral visions for this country. We had to settle it then. We're going to have to settle it now. I hope not with blood, not with guns, but we're going to have to settle it nonetheless. The good news is that I think our side is finally ready to settle it. Roll up its sleeves, take off its jacket, and get a little bloody. Spill a little blood. We'll settle it. And we'll win. And then there's no holding us back."

Loconte, no religious or political squish, questioned the wisdom and morality of viewing one's political adversaries as "mortal enemies." The rabbi had a ready response: Liberals aren't evil, since they have good intentions based on a faulty premise, he reasoned. But that "doesn't mean I won't have to kill you," he said to nervous laughter, "because this is a war."

My beer drained and plate empty, I decided to leave before my earrings became the focal point in somebody's crosshairs.

Date: Thurs, March 25, 1999 10:37:44 PM
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
Subj: Gore Stumps

Vice President Al Gore, after starting the year off with a promising policy agenda of enlisting the federal government in the fight against detached, single-family housing, has gotten himself into a few traffic jams on his road to the American presidency. He is committing gaffes of potato-head proportions, and polls have him trailing George W. Bush by 18 points.

All this stumbling pleases Republicans, but I think they are underestimating the man, just as they underestimated Clinton over and over and over again. So I'm betting on Gore, not because I want him to be president, but as a hedge, an argument stopper, and a conversation starter. To date, I have $150 at stake.

On Tuesday, Gore was delivering the keynote address at the annual dinner for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank that focuses on African-American issues. I signed up. I wanted to check out my horse.

When I told people where I was going, the response was universal: "That sucks. I feel sorry for you. I hope you survive." I brushed off the comments, as an anthropologist headed into the bush might brush off concerns about exotic diseases, threats of decapitation, and lack of air conditioning. This was research. My goals: to see if Gore is as bad on the stump as everyone says; to hear what he says to this particular audience; and to witness how he's received.

The report: He's as bad as everyone says. He's a charisma vacuum, the verbal version of the famous American Gothic painting.

When he's on script, he reads so quickly that he forgets to pronounce all the syllables. He's even worse when he ad-libs, which he did a great deal. He's never sure of the proper accent to affect. At some points, he fell into a Southern drawl. But he never stuck with it. It was as if he suddenly realized he wasn't talking to a room full of Tennessee tobacco farmers, as he was in 1988, when he bragged about his tobacco-farming prowess– "I've hoed it. I've dug in it. I've sprayed it. I've chopped it. I've shredded it"–but to the descendants of many of those who actually hoed it, dug in it, and chopped it, and not as a diversion from prep school.

At other times, his script called for soulful phrases, but his delivery lacked rhythm. He opened, for example, by noting that the Joint Center was a force for "justice and righteousness," but he read the line so fast I don't think he even accented the right syllables. At another point, he explained the God-given mission of the United States, mingling Clinton's foreign policy with the prophet Amos. "In every one of those lands I've mentioned, especially in Kosovo, people look to the United States for a kind of hope that justice will come rolling down like mighty waters," Gore said, each word picking up speed but devoid of any particular emphasis.

I kept thinking, and writing in my notebook, that I want my bets back. As I sat through the speech, drinking glass after glass of Stone Pine Chardonnay, I just couldn't believe how horrible he was. And two days later, looking at both the text of the speech Gore's office faxed me and my transcript of what he actually said, I am struck that neither version of his remarks reads as poorly as it sounded. This is remarkable. Usually the spoken word pleases the ears yet pokes a bit at the eyes.

Consider this story Gore told as a way to connect with the predominantly black audience. "We are one of the most successful administrations in what we set out to accomplish in the history of the country because of our diversity," Gore boasted to big applause. He then took a trip to Hollywood. "One movie that came out a few years ago was a movie called Grand Canyon," he said, now completely off the script his office sent me. "It was a movie about the gulf between rich and poor, between majority and minority. There was scene that has really lingered in my mind. A character played by Danny Glover is helping an acquaintance played by Kevin Kline there in South Central Los Angeles at night. And there are scenes of disorder all around them. A siren wails in the background. A scene of violence is evident on the other side of the street. The signs of poverty are everywhere; windows and doors are boarded up. Litter. Scenes of urban devastation. And the character played by Danny Glover looked up and in a poignant moment said, `You know, it's not supposed to be this way.'"

Written down, it sort of makes sense. But out of his mouth, it was just a series of sentences. It was painful to listen to. The audience sat waiting for a summation, a point, the way a novice dancer might anticipate a cue from her lead. Gore never provided such a cue. He earned no applause. From a presidential aspirant, it's not supposed to be this way.

Gore's formula was simple: Recognize progress, but dwell on the negative, which points to the need for more government action. For example, after stating that blacks and whites graduate from high school at the same rates, he shifted his focus to problems facing African Americans. He got particularly riled up that the average black family has but 10 percent of the wealth of the average white family.

"It reflects injustices of five generations ago," said Gore, his voice now showing a bit of passion, which garnered him a bit of applause. Gore continued: "If you start with the family wealth that is not just 10 percent less, not just half, but one tenth the average family wealth in the majority community, then business formation and entrepreneurship has more of an obstacle to overcome." Not bad on paper. But he delivered it in such a blockheaded fashion that it was met with polite silence. This man just doesn't groove.

After a significant applause drought, Gore got some claps when he promised to "finish up quick, so the dinner shift can start." "Amen," said a UPI correspondent sitting two spots to my right. But even here he didn't deliver. He still had America's mission to get to, he hadn't yet held forth on the wealth gap, and South Africa still needed addressing.

"We know we're making progress," he said, starting his wrap-up, a failed attempt to emulate the rhythm and intonation of, let's say, Jesse Jackson. "We know how much farther we have to go. And we know that the kind of business investments and practical uses of prosperity and economic progress represents one of the greatest assets we can possibly cultivate in order to give ourselves the momentum we need to get on over that edge, to get on beyond that division, to get on with creating what we are intended to be in this country, to make it the way it is supposed to be."

I thought he sounded ridiculous. I asked the woman next to me what she thought. A student at Hampton University interning for Scripps Howard, she said, "I'm going to vote for him," but soon caught herself, recalling her lessons that journalists are supposed to be objective. All the fellow from UPI would say is, "He's running for president. What can I say?"

Needing something to soak up the wine, I stayed through dinner before heading home.

Date: Wed, April 14, 1999 4:18 PM
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
Subj: Mandate for Leadership

Pay attention, fellow Generation Xers. There's yet another group of your peers telling the world what you think. This time they come with a "covenant."

I got the word via a faxed media advisory notifying me that "fifty representatives of the `best and brightest' of Generation X" will release a report called The Content of Our Character at a town meeting on Thursday, April 8. The release was on the letterhead of the Kenan Ethics Program of Duke University. The report, the advisory promised, is a "thought-provoking vision and commentary on the American landscape." I set out to cover this momentous release.

Six hours before the event, I received a five-page teaser on the covenant. "We must educate our peers, our children, and our children's children [for all the Gen X grandparents out there] about the importance of civic engagement," this fax declared. "With hope and confidence, we look to our peers and our successors to carry out the vision that has already begun." Vision that has already begun?

In addition to canned rhetoric, the fax tapped many liberal bromides. It endorsed the McCain-Feingold speech restrictions, a.k.a. campaign finance reform; called on corporations to give away more of their owners' money and spend more on environmental initiatives; and endorsed government day care that "promotes experiential learning during the first five years of life."

I investigated the associated Web site, www.contentofourcharacter.org. The "best and brightest" of my generation, it turns out, have discovered something called "right-minded capitalism," which means corporate do-gooder giveaways. They also want to "capitalize our leadership and our belief in a divinity of spirit." Gen X leaders must "strive to be selfless." According to my peers, "human dignity" not only requires "fundamentals such as health care, education, shelter and subsistence, but it should also mean access to attentive physicians, viable public schools, adequate housing, and healthy food." Why not slender flight attendants and courteous waitresses?

The advisory had billed the event as a "town meeting," yet the location wasn't some community center, or even a classroom at the University of the District of Columbia. Nope. It was the House Science Committee Room, easily accessible to Hill-based reporters. These folks weren't an expedition of Gen Xers in search of truth but a bunch of young Bill Clintons and Ira Magaziners.

I was among the first, and last, to arrive. At about 4:10 p.m., the panel assembled to address the crowd of about 10 reporters. Gregg Behr, the Duke law and public policy student who edited the report, proceeded to explain its origin: A group of Truman Scholars, toiling in D.C. during the summer of 1995, thought they had a vision to share with the country. In August 1998, they convened a group of 50 people in Durham, North Carolina, to continue the bull sessions. After many debates, they decided they shared a set of common ethical principles. They then spent months writing, faxing, and e-mailing what they now regard as a "covenant."

Gregg is definitely an operator, and he appears to have political aspirations. He wore a permanent grin and spoke in an ostensibly soothing tone, a quiet voice that conveyed his deep compassion but nevertheless grated on my nerves. He's like a male kindergarten teacher, day care provider, or coach of young children who, in the face of child rage, kneels down on one knee, places his hands on a child's shoulders, and counsels: "It's OK to be mad, it's OK to cry when you're angry, it's OK to be upset when your feelings are hurt or when someone steals your ball or calls you names, but it's not OK to cuss out the person or punch him and take your ball back."

Next up was Maggie Super, a Yale graduate now studying city planning at MIT. Maggie discussed the report's community section, which she claimed was "iterative and inclusive." She was followed by Mollie Finch, who edited the political section. Mollie said her diverse group of 10 couldn't agree on any policy issues. Instead, she claimed they agreed upon values–working for the common good, honesty, courage, and "inspiring through vision." Honesty is particularly instructive.

According to the report, "an honest leader always will have pure motives, while maintaining a true respect for the rule of law and the best interests of the public." Yet the report never mentions by name our commander in chief, who has been held in contempt of court for lying and stands credibly accused of rape. After the presentations were done and Gregg had finished thanking everyone he's ever known in his life, I asked how Clinton's behavior fit with their emphasis on character and honesty and questioned why the report never mentioned him. Gregg said the report was about future leadership and that people had different opinions on the president's behavior.

Maggie feels the conversation on honesty has "become very narrow." It has been framed, after all, as being about telling the truth under oath and telling bald-faced lies to the American public. "We may have lost sight of the fact," Maggie instructed me, "that moral leadership and ethics have a whole number of issues associated with them that are in fact fundamentally more important for a civil society and a culture." She asked, "Is it ethical that kids don't have enough to eat?"

I edged in one more question: "What would you say to Generations Xers who perhaps don't find their views reflected in your document? There may be a segment of Generation X who believe that McCain-Feingold trounces all over free speech, instead of holding politicians accountable; that might feel that corporations pursue their values best when they pursue their profit motive wholeheartedly, an ethical position that has been out there for some time; and that might feel more environmental regulation isn't the way to go."

That got to the crux of it. Horacio Trujillo, a Truman and Rhodes scholar who serves as a legislative assistant for Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), admitted that some in the group felt exactly like this. Gregg said no one who worked on the report actually agrees with its conclusions, just with the universal values that inform it. I guess the sentences just sort of sound good together. Some covenant.