Capital Letters: No Escape

In which our man in Washington looks longingly at the exit doors


Date: Wed, May 19, 1999 7:03:44 AM
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
Subj: The Religious Right Regroups

I found myself at the American Enterprise Institute last Thursday, in search of a free lunch and a panel discussion on religious conservatives and American politics. I was only half successful. I signed up too late for lunch, but there were plenty of seats for the lectures.

As I've noted before, Washington's religious conservatives are engaged in a bit of introspection, due to a widely circulated letter from Paul Weyrich calling for a retreat from politics and a book by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson that I gather does much the same. This is how "intellectual/political" movements sort themselves out here. Just as the William Kristol/David Brooks article on national greatness spurred myriad followup articles and set conservative and libertarian big-think conference agendas for many months, these more recent documents are giving religious activists something to think and talk about. Hence the day's forum: "Terms of (Dis)engagement: Religious Conservatives and American Politics."

The event started out slow, as moderator Keith Pavlischek plodded–and I mean plodded–through his "brief" opening and speaker introductions. "This is the reason these events get bad raps," I wrote in my notebook, as I looked for an exit door.

Fortunately, Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard and Fox News Channel was soon up to speak. His remarks centered on twin theses: Christian conservatives have been widely successful, and politics hasn't pulled the faithful away from the churches and into black tie political receptions. His one caveat was that being on TV "is a narcotic," which he knows from personal experience. Jerry Falwell is on TV too much, he said, and "has become in some cases a patsy for politicians."

Next came Paul Marshall, a rather frigid-looking fellow who is currently working on a "World Survey on Religious Freedom" for Freedom House. When he declared that, in the interest of time, he would simply read his remarks, I again started looking for the exit. But Marshall grabbed my attention with his witty, at times cutting, and insightful comments. He called Weyrich's letter "1,000 words in search of a thesis" and quoted a review of Dobson's book that advised: "This is not a book to be put aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."

Like Barnes, Marshall denied everything. He claimed that even the high-profile leaders, such as James Dobson, James Kennedy, and Pat Robertson, put most of their energies into their churches, media outlets, universities, and other do-good projects–not politics. He then offered some historical perspective. "The call for separation is not the slightest bit new or the slightest bit unusual," said Marshall. "It is merely the repetition of pervasive, parochial, and pathological patterns which have afflicted American evangelicalism throughout most of history."

Marshall said that Christians become motivated only when they feel beleaguered by a hostile culture. They then set out on a crusade to right the wrongs of the world. The crusade is populist, cast as the "little guy, the decent, honest, hard-working American against distant elites who manipulate the country for their own selfish and nefarious ends." The campaigns are against, rather than for, something. "It can be anti-slavery, anti-Masonic, anti-Catholic, anti-alcohol, anti-evolution, anti-secular, anti-communist–but it is very hard to know what it is for except for a general morality and decency."

The result, according to Marshall, is a burnout of leaders and troops who soon "head for the hills," exactly what he sees Weyrich, Thomas, and Dobson calling for today. This retreat is caused, he argued, by a failure to take government seriously as an ongoing pursuit requiring hard work, rather than a temporary tool to solve immediate and discrete problems.

Said Marshall, "Government and politics is an ongoing, necessary, unavoidable, inescapable, persistent feature of human life." Politics cannot create a utopia, but it is important. There is no final crusade to end all crusades. Just the day-in and day-out work of keeping an eye on our Washington overlords.

This may surprise some of you, but I am coming to see the religious right and libertarians as similarly situated vis-à-vis politics. Both groups are composed of people who distrust government, view it as inherently corrupt and verging on illegitimate, and would prefer not to see, touch, taste, or smell it–ever. The problem, of course, is that government tends to show up on one's doorstep, uninvited, like a slobbering St. Bernard or perhaps an elephant on the verge of a bowel movement. Just ask Microsoft, a company once famous for keeping its distance from D.C. The religious right was spurred to action when the IRS started poking around its schools.

The question, for Christians as well as libertarians, is whether Marshall's vision of eternally tedious vigilance is enough to keep the troops motivated, sending money, and bugging politicians. The left is perpetually engaged because it wants something desperately–your money and your children's minds.

All five panelists agreed that religious conservatives should stay engaged in politics, which of course is the status quo. No one wanted to defend, or flesh out, Weyrich's letter. AEI's Hillel Fradkin, on hand to offer comments on the main presentations, threw out one loopy idea. Noting that the left has been successful pushing its agenda in the courts, he suggested forming an "alliance between trial lawyers and the Christian Coalition" to sue purveyors of popular culture. Hollywood's product, he reasoned, is just as dangerous as secondhand smoke. If the public health nuts and lawyers can get big tobacco, cultural conservatives and lawyers ought to be able to get Hollywood.

On my way out, I passed through the secondhand smoke of Judge Robert Bork, who was enjoying a Kent at the back of the room. I introduced myself, telling him I'm a big fan largely because, as someone who is constantly smoking and wisecracking, he reminds me of my grandfather. I asked him what he thought of Fradkin's idea. It'll never work, he exhaled, adding that the cultural elite would never sign on. Thank God, I thought, as I headed for the hills.

Date: Fri, May 21, 1999 3:15:55 PM
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
Subj: Evening Beat

I worked evenings this week. The American News Women's Club hosted its annual dinner Tuesday night, a toast and roast for CNN's Larry King. Mary Matalin emceed the event, and the roasters were a distinguished bunch, including F. Lee Bailey, Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), and veteran UPI White House correspondent Helen Thomas. I found myself at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, a Heineken in hand, sometime after 6:30 p.m. It was all quite pleasant, until the formal program started.

Note to event planners: If it's a roast you're after, don't book a current TV interview show host as the roastee and a bunch of publicity hounds as the roasters. What you'll get is a giant butt-kiss–the roast version of a Larry King interview.

The roasters rotated from the present to the absent, mostly ex-presidents, who sent their love by letter. Matalin had the painful job of reading these toasts–none were roasts–and none said anything the least bit interesting.

There were the obligatory references to King's wives. "He never met a man he didn't like or, for that matter, a woman he didn't love," said Hollywood producer Michael Viner, in a typically gut-busting line. The only people who were consistently funny, and harsh, were Matalin, who at one point said she "felt like a NATO general apologizing for all of these bombs," and former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, whose accent and hair alone would have kept us laughing.

The night's most painful presentation came from Sally Quinn, Georgetown society hostess and Washington Post style maven. Quinn revealed that she had sought advice on her roast from her funny friends–two comedy writers, a Broadway writer, and a Clinton speechwriter. She must have gotten voicemail.

Quinn just couldn't seem to get past talking about herself, and the results were less than uproarious. She described the time she invited King to her famous New Year's Eve party, where he was unable to hold a conversation with anyone. He told her afterward that he was shy. She told the audience how Larry fell asleep during an on-air radio interview with her seven years ago. This, by the way, was supposed to reflect poorly on King. She kept talking about her parties, her books, and her husband, the Post's Ben Bradlee. After dropping his name numerous times, she chastised King for actually introducing her one time as "Mrs. Bradlee." Can you believe it?

The event ended well, which is another way of saying it ended. By having the birthday closest to Larry's at my table, I got to take the centerpiece home to my Lovely Wife, along with a goodie bag that included an array of fancy lotions and a key-chain whistle for safe navigation of D.C.'s streets.

Wednesday night, I headed to the Hill for one of those can't-miss Washington receptions–a screening of the hot new documentary Prostate Cancer: A Journey of Hope, and the unveiling of a new postage stamp, inscribed with the male circle-and-arrow symbol, "Annual Checkups and Tests," and "Prostate Cancer Awareness."

As I stood leafing through the press materials, drinking a Michelob Light, and watching the waiters circulate mozzarella kabob appetizers to the 100 or so guests, I thought to myself: "This is why it's great to live in Washington. We find out first about everything of national importance." The rest of America won't see the postage stamp for another 10 days and won't catch a glimpse of the documentary until well into next month.

It also occurred to me that this is the perfect Washington event. It captures the essence of both the nanny state–get yourself tested and tell a friend–and the regulatory state–I'm from the government and I'm here to give you a digital rectal exam. Even the most unappetizing of topics–limp and leaky penises, castration–is an occasion for free food and drink, and, of course, calls for more federal spending. The National Cancer Institute's executive director, Dr. Jill O'Donnell-Tomey, said she "hoped the lawmakers here would help us by allocating more federal funds for research." As for the Fourth Estate, she wants us to "help publicize it." Hence this e-mail.

Although I left before the entire 16-minute screening had finished, I was struck by the optimism expressed in the footage I was privileged to see. One man dolefully described the disappearance of his sex drive upon entering treatment. His wife, however, was less concerned. "It's fine for me," she said, "but that's just a woman's point of view."

With that, I knew it was time to hit the exit.