Stunned by his 700 Club commentary advocating the assassination of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, several of the Rev. Pat Robertson's evangelical brethren quickly, and publicly, condemned him. Some conservative commentators thought that given the fact that Robertson plays a diminished role in national politics, the "liberal" media blew the story out of proportion.
"Despite Pat Robertson's waning role in national politics, the broadcast and cable networks... jumped on his" comments," Brent Baker, the Vice President for Research and Publications at L. Brent Bozell's Media Research Center, wrote in a posting at NewsBusters -- a website dedicated to "Exposing and Combating Liberal Media Bias."
In his on-air commentary, the Fox News Channel's conservative newscaster, Brit Hume, claimed that Robertson has "no clout with the Bush Administration."
After more than two decades of getting a pass from his religious and political colleagues for his sometimes provocative, often offensive and frequently ridiculous 700 Club commentaries, Robertson finally felt the verbal wrath of some of his colleagues.
Several evangelical leaders maintained that Robertson's comments had nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus, and others speculated that the remarks might endanger Christian missionaries working abroad. Leave it to the Heritage Foundation's Joseph Loconte, concerned about the domestic political fallout, brought down the hammer.
In a recent op-ed piece for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Loconte -- who specializes in faith-based issues as a William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation -- expressed concern that Robertson, who "can be counted on to mouth an offensive or bizarre political opinion" on a regular basis, is alienating a large segment of the American people already suspicious about "the role of religion in public life."
Meanwhile, Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, was looking out for Robertson's business interests.
Assassinate the Dictator
On the August 22 edition of The 700 Club Robertson said:
"There was a popular coup that overthrew him [Chavez]. And what did the United States State Department do about it? Virtually nothing. And as a result, within about 48 hours that coup was broken; Chavez was back in power, but we had a chance to move in. He has destroyed the Venezuelan economy, and he's going to make that a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent.
"You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. And I don't think any oil shipments will stop. But this man is a terrific danger... This is in our sphere of influence, so we can't let this happen. We have the Monroe Doctrine, we have other doctrines that we have announced. And without question, this is a dangerous enemy to our south, controlling a huge pool of oil, that could hurt us very badly. We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with."
Robertson first claimed he was misquoted, however, the transcript of the program proved that incorrect. Later, he issued one of his half-hearted Robertsonian apologies.
But, as Ted Olsen, the editor of Christianity Today's invaluable Weblog, pointed out two days after the initial incident, in a story entitled "Why You Can't Stop Pat Robertson," the controversial televangelist had gone down the assassination road several times over the past few years.
"I know it sounds somewhat Machiavellian and evil, to think that you could send a squad in to take out somebody like Osama bin Laden, or to take out the head of North Korea," Robertson said in 1999. "But isn't it better to do something like that, to take out Milosevic, to take out Saddam Hussein, rather than to spend billions of dollars on a war that harms innocent civilians and destroys the infrastructure of a country?" And in 2004, Robertson reiterated his support for assassinating Saddam Hussein. "Our forces are going to war, and we support them," he said. "But if I had been doing it, I think I would have much preferred the assassination route."
Olsen's August 24 weblog also catalogued responses to Robertson's comments from several evangelical leaders: They varied from outright condemnation to "Pat will be Pat" type rationales. Some maintained his remarks were blown out of proportion, while some were particularly concerned about the safety of evangelicals doing missionary work outside the U.S.
The Heritage Foundation's Joe Loconte thinks Robertson's critics did not go far enough; in his Pittsburgh Tribune-Review piece, he suggested that "evangelical leaders would be wise to marginalize Robertson and his media empire -- publicly and decisively. They should editorialize against his excesses, refuse to appear on his television program and deny him advertising space in their magazines. Board members should threaten to resign unless he steps down from his public platform."
This was a reversal of sort for Loconte; throughout the 1990s, he did not appear troubled about the Robertson's loopy commentaries when his Christian Coalition was organizing hundred of thousands of ground troops to support the Republican Party's political agenda. And he didn't raise a fuss when Robertson's operations routinely raised millions of dollars with fundraising appeals that bashed gays, demonized feminists, and whacked just about anyone else opposed to the Reverend's vision.
Waning Political Influence?
While the Media Research Center's Brent Baker claimed that Robertson's political clout is "waning," and Fox News' Brit Hume maintained that Robertson had "no clout with the Bush Administration," Senator James M. Inhofe, the Republican from Oklahoma who heads up the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, was looking out for the televangelist's business interests. In August, Sen. Inhofe inserted $10.8 million into the $286 billion transportation bill; money that will directly enhance the Reverend's bottom line. The funds -- $5.8 million of which came through Sen. Inhofe's initiative -- was earmarked "to help build an interchange along Interstate 64 near the Christian Broadcasting Network [CBN]," the Virginian-Pilot reported in mid-September.
"Building the interchange would help a project planned by CBN to build homes, shops and commercial space on about 430 acres of undeveloped land in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach that the network owns adjacent to the interstate," the Virginian-Pilot reported. "Lowell W. Morse, president of Morse and Associates Inc., a firm hired by CBN to help develop the project, has said the investment could hit $300 million."
According to the newspaper, Sen. Inhofe has been a guest on the Christian Broadcasting Network's (CBN) The 700 Club. "During an appearance in April, he [Sen. Inhofe] spoke with CBN founder Pat Robertson about what he described as the infiltration of the evangelical movement by 'far-left environmental extremists.'" In the intro to the interview Sen. Inhofe is described as "one of the leading conservative voices in the Senate " and "a strong advocate of common-sense Oklahoma values, including less government, less regulation, lower taxes, fiscal responsibility, and a strong national defense."
At the conclusion of the interview, Robertson called Inhofe "a great senator."
Christian Coalition Falls on Hard Times
While Sen. Inhofe was looking after the Rev. Robertson's financial interests, the Christian Coalition, the organization founded by Robertson in 1989, was on the edge of sinking into history. The organization is a long way from its salad days in the mid-1990s when the politically savvy Ralph Reed ran the ship as the CC's executive director.
"In 1994 alone," TheSlate.com recently reported, "the group mailed 30 million postcards opposing President Clinton's sweeping health-care proposal and made more than 20,000 phone calls to urge support for the balanced budget amendment -- two issues that helped Republicans win control of Congress that year."
Now, the organization is suffering from a series of financial blows, including a suit against filed in June, by Pitney Bowes for $13,649 in unpaid postage; the suit was recently settled out of court. The Christian Coalition is also feeling the back draft from a racial discrimination suit filed by several of its black employees, all of which has left it behind such powerhouse conservative Christian operations as Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family and Tony Perkins' Family Research Council.
It is highly unlikely that Roberta Combs, who headed the coalition's South Carolina chapter and became the CC's executive director in 1999 after Robertson resigned, can resurrect the organization.
Operation Blessing: Controversial and Prosperous
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided a list of charities to which Americans should donate, and listed Robertson's Operation Blessing second only to the American Red Cross.
The designation "could be worth tens of millions of dollars" Richard Walden, president and founder of Operation USA, a non-governmental organization specializing in disaster relief, told ABC's Brian Ross. Walden added that he was "shocked" considering some "of Pat Robertson's activities over the years."
Operation Blessing International (OBI), according to its website, aims to "demonstrate God's love by alleviating human need and suffering in the United States and around the world." It was established in 1978 by Robertson "to help struggling individuals and families by matching their needs for items such as clothing, appliances, vehicles with donated items from viewers of The 700 Club." Less than ten years later, Operation Blessing International Relief and Development Corporation (OBI) formed as a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization to handle international relief projects. In 1993, all Operation Blessing activities were transferred to OBI.
OBI has had a controversial history: In 1996, the Norfolk, Va.-based Virginia-Pilot reported that two pilots hired by OBI to fly humanitarian aid to Zaire two years earlier were used to benefit Robertson's diamond mining operations. Chief pilot Robert Hinkle, maintained that during his six months tenure flying for Operation Blessing, only one or two of more than 40 flights were for humanitarian purposes -- the rest carried mining equipment. OBI resources were being diverted to support the African Development Co., a private corporation run by Robertson. At the time, Robertson also had a special relationship with Zaire's late dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.
Robertson's relationship with Sese Seko grew out of an Operation Blessing-sponsored "corn-cultivation project on a 50,000-acre farm outside the capital, Kinshasa," went awry, Time magazine reported in February 1995.
During the Rwandan refugee crisis, according to Time, Operation Blessing "was criticized for spending too much money on transportation, pulling its workers out too soon and proselytizing. 'They were laying on hands,'" an American aid worker said. They were "'speaking in tongues and holding services while people were dying all around,'" she added. Time points out that although "many relief agencies are notorious for mismanagement and backbiting... Operation Blessing drew a considerable volume of negative reviews from fellow good Samaritans."
According to the Chronicle for Philanthropy, the Virginia Beach, Va.-based group has thus far received more than $500,000 in online donations.
In addition, while the Rev. Robertson was an early critic of President Bush's faith-based initiative -- concerned that groups such as the Nation of Islam, the Church of Scientology, or Hare Krishnas would receive government support -- Operation Blessing has thus far received well over $1 million from Bush's faith-based initiative during the past few years.
According to the organization's 2003 tax return, out of $192 million in total revenues, nearly $10 million came from the government.
Dead Ender or No End in Sight?
There is no question that the criticism Robertson received after advocating the assassination of Hugo Chavez hurt the Rev. Robertson. Does it signal the end of his political influence?
Christianity Today's Ted Olsen recently wrote that Robertson's political power and influence within the evangelical movement is largely dependent on his perpetual presence on television and in that regard, there is no end in sight. Olsen explained: "In 1988, Robertson sold the Family Network to Fox for $1.9 billion," eleven years after he "launched" the channel "through the donations of viewers who had been promised a Christian alternative to 'secular' television." According to Olsen, the Christian Broadcasting Network received $136 million, Robertson's Regent University got $148 million, Robertson "personally received $19 million, and the rest went to the Robertson Charitable Remainder Trust, which will fund CBN after Robertson and his wife die."
The kicker in the deal: "Fox Family was required to air The 700 Club three times a day... and, if Fox sold the network, the obligation to air The 700 Club had to be part of that deal, too." (The Walt Disney Company bought the network from Fox in 2001 for $3 billion and $2.3 billion in debt, Olsen reported.)
In recent years, with the 700 Club airing as many as five times a day, "Donations have increased from $84 million in 1998, the year of the sale, to $132.1 million in 2004." The Virginian-Pilot's religion reporter Steven Vegh, recently reported that donations had risen from only a third of CBN's 1997 revenue, to 71 percent of its 2004 total.
Despite the fact, as Olsen points out, some of Robertson's business interests have taken a financial hit the Reverend still has an impressive portfolio. With friends like Sen. Inhofe, it is likely that he will continue to prosper. While Robertson clearly is not the political powerhouse he once was, it would be a mistake to sell the feisty televangelist short.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right. Thanks to Laura Ross for her research assistance.
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