Christian Backing, Criminal Background

June 13, 1994|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Politics makes strange bedfellows, but it also makes ironic adversaries. Consider, for example, how much the conservative Oliver North and the liberal Marion Barry actually have in common.

Both are now running for major public offices, even though both have been convicted of major crimes.

Both are running as outsiders, since each is an embarrassment to his party's bigwigs. Yet each is considered to have a very good chance to win. And, so far, each owes his success to a different side of the same political coin: Christian conservatives.

More than anyone else, it was volunteers from Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition and other Christian fundamentalists who made North's 55 percent victory at last weekend's state nominating convention in Richmond possible.

The victory, which pits North against Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb in a divided field in November, came despite appeals to the contrary from Ronald Reagan and other Republican heroes, including Virginia's Sen. John Warner.

Back across the Potomac, Barry, now a District of Columbia Council member, also has been wooing church folks quite successfully in his recently announced bid to regain his former seat from Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. Like North, Barry also has the delicate matter of a criminal conviction to overcome. He served six months for misdemeanor drug possession after an FBI ''sting'' caught him smoking crack cocaine when he was mayor.

North was convicted of constitution-breaching felonies after lying Congress about arms sales to Iran, funneling the proceeds to the Nicaraguan contras and, incidentally, losing most of it along the way to a maddening network of smugglers, slicksters and go-betweens.

The conviction was later overturned, thanks to immunity previously granted to him by a Senate investigating committee, just the sort of legal technicality conservatives so often criticize as coddling criminals. Maybe it depends on whose criminal is being coddled.

Barry impressed many churchgoers after he credited a religious conversion and a spiritually based 12-step rehabilitation program for helping him kick his drug habit. Then he introduced an ordinance to allow prayer in the district's public schools. Even if the courts strike it down, which they probably will, Barry can say that, at least, he tried. In the meantime, church leaders can provide crucial foot soldiers to pass petitions, ring doorbells, hang posters and cast votes.

Many D.C. residents look at Barry and see someone much like other young wayward men and women they have known who now see the error of their ways and deserve to have a second chance, especially if they can serve as an important role model for others who have fallen.

North's supporters see in their ''Ollie'' a man who may have done wrong by the letter of the law, but had his heart in the right place -- a far right place.

North offers a convenient vehicle for a constituency looking to channel its discontent about abortion, homosexuals, crime, uppity feminists and ''val-yoos'' into political action against a Washington establishment that's gotten too insular, snooty, arrogant and disconnected.

Many Barry supporters voice the same complaints, especially about ''val-yoos'' and a world that seems to be coming apart with joblessness, family breakdown and street violence run amok in the age of crack.

Compromise? Forget it. North's wing of the party doesn't have a lot in common with the country-club Republicans like Senator Warner or George Bush, other than a desire to unseat President Clinton. Nor do Marion Barry's core supporters see themselves as having much in common with Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly's seemingly bourgeois base.

So far, Mayor Kelly has yet to score any big victories in a city that has every problem a big American city can have -- murders, homeless ness, joblessness, drugs -- plus an additional one no other city has: Taxation without congressional representation.

Barry's hero status actually was enhanced when televised footage showed the FBI sting to be an obvious set-up. The FBI's female contact offers, then coaxes Barry into smoking the pipe. Why, many wondered, was President Reagan's FBI trying so hard to bust Barry while children were bleeding to death on district streets?

A Barry victory undoubtedly will set back efforts to gain statehood for D.C., but those efforts have been stalled anyway, so deep is the Washington establishment's contempt for the people with whom they share the nation's capital.

So, resentments abound, along with the ironies. Are North and Barry sincere in their Christian crusade? Or is this just another example of religion replacing patriotism as the last refuge of scoundrels?

Neither possibility is very comforting. Religious fundamentalism mixed with politics has an unhappy track record around the world. Zealotry of any type crowds out the tolerance that is essential to peace in a diverse society. Christian believers are as entitled as any other interest group to exert influence on the political process. They also are entitled to choose their own champions, however dubious those champions may be.

At least Barry, unlike North, says he is sorry for his sins. North seems to be rather proud of his lies. But I'm not sure I believe him.


Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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