Bait and switch politics of the right

March 03, 1995|By Frank Rich

UNNOTICED BY much of the public and unchallenged by much of the press, a remarkably effective bait-and -switch campaign is now remarking American politics.

The campaign's perpetrator is Pat Robertson, president of the Christian Coalition, the far-right political organization that rose from the ashes of his 1988 presidential bid to become the most conspicuous king-maker within the ascendant GOP.

Have you seen Pat Robertson on a network talk show since the election? Not likely. And that's where the bait-and-switch comes in. Now that real power is within its grasp, the Christian Coalition is fronted in public almost exclusively by its ubiquitous "executive director," Ralph Reed. A flack who is invariably described as "baby-faced," Mr. Reed tirelessly reassures the nation that his followers want nothing more inflammatory than lower taxes and welfare reform.

Really? The Christian Coalition also stands for school prayer, a rollback of abortion rights and gay rights, and creationism. Pat Robertson, a sharp mogul and nobody's fool, has looked at polls showing that his very name reminds mainstream voters of that inconvenient fact. To insure they forget it while he consolidates his hold on the Republican Party, he has retreated in favor of the unthreatening Mr. Reed.

No one questions Mr. Reed much about Mr. Robertson these days. In a country with so short a memory, many have forgotten that if you buy Mr. Reed, you're buying Mr. Robertson -- that the former works for the latter, not the other way around.

One journalist who hasn't forgotten is Michael Lind, a young editor at Harper's who has pursued Mr. Robertson and his GOP apologists in a pair of must-read articles recently published in Dissent and the New York Review of Books.

Mr. Lind is no leftist. His resume could hardly be more conservative; he has served in the Bush administration, written for Commentary, worked for William Buckley at National Review and for Irving Kristol at The National Interest.

In his New York Review piece, Mr. Lind shows just how extremist Mr. Robertson is by detailing how his 1991 best-seller, "The New World Order," trafficks in a satanic "conspiracy theory of world history," dominated by Jewish bankers and "a secret society called the Order of the Illuminati," that is "familiar from generations of anti-Semitic propaganda."

As Mr. Lind also points out, Mr. Robertson shrewdly avoids the overt anti-Semitism of his screed's antecedents. When he finds Jewish bankers at the center of evil doings, they are not identified as Jews. But some of Mr. Robertson's named conspirators (the Rothschilds, "the powerful Kuhn, Loeb and Company") also appeared in Father Coughlin's Depression-era anti-Semitic propaganda. Turn to Howard M. Sachar's "History of the Jews in America," as I did after reading Mr. Lind, and you'll find that Gerald B. Winrod, an anti-Semitic rabble-rouser of the '20s, also prefigured Mr. Robertson's Illuminati theory, in a "Christian Crusade" that sought to purge Darwin from schools.

Whenever anti-Semitism is mentioned in the same sentence as the Christian Coalition, Mr. Reed strikes back hard -- witness his assault on the Anti-Defamation League last year. Then he champions Israel and plays victim, throwing the religious right's critics on the defensive by accusing them of anti-Christian bigotry. Yet Mr. Lind's findings are not so easily deflected. According to Michael Kinsley, Mr. Reed has ducked two "Crossfire" invitations in the past month after learning that Mr. Robertson's book would come up.

Mr. Lind is equally hard-hitting when reporting how some of his own former conservative colleagues, some of them Jewish, choose to ignore the fringe lunacies of Pat Robertson.

"Much has been written in the American press about neo-Fascist movements in Italy, Germany, Japan, and France," Mr. Lind writes.

"But the United States is the only industrial democracy in which a far-right political leader in one of only two major parties has created a base of support so powerful that conventional politicians and intellectuals in his party feel they must defend him from charges of anti-Semitism."

Given the Christian Coalition's clout in choosing the next GOP occupant of the White House, isn't it time for the press and public alike to stop swallowing Ralph Reed's bait and smoke out his boss?

Frank Rich is a New York Times columnist.

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