Getting a read on Reed Politics: Bright, smooth Christian conservative had all the answers at a Hopkins lecture. Much to the dismay of the non-believers in his audience.

September 20, 1997|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Amanda C. Smith was frustrated. She and several Goucher College classmates had come to Johns Hopkins University Thursday night to confront ultra-conservative political organizer Ralph Reed, but at both a pre-lecture demonstration and a post-lecture question-and-answer session, had missed their chance.

But Smith wasn't giving up. She had carefully worded her query for him on the back of the evening's program: If Reed were as pro-family as he contended, how could he condone legal barriers that could prevent same-sex partners from attending their lovers' funerals?

The women also had lots of unwritten questions for Reed, the 36-year-old political whiz kid who recently resigned as executive director of the Christian Coalition to run Century Strategies, an Atlanta-based political consulting firm: Why doesn't he just come out and say what he stands for instead of hiding behind the words of de Tocqueville, John Adams, Martin Luther King Jr. and other important thinkers? And who is Reed to say his values should be their values?

But even if they'd been able to ask him, his answers may only have furthered their frustration. In his visit to Baltimore this week, Reed demonstrated that in moving from political operative to Christian activist to political operative again, he's become a pro at eluding the philosophical traps set for him.

Less than a week earlier, there were no traps when Reed had stood before a loving audience of 900 Christian Coalition members in Atlanta. They paid tribute to the intellectually nimble young man who in eight years had parlayed their organization into a powerful and wealthy lobbying group on the right.

The omnipresent standard-bearer for those who oppose abortion and favor school prayer, capital punishment and free enterprise, Reed helped engineer the GOP's platform language in 1996 and wrote a manifesto, "Active Faith," that was excerpted in Newsweek.

But the Christian Coalition, under federal investigation for violating its nonpartisan status with its overwhelming support for Republican candidates, could not contain Reed's growing political ambitions. And his ideological peers couldn't wait for him to print up business cards. In the months since his resignation from the coalition, Reed has been besieged by potential clients, from grass-roots political candidates in the hinterlands to nine possible Republican presidential contenders.

Over dinner at the Polo Grill before his speech Thursday, Reed suffers politely the nervous chit-chat of the Hopkins students who had brought him to campus as part of the university's 1997 Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium, "In God We Trust? America's Response to the Rise of Religion."

At first, small talk -- Sam Donaldson's glowing words for Ronald ++ Reagan, how Reed nearly choked up when his friend Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House -- fills the jittery void. As the meal progresses, though, the questions, including some from the parents of Craig Zapetis, a symposium organizer, grow more pointed.

Did Reed model himself after the late GOP hired gun Lee Atwater, who had a death-bed conversion to Christianity?

"I do want to win, it's true," Reed says. "I don't want to win at the cost of an eternal set of values."

Would he support only Christian candidates?

No, Reed says, he just signed Bob Zemel, a City Council member in Anaheim, Calif., running for Congress, and he's Jewish.

The youthful, clean-cut Reed, who could easily be mistaken for a student himself, mentions that he had prayed and thought long and hard after Pat Robertson had asked him to head up the Christian Coalition in 1989. He agreed to forgo an academic career because the job was an opportunity to "change the direction of the country."

Throughout the dinner discussion -- which, after a certain point, Reed declares off the record -- he emerges as a political pragmatist who compares his agenda's progress to debate over the speed limit. Of course more lives could be saved if a 30-mile-per-hour limit were enforced, he says, but that isn't realistic. Nor is it realistic to think that legislation can prohibit the abortion of all unborn children.

But it is through political action "that you change hearts and minds," Reed says. And if you keep plugging away in this free society, and you win, then you are right, he says, agreeing with a student's interpretation of his belief system. "It is the least arbitrary standard humanity has cobbled together," Reed says.

Later, in his address at Shriver Hall, Reed wastes no time on nonpartisan fluff. If this were a Buddhist temple instead of a college campus, he could take up a collection, he quips, in reference to the Buddhist nuns who held a Democratic #i fund-raising lunch with Vice President Al Gore.

There is polite laughter. "I gather we have some Democrats here," Reed says, and the hall resounds with whoops and applause. But as Reed continues, applause and approving hoots break out sporadically -- and unpredictably.

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