Recall that evangelical con-artist and hardliner Ralph Reed was stashed on Enron’s payroll until the time was ripe to take him out of the closet. His new mission? To help deliver evangelicals for the “compassionate conservative.”
It was 2000 and John McCain was leading Bush the Younger in the Republican Presidential primary. He had beaten Bush in New Hampshire. The Confederacy was Bush’s firewall: if he lost South Carolina that would be it.
Reed was now the Southeast regional coordinator for the Bush campaign. His responsibility was to deliver Florida, South Carolina and three other Southern states. Evangelicals would be key.
In 1992 he had told the “Los Angeles Times”: “It’s like guerrilla warfare. If you reveal your location, all it does is allow your opponent to improve his artillery bearings. It’s better to move quietly, with stealth, under cover of night.”
And that was Reed’s game plan. Evangelicals were particularly strong in South Carolina. Reed would reach them with a word-of-mouth campaign, leaving no footprints. And so the rumors began to fly: “McCain chose to sire children without marriage.”
Bush the Younger didn’t say it—just as Bush the Elder never took responsibility for the infamous Willie Horton ad produced and distributed on his behalf. This piece of trash was from a very pious professor of Bible Studies at Christian-fundamentalist Bob Jones University, where interracial dating was banned. Bush made BJU his first campaign stop. But Reed was just warming up.
Anonymous flyers appeared under windshields suggesting that McCain had fathered a black child. Grainy photos of John and Cindy McCain, together with what could have been a black child began popping up—all anonymous. It was an ugly piece of campaign literature, as ugly for what it said about white evangelicals as about Reed, Rove and the Compassionate Conservative, who . . . had . . . found . . . Jesus.
Not that it should matter, but the true story was that Cindy McCain, on a relief mission to Bangladesh, was asked by one of Mother Teresa’s nuns to help a young orphan with a cleft palate. They took the girl to the U.S. for surgery, decided they couldn’t send her back to the orphanage, and adopted her.
“Negro child” flyers were everywhere. Other smears: Cindy McCain was a drug addict; John slept with prostitutes and gave her venereal disease; John was a traitor, mentally unstable, a Manchurian Candidate programmed to destroy the Republican Party. His meeting with Log Cabin Republicans got him labeled as the “Fag Army” candidate.
The messages weren’t delivered only under windshields. The campaign used “push polls.” For the uninitiated, push polls are fake polls. They deliver messages in the guise of polls.
For example: “If you knew that McCain had fathered a Negro child, had slept with prostitutes, had given his wife a venereal disease, is in favor of casino gambling, favors abortions, etc., would you still support him?”
Push polls are easy and cheap: just give the volunteers a script. No need for high-priced political talent to record, tabulate, and analyze the responses. Bush won the South Carolina primary and the rest, as they say, is history. Ralph Reed had delivered his evangelicals.
In 2006, he hoped to parlay his evangelical base into political office in his own right. Reed ran for the lowly office of lieutenant governor in Georgia, thinking he’d use it as a stepping stone to greater things.
Candidates always need a rationale; Reed’s explanation for why he was running for office might be found in this passage from his 1994 book, “Politically Incorrect”:
“My experience in Washington was disillusioning. The lofty ideals that I brought to the nation’s capital were shaken by the reality of life in Congress, where votes were sold to the highest bidder and politicians shook down special interests for campaign contributions in what journalist Brooks Jackson has called ‘honest graft.’ I saw powerful people up close, became acquainted with their foibles, and witnessed the seamy underside of politics. I learned quickly that the pursuit of power is an empty and unsatisfying exercise without a moral compass to guide one’s journey.” (Thanks to Matthew Continetti, writing for the National Examiner in 2005.)
Poor disillusioned Ralph Reed would just have to take matters into his own hands. Washington needed a man with a moral compass. A “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” story with the cherubic-looking Ralph Reed as Jimmy Stewart.
But by 2006, Georgia voters had learned about Reed’s involvement with Abramoff. As so many others, he too claimed he didn’t know that the millions of dollars he had raked in came from gambling casinos. Listen to his explanation to a group of College Republicans at Emory University during the campaign:
“I was approached in 1999 by a friend that I met in the College Republicans who said, ‘There’s an effort to bring five new casino-style operations to Alabama. Would you be willing to help us stop them?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I would. I’m opposed to casino gambling expansion, but I can only do it if I won’t be paid with revenues from other casinos.’” (Recall that he had laundered the payments through various high-minded sounding entities.)
Not even Ralph Reed could sell that story—not even to college students. Not even to Georgia Republicans! An unknown Georgia state legislator trounced him in a Republican primary. His political career seemed over. His evangelical creds were tattered, to say the least. Even Abramoff said of him, “He’s a bad version of us.” Fewer scruples than Casino Jack? A high recommendation for someone headed into Trump’s evangelical swamp.
A BLACK MAN IN THE WHITE HOUSE? GOD, SPEAKING THROUGH SEAN HANNITY, DIDN’T APPROVE; REED WAS BACK
As it did for Donald Trump, the 2008 election of Barrack Obama revived Reed’s political life. Here’s an account of his comeback party published in “The New Republic.”
“God’s not looking for perfect people—there’s only been one perfect person in the history of the human race,” Ralph Reed tells the crowd at the Mayflower Renaissance Hotel in Washington. It’s the weekend of September 11, and Reed is holding the inaugural conference for his new Faith and Freedom Coalition (FFC), which is aiming to mobilize evangelicals the way the Christian Coalition did in the 1990s. “God’s looking for broken people,” he says, “humble and contrite people.”
Reed tells his audience that a phone call from Sean Hannity persuaded him. “I wanted to know that this was not me,” Reed says, “that this was not any ambition of mine. I wanted to know that this was the Lord.” Reed breaks into a sly grin as he recounts Hannity’s response: “Ralph, God is speaking through this phone line right now, and he’s using me to deliver the message.”
And today? We’re all in for Donald Trump.
SEPARATING AND CAGING ASYLUM-SEEKING CHILDREN AND PARENTS? FORGET THEM; WHAT ABOUT THE UNBORN?
A few excerpts from a 2018 interview with “New York Times” opinion editor and writer Bari Weiss demonstrates Reed’s political performance chops.
Weiss: “But the thing I could never understand—and this has only gotten much harder to square, listening to the audio of children crying for their parents at the border—is how those who believe in a God who elevates the weak, who loves the widow and the orphan, whose own mother was denied room at the inn, how they can justify support for a president and an administration that looks like the antithesis of what I have always understood to be Christian values. What am I missing?”
Reed: “Honestly,” (Whenever you hear “honestly” or “frankly,” fasten your seat belt) “I think what you’re missing is his heart, and the heart of his administration. First of all, at the top of our list of the least, the lost and the vulnerable, we would put the unborn. They are children, too, and this president is defending their right to life by acting to prevent our tax dollars from being used to take their lives, which we believe is a national tragedy.
“Does he sometimes say and do things I wish he would not? Yes, and so has every other politician I have ever worked with.”
When a swamp rat makes up a question to answer for himself, he’s almost certainly evading an obvious and damaging truth. Would I prefer that Donald Trump wasn’t a racist moron with fascist ambitions? Of course I would, but . . . .
When the stench of corruption is just too rank for rhetorical tricks, there is the impregnable barricade of forgiveness and redemption: “We are all flawed, we are all sinners, we all fall short of God’s glory. We are all in various ways far from perfect.”
Recall Reed’s own mother telling the “USA Today” interviewer, “I used to tell people he was going to be either President of the United States or Al Capone.”
In Donald Trump’s America that’s no longer an either/or proposition.