The Right Stuff
Greenville, South CarolinaAlthough being a born-again conservative means never having to say you're sorry to the sinful secular media, George W. Bush, an acknowledged 'believer,' is in full damage-control mode. Hoping the press will ease up on him before the March 7 presidential primaries in New York and elsewhere, he apologized to Cardinal John O'Connor for pandering to the religious right at Bob Jones University in South Carolina. More apologies are on the way.
Next question for G-Dub: Why did you suck up to people who hate, in particular, Catholics who are Irish? Bob Jones U. and its leaders are strong supporters of radical Irish Protestant leader Ian Paisley. The school, in the picturesque town of Greenville, is the buckle on the state's Bible Belt and is notorious for being intolerant of everybody and everything that isn't Anglo-Scottish-Irish conservative Protestant.
Who can dispute that one of the main duties of a president is to provide symbolic leadership? Hangin' with the haters at Bob Jones U. could hang G-Dub.
No matter what you hear about the "negative campaigning" of Bush and John McCain, no vision of America is blackeror whiterthan that of Bob Jones U., where intolerance is a virtue. And South Carolina is the kind of negative space that's filled with black holes for politicians. Take away the Christian right's support of Bush in South Carolina, and you realize that, contrary to the media blather about McCain's "losing" South Carolina, he ran even with Bush even in that conservative state.
These are the people G-Dub chose to associate with. On the way to Sunday morning services at Bob Jones U., the day after the South Carolina vote, a smooth voice on the radio reminds you that "Judaism is NOT the religion of the Old Testament. Christianity IS. Judaism is just a legalistic thing." The several thousand Bob Jones U. students and their parents filing into the Founder's Memorial Amphitorium already know such "facts."
This is fundamentalist Christianity in its purest form. You don't shout "Amen." You come here to get scolded. After a prayer is offered for the school's business office, executive vice president Bob Wood (all top officials here are named "Bob") gives the simple message that every college kid no doubt wants to hear: If you mock or disobey your parents, your eyes will literally be plucked out by ravens. He reads the passage (Proverbs 30:17) twice.
Everybody is inherently evil, according to doctrine here. Only those who accept Christ in this one particular way will be saved.
And you WILL be saved. On a campus video, bright-eyed white kids, standing in front of the campus fountain, smile sweetly and cheerily sing, "Souls for Jesus is our battle cry. We'll fight until we die. We never will give in while souls are still lost in sin!"
Which sinful group do you belong to? Separate pamphlets in the campus bookstore delineate what's wrong with all you Catholics, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, evolutionists, abortionists, mainstream Protestants, even you fundamentalists who speak in tongues. You begin to understand why Pete King, a hero among Irish Catholics here and in Ireland as the foremost congressional supporter of the Sinn Fein, signed on to co-lead McCain's New York campaign when you see the tempting array of Ian Paisley's teachings on a shelf.
There's no pamphlet condemning interracial dating, but the school's rule against it is well known. Even Daddy Bush didn't set foot here during his '92 campaignhe let running mate Dan Quayle pay homage.
G-Dub's visit here "was a big error by his advance people," says Yale grad Marvin Olasky, a Jew-turned-Communist-turned-Christian who invented the idea of "compassionate conservatism" that G-Dub peddles on the campaign trail. Olasky, a University of Texas journalism professor, is not quite the kind of fire-breather found at Bob Jones U., but he's a born zealot who hopped from one extreme to the other. He was still in the throes of Communism, he tells the Voice, when he read a Russian translation of the Bible and was transformed. Now that he's found his soul, he complains that "secular" journalists are still searching for theirs. Made famous when Newt Gingrich waved his books during the "Contract With America" days, Olasky is editor of World, a Christian weekly newsmagazine alternative to Time whose 100,000 circulation is larger than that of the Weekly Standard or The New Republic. As an adviser to Bush's campaign, Olasky swore off covering the campaign himself. Just before the South Carolina primary, however, World published an anti-McCain article written by its national editor, Bob Jones IV, the 33-year-old son of the current president of Bob Jones U. Establishment Republicans connected the dots and found a right-wing conspiracy against McCain.
But Young Bob's anti-McCain story was solid; it was his second anti-McCain piece in six months. World has it in for McCain, but Young Bob is probably a cut above his hidebound dad. In fact, says Joel Belz, the founder and executive director of World, Young Bob now lives in secular D.C. and "is caught between a rock and a soft place," explaining, "Bob doesn't believe in those racial policieshe says the university has been wrong; he even goes to a black Baptist church. But he also loves his parents very much." (Young Bob didn't return the Voice's calls for comment.)
World itself exists almost unnoticed in relatively progressive Asheville, North Carolina, an hour north of Bob Jones U. But Christian-right Americans know it. Belz also cranks out 333,000 copies of a Christian version of The Weekly Reader and sells books to Christian schools and the home-school movement. And he and Olasky have set up a World Journalism Institute to train Christian reporters. Olasky and Belz have a lucrative relationship. Belz says he and Olasky, still a tenured prof in Austin, annually pull down about $100,000 each from the World empire, a tax-exempt, religious nonprofit organization.
"We make no apologies," says Belz. "Religion is not an aspect of life. It is all of life. Everybody has a worldview. Mine is that God is at the center of things.
"I know this sounds arrogant, but there are a few people who deny gravityand they do it at their own risk. If I believe your eternal destiny is at stake, I think I owe it to you to point that out."
Olasky insists, "I'm against anyone trying to force anyone else to believe anything." Nevertheless, he argues that the Old Testament is full of sacrifice stories that don't have punch lines. "The Old Testament is a cliffhanger," says Olasky. "The New Testament completes it. I just want to put that out there in the marketplace of ideas."
Only it's not just another idea to them. "We Christians have been horribly wrong, starting with the Crusades and with race and so on," says Belz. "But none of that negates the fact that there's such a thing out there as the truth."
Except on the campaign trail, where Bush's real gaffes have helped McCain sell an unreal "reformer" image.
The day before the South Carolina vote, McCain's Straight Talk Express makes a desperate dash up the state's Atlantic coast. Ooh, McCain is so accessible that he even has reporters on his bus and talks to them! In reality, McCain likes to chitchat, but not every reporter is deemed worthy of being co-opted. The largest paper in his home state, the Arizona Republic, is banned from the bus. It and other papers have detailed McCain's vacations to the Bahamas with convicted financiopath Charles Keating and his relationships with other power brokers.
Just as McCain has done throughout his career, you've got to follow the money. Those pesky McCain-bashers, Olasky and Belz, acknowledge that one reason McCain, an antiabortion conservative, is held in such contempt by the Christian right is that his original McCain-Feingold campaign-reform bill would have severely limited conservative Christians (among others) from lobbying while encouraging advertising in the despised "liberal" mainstream media. Some on the left have pointed out that, rather than reform campaigns, McCain-Feingold would have restricted First Amendment rights.
But just as most reporters have swallowed G-Dub's view of himself as a "compassionate conservative," they have swallowed McCain's invention of himself as a reformer. And the "hero" stuff has them captivated. During his last frenetic day of campaigning, McCain's staff schleps around other Vietnam War POWs to punctuate their man's own ordeal as a captive. South Carolina knows all about captives.
In a state that's 30 percent African American, his audiences are practically all white, as are the reporters and camera crews following him around. During one stop for a breather, reporters relax on the gracious patio of the Hampton Inn, on Meeting Street in the charming former slave port of Charleston, and put on the feed bag courtesy of McCain. While they rest, a local journalist is quietly at work across the street. Krenston Price, accompanied by his son Jordan, is filling a newspaper box with copies of Black News, part of a big chain of black papers here. To Price, the campaign seems irrelevant. Neither candidate is talking about the constant in-your-face racism that people of color have to put up with here. The old plantations are now resorts, but still called plantations, and black folk still clean the toilets in the Big House. The Confederate battle flag flies over the state capitol in Columbia, but don't think it's a matter of history or heritage. It's been up there only since 1962, erected in defiance of integration.
So how's that civil rights struggle going, now that the Civil War's been over for 135 years? Price points to his leg and says, "It's as if you once had an open sore and now it's got a scab over it. But it's infected. It's under the surface, but it's deeply infected."
White progressives have no place to go in this campaign, either. Well, practically no place. McCain's last campaign stop this day is at the NASCAR Cafe in Myrtle Beach. As the Straight Talk Express pulls into a parking lot the size of Manhattan, ex-POW Bud Day, warming up the crowd for McCain, gestures to a sign behind him, conveniently placed right in view of camera crews. The sign says, "Replace the bum in the White House with a real American hero!" The crowd whoops and hollers. McCain gives his spiel and everybody goes home.
The next day in Charleston, election day, the man with the "replace the bum" sign stands on Meeting Street, whipping up more support for McCain. His name is Paul Piccirilli; he's a retired steelworker from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, and it turns out that he's a leftist. The last sign he carried was an anti-scab screed on a Christmas Day a few years ago.
The "replace the bum" sign he carried, unasked, not only won him a spot on the dais but also special handling by the senator's staff to ensure good play for the media. "His aides," says Piccirilli, "kept moving me around. They wanted me in certain places."
Which still doesn't answer why an old left-winger would support an anti-union Republican.
"What the hell has Clinton done? Or Gore?" says the 74-year-old Piccirilli. "At least McCain was a hero for his country." Piccirilli has no use for the current union movement. "Unions are organizing teachers and pilotsthey're living in the past," he says. "The workforce is increasingly black and brown. That's where they need to be organizing. I mean, there's going to be a socialist democracy in this country sooner or later. What the hell are they so skittish about? They've got to take care of the people."
But why support McCain?
"What the hell kind of pick do I got?" says Piccirilli, a lonely progressive in a reactionary state that even canceled its Democratic primary. In between acknowledging good wishes for his sign from people who have no idea of his political views, Piccirilli fondly recalls a trip he took to Cuba in '82 with other union leaders. "Man, we saw Castro," he enthuses, "and I embraced him and he took me on a tour of one of the buildings. And there, by a staircase, you know what? There was a bust of Lincoln. Show me a bust of Lincoln in this state."