In public, televangelist Pat Robertson is a smiling preacher who insists his Christian Coalition is a nonpartisan group that seeks only to educate voters about religious issues, not to elect one party or specific politicians.
But behind closed doors recently, Pat Robertson revealed himself as a tough political boss who expects his troops to issue marching orders to a Republican Congress he says they elected and to hand pick the country’s next Republican president.
“We’re not a bunch of ingenues anymore,” he told about 100 state leaders at a meeting in Atlanta. “We’re a seasoned group of warriors.”
In a speech secretly taped without his knowledge and released by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Robertson also held up the corrupt Tammany Hall regime of New York as a model of political muscle, ridiculed Vice President Al Gore as “Ozone Al,” and suggested members of the press shoot themselves.
Barry Lynn, executive director of the group that released the tape, said he hoped it would persuade the Internal Revenue Service to deny tax-exempt status to the Christian Coalition. Groups that are primarily political are not supposed to be tax-exempt.
In the tape, Robertson said the Christian Coalition deserves full credit for the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 and urged his followers to demand congressional support for their agenda.
“Look, we put you in power in 1994, and we want you to deliver,” he told the coalition leaders to tell Congress. “Don’t give us all this stuff about you’ve got a different agenda. This is your agenda. This is what you’re going to do this year.”
Noting that the competition will start soon for the 2000 presidential campaign, Robertson said he wants the coalition to have far greater influence in picking the Republican nominee than it had in 1992 or 1996.
“We have had a couple of so-called moderates,” he said in an apparent reference to President George Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996. “And moderates lose. You know, they lose. We’ve had two major losers and I don’t want any more losers. I want a winner. And we need to come together on somebody who reflects our values and has the stature to be president.”
Robertson lamented that Christian Coalition leaders in the past split their support among many presidential candidates, and urged they coalesce around a single one. He also noted that any concerted effort could jeopardize the group’s tax-exempt status.
“We need to be like a united front,” he said. “I know that all these laws say that we’ve got to be careful, but there’s nothing that says we can’t have a few informal discussions among ourselves.”
Arne Owens, a spokesman for the coalition, did not dispute the accuracy of the recording, but he vehemently disagreed with the interpretation. He said Robertson was speaking for himself, not the coalition, and that his opinions should not have any effect on the organization’s tax status.
“Pat Robertson is speaking as a private individual, which is a right that he has,” Owens said. “Even though he may still be chairman of the board of the Christian Coalition, he still has a right to support candidates as a private citizen, as long as he does it with his own time and funds.”
Owens said the key question is whether the coalition officially endorses any candidates. And it does not, he added.
“This is Pat Robertson unplugged,” Lynn said. The Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a 50-year-old group that has monitored and criticized the coalition since it was founded by Robertson in 1989.
“This is not the preacher Pat Robertson. This is a warrior Pat Robertson. In public, he quotes from the Bible. Here, he quotes from Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War.”’
Lynn released copies of the tape to Knight-Ridder Newspapers and three other news organizations. He would not identify who made the tape recording.
He said he would give copies to the IRS, which has been debating for seven years whether to make permanent the coalition’s provisional tax-exempt status.
Lynn said he also planned to give copies to the Federal Election Commission and the two congressional committees investigating campaign-finance abuses.
Robertson clearly intended for his Atlanta remarks to remain private.
“This is sort of speaking in the family,” he said at the beginning of a private breakfast session that preceded larger public meetings last weekend. “If there’s any press here, would you please shoot yourself. Leave. Do something.”
He went on to detail the coalition’s “playbook” for influencing elections, one that identifies like-minded voters and delivers their votes like the great political machines of the past century.
“This was the power of every machine that has ever been in politics - the Tammany Halls and Hague and the Chicago machine and the Byrd machine in Virginia. This is what we’ve got to do.”
And in case there was any doubt that Robertson is solidly on the GOP side of the presidential campaign, he ridiculed the leading likely Democratic candidates, Gore and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri.
“Ozone Al (Gore) is out of it. I mean, he’s gone,” Robertson said in a disparaging reference to Gore. “Then you’ve got Gephardt, who’s probably worse, in the pocket of the labor unions and we don’t need somebody like that.”
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