Forgiving His Trespasses
By Lisa Tozzi
JUNE 1, 1999: When you're a rich guy with a checkered past, gunning to be the next Republican president of these United States of America, you cling to whatever life preserver they throw you. Today that life preserver might very well be secondary virginity. It's a concept appealing to Gov. George W. Bush, the aforementioned rich guy, who needs to find a way to reconcile his "youthful indiscretions" -- and occasional moderate driftings -- with the religious right faction of the GOP.
Secondary virginity -- the hot theory in abstinence education that allows those who have succumbed to lusty, sinful impulses to recapture their chastity -- is the hot buzzword among the several hundred teens lounging on the south lawn of the Capitol on this Saturday morning in April, undeterred by the charcoal sky and the drumbeats of an encroaching thunderstorm. The group seems fairly unremarkable, until you notice the T-shirts reading "Jesus is real" and "Friends Don't let friends go to Hell." They're all part of True Love Waits, a "counter-cultural" campaign started six years ago by the Southern Baptist Convention. These kids at the Capitol -- and about 12,000 other Texas teens -- have recently signed cards, pledging to just say no to premarital sex. They explain this to you with a little more enthusiasm than you feel comfortable with.
In keeping with a time-honored tradition, Christopher, a 17-year-old Travis High junior, uses baseball analogies when talking about sex (albeit with a twist, since in this case he's talking about not having sex). In a speech to the crowd, Christopher explains it like this: Teenagers are like baseball players. And ball players sometimes goof up at the plate. Misjudge a pitch. Swing when they should just lay off. They smack the ball with all their might, but because this wasn't their pitch, they pop out to left. But, Christopher explains, secondary virginity gives players another at-bat. A chance to learn from their mistakes; wait for their pitch. "No one's situation is hopeless," he tells his cheering peers.
Baseball! Forgiveness for past errors! Gov. George Bush likes these kids. And the teens are equally eager to chat about the governor's plans to run for president. Bush is hoping their parents -- devout Christians who've served as eager footsoldiers in the religious right's battle for the soul of the Republican party -- are just as excited.
A fawn-colored SUV pulls up and the governor emerges. The press swarms, the governor jokes, the cameras click. Autograph-seeking girls scramble for pens and paper like 'N Sync just stepped out of the car, not a 52-year-old Republican about to ruminate on the joys of celibacy. After a few softballs, a reporter finally tosses the inevitable: "Governor, did your true love wait?"
Bush's smile hardens a bit as he tries to dance around the question with his standard my-generation-made-a-lot-of-mistakes rap: "The thing that baby boomers have got to say is not 'Did we make mistakes,' but if we learned from our mistakes and are willing to share the wisdom," he says before taking the podium.
Bush tells the teens that premarital abstention from sex is "cool"; he tells them to stay sober and drug-free. You wonder if these kids and their parents find this all a bit, well, hypocritical, or if they have faith in the governor's secondary virginity. After all, the "George W Bush: Party boy" rumors are inescapable. A recent Newsweek profile by Evan Thomas, describing Bush's college years, says he "seems to have majored in beer drinking at the Deke House." Bush reportedly is so concerned about his past that he hired a private investigator to see what scandals lurk ahead. Word is the guv was none too happy with what was uncovered, either. "No handcuffs or dwarf orgies," a Bush insider told MSNBC. "But he was a handsome, rich playboy and lived that life."
Fight for the RightIt's a tricky dance GOP candidates do: To win the nomination, they pander to the religious right, but in order to capture the general election, they have to appeal to the moderate mainstream. For now, the Bush team -- which reportedly includes former Christian Coalition president turned political consultant Ralph Reed -- is focusing on the first part. Bush is more frequently talking about his faith, and quoting the Bible in speeches. And he is already well-versed in the right's "Holy Trinity" issues: anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, and religious influence in education. He knows their hymns by heart now: vouchers, abstinence, phonics, parental rights, and personal responsibility. "George W. Bush and the religious right have an interesting relationship. They need each other, but neither is probably terribly happy about that," says Peter Montgomery, spokesman for People for the American Way, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that monitors the right's political activities.
If the religious conservatives want to hitch their wagon to a star that can take the GOP back to the White House, George W. may be its best bet. Or at least that's what the Bush team wants them to believe.
This is an important election for the right. It could either re-solidify religious conservatives' place in politics, or it could be the last in which GOP candidates make a serious effort to kowtow to its strident stance on social issues. In a recent Salon magazine article, author Frederick Clarkson, who has covered the religious conservatives for 15 years, points to the Christian Coalition's woes as an example of the Christian right's weakening power. Led by Reed and Pat Robertson, the Coalition was the religious right's most prominent organization, so much so that even moderate Republicans like the governor's father felt obligated to kiss its leaders' rings. But in recent years, Clarkson writes, "the organization was faced with sagging revenues, declining membership, a pending IRS investigation, and a lawsuit by the Federal Election Commission alleging illegal campaign contributions to Republican politicians."
In addition, impeachment backlash hurt the Republicans in 1998, and a number of right-endorsed candidates who had railed against President Clinton's intern antics were cast out of office. The postmortem buzz was that the right was suffering from a crisis of confidence. Some leaders, like Heritage Foundation's Paul Weyrich, even suggested that the "moral majority" should drop out of politics altogether. Secular Republicans -- with whom Bush tends to be lumped -- have been praying for years that the religious right will cut the Grand Ol' Party some good ol' slack -- lighten up on abortion; be more inclusive. But if the right self-destructs completely, the secs may come to regret their demise, since the entire party has reaped the rewards from the religious right's passion, money, and grassroots mobilization skills.
Of course, it's too early to count the right out of this election. While outspoken leaders like Robertson may be losing their clout, more stealthy (and just as ultraconservative) finaciers like San Antonio multimillionaire James Leininger only seem to be gaining political power. And in an example of things to come, the Christian Coalition has already announced plans for an aggressive fundraising drive to turn out record numbers of religious conservatives for the 2000 election. "We at the Christian Coalition are far from quitting," said Robertson in a recent statement. "We have just begun to fight."
Do Robertson and friends see Bush as the man to lead that fight? It depends on who you ask. While Bush was still basking in the afterglow following the press presentation of his presidential exploratory committee, right-to-lifers like Phyllis Schlafly and Focus on Family's Rev. James Dobson attacked the governor's wishy-washy stance on abortion. (No, except in the case of incest, rape, or the life of the mother; and he doesn't feel the public is "ready" for a constitutional amendment banning abortion, though he does feel there should be "fewer" abortions.) But these attacks have been minimal; many seem to be taking the wait-and-see approach put forth by American Family Association's Don Wildmon, who says he is withholding comment on Bush because he simply "doesn't know enough about the governor to comment about him specifically" as a presidential candidate.
"Not One of Us"One religious conservative who doesn't need time to make up his mind about George W. Bush is Tom Pauken, who became state GOP chair in 1994 when the right took control of the party, before resigning last year to make an (unsuccessful) bid for attorney general. Pauken says he has "real concerns" about a Bush presidency: "It's critical we have someone with the intellect to handle the job. It's one thing to be a governor in a state where Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock had most of the power, as during most of Gov. Bush's tenure in office; but it's a totally different thing to be president," says Pauken, who obviously doesn't mince words when it comes to Bush. A critic throughout the governor's first term, Pauken mocked him as a "me-too Republican" and said he lacked the will to lead a conservative revolution. The acrimony between the two continues. (Pauken also shares some bad blood with former RNC chair Haley Barbour -- now a member of Bush's exploratory committee. Pauken called for Barbour's retirement and criticized his fundraising practices.)
Pauken calls Bush's commitment to the "conservative agenda" weak, particularly when it comes to social issues: "I don't think they interest him much. He'll say what he needs to woo the conservatives," says Pauken. "His handlers are going to position him in the campaign as a conservative answer. So many Republicans who are so desperate to win the White House will say [Bush] is our only hope, that we need to vote for him. But grassroots conservatives, movement conservatives, know he's not one of us."
The right has its share of candidates who will toe the line on the conservative social issues -- Gary Bauer, Pat Buchanan, Dan Quayle -- and while none of them have Bush's star power, some right-watchers say they may serve as a lightning rod for the religious conservatives for a while and make it easier for Bush to straddle the middle. For now. But once primary season starts in earnest, it's quite likely Bush will be called upon to pledge his allegiance to the religious right.
He may well do so. And if in return, religious conservatives help pave George W. Bush's path to the White House, you can expect the governor to take his Holy Trinity policy to Washington -- something far more troubling than any secrets the private investigator Bush hired may have uncovered.
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