As the Republican convention kicked off in Madison Square Garden, the party’s influential conservative activists were holed up across the street—with a handful of reporters and a large bag of fortune cookies.
Originally published in the online edition of Mother Jones.
AS THE IMAGE-CONSCIOUS REPUBLICANS GAVELED OPEN their national convention Monday morning—kicking off a four-day festival of faux moderation—the conservative activists who helped shape the party platform were nowhere to be seen at Madison Square Garden. In fact, they were holed up across the street, at a gloomy Howard Johnson’s with a handful of reporters and a large bag of fortune cookies.
The Family Research Council, Eagle Forum, and American Conservative Union—three organizations that hold considerable sway within the GOP—had pushed hard to made the Republican Party platform more appealing to traditional Christian voters. In particular, after Vice President Dick Cheney made his “freedom means freedom for everyone” speech Aug. 24, the organizations demanded that the GOP platform become even more explicit in opposing legalized gay and lesbian relationships. They were successful: New language in the platform, added just a few days before the convention, criticizes not just same-sex marriage but also civil unions like Vermont’s. “Legal recognition and the accompanying benefits afforded couples should be preserved for that unique and special union of one man and one woman which has historically been called marriage,” the revised wording says.
Still, the three organizations believe the Bush administration hasn’t gone far enough in courting “pro-family” voters. In particular, they’re angry the convention’s original lineup of speakers lacked a personality from the party’s right wing. (The GOP, conceding the point, added Senators Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Sam Brownback of Kansas at the last minute, but neither will speak in prime time.) So while the convention’s opening session was getting underway, the GOP’s rightmost flank rented a small hotel conference room with low ceilings and black leatherette sofas. They piled several hundred fortune cookies onto a dainty table and threw open their doors to reporters. Only a few showed up, and those who did were largely from the religious media.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, opened with a criticism of George Bush’s excessive moderation four years ago. “The president narrowly won the 2000 election,” said the former Louisiana state legislator, “and the evangelical movement has been chastised for the four-and-a-half million evangelicals who stayed home. They stayed home because there was no candidate in the race who enthusiastically embraced [their] issues.” Since taking office, Perkins added, Bush has proven a pleasant surprise: “He has shown that he will protect the lives of American citizens, born and unborn. He has taken steps to protect the institution of marriage.” Nonetheless, Perkins fears that “this administration has done all it intends to do on these core issues, and that would be unfortunate.” Taking religious votes for granted would bode poorly for the “fortune of the party”—hence the cookies. But it was not time to open the plastic wrappers yet.
A reporter from the Salem Radio Network, a Washington-based Christian news organization, lobbed a softball question at Perkins: “Tony, can you speak about why traditional marriage is a fundamental building block of American society and why it’s essential to raising children?” Perkins’ answer parroted the platform language he’d helped devise. “Thirty years of research has concluded that the best environment for raising children is a two-parent heterosexual environment,” he said. “No society has ever been able to sustain itself, let alone prosper, under the disintegration of the family.”
Phyllis Schlafly, president of the hard-right Eagle Forum (which argues on its web site that laws barring sex discrimination in school athletics hurt the United States during this summer’s Olympics), was supposed to attend but didn’t. In her place came Lori Waters, the organization’s executive director, with a strong message about liberal jurists. “Imagine it’s the fifth inning of a baseball game and a batter’s up, and he gets called out after two strikes,” she said. “This is what activist judges have been doing—they’ve been changing rules midstream.” She cited not only the Massachusetts marriage ruling, but also a two-year-old 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that found the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional. (The Pledge case was later overturned on technical grounds.) Waters called on members of Congress to impeach offending judges or even close down their courtrooms. “They created the lower courts,” she said. “They could eliminate the court system if they wanted to.”
At last, it was time for the fortune cookies, which the conservative activists plan to distribute by the thousands to delegates. Perkins, Waters, and Richard Lessner, Executive Director of the American Conservative Union, all unwrapped their cookies and received identical messages: #1 Reason to Ban Human Cloning: Hillary Clinton. (Another cookie said, Real Men Marry Women.) “That’s kind of mean,” murmured a television reporter about the Clinton fortune. Asked about the offensive messages, Perkins shot back, “If you can’t take a joke, get out of politics.”
When asked her name afterward, the TV reporter wouldn’t identify herself or her organization. “Don’t get me in trouble,” she said. “I’m from a faith-based, family-friendly network. But don’t you think that’s mean?”
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