In late April, The Hotline, a widely read daily briefing paper for Capitol Hill insiders, polled 175 members of Congress and political strategists; they named Senator George Allen of Virginia as the most likely Republican candidate for the presidency in 2008.
A former governor who happens to be the son and namesake of the legendary Washington Redskins football coach, Allen wasted no time giving political junkies more to speculate about. Four days after the poll was published, Allen traveled to the mecca of presidential hopefuls -- New Hampshire -- for a pair of political fundraisers, leading pundits of all stripes to note that he was following in the footsteps of many presidential contenders before him by getting an early start in the Granite State.
Little noted, though, was Allen's participation in yet another tradition of Republican presidential aspirants: sucking up to the extreme religious right.
Like John Ashcroft and George W. Bush before him, both of whom appeared at the famously bigoted Bob Jones University during their runs for the White House, Allen found it necessary to kiss the ring of one of the leading lights of religious fundamentalism.
On Saturday, Allen traveled to Virginia Beach, home of televangelist Pat Robertson's Regent University, where he shared a stage with the Christian Broadcasting Network founder and delivered a commencement address to nearly 900 graduates.
The address itself was typically unremarkable fare. Allen praised the graduates' “character” and “integrity” and urged them to “stand up for freedom, even under difficult circumstances.”
More telling was what Allen failed to say.
Only six days before, his host, Robertson, reaffirmed his beliefs that Muslims are not fit to serve as federal judges and that the current federal judiciary poses more of a threat to this country than any other challenge in history, including the Civil War, Nazi Germany, and al-Qaeda.
Speaking to host George Stephanopoulos, on the May 1 edition of ABC's This Week, Robertson stood by his old claim that Muslims (and Hindus) are not fit to serve on the Federal bench: “I think people who feel that there should be a jihad against America -- read what the Islamic people say. They divide the world into two spheres: Dar al-Islam, Dar al-Harb. The Dar al-Islam are those who've submitted to Islam; Dar al-Harb are those who are in the land of war, and they have said in the Koran there's a war against all the infidels. So do you want somebody like that sitting as a judge? I wouldn't.”
Asked to defend his claim about the danger presented by the federal bench, Robertson said, “If you look over the course of a hundred years, I think the gradual erosion of the consensus that's held our country together is probably more serious than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings.”
Robertson's statements drew immediate -- and well-deserved -- flak from both Jewish and Muslim groups. It also drew calls for Allen to make it clear that, by appearing on the stage at Regent, he was not endorsing Robertson's views.
In a press release, National Jewish Democratic Council executive director Ira N. Forman said, “As an important GOP leader and presidential hopeful who wants to be taken seriously, George Allen has got to decide before he delivers the keynote address at Pat Robertson's college: does he agree with Robertson's offensive and ridiculous claim that America's judges pose a greater threat than the terrorists who murdered thousands of Americans on American soil? A 'profile in courage' moment is long overdue among America's GOP leaders. … It is long past time for top elected Republicans to start speaking truth to the real powerbrokers in today's conservative movement.”
Arsalan Iftikhar, national legal director for the Council on American Islamic Relations, told the Record newspaper of Bergen County, NJ, that Robertson had “taken his far-right-wing rhetoric to absurd levels. … He is trying to perpetuate this notion that Islam is a monolithic entity inherently at odds with modernity and democracy. That is absolutely false. … American Muslims have long been contributing members of American society and I guarantee to Mr. Robertson that Muslims will one day become part of the federal bench -- whether or not he likes it.”
But in the Regent commencement speech, Allen's sole response to the clamor about Robertson's most recent public expression of religious bigotry and political demagoguery was to testify to their long friendship and jokingly to praise the TV preacher for his “placid and non-controversial life.”
Of course, presidential candidates tend to forgive a lot when they're getting the endorsement of major political and religious leaders, and that seemed pretty close to what Robertson delivered for Allen in his ABC appearance on May 1.
“I think George Allen from Virginia was a distinguished governor; he's a distinguished senator and head of the senatorial campaign committee and won some significant victories,” Robertson said. “He is a very attractive guy and would make a tremendous president.”
As 2008 draws closer, Allen will likely be spending less and less time in the company of Robertson and his ilk, if only to project the image of tolerance and moderation. But where something gets its start is a good predictor of where it ends up, so Americans need to remember whose support Allen was courting in the earliest days of his campaign.
Rob Garver is a freelance journalist living in Springfield, Virginia.