Was there ever a better time to be a values monitor than now, in this age of presidential sexcapades? Will the public finally turn against a president with skeletons crammed in his Oval Office study and turn instead to a self-appointed patrolman for public piety?
Gary L. Bauer may soon test that proposition.
From a flossy brick-and-marble office building on a scruffy block not far from the White House, Bauer runs the Family Research Council, the powerhouse of today's Christian right--and the bane of Republican regulars and Democrats alike. Now, he's edging toward a run for president, all outrage and sanctimony. Last week he launched TV ads in Iowa--the kickoff caucus state--demanding Clinton's resignation. Talk about your morality plays.
Looks can be deceiving. With his diminutive stature (just over 5 feet), slightly pug nose and open face, Bauer is the very portrait of an aging, apple-cheeked altar boy. Politically, though, he's a hellion.
Bauer, 52, operates like a heat-seeking heretic. Winning is Washington's highest calling, compromise an article of faith. But Bauer is a down-the-line 100-percenter. Even Ivory soap, one imagines, wouldn't suffice.
Two years ago, Bauer fought his party's presidential nominee, the staunchly antiabortion Bob Dole, over the nuances of antiabortion language in the GOP platform. He's made common cause with Democrats to battle the White House (and GOP mandarins) on China policy. He single-handedly made "partial-birth" abortion the key issue in a California congressional contest earlier this year--and it backfired, quite possibly costing Republicans a Central Coast seat they desperately coveted.
Allies admire Bauer for his unswerving commitment to principle. Liberals see a zealot who preaches intolerance with a cherubic face. Congressional Republican leaders, who Bauer blithely snubs, are scarcely more enamored.
A former undersecretary of education and domestic-policy advisor in the Reagan administration, Bauer was recruited 10 years ago by evangelist James Dobson (of Christian policy group Focus on the Family) to run the Family Research Council, Dobson's moribund Washington outpost. By his own accounting, Bauer has built the now-independent operation from four employees and a $200,000 budget into today's $14-million, 100-employee enterprise with a base of nearly 500,000 donors. Separately, Bauer created a political action committee, Campaign for Working Families, that has raised millions more to advance his political agenda.
Bauer and his wife of 26 years, Carol, live in Fairfax, Va., with their daughter Sarah, 16, and son, Zachary, 11. A second daughter, Elyse, 20, attends college.
Question: What's wrong with America today and what would you do to fix it?
Answer: There are a number of things wrong. . . . In spite of a period of extraordinary economic growth and a rally on Wall Street . . . there is growing evidence of what I've called a virtue deficit. . . . It just seems to me one of the major issues is what the Founding Fathers meant when they said that only a virtuous people could remain free, and does our current leadership--and, for that matter, does the average American--understand the importance of those words?
Q: If you believe morality is important to the American people, how do you square President Clinton's still very respectable standing in the polls with the fact that he has admitted to having an affair with Monica Lewinsky and lying to cover it up?
A: Unfortunately, I think a lot of the public believes that everybody in Washington is guilty of this sort of thing to one degree or another. They're wrong about that, but that suspicion is out there. . . .
Until recently, I think a lot of the American people also said, "Look, this is an embarrassment and I wouldn't want Mark Z. Barabak is a political writer for The Times.
my children to act this way. But we're at peace and the economy is fine." But I think polls now are slowly beginning to reflect a different attitude. There are some signs [Clinton's] approval rating is dropping and, just in my own travels around the country, I don't find many defenders now that we know some of the details.
Q: While people may be disgusted with the president's personal behavior, they also have little patience with Kenneth Starr, whose standing in the polls is worse than Clinton's. Many people don't like someone snooping through dirty laundry and don't like a holier-than-thou attitude. So who's Gary Bauer to say what's right or wrong?
A: This is a live-and-let-live country. People are willing to tolerate a lot that their neighbor does--as long as it's behind closed doors and doesn't affect them. But if you're the president of the United States, there's very little that can be private. And having sex with a 22-year-old intern in or near the Oval Office is by no measure a private act. . . . I worked for a president who wouldn't go into the Oval Office without his tie on. It's hard to believe how far we've gone in just a few years. . . . Gary Bauer can't tell anybody how to run their lives. But all of us as citizens are not only allowed but, I think, obligated, to inform our fellow citizens about liberty and virtue and to remind people what our Founding Fathers thought about only a virtuous people remaining free.
Q: While many talk about a decline in morality under President Clinton, if you look at a number of indices--crime, teenage drug use, out-of-wedlock births, teen pregnancies--what virtues czar Bill Bennett called the "index of leading cultural indicators" has actually improved in recent years. Does Clinton get some of the credit? If not, what difference does a president's morality make?
A: The improvements, to the extent there have been any, are very modest and its unclear whether they're statistical blips or the start of something more significant. Presidents do matter; the lessons our children have been taught in the last seven months are disastrous, and all of us should try to work, to the extent there have been improvements, to keep the trend going. . . . If anything, some of the improvements may have come in reaction to [Clinton]. So many scandals, so many embarrassing disclosures, it's caused parents and others to get more serious about telling their children what is and what is not acceptable.
Q: You're considering running for president. What would you like to see in the 2000 GOP platform?
A: Americans are overtaxed and that would be a major part of the platform. . . . I probably would have a lot more in the platform about education than recent Republican platforms have had. . . . Certainly any platform I ran on would have an unambiguous commitment to the sanctity of human life. I think we're paying a terrible price for abortion on demand, not just in abortions but the cheapening of life generally, you know, babies being left in trash cans, kids killing each other over a pair of sneakers. . . . On foreign policy, I would be fairly assertive on the idea that America needs to be involved in the world, but we need to be involved on a certain set of values, not just for the almighty dollar.
Q: Are you comfortable with the rhetoric of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott comparing gays to drunks and kleptomaniacs, or Pat Robertson when he threatens God's vengeance on Florida for "gay days" at Disneyland?
A: You probably should talk to Pat about what he was trying to accomplish with that quote. . . . It's a bad idea for anyone to pretend to be in the mind of God and to start pointing at who's going to be punished and who isn't.
Trent Lott was asked essentially a religious question. . . . If you're a Christian that believes the Bible is the word of God, then clearly homosexuality is a sin, along with adultery, thievery and a lot of other things. . . .
What he should have done after making that statement . . . is move it to the political agenda. And I think there's a wide consensus that, quite frankly, is on my side and Trent Lott's side, that there is a political agenda that the gay rights movement promotes: same-sex marriages, browbeating the Boy Scouts into having gay counselors, using the schools to teach that this is an acceptable lifestyle and all those things.
Q: What about the role of religion in this pluralistic, multicultural society, many of whose members don't believe in Christ as their savior?
A: It would be totally inappropriate for a president to use the White House in any way to force people to accept Jesus Christ. . . . But all through our history . . . presidents have appealed to moral principles. . . . FDR, in the darkest days of World War II, always went back to those moral principles that America would win the war because God was on our side, literally. . . .
One of the ironies right now is that in the civil-rights movement, Martin Luther King could not speak in an Alabama school because of the color of his skin. If you look at the latest decisions in the federal courts, Martin Luther King couldn't speak in an Alabama school today because, if you look at his speeches, they were permeated with religious references and they reflected his deeply held Baptist faith. . . . We've gotten into a real imbalance here, where we're trying to make men and women of faith second-class citizens.
Q: What's wrong with the "big-tent" theory--that the GOP is big enough for you and the gay Log Cabin Republicans?
A: The unspoken message is we don't stand for anything other than we want as many people to come in as we can because we want to win elections more than anything else. . . . The door ought to be open. . . . But when you come in the door, you ought to come in in the knowledge that the room you're entering is full of people who believe in certain things: lower taxes, smaller government, family values and, in my case, I would add the respect for the sanctity of human life.
Q: But if you can make common cause with House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt on trade, why not Log Cabin Republican executive director Rich Tafel on taxes?
A: I'm perfectly willing to work with anybody that agrees with me on a specific issue. Where the trouble comes in, I think, is when that individual tries to change the other things in the party that we disagree on.
Q: What would you do if one of your children said to you, "Dad, I'm gay"?
A: First of all, it would break my heart. Second of all, I would pray with my son or daughter and, as early as possible, I would try to get them involved with some of the very excellent organizations that are out there of ex-gay ministries. . . . Since I believe, at the end of the day, this is a matter of choice, I believe that I can work with my children to get them out of that particular error.
Q: You said that the American people didn't hear the social-conservative view in the last two presidential elections. Yet the '92 GOP convention was widely seen as a field day for social conservatives. And many people, including a lot of Republicans, were put off.
A: The marker for the '92 convention that most people point to was Pat Buchanan's speech. The fact is that George Bush enjoyed the biggest jump in the polls the morning after Pat Buchanan's speech. . . . I think why the '92 convention became a mistake in political terms is that after the convention was over, George Bush and the Republican establishment did not defend what happened at the convention, did not talk in any meaningful way about those issues. . . . Bob Dole and Jack Kemp missed opportunity after opportunity to make the case on a whole set of values that I think could have gotten them the White House. . . . To some voters, Bill Clinton looked more traditional. He was talking about school uniforms, curfews, while our guys were talking mostly about balance-sheet issues with green eye shades on.
Q: Do you think litmus testing--on the right, on the left--is a good thing?
A: Litmus test is another word for principle. I think the American people, at the end of the day, respect parties and politicians that stand for principle.
Q: So you would rather be right, as you see it, than victorious?
A: The best way to be victorious is to be right and to have the courage to believe you're right. . . . I don't think losing is the worst thing in the world--particularly if it's for a good cause.
All of us citizens are not onl allowed but, I think, obligated, to inform our fellow citizens about liberty and virtue.