Ever since Christine O’Donnell as a college student had a chance meeting with a television producer at the 1992 Republican national convention, she has never been too far from the cameras.
Long before the tea party upstart burst onto the political scene last month to win the Republican Senate nomination in Delaware, she regularly appeared as a commentator on TV news programs, representing her own Christian organization and speaking for other conservative advocacy groups. And she wasn’t shy about expressing her views, whether about sex, religion, AIDS or even witchcraft.
“It all started during the 1992 convention when I did my first TV interview with CNN,” O’Donnell told The Associated Press. “I was a Bush-Quayle youth leader, happened to talk to the producer of CNN on the convention floor, and she liked what I happened to say.”
After that, O’Donnell said, she and a couple of other college students met with the CNN producer every afternoon to offer their perspectives on the convention.
“I guess from there your name gets circulated,” said O’Donnell, who went on to appear on Fox’s “O’Reilly Factor,” “Hannity & Colmes” and C-SPAN. She also was a regular conservative foil on comedian Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect,” appearing 22 times, according to Maher.
O’Donnell said she never used an agent to book appearances. But she said her CNN appearances, the contacts she made as a spokeswoman for Concerned Women for America, a conservative Christian group, and communications work for the Republican National Committee helped land her on late-night talk shows.
“That’s how it works; that’s how it still works,” she said. “You get on one producer’s Rolodex, and that gets shared with all the other producers, and if that producer goes to another show or another network, it just kind of spreads exponentially.”
Now, O’Donnell finds herself trying to balance face time with reporters with getting out and meeting voters. But the vast video record she’s compiled over nearly 20 years continues to draw attention.
Maher, who now boasts that he “created” O’Donnell, is using their past on-air relationship to try to attract viewers to his new HBO show, “Real Time With Bill Maher.” Since last month’s GOP primary, he has aired clips from previous tapings of “Politically Incorrect.” In one, O’Donnell notes that she “dabbled into witchcraft” in high school (she has since made light of the comment). On another, she declares that “evolution is myth.” On a clip aired Friday night, from July 1999, she says with a laugh that she tried several religions but skipped becoming a Hare Krishna because she didn’t want to be vegetarian.
Maher has threatened to show a clip of O’Donnell every week until she appears on his show.
“I’m not concerned about Bill Maher. … He’s trying to get ratings,” O’Donnell said. “I got him ratings in the ’90s, and he’s trying to get me to get him ratings again.”
When asked whether she still believes evolution is a myth, O’Donnell laughed off the question.
“I’m not concerned about something I said on a comedy show 10 years ago,” she said.
Still, such statements have been circulating on the Internet and have become fodder for late-night comedy shows. NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” opened its new season last week with a skit in which an actress portraying O’Donnell tries to reassure two Republican campaign officials concerned about potentially embarrassing things she has said or done, then dons a witch hat and flies off on a broom.
Earnest and smiling, O’Donnell in her early TV appearances was an energetic young conservative, eager to comment on any topic. Even 10 years ago, her message was well-honed. She decried condom distribution, called evolution a theory that should be taught alongside creationism, and said AIDS funding should be redirected to heart disease, which kills far more people. She also called the separation of church and state a “myth.”
“There is no such thing as the separation of church and state,” she asserted on Maher’s show in 1997.
On the same show, Maher addressed O’Donnell’s appeal.
“Young lady, I have to say, you’re always here arguing your case alone. You do it with such great spirit…. You’re terrific,” Maher told her. “You’re so good-looking, I wish I could make you an ex-Bible thumper.”
The topics about which O’Donnell has been most vocal include premarital sex and abortion. She told television host Phil Donahue in 2002 that she’d like to see Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling upholding abortion as legal, overturned.
Public schools, if they are going to teach sexuality, should teach “100 percent abstinence until marriage,” O’Donnell has said.
O’Donnell also has asserted that condoms do not protect against the AIDS virus, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disagrees.
She also famously spoke out against masturbation in a 1996 appearance on MTV’s “Sex in the ’90s IX: The Safest Sex of All.”
“The Bible says that lust in your heart is committing adultery,” O’Donnell said. “You can’t masturbate without lust.”
O’Donnell hasn’t been afraid to confront other hot-button issues, either. In 1996, as a spokeswoman for Concerned Women for America, she said on CNN that “too many people are blindly accepting evolution as fact.”
“But when you get down to the hard evidence, it’s merely a theory,” she said, adding that there was “just as much, if not more” evidence for creationism, and that both views should be taught in schools.
Warning of the dangers of cloning on O’Reilly’s show in 2007, O’Donnell asserted that “American scientific companies are crossbreeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains.”
Regardless of the subject matter, however, O’Donnell was steadfast in her views.
In an appearance on Maher’s show during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, in which President Bill Clinton was caught lying about an extramarital affair, O’Donnell argued that all lies and exaggerations are immoral and said she always tells the truth.
Asked whether she would have lied if Hitler came to her door and demanded to know if there were any Jews in her house, O’Donnell said, “I believe that if I were in that situation, God would provide a way to do the right thing.”
Gresko reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Ben Nuckols in Baltimore and Kathleen Miller in Washington contributed to this report.