Piety on parade

Could Bush's very public prayer circles be preparation for his announcement on stem cell research?

Published August 9, 2001 2:40PM (EDT)

Did you see the shocking, scandalous and utterly offensive photo on the front page of the paper Sunday morning -- in full color and above the fold? No, I'm not talking about Gary Condit running the 100-yard media dash or Madonna writhing on the back of a mechanical bull. I'm talking about the disturbing picture of the president and his Cabinet bowing their heads in prayer.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not opposed to prayer. In fact, I'm all for it, particularly when the supplicants are so clearly in need of divine guidance. No, what shocks me is that some paparazzo, no doubt an agnostic one, had the temerity to intrude on this private moment.

How dare he turn a private act of spiritual devotion into a public photo opportunity? The president and his reverent Cabinet must feel deeply violated. Since I'm sure they have studied the biblical teachings on keeping prayer private, I can only assume that they were so lost in their efforts to seek spiritual guidance that they remained oblivious to the sound of cameras clicking away.

I bet security measures at other prayerful White House events (T-ball games, bipartisan lunches, bedtime) are being stepped up as we speak: "Security measure No. 1: No photographers allowed at photo ops!"

"Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them," admonished Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. "And when you pray you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men ... When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." Unless I'm missing something, Jesus didn't leave a lot of wiggle room.

Indeed, the more important prayer is to you, the more offended you should be by the Bush administration's cynical exploitation of it. There is a huge difference between privately sharing a prayer with your fellow public servants and publicly parading your piousness in service of political expediency.

It's no accident that this solemn photo op coincided with the administration's decision to shift its focus away from tax cuts and sweetheart deals for the energy industry to a values-based agenda that will promote "Communities of Character." I wonder: Was the Cabinet praying for a more salubrious turn of phrase than "Communities of Character"? Or perhaps for the strength to get through another rubber-stamp lovefest for the Cheney agenda? We may never know, unless, next time, they push public piety one step further and pray aloud.

Among the soccer-mom-friendly issues the president intends to talk about in the coming months are teen pregnancy, school safety and -- I kid you not -- an effort to make it easier for grandparents and grandkids to e-mail each other. Sounds an awful lot like school uniforms and cellphones for neighborhood watch groups. I guess that W.'s stand as the anti-Clinton only goes so far. When it comes to cosmetic policies that look good around re-lection time, Bush has clearly learned a thing or two from his predecessor.

Truth be told, I think the real reason that W. wanted to get an 8-by-10 of his administration's religious bona fides is that he has probably decided to come out in favor of allowing federal dollars to be used for stem cell research and is trying to cover his right flank -- with a prayer shawl -- from charges of being a blastocyst blasphemer.

The White House has reportedly been obsessing over how to explain this dicey decision to the American public. "I believe," says Bush Chief of Staff Andy Card, "that the explanation is probably just as important as the decision."

This fixation on style over substance is, of course, nothing new in presidential politics. But photo ops (even well-managed ones) can be avery tricky things. Sometimes they blow up in your face. Call it the Law of Unintended Countenances.

Any Photo Op Hall of Shame would have to include Richard Nixon trying to show his casual, Kennedy-esque side by taking a stroll on the beach with his dog -- but forgetting to take off his black wingtip shoes. Or the time George Bush the First tried to convince us he was a man of the people by buying a quart of milk, only to be dumbfounded by a supermarket scanner. And, of course, there was Michael Dukakis in that tank.

But when it comes to photo-op flops, Dukakis looking like a dork and Nixon looking like a stick-in-the-mud are nothing compared with Bush and his team looking like a bunch of manipulative hypocrites.

What Would Jesus Do? Certainly not pray and say "Cheese."

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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