Right Hook

Christian conservatives threaten to take down Bush if he doesn't deliver a same-sex marriage ban. Plus: NBC's Brian Williams lauds Limbaugh; O'Reilly says Sen. Boxer is out to get "granny."

By Mark Follman
January 28, 2005 5:41AM (UTC)
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With the 109th Congress in full swing and the president about to deliver his State of the Union address, hard-line conservatives are howling a unified message at the door of the White House: It's payback time, Mr. President. Insisting they were the key to Bush's reelection, they're now demanding results on red-meat issues -- foremost a ban against same-sex marriage.

They've been baring their teeth at the president ever since Bush, in a mid-January interview with the Washington Post, backpedaled over the prospect for a constitutional amendment to "protect" marriage as a heterosexual institution. A number of senators, Bush told the Post, "have made it clear that so long as [the Defense of Marriage Act] is deemed constitutional, nothing will happen" to change the status quo. On Monday, Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., announced that a Marriage Protection Amendment is tops on his list. But while applauding the Senate majority leader, the hard-line faithful are threatening to desert the president on other key domestic issues if he doesn't get with the program.


"It's fine for the White House to champion overhauling Social Security and the tax code, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "but voters really want a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage." Perkins added that voters also desire confirmation of conservative judges, who will create the impetus to overturn the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision that established abortion rights more than 30 years ago. "These value issues, which have gotten very little play from the White House since the election, need to be kept front and center," Perkins said. "After traveling the nation for a year campaigning for re-election, the president heard a resounding message from the American people: They want marriage protected."

Perkins' FRC joined a network of conservative Christian groups last week in sending a pointed message to the Bush White House on the issue. The coalition, known as the Arlington Group, credits itself with instigating the 11-state sweep of ballot measures against same-sex marriage last November, and includes some of President Bush's most influential conservative supporters: Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, Gary Bauer of the American Values Committee, Dr. James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family (who also recently set his sites on taking down a cartoon character he considers a little too light in the loafers) and the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

To put the heat on Bush, the group sent the White House a confidential letter -- that just happened to find its way into the hands of the New York Times:


"In a confidential letter to Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's top political adviser, the group said it was disappointed with the White House's decision to put Social Security and other economic issues ahead of its paramount interest: opposition to same-sex marriage. The letter, dated Jan. 18, pointed out that many social conservatives who voted for Mr. Bush because of his stance on social issues lack equivalent enthusiasm for changing the retirement system or other tax issues. And to pass to pass any sweeping changes, members of the group argue, Mr. Bush will need the support of every element of his coalition.

"'We couldn't help but notice the contrast between how the president is approaching the difficult issue of Social Security privatization where the public is deeply divided and the marriage issue where public opinion is overwhelmingly on his side,' the letter said. 'Is he prepared to spend significant political capital on privatization but reluctant to devote the same energy to preserving traditional marriage? If so it would create outrage with countless voters who stood with him just a few weeks ago, including an unprecedented number of African-Americans, Latinos and Catholics who broke with tradition and supported the president solely because of this issue.'

"The letter continued, 'When the administration adopts a defeatist attitude on an issue that is at the top of our agenda, it becomes impossible for us to unite our movement on an issue such as Social Security privatization where there are already deep misgivings.'"


While that threat is plenty clear, ultimately it may not matter to the president, says syndicated columnist Robert Novak.

"Concern about Bush's second-term course is derived from a variety of signals, small and large, coming from the White House. None of them separately signifies a President abandoning the principles upon which he was elected. But taken together, they generate doubt and more than a little unease on the right.


"In pre-inaugural comments, Bush sounded defeatist about prospects for a constitutional amendment to bar same-sex marriage. After campaigning on the issue last year, he appeared resigned to failure in the Senate this year.

"It cannot be disputed that George W. Bush's tone has changed since the election. The 22nd Amendment, prohibiting a third Presidential term, is a two-way street. I reported last month that even loyal Republican lawmakers feel less constrained to follow a term-limited President. But that same President is under far less pressure to obey the demands of his political base."

The sexual second coming
But could the thorny little issue of same-sex marriage be rendered moot anyway? Perhaps, if the folks at Exodus International succeed with some rather ambitious plans to relieve legions of homosexuals of their affliction through the power of Jesus. In a press release on Wednesday, the Christian group announced a new billboard campaign -- right in the heart of Bush country -- to bolster their mission.


"Houston residents will see thirteen new billboard signs as they drive through the city this month that feature pictures of former homosexuals who offer a message of hope and change. Exodus International, the largest network of former homosexuals in the world, sponsored the ads in anticipation of Focus on the Family's 'Love Won Out' conference -- a public seminar about the roots and causes of homosexuality to be held at Grace Community Church on February 19. The one-day event, which has been held in 30 cities internationally, makes its first stop to Houston. The conference will focus on the hope and help available for those struggling with unwanted homosexuality through the personal testimonies of those who have left homosexuality themselves."

Bush's inside baseball team
William Kristol, editor of the conservative flagship the Weekly Standard, had nothing but high praise for President Bush's high-flying inaugural speech.

"Informed by Strauss and inspired by Paine, appealing to Lincoln and alluding to Truman, beginning with the Constitution and ending with the Declaration, with Biblical phrases echoing throughout -- George W. Bush's Second Inaugural was a powerful and subtle speech," Kristol pronounced.


"It will also prove to be a historic speech," he went on. "Less than three and a half years after 9/11, Bush's Second Inaugural moves American foreign policy beyond the war on terror to the larger struggle against tyranny."

It appears Kristol was pleased with his own handiwork -- he helped put the speech together. From the Washington Post:

"The planning of Bush's second inaugural address began a few days after the Nov. 2 election with the president telling advisers he wanted a speech about 'freedom' and 'liberty.' That led to the broadly ambitious speech that has ignited a vigorous debate. The process included consultation with a number of outside experts, Kristol among them."

Both Kristol and columnist Charles Krauthammer -- who also served as a consultant -- appeared on Fox News Channel's live Inauguration Day coverage and praised the address ("revolutionary," Krauthammer dubbed it), without disclosing their roles in its inception. Watchdog group Media Matters for America has more from the Bush insider playbook here.


NBC: A bad case of Fox News envy?
Now that Brian Williams has replaced Tom Brokaw as NBC's man in the chair, will the "Nightly News" veer to the right? Turns out Williams is a big fan of Rush Limbaugh's; in a recent Q&A with C-SPAN's Brian Lamb, Williams heaped praise on the right-wing radio icon, crediting him, among other things, with "giving birth to the Fox News Channel." Williams also propagated the long-running conservative claim of a liberal bias in the mainstream media:

"LAMB: I mean, how do you -- so much the conservative media criticize anchors living in New York City and in Connecticut for being isolated and never paying attention to their thought. How do you -- do you ever listen to the Limbaugh show or any of that stuff?

"WILLIAMS: Oh, often, often, and I'm one of the few in a very select group that Rush has allowed on when I've called in from the car. I do listen to Rush. I listen to it from a radio in my office or depending on my day, if I'm in the car, I will listen to Rush and he will tell you I've been listening for years. I think it's my duty to listen to Rush. I think Rush has actually yet to get the credit he is due because his audience for so many years felt they were in the wilderness of this country. No one was talking to them. They would look at mainstream media and they'd hear sentences like the following: Conservative firebrand Newt Gingrich today accused Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy

"Well, what's wrong with that sentence? My friend Brit Hume -- we covered the White House together, always would call reporters on this. Where's the appellation for Ted Kennedy in that sentence, you members of the perhaps unintentionally liberal media? Why aren't you calling Kennedy something if you're going to label Newt Gingrich a conservative firebrand? That's what Rush did. Rush said to millions of Americans, you have a home. Come with me. For three hours a day you can listen and hear the likeminded calling in from across the country and I'll read to you things perhaps you didn't see that are out there. I think Rush gave birth to the Fox news channel. I think Rush helped to give birth to a movement. I think he played his part in the contract with America. So I hope he gets his due as a broadcaster."


The AARP terrorist
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., was a lonely voice of opposition in the wilderness of Condi Rice's Senate confirmation hearings last week. Her unabashed attack against Bush's nominee for secretary of state with respect to the administration's Iraq policy prompted Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly to shower Boxer with a series of attacks, many of them fact-challenged. Media Matters has a comprehensive list; one of the most intriguing items is O'Reilly's ripping Boxer for, of all things, supporting the Aviation Security Act.

Apparently the liberal California lawmaker has a soft spot for brutalizing senior citizens.

"O'REILLY: She sponsored a bill, the Aviation Security Act, where they shake you down to get on a plane. She likes that. 'Let's shake everybody down. Let's get granny, turn her upside down and hold her by the ankles.' She's big on that. So, she was the sponsor of that. Next time you go in and some pinhead grabs your crotch, thank Barbara Boxer for that. Okay?"

As Media Matters points out, Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, the former Democratic senator from South Carolina, was the lead sponsor and putative author of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, while Boxer was merely one of 30 cosponsors of the bill -- a list also comprising numerous Republicans, including Sen. John Warner of Virginia, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, and Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska.


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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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2004 Elections Barbara Boxer D-calif. Bill O'reilly Fox News Gay Marriage