A peach of a scandal in Georgia

Ralph Reed's shameless snookering of Christian congregations should spell doom for his political career. But will it?

Published July 5, 2006 4:00PM (EDT)

If a preacher secretly accepts a bucket of money from a saloonkeeper to organize a temperance rally at a rival saloon and maybe send in a gang of church ladies to chop up the bar with their little hatchets, this would strike you and me as sleazy, but others are willing to make allowances, and so Ralph Reed's political career is still alive and breathing in Georgia. He has bathed himself in tomato juice and hopes to smile his way through the storm.

The facts are fairly simple. Mr. Reed left the Christian Coalition in 1997 as it was sinking, and he was paid by Jack Abramoff to organize opposition to a gambling bill in the Texas Legislature, which would have opened the door to competition for Mr. Abramoff's client casinos in Louisiana. So Reed got the good Christians of Texas ("We have over 50 pastors mobilized, with a total membership in those churches of over 40,000 -- that includes Second Baptist, which has 12,000 members," he reported breathlessly) to bombard the Legislature with phone calls and letters denouncing gambling, for which Mr. Reed was paid millions of dollars in gambling money, by way of Abramoff's bagman, Grover Norquist.

Reed also helped defeat a state lottery and video poker in Alabama, in behalf of casinos in Mississippi. In Alabama, he told Abramoff, he had "over 3,000 pastors and 90,000 religious conservative households." He enlisted these Baptists in a fight against one saloon while he was on the payroll of another.

Imagine if Ralph Nader had solicited money from Ford and Chrysler when he went after General Motors' Corvair. Or the Southern Baptists raising money from Sony and Universal to condemn movies by MGM.

A true party loyalist would withdraw from the Republican primary for lieutenant governor of Georgia and say, "I will not allow this mess to distract people from the good work of my party." But Mr. Reed is no quitter.

"Had I known then what I know now, I would not have undertaken the work," he said, when the details came out in a Senate Indian Affairs Committee report. Mr. Reed insists he didn't know it was gambling money, which, given the e-mail traffic between him and Mr. Abramoff, is a thin twig on which to hang a defense. Either Mr. Reed understands English or he does not. Mr. Abramoff tells him that he'll get a check as soon as the Coushattas send in the money. The Coushattas were in the casino business. You don't come up with $5.3 million from selling beaded coin purses.

Mr. Reed also argues that his stopping gambling in Texas and Alabama was a good thing in and of itself, even though he was hired by rival casinos to do it. Using the same reasoning, Lucky Luciano was on solid moral ground when he knocked off Dutch Schultz.

The sexual trespass of a president is a story any mortal can understand, and the use of your father's influence to sneak you into a military unit where you're less likely to face combat is an act of cowardice all of us cowards can appreciate. But the chutzpah of Mr. Reed in wheedling money from Abramoff to snooker Christians into an uproar against gambling is coldhearted greed. And his work in behalf of the sweatshops and sex factories of the Marianas, arguing that the Chinese women imported there were being given the chance to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ, takes us to yet an entirely new level.

Mr. Reed is a Presbyterian, and the Westminster Confession says, "He that scandelizeth his brother, or the Church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or public confession and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended; who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him."

But Mr. Reed is running for office and that's no time for repentance. Time to hunker down and hope that the prosecutors are occupied with other matters. Smile and shake hands and keep changing the subject. If a reporter mentions Abramoff, smile and say, "I've said as much as I'm going to about that, and now I want to talk about my plan to strengthen families in Georgia."

Gambling? "I've always been opposed to gambling."

Deceit? Greed? "No charges have been filed. I have been exonerated of wrongdoing."

Will it work? We shall soon see.

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(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)

(c) 2006 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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