The Lies About Tammy Faye

Tammy Faye's death this weekend brought a lot of sadness to the millions she touched, including me. But it also swamped me with a flood of happy memories.
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Tammy Faye's death this weekend brought a lot of sadness to the millions she touched, including me. But it also swamped me with a flood of happy memories.

Having co-produced Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's film The Eyes of Tammy Faye -- a documentary that in no small way rehabilitated Tammy in the public eye -- I was reminded that making that film was, if anything, more fun than watching it.

But I was also reminded of the terrible injustice that led to the downfall of Tammy, her husband Jim and their PTL empire, and of what we learned, to our surprise, in making that film.

It's an important story that's even more relevant today, as America watches its Justice Department grow ever more politicized under a venal administration bent on using the legal system to settle scores.

The story, which has never been adequately reported, is this:

Tammy and her husband Jim Bakker created a vast Christian empire that included a TV network and Heritage USA, which became the third most popular theme park in America back in the 80s. Bakker had to raise a lot of money to pay for it, and one way was to sell time-shares at the theme park. He promised that those who bought shares could visit whenever they wanted.

Unfortunately and stupidly, he sometimes oversold the time-shares. Meaning that some people who bought shares could not visit on the exact dates they preferred.

True, he always offered refunds if people chose not to reschedule their visits. And true, airlines and resorts do the same thing all the time. And true, he was housing thousands of guests, most completely satisfied, and he was furiously building more units to satisfy the exploding demand.

But still, to oversell is illegal and stupid -- which Bakker later acknowledged in his book I Was Wrong.

Nothing much was made of this, however, until 1987 when it was revealed that Bakker had had a one-night stand with a woman named Jessica Hahn nine years earlier. And worse, had then paid her to keep quiet about it. Since evangelicals take a very dim view of adultery, Bakker decided to step down temporarily and hand his empire over to his 'friend' Jerry Falwell.

Except that the oily Falwell wasn't Jim Bakker's friend.

Falwell was the most powerful Christian activist in the nation, significantly responsible for the election of Ronald Reagan. He also knew that Jim and Tammy were far more popular than he.

Worse, the Bakkers didn't tow Falwell's harsh, demonizing party line. They preached love, not hate. They didn't condemn people, they embraced everybody, including -- horrors -- gays and people with AIDS. They had never endorsed Ronald Reagan or gone in for right-wing politics. Visitors had fun at their theme park. And perhaps their worst sin of all -- they owned a TV satellite that gave them immense power to spread their message of love and forgiveness and inclusion.

So the minute Falwell was invited by Bakker to temporarily take over, Falwell's people went through the books and announced that Bakker had committed massive fraud. Falwell's minions dragged reporters through Jim and Tammy's lavish home -- no more lavish than most wealthy televangelists's digs -- pointing out examples of their evil transgressions.

In one of the nastiest episodes in the modern Christian movement -- no small feat -- Falwell promised Jim a salary and a generous severance package on the condition that Jim write this down on paper as a request. Then, when Falwell received the written request, he charged before CNN waving it like a scarlet letter and announcing that he had never seen such 'greed.'

Then Falwell played his ace - he called his close friends in the Justice Department. They went after Bakker like Dick Cheney went after Joe Wilson. Or like Gonzalez went after those prosecutors. Worse, actually.

Jim Bakker had indeed committed a crime in over-selling the time-shares. And there were undoubted fiscal irregularities at Heritage USA. Today many legal experts say it was certainly worth a fine, and possibly even a few months in jail.

But in the public feeding frenzy drummed up by Falwell, and with a sympathetic Justice Department doing Falwell's bidding, Jim didn't get a few months. He got 45 years in federal prison.

And Falwell got what he wanted -- the total destruction of his rival's empire, and his own grubby hands on his rival's TV satellite.

The many investors in Heritage USA -- the vast majority of whom were perfectly happy with what they were getting -- lost everything. The place was shut down and sold for pennies on the dollar and most of the proceeds went to wealthy creditors, not mom and pop investors in time-shares, some of whom were ruined.

And Jim and Tammy were disgraced, their family torn apart, their children scarred for life -- though the kids have rebounded quite well in the last few years.

In the end it's one of the nastiest stories of the 80s, and it's worth pondering today.

The press went along because the scandal got great ratings. The public went along because it was so satisfying to see another supposedly greedy and hypocritical televangelist and his wacky wife get their comeuppance. Many Christian conservatives went along because Jim had committed adultery.

But the legal system didn't just go along -- it led the charge. A legal system that was almost as politicized under Reagan as it is today under Bozo.

I'm proud that our film made a small stab at setting the record straight and showing the world what was lost when Tammy and Jim were toppled and disgraced. I'm glad we helped bring her back.

But as we mourn her this week, it's worth remembering what happens when justice gets politicized, and when the public and the media go along for the ride.

On a happier note, I got in my car last evening and switched on NPR. At that very instant they were playing an old interview with Tammy and she was talking about ...The Eyes of Tammy Faye. She described how the filmmakers had approached her and said that she would have no control over the film whatsoever, that she simply had to trust them to treat her fairly.

She said she thought about it and prayed about it and decided to trust them, and it was one of the best decisions of her life.

It was like she was speaking to me from beyond, and I asked myself what were the odds that I would turn on the radio at that precise second.

But then I remembered -- hey, it's Tammy Faye.

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