Monica Goodling on her Regent University homepage: "If I only had two seconds to tell you why I'm here, I'd have to say this: I want to leave the world a better place than I found it. Tough assignment, but, worth a try."
When Monica Goodling's name erupted into the news last week, the mainstream press discovered suddenly that Pat Robertson's Regent University exists. Not only that, the press learned that it has made a deep footprint in George W. Bush's Washington.
Since Robertson's failed presidential campaign, coverage of him has largely focused on his mercurial and bizarre personality. He seemed only to appear in the news when one of his many entertainingly outrageous gaffes or false prophecies earned publicity. While Robertson's hysterical episodes deserved all the coverage they generated, with a few notable exceptions, the mainstream press habitually ignored his political machinations. Robertson and his cadres exploited this lack of scrutiny to quietly erect a sophisticated and far-reaching political network that today propells the Christian right's ongoing march through the institutions.
The mainstream press could not have made its recent discovery of Robertson's influence on its own, of course. As is so often the case, they needed a little push from the blogosphere and independent media. I am confident enough to claim at least a small portion of credit for moving this story forward when I reported here and on my blog that Goodling was among 150 Regent grads currently working in the Bush administration.
Days after the Goodling-Regent connection was introduced by the liberal blogosphere, the New York Times noted that Goodling "is a 1995 graduate of Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and received her law degree at Regent University in Virginia Beach, according to many Web site postings."
"According to many Web site postings?" Which "web site postings?" Were Times reporters David Johnston and David Stout referring to postings on the casual encounters section of Craigslist, or did they mean liberal bloggers? If they meant the latter, then why were those bloggers not named? Is the Times ashamed of its reliance on the "blogofascists" of the left for leads and context? And does the Times even have a coherent policy on sourcing blogs?
Some more questions for the Times: Were Stout and Johnston suggesting that Goodling's graduation from Regent was some web conspiracy theory? If they harbored any doubts about the story's veracity, they could have picked up a phone and called Regent's alumni office, or at least paid a visit to Regent's web page, where Goodling is pictured in various archived photos at alumni events.
The right has exploited the mainstream press's ignorance about Robertson to avoid weathering the blowback from his most embarassing gaffes. Case in point: Two years ago, after Robertson called for the assassination of Hugo Chavez, Fox News' Brit Hume introduced what would become a central talking point for spinning the controversy. On the August 23, 2005 episode of Fox News' Special Report, Hume declared, "The televangelist Pat Robertson's political influence may have been declining since he came in second in the Iowa Republican caucuses 17 years ago. And he may have no clout with the Bush administration."
Morton Kondracke echoed Hume, exclaiming that "Pat Robertson's day has long since passed."
Predictably, the right's spin seeped into the mainstream press. The day after Hume and Kondracke's exchange, Knight Ridder asserted that Robertson's influence "has waned." As evidence, the news service quoted one "leader" of the "evangelical movement" claiming, "He's an old man and there's a group of old women and old men who watch him." Old men can't be influential, don't you know?
(Sorry for the lack of links; I could find the three preceding clips only through Nexis.)
The usually sagacious John Green, a University of Akron professor who has emerged as the go-to guy for virtually any reporter covering the Christian right, swooped in to join the parrot jungle chirping about Robertson's death knell. In an interview with the National Review's Byron York (who recently blew his wad trying to discredit the jury that convicted Scooter Libby), Green concluded that while Robertson is "certainly a consequential figure," he is "more in tune with what was happening with evangelicals 20 or 30 years ago" than his contemporaries.
But in the wake of Goodling's hotly publicized resignation, the mainstream press suddenly -- and correctly -- decided to judge Robertson by the fruits he has borne. In the Washington Post-owned Slate Magazine, Dahlia Lithwick published a penetrating look at "How Pat Robertson's law school is changing America." Lithwick notes that as early as 1997, when Goodling was enrolled at Regent and working as a spokesperson for the school's Office of Government, she was ducking pointed questions from reporters.
The Boston Globe also ran a insightful look at Regent Law's impact on public policy. The Globe cited (as I did days earlier right here) Kay Coles James as the key link between Regent and the Bush White House. The Globe's Charlie Savage wrote, "In 2001, the Bush administration picked the dean of Regent's government school, Kay Coles James, to be the director of the Office of Personnel Management -- essentially the head of human resources for the executive branch. The doors of opportunity for government jobs were thrown open to Regent alumni."
The sudden interest in Robertson's political network spread to the L.A. Times on April 6 when it profiled Christian Broadcasting Network's star political reporter and blogger, David Brody. The Times correctly notes that despite his affiliation with the supposedly discredited reverend, Brody has "developed a real web base among followers of the presidential races." Indeed, Brody's blog has become a critical window into evangelical opinion on candidates from both parties. In the process, Brody has lent newfound credibility to Robertson's flagship news network.
The Christian right is far more than a pantheon of charismatic backlashers with automatonic followers of "old men and women." It is also a sophicated political operation with a coherent long-term strategy. Goodling may be out of a job, but thousands of capable Christian right cadres remain, waging the culture war from inside the White House, federal agencies and Republican congressional offices. Together they will continue to inflame conflicts that were previously unimaginable.
Anyone insisting in spite of continuously mounting evidence that the Christian right is going to simply shrink into oblivion because the Democrats control Congress, or because evangelical leaders are prone to scandal, should learn from Goodling's example and take the fifth.