The Indianapolis News, The Daily Oklahoman, The Anchorage (Alaska) Daily News. Columnists Don Feder, Paul Greenberg, Suzanne Fields, Marie Cocco, Wesley Pruden, Deborah Orin, Mark Davis.
I'm sure I've left someone out, but there's the honor roll of newspapers and writers that-according to my search through the Lexis-Nexis computer files-responded forcefully two months ago when Sidney Blumenthal became, to my knowledge, the first White House official in history to attack evangelical Christians overtly.
In the next century, if such slurs become common, historians will want to note that in 1998 Mr. Blumenthal's libelous labeling of Kenneth Starr aide Hickman Ewing (See WORLD, May 16) amazed Washington veterans. Former Reagan-and short-time Clinton-aide David Gergen said that to call Mr. Ewing "a religious fanatic because he's an evangelical Christian is just unbelievable."
But the Lexis-Nexis search showed that newspapers generally paid little or no attention to the matter. As Suzanne Fields wrote in her column, "some kinds of slurs and innuendoes slide by more easily than others, particularly among certain elite intellectuals. That is why Sidney Blumenthal, presidential aide and close friend of the first lady, thought he could get by with characterizing Whitewater prosecutors as religious fanatics.... Such attacks wouldn't be tolerated if the objects of contempt were Catholics or Jews."
The Austin American-Statesman, for example, was busy criticizing a federal court bailiff who evidently made racist remarks. The newspaper noted that such utterances "have no place in either public or private enterprise, much less in a court setting. One improper word or deed can jeopardize the credibility of the judicial process." But the newspaper did not even cover Mr. Blumenthal's slurs, although he was clearly attempting to undercut the Starr investigation's credibility.
Happily, while the press slept, others stepped forward. Gary Bauer prodded, and Republican leaders Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and others responded with a spirited resolution. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith also weighed in: "This Blumenthal statement crosses the line." Mr. Blumenthal then issued a quick "sorry," and the White House, without issuing any reprimand, tried to move on.
But the odor lingered. The valuable magazine about Washington politics, The Weekly Standard, noted that Mr. Blumenthal's comments were as extraordinary as if during Watergate, "someone like [Nixon aide] John Ehrlichman, speaking with the president's imprimatur, had launched an assault on Archibald Cox at a major American university."
Other analogies also hit the mark. Mark Davis wrote in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "Imagine a Republican official holding a news conference, [who] suggests that Blumenthal's views are instantly dismissible 'because, after all, he's a radical Jew.' At that moment, our hypothetical Republican's career would be over. We have developed great sensitivities about religious bigotry in America, and such an affront would not be tolerated for one minute. But there is a gaping hole in that sensitivity. We are in an age when Christian-bashing is perfectly permissible."
That is so true. Mr. Blumenthal's hold on his job suggests that greater harassment of Christians is in the works. We should not overdo such concerns; harassment is not the same as persecution. But we should realize, as Protestants who pushed public schools in the 19th century did not, that the government is not our friend, and government-established religion or education is unlikely to work to the benefit of Christianity.
One other point: Since every half year or so I write a press-bashing column, this is a good opportunity to praise two newspaper editorial pages that got the story right.
The Daily Oklahoman noted, "It's hard to imagine someone in the Reagan or Bush White House attacking a person's faith and keeping his job. So why does Blumenthal keep his? Clinton's own behavior, including within the Oval Office, makes a sham of his church photo-ops. Blumenthal's bigoted attacks on another's faith are way over the line. In his most recent press conference Clinton had a chance to distance himself from Blumenthal's remarks. He didn't, speaking volumes about both Blumenthal and his boss."
And the Indianapolis News, edited by Russ Pulliam, pointed out that, "Apparently, to President Clinton, anyone who takes seriously a belief in God is a religious fanatic." Mr. Blumenthal made the comments, and the president "refused to express any disagreement with his aide's characterization. This is the same president who has spoken eloquently about such ideals as religious freedom and overcoming bigotry. But then, any attentive American learned a long time ago that there is a huge gulf between the president's words and his actual convictions-or, to be more precise, his lack thereof."