Cover Story

The panda in winter

Claws out, eyes atwinkle, evangelist Pat Robertson plans to talk on but hold his tongue at times

Issue: "Tighter lips?," Feb. 18, 2006

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - These should be diamond days for Pat Robertson. He'll be 76 next month. The 45th anniversary of the first Christian Broadcasting Network telecast is coming on Oct. 1. Next week he was supposed to be the main speaker at the closing banquet of the National Religious Broadcasters.

But instead of basking in the renown that could be his as the founder of five major Christian institutions, he is receiving enormous criticism for ad libs made on The 700 Club over the past half-year. The two most talked-about were his suggestions that the United States assassinate Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and that God punished Ariel Sharon with a major stroke because the Israeli prime minister did not hold onto Palestinian areas.

Interviewed earlier this month in his CBN office, which sports oil paintings on the walls, an oriental rug on the floor, and an American eagle on his desk, Mr. Robertson showed the trademark geniality-the crinkling eyes, the tough comments followed by a low chuckle-that has endeared him to millions of viewers, but he also flashed his claws at times.

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A fine movie from 1968, The Lion in Winter, starred Peter O'Toole as the aged but still-brave Henry II holding onto his authority and holding off enemies: Pat Robertson, described by one Regent University young lady as "a cute old man," is the panda in winter. He castigated his critics for being on "a vendetta recently that is appalling. They're treating me as if my ad lib editorials on the air are presidential utterances."

He has apologized publicly for his Chavez and Sharon statements, but in our interview he defended the usefulness of them: "Take Hugo Chavez. People thought in America that he was a grape picker from California. They'd never heard of Hugo Chavez. . . . The nation has now been alerted to this man."

The Robertson statement about Mr. Sharon that created a furor last month was this: "Here he is at the point of death. He was dividing God's land, and I say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations, or the United States of America. God says 'this land belongs to Me. You better leave it alone.'"

Southern Baptist Convention leader Richard Land was one of many Christians to criticize that statement. Mr. Land said, "I am both stunned and appalled that Pat Robertson would claim to know the mind of God concerning whether particular tragic events, such as former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in 1995 or Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke, were the judgments of God. Pat Robertson should know better."

When asked about that statement during our interview, Mr. Robertson responded, "I don't know the mind of God on every issue. I know it on some." He referred to "repeated references in the Bible to the land of Israel as being My land . . . and it was given to the Jews. . . . There's an implied warning in there that somebody who divides His land is doing something that violates God's will. . . . All I'm doing as a faithful Bible teacher is teaching the Bible. And if Dr. Land doesn't believe the Bible, I'm sorry. That's his problem."

But with Regent University public-relations executive Baxter Ennis sitting in on the interview and seeming alarmed, Mr. Robertson said he was taking precautions to avoid more eruptions: Before broadcasts "I didn't use to review the news. Now prior to the air we go over the news stories. . . . I now have a former news producer from Good Morning America. I'm going to have an earpiece in my ear . . . he's going to be whispering in my ear . . . he's going to be in the control room, as the news comes up [he'll say], 'why don't you say this, why don't you suggest this, let's discuss this.'"

Mr. Robertson added, "With these people trying to destroy me I can't step into their trap anymore. . . . I have seen an intensity of attack against me that is unparalleled in the 40-some years of the broadcast. . . . I've just got to be careful. . . . I've just got to be more careful."

According to his website, Marion Gordon Robertson, born on March 22, 1930, in Lexington, Va., is from "the Bloodline of Statesmen and Noblemen: Pat Robertson has a family tree that traces its roots to kings of England." His father, Absalom Willis Robertson, served for 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.

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