God’s Hit Man?

Religious Broadcaster Calls For United States To ‘Take Out’ Venezuelan President

It’s safe to say that TV preacher Pat Robertson is no fan of Venezuelan Presi\xaddent Hugo Chavez.

Robertson was enraged by reports that Chavez, the democratically elected leftist leader of South America’s fifth most populous nation, had met with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and engaged in generous amounts of U.S. bashing.

Chavez, Robertson decided, is a threat to America and something should be done about him.

“You know, I don’t know about this doctrine of assassination, but if [Chavez] thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it,” Robertson told his “700 Club” audience Aug. 22. “It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability.”

The call for state-sponsored assassination coming from a Christian minister stunned many. Reaction was swift, pointed and uniformly unfavorable.

Robertson was roundly denounced by religious and political leaders across the spectrum. In the past, some conservatives have tried to defend Robertson’s more extreme statements, aware of the power he holds in Republican Party politics. This time things were different.

Some conservative Christian leaders took pains to distance themselves from Robertson.

“Pat doesn’t speak for evangelicals any more than Dr. Phil speaks for mental-health professionals,” the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said.

In Cincinnati, Dr. John C. Wilkie, a longtime anti-abortion activist who now serves as president of the International Right to Life Federation, told the Columbus Dispatch, “Pat has stuck his foot in his mouth before, and he certainly did this time. Pat once was looked upon as a role model and spokesman by a lot of Christians, but I think he’s outlived that.”

Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas also took Robertson to task, writing, “Robertson has made other remarks through the years about all sorts of things that have nothing to do with the gospel in which he says he believes. He is not alone. On the right and on the left, ordained and self-proclaimed ‘reverends’ and honorary ‘doctors’ appear to spend more time trying to reform a fallen and decaying world through politics and earthly power than they do promoting and proclaiming the ultimate answer to that fallen status.”

Continued Thomas, “While these apostles of political parties and personal agendas have every right to make fools of themselves, they are enabled in their foolishness by millions of people who blindly send them money.”

Some Religious Right leaders remained silent. The Phila\xaddelphia Inquirer reported, “Other evangelical leaders and conservative groups declined to comment on Robertson’s remarks, including Focus on the Family; evangelist Franklin Graham; the Nat\xadional Religious Broadcasters; and the Family Research Council.”

Moderate and liberal clergy were quick to condemn the statements.

“It defies logic that a clergyman could so casually dismiss thousands of years of Judeo-Christian law, including the commandment that we are not to kill,” said the Rev. Bob Edgar of the National Council of Churches in a statement. “It defies logic that this self-proclaimed Christian leader could so blithely abandon the teachings of Jesus to love our enemies and turn our cheeks against violence.”

An old Robertson nemesis, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, called on the Federal Communications Commission to investigate. Jack\xadson, noting conservative outrage after singer Janet Jackson’s breast was briefly exposed during a Super Bowl half-time show in 2004, said, “This is even more threatening to hemispheric stability than the flash of a breast on television during a ballgame.”

Americans United Executive Director Barry W Lynn called on American officials to strongly condemn Robertson’s words.

“It is deplorable for a Christian preacher to go before his vast audience and urge the American government to murder a foreign leader,” Lynn said. “His bloodthirsty commentary is over the top, even by Pat’s rather elastic standard. This is just the kind of religious fanaticism that the world does not need more of. President Bush should immediately disavow Robertson and his extremist rhetoric.”

But Bush refused, and the White House did not address the comments. All Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld could offer reporters was an understated observation: “Our department doesn’t do that type of thing.”

At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack put forth a muted statement.

“I would say that Pat Robertson is a private citizen,” McCormack observed, “and that his views do not represent the policy of the United States. Any allegations that we are planning to take hostile action against the Venezuelan government are completely baseless and without fact.”

Why the lukewarm response from the administration? Probably it’s because Robertson has been a solid Bush ally who has supported the president through two elections. The one time Robertson criticized a Bush policy, expressing reservations about the faith-based initiative, his Operation Blessing quickly received $1 million in taxpayer funds. Robertson hasn’t uttered a peep of criticism since.

As quirky as Robertson is, top administration officials believe the TV preacher plays a useful role for them. His show averages nearly 1 million viewers daily, and top congressional Republicans often appear as guests to tout the GOP agenda. Robertson’s chief attorney, Jay Sekulow, has played a key role with the Religious Right in rallying support for John G. Roberts, Bush’s pick to replace Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

But ABC Family, the network that airs the “700 Club,” was under no such constraints. The network quickly issued a statement noting that it is contractually required to air Robertson’s show. The network said it “strongly rejects the views expressed by Pat Robertson” and pointed out that it “has no editorial control over views expressed by the hosts or guests.”

ABC Family has also begun airing a disclaimer before and after the “700 Club” airs. The statement notes that the program is produced by CBN and “does not reflect the views of ABC Family.”

Under attack from several sides, Robertson apologized sort of.

Speaking on the “700 Club” the next day, Robertson tried to argue that his words had been misinterpreted.

“I didn’t say ‘assassination,’ Robertson groused. “I said our special forces should ‘take him out.’ ‘Take him out’ could be a number of things, including kidnapping.”

But those comments only made things worse, and later in the day Robertson posted an 11-paragraph statement on his personal website, www.patrobertson.com, that many in the media called an apology. A closer reading, however, shows it to be something else entirely.

One line does read, “Is it right to call for assassination? No, and I apologize for that statement. I spoke in frustration that we should accommodate the man who thinks the U.S. is out to kill him.”

But the remainder of the statement is an attempt to justify Robertson’s belief that Chavez is a threat to the world. Robertson accused Chavez of consorting with terrorists and even obliquely compared himself to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who lost his life opposing the Nazis.

Robertson concludes with pure spin, asserting that his comments about Chavez were actually helpful.

“There are many who disagree with my comments, and I respect their opinions,” he wrote. “There are others who think that stopping a dictator is the appropriate course of action. In any event, the incredible publicity surrounding my remarks has focused our government’s attention on a growing problem which has been largely ignored.”

In the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, Chavez at first brushed off Robertson’s remarks, saying he had never heard of the man and did not care. But within a few days, Chavez realized he could use the incident for his own purposes and began blasting back.

On Aug. 26, the Venezuelan government announced that it had temporarily suspended permits for foreign missionaries to give additional time to scrutinize preachers coming into the country to do evangelistic work.

Chavez then blasted Robertson by name, calling him “crazy” and “a public menace.” He announced he would seek Robertson’s extradition to Venezuela or possibly demand he be tried by an international court at the Hague. Chavez also announced that he will sue Robertson for “incitement to terrorism.” (A State Department official later announced that Venezuela lacked a sound legal basis to extradite Robertson.)

Chavez also beefed up his own security. On Aug. 30, his guards pulled away a woman who leaped up on stage while Chavez was speaking at the Caracas Convention Center and tried to hand him a note. As it turned out, the note was merely a request for help from the woman, who said she was homeless but Chavez told the crowd that he must be extra careful.

“It’s dangerous because I’m threatened with death, so you have to understand the security team surrounding me is on alert,” Chavez told the crowd. A few days after that, a crowd of about 100 marched in the capital, demanding that Venezuelan legal officials take action against Robertson.

How much of this was carefully orchestrated street theater by Chavez is hard to say. The fiery populist definitely has a flair for the dramatic. Venezuela is a major oil producer, and just days after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi, Chavez offered to sell gas at a reduced price to poor Americans, undoubtedly hoping to put the Bush administration in a tight spot.

Ironically, Robertson’s threats may end up helping the man he so despises. One analyst of Latin American affairs speculated that Chavez would use Robertson’s words to increase his popularity in a nation that remains bitterly divided over his rule.

“This is pure gold for Chavez; he could not have wished for anything better to happen,” Moises Naim, former Venezuelan minister of trade and industry, told the Los Angeles Times.

Reporters new to the Robertson beat might have thought the TV preacher’s comments about Chavez were unusual. In fact, they were merely a repackaging of the long-held Robertson belief that government-sponsored assassination can be a good thing. Robertson first publicly espoused the doctrine while campaigning for president in Van Nuys, Calif., in 1987, when he called on the government to form “hit squads” to assassinate suspected terrorists.

Assassination, Robertson said, “may not appeal to our Anglo-Saxon sense of justice, but it certainly is an appropriate response to war.”

In 1999, Robertson called on changing U.S. foreign policy, which since the term of President Gerald Ford has banned assassination of overseas leaders.

On Aug. 9 of that year, Robertson told his “700 Club” audience that it would be better to assassinate some leaders rather than have to fight them later in a war.

“But isn’t it better to do something like that, to take out Milosevic, to take out Saddam Hussein, rather than spend billions and billions on a war that harms innocent civilians and destroys the infrastructure of a country?” he asked. “It would just seem so much more practical to have that flexibility….”

Robertson’s co-host asked how such a policy could be squared with the Bible. Never missing a beat, Robertson brought up North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and said, “They have killed numerous people over there, and the idea that you would take one of them, you know, dispatch him, is not the most horrible thing in the world, Christian or otherwise.”

Robertson’s Venezuelan gaffe wasn’t the only public relations problem he had during the summer. In light of his violent comments, some reporters began digging into other aspects of the Robertson empire, focusing on some questionable business deals.

On Aug. 21, Robertson’s hometown paper, the Virginian-Pilot, ran a lengthy story on the controversy over Robertson’s “age-defying” diet shake, which is now being marketed nationally through General Nutrition Corp. (GNC) stores, a chain that hawks vitamins and other nutritional supplements.

For years, Robertson gave the recipe away for free through his “700 Club.” It is now being sold in powdered form through GNC stores; a can that makes nine servings costs $21.99. Cans are embossed with the words “Dr. Pat Robertson’s Diet Shake,” but they don’t point out that Robertson holds a juris doctor (a law degree) and is not a medical doctor.

Phil Busch, a Texas bodybuilder, claims he lost 198 pounds in 15 months while drinking the shake. Busch, who was interviewed in July on the “700 Club,” had hoped to become a national spokesperson for the diet product and did star in a few pro-shake commercials for Christian Broadcasting Network. GNC, however, had other ideas, using bodybuilder and former Mr. USA and Mr. World Dave Hawk as a pitchman instead because Hawk had a previous relationship with GNC.

As Virginian-Pilot reporter Bill Sizemore put it, “Busch says Robertson played him for sucker, using him to hype his product when it was a nonprofit venture and then dropping him like a hot, carb-filled potato when he went commercial.”

Remarked Busch, “All I was trying to do was inspire people. I did it for the viewers, not to help Pat Robertson make money.”

Robertson, 75, isn’t pleased with Busch’s public criticism and has threatened to sue him.

To make matters worse, the Trinity Foundation, a Texas-based Christian group that has been critical of the excesses of many television preachers, has accused Robertson of using his non-profit ministry to promote the shake.

“It wouldn’t exist unless it was promoted on the donor-paid-for airtime,” Trinity President Ole Anthony told the newspaper.

A few weeks after that, in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, some critics, many in the progressive blog community, began to question the Bush administration’s promotion of the Robertson charity Operation Blessing.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) website listed several charities that were accepting donations to help the hurricane’s victims. Many newspapers reprinted the list, which listed Operation Blessing second, right after the Red Cross.

But critics say Operation Blessing is no Red Cross, pointing out the charity’s checkered past. In October of 1997, two Operation Blessing pilots asserted that its planes were used primarily to transport equipment for a Robertson-owned diamond-mining operation in Zaire (now the Republic of the Congo) called African Development Corporation. One pilot told the Virginian-Pilot that of the 40 flights he undertook to Zaire, “only one or at most two” were humanitarian in nature. He said the rest were “mining-related.”

Protests were made in the mid ’90s, and state officials in Virginia looked into the matter. Officials in the Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs wanted to prosecute Robertson for making deceptive appeals, but lawyers in the state attorney general’s office intervened and put a stop to it. At that time, Mark Earley, a Robertson Religious Right ally who had taken campaign donations from Robertson, was serving as Virginia attorney general.

The Consumer Affairs Office singled out one appeal on Robertson’s “700 Club” claiming that planes were taking a “medical strike force” to towns in Zaire and transporting “doctors and medicine back and forth.” In fact, while Operation Blessing did have doctors in the area, its airplanes weren’t transporting them because they were being used to ferry mining equipment.

In a report, the Office charged, “Pat Robertson made material claims, via television appeals, regarding the relief efforts. These statements are refuted by the evidence in this case and thereby suggest a violation of the…law’s prohibition against obtaining money by any misrepresentation or misleading statement.”

The Consumer Affairs Office concluded that Robertson “will\xadfully induced contributions from the public through the use of misleading statements and other implications.”

When Sizemore of the Virginian-Pilot broke the story, an infuriated Robertson threatened litigation. But the newspaper stuck to its guns and in an editorial noted that Robertson had been no saint in the affair. The paper pointed out that Robertson had reimbursed Operation Blessing for using its planes to haul mining equipment but only two months after the official investi\xadgation began.

“That was three years after the expenses were incurred,” noted the Pilot. “If this gives no grounds for prosecution, it surely affords none, either, for Robertson’s aggrieved self-righteousness.”

The story of FEMA’s promotion of Operation Blessing eventually migrated out of the blogosphere. The Nation magazine ran a major piece Sept. 7 by Max Blumenthal, who noted that the reporting about the hurricane’s aftermath on the “700 Club” had been less than charitable toward the victims in New Orleans.

Blumenthal noted that during an interview with Operation Blessing President Bill Horan, the charity head stressed his group’s activities in Biloxi, Miss., and Houston but not New Orleans. Blumenthal charged that Operation Blessing planned to avoid the New Orleans victims “like the plague.”

That same day, FEMA quietly removed the references to Operation Blessing from its main site. Curiously, however, the agency neglected to take them down from its Spanish-language version.

But by then the damage was done. Newspapers all over the nation had reprinted earlier versions of the original FEMA list, often placing Operating Blessing second or third on the list. Many continued using the same list weeks after the hurricane.

An examination of Operation Blessing’s publicly available fi\xadnan\xadcial documents exposes some reason for concern. In 2003, the last year for which figures are available, Operation Blessing took in $192,603,678 in donations. Most of that money, $182,712,568, was used to underwrite the organization’s activities.

But an additional $1,739,142 was allocated to other groups. Most of this money was in the form of small donations totaling a few thousand dollars to ministries and churches around the country. But a whopping $885,362 went back to Robertson’s CBN. (By comparison, the next largest grant on the list is $38,815 to a ministry called Somebody Cares in Clearwater, Fla. The vast maj\xadority of the grants total a few hundred or a few thousand dollars.)

Why is so much Operation Blessing money being plowed back into CBN? An audited financial statement sheds little light, merely noting that the money was used for “international humanitarian activity.”

The late-summer spate of stories about Robertson served to remind many critics what a loose cannon he is. Several reporters mentioned his infamous Sept. 13, 2001, on-air discussion with the Rev. Jerry Falwell. During that broadcast, Rob\xadert\xadson and Falwell blamed the horrific terrorist attacks two days earlier, not on terrorists, but on liberal groups. These groups, by promoting legal abortion and ending mandatory prayer in public schools, had led God to lift his protection from the country, the two opined.

AU’s Lynn said he can only hope that Robertson’s bizarre outbursts will eventually result in his political irrelevance.

“Unfortunately, millions of misguided Americans still look to Pat Robertson as a political leader,” said Lynn. “Maybe one of these days, he’ll finally stick his foot in his mouth once too often and be consigned to the irrelevancy he should have garnered years ago.”