This isn't one of those days, but there have been days when the only thing I could think of to cheer me up was that three of the most awful people in America were a lot older than me. That meant that the odds were very good that I could count on outliving them, that I could look forward to dancing on their graves. One of them, as you might guess, just died. I'll give them time to have a respectful burial, plus some time for the family to mourn. But then, I'm maybe-half considering springing for the airfare. Or maybe I'll wait until the other two, Jesse Helms and Antonin Scalia, are dead, and do a tour of their graves I may have to wait a while for Scalia, but Helms can't last much longer, thank the gods.
Ironically, there are two Christians with absolutely monstrous political reputations but very kind personal reputations in the news today. Of the two, though, the dead one, Jerry Falwell, is the one that most clearly proves that it is possible to mean well, and to be a nice person to those in front of you, and still be an unspeakable monster, a shambling awful thing of unmentionable horror. The late "Dr." Falwell was not, I'm given to understand, in the room when the leaders of the top Christian fundamentalist seminaries swore allegiance to the Republican anti-Communist caucus. But their victory would have been impossible without his talent and effort. And he had the talent. Who are the four most famous televangelists to (illegally) endorse Reagan back in 1980? Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jerry Falwell. Of those four, Jerry Falwell stood out for something other than the fact that he was the Baptist and the others were Pentacostals, although perhaps not entirely unrelated: of the four of them, he is/was the only one of them not totally batshit insane. Bakker was horribly corrupt, padding his own pocket out of money that was supposed to pay for evangelism expenses, raising millions more selling non-existent timeshares, and forcibly raping his own secretary while holding himself and his wife up as the moral exemplars of America, and didn't see the contradiction in that. Why? Because he had an even worse version of the same disease that Swaggart and Robertson have. When most Christians talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus, when they say that they hear his still, small voice in their hearts, they don't mean the same thing that a schizophrenic means when he says that he hears voices. But given some of the completely insane stuff that has popped out of Bakker's, Robertson's, and Swaggart's mouths, stuff that nobody with even half of their education could believe that the Bible actually said, stuff that made no sense at all, you could see that no, these wackos did (and do) really hear voices in their heads, blurt out whatever the voices tell them to say, and do whatever the voices tell them to do.
All over the web today, there were "greatist hits" quotes from Jerry Falwell that, I'm sure, sounded just as insane to you. That's because you don't have the benefit of the same education in theology I do. Other than his continuing faith in the long-since discredited heresies of Hal Lindsey, there's nothing that Jerry Falwell ever said or preached that didn't make perfect sense given his theology. It was the same sick, twisted theology that omitted huge chunks of the Bible and distorted others in order to conform Christianity to the "greed is good, charity is bad" doctrines of the Republican Party, but he could and did stay consistent with it. Beyond his theology, it is absolutely worth looking at his career: of the four, he's the only one that never had a major meltdown. Of the four, he and only he is the one that gets credited for the most important part of the construction of the Reagan coalition. Other pastors across the country were persuading Christians to abandon the Democratic Party and vote Republican, but it was Falwell's determined, focused, and frankly brilliant skills as an organizer that delivered what the Republican Party really needed to make the plan work. Falwell, through his original Moral Majority, is the one who stuffed all those Republican Party township clubs and precinct organizations with hard working volunteers, and one hard working volunteer is worth more than a whole church-load of persuaded but not terribly committed voters. Have no doubt about this whatsoever: Robertson and the rest were out there preaching, yes, but doing at least as much harm to the Republicans as they did good. Falwell delivered this country to the Republicans.
And I've known people who met him, backstage in the "green rooms" of various TV interview shows that they were about to appear with him on, who say the same thing that his friends all said about him: in person, he was generous, friendly, charming, open hearted, and a good listener. But Jerry Falwell's life proves that you can be as smart as he was, as hard working as he was, as well meaning as he was, and as friendly as he was, and still turn out to be a horrible monster. For one thing, whenever his Christian principles contradicted Republican Party platform planks, he became even more two-faced than Rudy Giuliani or Hillary Clinton, saying one thing to small groups of Christians in private while preaching the exact opposite from the pulpit of his multi-media empire. There was no personal, spiritual, moral, religious, or ethical principle that the man wasn't willing to compromise in order to get Republicans elected. And secondly, there is ample evidence that he was confronted, over and over again, with the consequences of some of the anti-biblical Republican platform planks that he defended in front of the microphones, a price in human lives that would have impressed your average genocidal third world despot (if, admittedly, not some of the more exceptional ones). For example, if nothing else then for the heroic effort he put into making sure that as many Americans as possible died of AIDS, he deserves to be remembered alongside monsters like Ferdinand Marcos and Robert Mugabe and Henry Kissinger. And he knew this. And he was just OK with it, because getting people to vote Republican was more important to him than saving their lives, or even their souls.
And ironically, the day that this story broke was also the day that another fanatical right-wing theocratic Republican who's done this country substantial harm (if for his part in Webster v Reproductive Health alone, if nothing else) and who also has his own defenders on the same lines as Falwell's, people from all faiths who reassure me that no matter what the consequences of his belief he really is a very nice guy, quietly went a long way towards redeeming himself to me, without lifting a finger or saying a word. No, this time the words were spoken for John Ashcroft by a friend of his, his former second in command at a job that I desperately hoped he wouldn't get, US Attorney General. You can get the gist of it from David Stout's article in the New York Times, but to get the full impact, you really need to hear James Comey's testimony straight from the horse's mouth, the way I heard it on the news.
The long and short of the story is that when The Deacon found out that the NSA's expanded post-9/11 eavesdropping program was asserting the right to wiretap Americans without a FISA court warrant, Ashcroft read Bush, and then-White-House-Counsel (and, gods help us, Ashcroft's successor as AG) Alberto Gonzalez, the absolute riot act. Gonzalez and White House Chief of Staff Andy Card desperately wanted Ashcroft to sign a memo saying that this was, in his opinion as AG, perfectly legal. Ashcroft flatly refused to do it ... and then, to my unflattering celebration, came down with one of the most painful diseases known to man, acute pancreatitis. Ashcroft temporarily signed over all of his duties to his 2nd in command, Comey, and went in for surgery. And while Ashcroft was in intensive care, still loopy from general anaesthesia, Comey found out that Gonzalez and Card were planning on taking advantage of the fact that Ashcroft wasn't in his right mind to trick him into signing their memo. Comey beat them to the hospital room, and got to see John Ashcroft spend every ounce of strength he had to chew out Gonzalez and Card, repeating one for one in a loud voice every single reason why the warrantless wiretap program was illegal and unconstitutional. And then, as he collapsed, he used the last of his breath before passing out from the exertion to say, "And all of that is irrelevant, because right now I'm not the A.G. He (pointing to Comey) is."
And to me, what this goes to show is that while Deacon Ashcroft shares an awful lot of the late Jerry Falwell's more monstrous, more horrifying, more profoundly anti-American political beliefs, if nothing else there is one thing even more important than his allegedly friendly personality that lifts him up above irredeemable monsters like Falwell: Ashcroft wouldn't screw his country just for the benefit of the leader of his party. And that's more decency and integrity, even if Ashcroft is now a lobbyist, than Falwell ever had.
Update: The video's even more powerful, if you can find it anywhere, but ThinkProgress.org has a transcript of Comey's testimony. It's very moving.