Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sunday Reading

“Bully Pulpit” — Jane Mayer of The New Yorker profiles Bryan Fischer, the hate-mongering evangelical radio host from the American Family Association.

Fischer is a tall man with a wide mouth, a prominent nose, a tanned face, and carefully groomed hair that is as white as a cotton ball. He is proud to be at the far end of the American political spectrum. When I visited his office, I asked him if he could name anyone who had more conservative social beliefs. “Well, Thomas Jefferson,” he said. “He wanted to castrate homosexuals—I don’t want to do that.” (Jefferson’s position was actually a liberal reform: at the time, homosexuality was punishable by death.) Fischer does, however, want to change homosexuals. “We’re not animals in heat that have a biological compulsion to yield to every sexual impulse,” Fischer said. Gays, he said, can experience a “reorienting of their sexuality—it can be done. Like the saying goes, ‘I’ve never met an ex-black, but I’ve met a lot of ex-gays.’ If one person can do it, two people can do it.”

Fischer, who jokes that his “listening audience is more conservative than conservatives,” represents a powerful constituency. Rob Stein, the founder of the Democracy Alliance, a progressive fund-raising group, says that groups like the A.F.A. are part of “the largest, best-organized, most effective, and well-financed special-interest political infrastructure in America.” Julie Ingersoll, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida, says that the goal of Christian conservatives such as Fischer is to “shape every aspect of the culture in accordance with Biblical law, including politics.” Though it’s impossible to say how decisive a role this bloc will play in November, Ingersoll notes that, in the 2012 primaries, it “succeeded in pushing the Republican Party far to the right.” She adds, “The campaign that Romney’s had to run is very different from the one he ran four years ago. Who would have thought, for instance, that contraception would be an issue?” In February, Romney expressed opposition to a Senate amendment that would have permitted employers to deny insurance coverage for birth control on religious or moral grounds; after his statement was denounced by religious conservatives, he reversed himself.

Jonah Goldberg, the conservative columnist, has written that Fischer is an extremist with little influence and “doesn’t speak for any members of the Christian right I know.” Fischer’s successful campaign against Grenell, however, suggests that it is unwise to underestimate him. Patrick Mahoney, the director of the conservative Christian Defense Coalition, in Washington, D.C., told me, “Bryan is definitely ascending. His influence is growing because he says publicly, in an unfiltered way, what many evangelical leaders think privately. He’s fearless.”

He’s Father Coughlin without the collar or the charm.

Watergate Forty Years Later — Campaign finance reform has come full circle since that “third-rate burglary” happened on June 17, 1972.

The money poured into Richard M. Nixon’s reelection campaign from all corners: Six-figure checks flown by corporate jet from Texas; bundles of payments handed over at an Illinois game preserve; a battered brown attaché case stuffed with $200,000 in cash from a New Jersey investor hoping to fend off a fraud investigation.

During four pivotal weeks in spring 1972, the president brought in as much as $20 million — about $110 million in today’s dollars — much of it in the form of illegal corporate donations and all of it raised to avoid disclosure rules that went into effect that April.

“The decision was made that it was time to put the hay in,” John Dean, Nixon’s counsel at the time, recalled in an interview last week. “A lot of us believe Watergate might never have happened without all that money sloshing around.”

Four decades later, there’s little need for furtive fundraising or secret handoffs of cash. Many of the corporate executives convicted of campaign-finance crimes during Watergate could now simply write a check to their favorite super PAC or, if they want to keep it secret, to a compliant nonprofit group. Corporations can spend as much as they want to help their favored candidates, no longer prohibited by law from spending company cash on elections.

The political world has, in many respects, come full circle since a botched burglary funded by illicit campaign cash brought down an administration. The excesses of the Nixon era ushered in a series of wide-ranging restrictions on the use of money in campaigns, including limits on individual campaign contributions that remain in force today.

But the intervening decades have also brought changes that have undercut many of the political financing rules put in place in response to the Watergate scandal, including a Supreme Court case that freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited money on elections and a public-financing regime that has collapsed into irrelevance.

“Bumblefest” — Carl Hiaasen on Florida’s klutzy attempt to disenfranchise the majority of minority voters.

First of all, it’s not really a purge.

Purges are organized, thorough and ruthlessly efficient.

Bumble-fest is a more precise term for Gov. Rick Scott’s effort to cull non-citizens from the voter rolls.

Things are so confused that only two counties in Florida are fully participating in the governor’s plan. The others are holding back because officials don’t trust the accuracy of the list of suspected non-citizen voters.

It’s no wonder why. The first list had 182,000 names and was wildly flawed. A second list, revised by the elections division, targeted almost 25,000 possible voters.

Kurt Browning, a former Pasco County elections supervisor who was Florida’s secretary of state, had zero confidence in the second list. Browning is now gone from office, but a third list of suspected non-citizens endures. This one includes about 2,700 persons — a molecule in a bucket, considering that Florida has 11.3 million registered voters.

Yet the state still can’t get it right.

Witness the incredibly embarrassing case of Bill Internicola, a Broward resident who was born in the good old U.S.A. and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Oops, Internicola was on the list. And he was rightfully upset, so upset that he attended a press conference to talk about it.

Challenging a decorated war veteran’s right to vote was a rather poor P.R. moment, and Internicola became a worst-case nightmare for Scott and other Republicans who’ve been working to “clean up” the voter rolls in time for the November elections.

Already they’ve cut back early-voting hours and cracked down on voter-registration drives in order to lower the participation of students and minorities, who tend to vote Democrat.

Florida being a key state — possibly the key state in the presidential race — the GOP dreads a repeat of 2008, when an enthusiastic turnout of black and Hispanic voters helped Barack Obama win. So nobody was terribly shocked when The Miami Herald reported that 87 percent of those on the state’s purge list are minorities.

That’s the whole idea!

The governor says no, that it’s all about maintaining the integrity of Florida’s elections. (Please stop laughing right now.)

Staying Silent — Maureen Dowd on the Sandusky case and others where supposedly good people do nothing.

EVERYONE is good, until we’re tested.

We hope we would be Sir Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons,” who dismisses his daughter’s pleas to compromise his ideals and save his life, saying: “When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.”

But with formerly hallowed institutions and icons sinking into a moral dystopia all around us, has our sense of right and wrong grown more malleable? What if we’re not Thomas More but Mike McQueary?

Eight tortured young men offered searing testimony in Bellefonte, Pa., about being abused as children by Jerry Sandusky in the showers at Penn State, in the basement of his home and at hotels.

But the most haunting image in the case is that of a little boy who was never found, who was never even sought by Penn State officials.

In February 2001, McQueary was home one night watching the movie “Rudy,” about a runty football player who achieves his dream of playing at Notre Dame by the sheer force of his gutsy character. McQueary, a graduate assistant coach and former Penn State quarterback, was so inspired that he got up and went over to the locker room to get some tapes of prospective recruits.

There he ran smack into his own character test. The strapping 6-foot-4 redhead told the court he saw his revered boss and former coach reflected in the mirror: Sandusky, Joe Paterno’s right hand, was grinding against a little boy in the shower in an “extremely sexual” position, their wet bodies making “skin-on-skin slapping sounds.” He met their eyes, Sandusky’s blank, the boy’s startled.

“I’ve never been involved in anything remotely close to this,” the 37-year-old McQueary said. “You’re not sure what the heck to do, frankly.”

Doonesbury — Daddy’s little girl.