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Republican Presidential Candidates Wage Religious War

Aired February 28, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, waging religious war: John McCain attacks the religious right.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They are corrupting influences on religion and politics.


PRESS: And George W. Bush expresses regret about his visit to Bob Jones University.


GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I should have talked about how hopeful and optimistic I am for the future. But I missed an opportunity to speak out against anti-Catholic bias.


PRESS: Are both candidates using religion to get ahead?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE.

On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak.

In the CROSSFIRE, Republican strategist Charlie Black, an informal adviser to the Bush campaign; and in New York, Congressman Peter King, a supporter of Senator John McCain.

PRESS: Good evening, welcome to CROSSFIRE.

It's not a political campaign anymore, it's a holy war. John McCain suggesting George Bush is anti-Catholic, Pat Robertson calling McCain's campaign's adviser a vicious bigot, and now McCain, in a direct broadside at the Christian Coalition today, blasting Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as agents of intolerance.


MCCAIN: Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.


PRESS: Holy smoke.

On another religious front, after defending his visit to Bob Jones University for weeks, George W. Bush has now reversed course. In a news conference and a letter to New York's Cardinal John O'Connor, he says he regrets going but not speaking out against the school's controversial policies.


BUSH: I missed an opportunity to speak out. That's what I regret. I regret the opportunity to speak out, to speak my heart.


PRESS: And so, on the eve of the Republican primaries in Virginia, Washington and North Dakota, we ask, is this religious warfare helping either Bush or McCain, or is it dragging down both candidates and their party?


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Congressman King, there's no doubt that the Democrats are delighted by all of this. And I'd like you to listen to what Governor Bush said campaigning today in Washington.


BUSH: This is a man who wants to point fingers. You can't lead America to a better tomorrow by calling names and pointing fingers. He is a person who obviously wants to divide people into camps. The Republican Party needs to nominate somebody who is a uniter.


NOVAK: Is it smart, Congressman, to talk about in those terms people of the religious right, who constitute 32 percent of the Republican electorate according to the Gallup poll?

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: First of all, I think it's very clear that Senator McCain was speaking specifically of people such as Pat Robertson, who I don't believe represents 32 percent of the Republican Party. There are many, many good people in the Christian right.

I very often get a 100 percent rating from the Christian Coalition myself. I'm totally pro-life. But I am very offended by people like Pat Robertson, the way they try to use religion to score a political point. For instance, there's virtually no difference at all between Governor Bush and John McCain on the abortion issue. If anything, Senator McCain might even be more pro-life. And yet Pat Robertson tries to use abortion as a wedge issue between two pro-life candidates because he has allied himself with Governor Bush. That to me is a perversion of religion. And I think people, certainly in my part of country, in New York, get very turned off by people like Pat Robertson, who apply a religious fervor to every issue, especially political issues.

NOVAK: Mr. King, we all know what the -- how the Reverend Sharpton is thought of by conservatives in New York, in your district. Do you really compare Pat Robertson, who was lauded by President Reagan -- Senator McCain now calls himself a Reagan Republican -- do you really equate Sharpton -- Pat Robertson with the Reverend Sharpton?

KING: Bob, if we're going to be consistent and be able to criticize Al Gore and Bill Bradley for pandering to Al Sharpton, we have to criticize excesses on our side. And I think Pat Robertson has been guilty of excesses. He certainly was guilty of excesses in the Michigan primary. And Governor Bush, by the way, really has no one to blame but himself for this. Once he went to Bob Jones he opened this up.

I wish there was no religious debate in our party, but I think Governor Bush made it inevitable by pandering to the anti-Catholic vote in South Carolina.

NOVAK: I want to talk about Bill Jones a little later, but I just want to ask you one more thing on this Robertson thing. We did a little search this evening looking for comments that you and Senator McCain had made about Pat Robertson critically over the years. And you've been around a long time, Mr. King, and so has Senator McCain. We could find nothing, absolutely zero. As you say, you do get a 100 percent favorable rating from the Christian Coalition. We found not one critical word about Pat Robertson. What -- were you whispering it in your home, in your closet, and then you suddenly decided it was a political play for the Democrats to get the liberals and the media on your side?

KING: I think we get the liberals, the media on our side no matter what we do. And I -- except for Bill Press, I don't want any liberals on my side. But actually, I was very critical of the influence that I thought the extreme religious right was having on my party back in 1995. And I was critical of that influence that was coming from, I felt, too much of a religious fervor being applied to political issues.

You know, balancing a budget is not a religious issue, and yet there was a time -- especially right after the Republicans took over in Congress -- where people on the Christian right were making everything into a religious issue.

NOVAK: But you never criticizing Reverend Robertson -- Pat Robertson.

KING: Not specifically, but I'm doing it now and...

NOVAK: Yes, all right. Well, better late than never. OK.

KING: ... I'm glad that Senator McCain has done it. I give him credit for it.

PRESS: Charlie Black, there's a certain university down south that I'm tired of talking about and you're probably tired of hearing about and talking about. But we've got to cover it. John McCain mentioned it today.

Here's a little of what he had to say today about Bob Jones.


MCCAIN: We are the party of Ronald Reagan, not Pat Robertson. We are the party of Theodore Roosevelt, not the party of special interests. We are the party of Abraham Lincoln, not Bob Jones.


PRESS: Now the governor says he regrets going there and not speaking out. Isn't it true, Charlie, that he regrets he ever went there in the first place?

CHARLIE BLACK, BUSH ADVISER: Well, I don't think so. There's a long tradition of Republican presidential candidates going to Bob Jones -- Reagan, Bush, Dole, the sitting Democratic governor of South Carolina, Jim Hodges, went and spoke at Bob Jones. It's the first time anyone was held to the standard that they were absolutely required to condemn the views of the dead Bob Jones, the founder of the university, in order to have a ticket to speak. The "Greenville News" reported today that three months ago John McCain turned to Lindsey Graham during their editorial meeting and said, set me up to speak at Bob Jones. So three months ago, Senator McCain didn't see anything so wrong about speaking at Bob Jones University.

PRESS: Well, the fact is that McCain never went and Bush did. But isn't it a fact -- you say there's a different standard, but isn't it true that it's George Bush himself who set the different standard? He said from the beginning, I'm campaigning as a different kind of conservative. So you expected better -- if I can use the word -- or different from George Bush, didn't you?

BLACK: Well, George Bush did not expect John McCain and the McCain campaign to inject religion into politics. It's wrong to pit people of different religions against each other in politics. This issue is still alive. You're still talking about Bob Jones because of the McCain campaign fueling the fire with the so-called Catholic Voter Alert smear phone calls that they used in Michigan -- and, by the way, they're using right now tonight as we speak in Virginia. They're not backing off of it.

PRESS: Well, actually, I think we're speaking about Bob Jones because George W. Bush went there February 2nd.

Now I want to ask you about this letter to the cardinal, you know. Isn't it interesting that after three weeks of defending going to Bob Jones, a week before the New York primary, where half of the registered Republicans are Catholics, that George W. Bush suddenly writes a letter to the cardinal of New York saying he regrets going to Bob Jones? This letter is really just a political stunt to appeal to New York Republicans, isn't it?

BLACK: This letter is an effort to set the record straight. Governor Bush thought that his record of integrity, compassion and outreach, his lifetime record, should prove to people that he had no religious or -- or racial prejudice, not a bone in his body. But the McCain campaign kept fueling the fire with a very compliant national press. The issue stayed this long, so he put it in writing to a lifelong family friend, Cardinal O'Connor, and set the record straight. This should...

PRESS: So the timing is just a coincidence.

BLACK: The good news is this should set the record straight. I hope Congressman King will concede that, and you won't have to talk about Bob Jones or maybe, if they'd quit using it, the Catholic Voter Alert phone calls again after tonight.

NOVAK: All right, all right. I want to talk about the Catholic Voter Alert phone call.

And let's listen to it right now.


NARRATOR: This is Catholic Voter Alert. Governor George Bush has campaigned against John McCain by seeking the support of Southern fundamentalists who have expressed anti-Catholic views. John McCain, a pro-life senator, has strongly criticized this anti-Catholic bigotry while Governor Bush has stayed silent while gaining the support of Bob Jones University.


NOVAK: Now I have talked to other Catholics who are in the McCain campaign, and not for attribution but they have told me that they are appalled by McCain campaign's use of that, throwing a match into the tinder box of religious animosity. Surely you can't approve of those tactics, Peter King.

KING: I approve them 100 percent. I am speaking for attribution. That phone call was 100 percent accurate. It was entirely on target. And as far as Governor Bush, he created this issue by going to Bob Jones. It's a bigoted school. This isn't just another religious beliefs. God knows we tolerate all sorts of religious beliefs in this country, and we encourage that diversity. But it's not an acceptable religious belief to say that Catholicism is a cult, that the pope is the anti-Christ, comparing the pope to the devil and to Judas. That's clear bigotry. That's the type of thing that went out, we hope, with the Al Smith campaign in 1928.

And that's not one word in that phone call which is inaccurate. No one is suggesting for a moment that Governor Bush is bigoted. What we did say, is he was willing to shake hands with the devil and make a deal to get bigoted votes. That's what he did.

NOVAK: If that isn't a suggestion that he's bigoted, I don't know what, but he did apologize for not speaking out at the university in his letter to the cardinal.

You, rather gracelessly I might say, sir, said it was too little, too late. Let me read to you what William Donahue, the president of the Catholic League -- and I think you and I can agree defers to no one in his defense of Catholics against bigotry. He said -- quote -- "This settles the issue. Bush has now moved beyond perfunctory comments criticizing anti-Catholicism and is addressing this issue squarely without reservation. A touchstone of Catholicism is forgiveness. It would be inconsistent with our faith, therefore, if we as Catholics did not forgive Governor Bush for this incident" -- unquote.

KING: First of all, Bob, I am never graceless, always graceful, but never graceless. As far as what Bill Bennett was saying, certainly we can forgive Governor Bush for what he did, but in reflecting and considering what kind of presidency it would be, what type of judgment...

NOVAK: You said it was too little, too late.

KING: It is, because it's too little too late as far as his judgment was concerned. He showed terribly poor judgment in this case. What would he do if he was elected president? Would he makes deals with other bigots and then apologizes three weeks later. Listen, I am willing to forgive him...


BLACK: ... Ronald Reagan, and George Bush and Bob Dole of terrible judgment, Congressman.

KING: First of all, I think it is time for Republican candidates to stop going to Bob Jones, but secondly, if they do go, they should criticize it, and thirdly, no one ever kicked off their campaign with the pomp and ceremony like George Bush did at Bob Jones in Arizona.

BLACK: Yes they did.

KING: That was the kickoff of his South Carolina campaign.

BLACK: The same thing for Reagan, and the same thing for Bush and the same thing for Dole.

NOVAK: Nobody criticized them.

KING: They did not kick off their campaign in South Carolina like that, and it was wrong. And maybe, as we go into the 21st century, it's time for us to turn to backs on bigotry and say it's wrong. If we as Republicans want to win and stop losing election year a year, maybe we should start reaching out and not this appeal to bigots, but appeal to the broad, open part of American society.

BLACK: Read the letter. Governor Bush, couldn't make it any more plain that he's turning his back on bigotry.

But let me say about John McCain... (CROSSTALK)

KING: He's doing that on the evening of the New York primary. He didn't do it in South Carolina.

BLACK: Charlie, he won South Carolina by appealing to bigots, and now he wants to win New York by reneging on what he did in South Carolina.

KING: All right, John McCain today went to Virginia, and said the political tactics of division and slander are not our values, then immediately launched into division and slander, attacking personally Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who like it or not, represent one- third of the Republican voters in this country. It is impossible that John McCain could win a general election without that one-third of the Republican base. If he persists in these tactics, he's driving them right into the arms of Pat Buchanan, if he's the nominee of the party. The good news is, he won't be.

NOVAK: All right, we're going to have to take a break. And when we come back, we'll consider whether George Bush is a candidate who can't get elected and John McCain is a candidate who can't get nominated.


NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

A funny thing happened to the Republican Party on its way to nominating a candidate for president. Senator John McCain says only he can beat Al Gore in November. But Governor George W. Bush says only he can get the national convention delegates in August. Could they both be right?

We're talking to Congressman Peter King of New York, who used to back Bush but now supports McCain, and to Charlie Black, who is an informal adviser to the Bush campaign -- Bill.

PRESS: Charlie Black, I could not understand, maybe still can't, what motivates Pat Robertson to be so exorcised over John McCain. I mean, I looked at the moral issues that I have heard people on the right, Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes and others talk about, whether it's abortion, prayer in schools, Ten Commandments, school voucher, restoring integrity to the Oval Office. On those moral issues, George Bush and John McCain absolutely are identical, aren't they?

BLACK: I can't speak for Dr. Robertson, although I respect him greatly, and I appreciate the things he's done to help build the Republican Party, but my understanding is he doesn't like the fact that Senator McCain has a campaign finance reform that would leave Big Labor in the driver's seat and let them do anything they want, but put grassroots organizations like Christian Coalition out of business politically. That's one thing. I don't know...

PRESS: No, I think you're exactly right. I think it is not morality. You put your finger on it. It is the money. My first question to you then, isn't campaign reform, Charlie Black, an issue on which devout Christians can certainly agree and disagree?

BLACK: Well, I don't -- it has nothing to do -- I'm not going to inject religion into politics or put people of different religions together, like the McCain campaign is doing. It's not a matter of religion. It is immoral to let Big Labor be in the driver's seat and spend unlimited amounts of money independently in campaigns and not let business or grassroots conservative organizations do it. That's where McCain is wrong. It's not just Pat Robertson. It's all grassroots, conservative organizations.

PRESS: But you know, you're talking about paycheck for check, which is not soft money, but what McCain-Feingold did is do away with soft money. Last October, the National Right to Life Committee got $250,000 in soft money from the Republican National Committee. Isn't it true that Pat Robertson opposes John McCain because he wants to get all that soft money from the Republican committees to fund the Christian Coalition, which is nothing but an arm of the Republican National Committee? That's what it's all about, isn't it?

BLACK: I do not speak for Dr. Robertson, but I am familiar with the Christian Coalition, and they do not get funding from the Republican National Committee. They get funding from their members and from small donors all over the country, who represent that one- third of the Republican base, evangelical Christian voters who have helped build this party into a big-tent party, which now has the majority in Congress.

I'm happy that Congressman King has a hundred percent rating from the Christian Coalition. And I'll tell you something, he would not sit in the majority in Congress if it weren't for the Christian Coalition and the evangelical conservative voters who helped comprise our Republican base. John McCain can't win an election without them.

NOVAK: I want to take a step away from the Christian controversy. Is that OK, Charlie?

BLACK: Only briefly.

NOVAK: Yes, Congressman Peter King, every state, including even Michigan, George W. Bush beats John McCain by 20 points among Republicans. Now the field poll in California, in the field all last week has a new poll which shows Bush, 48 percent, McCain, 28 percent of GOP primary voters only. And only their votes will be counted on a winner-take-all primary.

How in the dickens can you get nominated for the Republican presidential nomination if the Republicans are against you two to one?

KING: Well, Senator McCain did get the most Republican votes in New Hampshire. And in New York right now, he's ahead by about five or six points among just Republicans. So obviously, there are states where he is going to do very well among Republicans. But I agree, Senator McCain's job over the next several weeks is to convince Republicans to come his way, and I wish Republicans would, because when they look at polls and see he's going to beat Al Gore by 25 points and Governor Bush is only running a statistical dead heat with him, we as Republicans should wake up and realize we have something new in our hands. We have a prairie fire sweeping the country, led by John McCain, which can win us back the White House, keep control of the Congress, and yet, for whatever reason, we're trying to stifle him.

Hopefully, Republican voters will break away from the elected officials, who have all endorse Governor Bush, and will realize the message that John McCain is sending, which is resonating with the independents and Democrats that we need, especially the Reagan Democrats.

NOVAK: Mr, King, with all due respect, I'm amazed about your newfound fascination with John McCain, because you used to give him the hardest time on campaign finance reform. You wanted a belt around the Capitol to keep the reformers out. And John McCain, who can be as excitable as you are, on December 17, 1997, wrote this letter to the Hill, and he said -- quote -- "I have never met a single other Republican who felt that Mr. King spoke for the party or for any other Republican other than himself. Indeed, the only Republican organization I have ever noticed Mr. King represent is the Irish Republican Army."

When did all this bad feeling end and the happiness between you occur?

KING: Well, first of all, wasn't that a great fight. That, to me, is what politics should be about, two guys duking it out and then shaking hands afterwards.

Actually, I would say that Senator McCain and I, for at least a year and a half, a year, year and a half, have been very close. I have great respect for his work in foreign policy. We came together. We are mutual friends that said we should get along. We tried it, and it worked. And I would I am proud to call him a friend. I'd be proud to call him Mr. President.

NOVAK: I thought the senator had it right in your support for the terrorist Irish Republican Army, and I find that the first disaffection you find with George Bush was not on going to Bob Jones University, but because you saw him criticizing President Clinton's failed peace efforts in Northern Ireland. Isn't that a fact?

KING: No, actually I had criticized Governor Bush for Bob Jones before he made those ill-advised and uninformed comments about the Irish peace process. Probably he's listening to you, because no one knows less about what's going on in Ireland than Bob Novak. But I will say that Senator McCain does support the Irish peace process. He does believe that it's time for people to come together in Ireland. And he said, in South Carolina, where it took guts, that he would continue to carry forth the Irish peace process. And I just wish, Bob, you would learn something about it for once in your life.

PRESS: Congressman, Charlie, I'm sorry, we are out of time. We not only have solved the Republican primary debate. We've solved the peace process in Ireland tonight. Isn't it wonderful. Charlie Black, thanks very much for joining us on CROSSFIRE.

BLACK: My pleasure.

PRESS: Congressman King, up in New York, always good to have you back on CROSSFIRE.

And as always, Bob Novak and I will have the last word, we call our closing comments, coming up.


NOVAK: Bill, I ran into one of the elder statesmen of the Democratic Party today who was just absolutely delighted with John McCain's attack on a personal leads, about one-third of the Republican Party, and I asked this elder statesman a question he didn't answer, and maybe you will. What would you think if Al Gore made an attack like that on John Sweeney, the head of the AFL-CIO?

PRESS: Well, I don't think John Sweeney deserves the attack, but Pat Robertson does. I think Pat Robertson gives all Christians a bad name. It's not about morality, Bob, Charlie Black said it, It's about money. He's against John McCain because he doesn't like his campaign finance reform bill, because he thinks he'll turn off the spigot. That's what it's all about.

NOVAK: Never fire on the your own troops. As an old politician, you should know that. That was a classic mistake by Senator McCain.

PRESS: John McCain was never going to get Pat Robertson's vote.

From the left, I am Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I am Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.


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