The Mark Hanna of the Christian Right

Apprentice political reporters take heed, editors crave nothing so much as yet another derivative Ralph Reed boy-genius profile. There was the Toscanini of the telephone in living color on the front page of Friday’s New York Times, holding a cell phone to one ear and a hotel phone to the other on primary night 10 days ago in Alabama. Only Ralph Reed could win plaudits while advising a certified loon, Alabama’s 10-Commandments-toting governor, Fob James, the Bob Dornan of Southern politics.

The profile by Kevin Sack avoided obvious gush, merely calling Reed “a stalwart of the accommodationist wing of the Christian conservative movement.” But despite this editorial restraint, Sack still hit all the stations of the cross. There was the obligatory description of the 36-year-old political consultant: “eternally boyish.” And the reassuring observation for secular readers of the Times that Reed, for all his Bible-quoting roots in the Christian Coalition, still talks “the lingo of television buys, polling cross-tabulations and direct-mail techniques.”

Why the enduring fascination with Reed, whose major realpolitik credit is helping the hapless Bob Dole win the 1996 GOP nomination? Why have similar portraits appeared in the last six months in the Atlanta Constitution, Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, and USA Today, along with a major Q-and-A session with the New York TimesMagazine? Why in an age when politicians are reviled is a back-room handler like Reed treated with the reverence normally reserved for Michael Eisner?

Chatterbox, who must confess he benefited from his share of candid off-the-record briefings from Reed during the 1996 campaign, has a theory. Political reporters, and even more their stay-at-home editors, are profoundly uncomfortable with religion in politics. We don’t know how to write about it or analyze its political impact. How I remember the derisive hymn singing in the back of the Pat Robertson press bus during the 1988 primaries. Reed’s allure is that he is a cross-over figure able to translate evangelical politics into an us-guys language that even the most cynical, jaded boy on the bus can appreciate.

Buried in the Sack story is a genuine news nugget: James is going to lose his June 30 run-off primary in Alabama. The none too subtle evidence is the way that Reed is already distancing himself from his embarrassing candidate. As Sack writes, “The Governor shunned Mr. Reed’s advice against raising the school-prayer issue in his television advertising.” Consultants normally do their if-the-candidate-only-listened-to-me tap dance the morning after a losing election. When they’re this honest this early, it has to mean devastating private polls.

One final mystery: how many would-be GOP contenders in 2000 is Reed currently advising? The Times says five (George W. Bush, John Ashcroft, Dan Quayle, Steve Forbes, and John Kasich). But in April, USA Today, which for Chatterbox is the newspaper of record, claimed seven, adding Lamar Alexander and Jack Kemp to Reed’s stable. Okay, we know that Kemp lacks the moxie to run. But what’s gone wrong with the peripatetic plaid-shirted Lamar!, who was also mentioned by the Atlanta Constitution and U.S. News? Could it be that Alexander shunned Reed’s advice to reposition himself with an Hawaiian shirt?

Walter Shapiro