Bauer Tries to Shake Label of the Religious Right
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 1999; Page A6
There are certain crowds where a few words from Gary Bauer act as a tonic. Five minutes into his keynote speech at an antiabortion fund-raiser near Minneapolis last week, the 600 gathered loyalists were transfixed.
They followed Bauer from light to darkness, from his praise of the brave students at Tiananmen Square to his condemnation of America's "great leaders who have forgotten God and unleashed the hounds of hell."
Afterward, dozens lined up to thank him, ask his advice, touch his shoulder, get his autograph on a scrap of napkin. "Come, children," said Carey Lolin, bunching her tots around him. "Come and take a picture with your future president."
This kind of star treatment would make most candidates giddy. But for Bauer, who will officially announce his presidential candidacy today, being feted by religious conservatives presents a dilemma. While he needs their support, Bauer does not want to be dismissed as the fringe candidate of the religious right.
"It's a little frustrating how we all get put in boxes," said Bauer, 52. "And the box I always get put in is religious conservative."
Yet it's only within that box -- the tight network of evangelicals who go to church weekly, listen to Christian radio and lobby against abortion -- that Bauer is a household name and an obvious choice for president. Outside that world, few know his name. "Gary Bauer?" said one professor when asked for directions to the event, which was held in a rented room on a college campus. "But don't we already have a college president?"
Even his staff calls his loyal supporters a "subculture." Bauer does not want to abandon them, but he does not want to be entirely defined by them either. He depends on their activism for an early boost in a friendly state, like Pat Robertson's surprise breakthrough in the 1988 Iowa caucuses, where he finished second after Robert J. Dole.
Bauer is Robertson's obvious successor, because Christians have known and trusted him for years, from his hundreds of appearances on religious broadcaster James Dobson's radio show and his decade of leading the Family Research Council, a conservative public policy group in Washington with a large national following. The other GOP candidates are latecomers to the scene, evangelicals in style only, who have only lately started popping up in churches to talk about their religious experiences, said Bauer's staff.
Without changing any of his views on issues, such as abortion, that are important to his coalition, Bauer is testing ways to shade himself as a candidate beyond the religious right, by obscuring some of his stances and highlighting others. In essence, Bauer is packaging himself as an heir to his former boss, President Ronald Reagan. Because of his childhood in working-class Newport, Ky., and his anti-establishment economic positions, Bauer said he is a natural draw for Reagan Democrats.
Last week, he visited a General Motors plant in Flint, Mich., where the local United Autoworkers Union had published a letter Bauer had written to the GM president complaining about the plant's move to China. At the same time, he is trying to get attention for his positions on Kosovo and China, and argues for a strong U.S. role as the world's moral conscience -- a message he thinks will resonate with "Brooks Brothers" Republicans.
But to keep his campaign going, Bauer has to rely on tactics more suited to a crusader. His direct mail fund-raising letters, which he refused to provide to the press, contain graphic descriptions of abortion; they talk about the country's "disastrous moral decay;" and phrases such as "Gay Rights militants" and "radical feminists" show up often, usually underlined.
Bauer adamantly rejects any suggestion that his bid for the presidency is some sort of mission. "I'm doing it to win," he told a questioner in Minneapolis.
Like many politicians, Bauer's optimism comes from outsized confidence and a sense of his unique political destiny. Asked why he should be president and Bauer will speak of the total void in the gutless Republican leadership since Reagan left, the many times he's been disappointed by broken promises from men like Dole who lack the courage to stand up for the unborn child, for example.
Bauer offers the one candidate who will never stray from the Republican values that Reagan represented. Indeed, Reagan references pop up in Bauer's speeches, fund-raising letters, even his jokes. In his campaign office in Northern Virginia, the one spot of color on a desk filled with the usual piles of paper is a two-part video called "Tribute to Ronald Reagan." On the wall he faces hangs a picture of Nancy and Ronald, she in a sunshine yellow sweater and he in a jeans jacket staring proudly into the middle distance.
"What I speak for is Reagan conservatism," said Bauer. "And most Republicans have forgotten his message." Bauer rarely mentions God without adding Reagan: "Like Reagan, I do see America as having a special role in God's plan," he said.
Bauer has even managed to weave Reagan into his political awakening. He remembers as a teenager watching Reagan give the nominating speech for Barry M. Goldwater at the 1964 GOP convention. "I remember it as if it were yesterday," he said. He told his father Reagan was going to be president one day and he was going to work in the White House. "And my father thought I was nuts," he said.
Of course, it came true. In 1980, Bauer quit a well-paying job as a lobbyist to work on Reagan's campaign for $1 a week. When Reagan won, Bauer got a modest job on the staff of Martin Anderson, Reagan's domestic policy chief. "I spent my time twiddling my thumbs, getting people lunch, trying to stay busy."
Then at one domestic policy planning session Bauer changed his fate. "Why wasn't anyone talking about the social issues Reagan got elected on," he piped up, "like right to life?" Andersen answered: "Fine, those are yours."
Bauer scaled his way up the bureaucracy. With each new job he spoke out of turn, always attracting attention. At the Education Department, Bauer wrote reports about textbooks not being sufficiently anti-communist. His big break arrived in 1986 when he wrote a report about crumbling family values. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) called the report a "tantrum" and an "embarrassment." Eventually, Bauer ended up in Anderson's job.
What Bauer saw as noble dissent that shaped the administration many of his more powerful colleagues saw as irksome complaining, and in most histories of the Reagan administration, Bauer merits only a footnote. Still, Bauer became a hero for social conservatives.
But it is not just his career achievements that have made Bauer a conservative hero. He is mythologized among his followers for his bootstrap story. Yet when Bauer tells the story, it is not a moral parable but a standard political lesson.
He grew up in a poor Kentucky suburb in the shadow of the more respectable Cincinnati. When Bauer was young, Newport was locked up by Cleveland mobsters. Making his way to school, Bauer could pass a brothel, bar or casino sprucing itself up for another long night.
Like many men in the town, Bauer's father Stanley, known as "Spike," worked doing "whatever," Bauer recalled -- steelworker, trucker, mechanic. And like many men, he sometimes would lose his paycheck at a bar on the way home from work Friday night, and his temper when he came home the next morning.
Bauer's grandmother, after her errant son was killed by the mob, decided there would be no more family sacrifices. When Gary was 12, she took him to the local Baptist church to be baptized and set him on a Christian path. His commitment was soon tested: In 1957, when Bauer was a teenager, Esquire magazine put Newport on the map with a long article calling it "Sin City."
That was enough embarrassment for the locals. A local postman rallied a group of ministers to push for reform. Bauer, then a high school sophomore, joined the crusade, pasting leaflets around the neighborhood. After much coaxing, his father let him plant a "Switch to Honesty" sign on the front lawn.
Listening to Bauer tell the Newport story, the moral seems obvious. For a budding Christian conservative, the reform effort was a first lesson in the difference between right and wrong and the fight you must wage to preserve it. Newport of old is an apt metaphor for the corrupted American culture of today.
But Bauer insists the crusade was led more by "Republican businessmen" who found the corruption bad for business than by pastors -- a version no one else seems to remember. "I didn't really see it first and foremost as a moral crusade," he said. "I saw it as a political way of advancing certain conservative ideas rather than a moral issue."
The experience, he said, gave him empathy for the working class, taught him to reject a GOP establishment that "listens to Wall Street, not Main Street," allowed him to bond with unions and liberal activists who oppose the U.S. cozying up to China. "I don't want to overemphasize it," Bauer said of the moral aspects of his message. "Again, it becomes about putting people in boxes."
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