A visitor to Norfolk and Virginia Beach, heading down the airport escalator, finds the huge advertisement smack in the line of vision: "Visit CBN -- Home of the 700 Club." A 15-minute car ride away lies CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network), the multimillion-dollar international empire of Pat Robertson, who likes being called a TV entrepreneur, dislikes being called a TV evangelist and doesn't mind being called a possible candidate for president.
In the time-honored tradition of prospective candidates, Robertson vows he doesn't want to run. "I have a job here that's better than any in Washington," he says, "including the president's." However, he adds, with an aw shucks earnestness to his voice, "it's a question of service. I grew up under the concept of noblesse oblige. You say 'What is good for God?' " Robertson corrects himself. "Not what is good for God. 'What does God want me to do?' And 'What is good for the people?' "
In his search for answers, Robertson prays to God and talks to Republican political advisers like former White House aide Ed Rollins and sets up a political network with volunteer lobbyists in every state. He has scheduled speaking engagements in early primary states and to high visibility groups like the National Press Club, where he speaks today. He commissioned an expensive Nielsen survey that rated him No. 1 among viewers of the top 10 TV preachers, and has given national television, magazine and newspaper interviews to reach the secular world beyond the estimated 7.2 million households that watch him on TV (WDCA-TV, Channel 20, 10 a.m.). He receives praise from far right political activists like Howard Phillips and Richard Viguerie, who distrust any hint of centrist leanings in the Republican party, as well as nervous acknowledgement as a potential spoiler from supporters of other such undeclared candidates as George Bush and Jack Kemp.
Robertson, one of God's most cherubic, dimple-cheeked 55-year-olds, has a constant smile and chuckle ready to burst forth. He's spent much of his adult life in front of a TV camera and is considered among the most telegenic of would-be politicians. He would, to say the least, interject novelty into national politics. A Southern Baptist preacher who has referred to himself as a "prophet of God," Robertson is an evangelical who speaks in tongues and conducts "miracle" sessions whereby, he says, God heals everything from fallen arches to cancerous tumors through the power of prayer.
Although the religious messages seem to have been toned down of late, Robertson was in full swing in 1981 at a Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship conference in Philadelphia, a videotape of which is still available.
Shouting "Satan be gone!" Robertson squinches his eyes tightly shut and announces: "God has just healed somebody. You've had, uh, uh, a concussion, a fractured skull and the Lord has healed you of that." Robertson looks to the audience. "Are you that brother?" he asks, pointing into the crowd. After no answer, Robertson says "Somebody's got that. Where is it? Just praise God." Pause. "Well there's so many people I can't see, but God's healing somebody of that right now. Thank you, Jesus. God's healing people over this place."
The eyes are tightly closed again: "A hernia has been healed. If you're wearing a truss you can take it off. It's gone! Several people are being healed of hemorrhoids and varicose veins. Thank you, Lord . . . Many people, their eyesight is being opened right now. You're seeing. You couldn't see well before. Your eyes, your vision is being restored to you!" Robertson opens his eyes again. "In the center section here, somebody's just been healed of an ulcer."
He continues: swollen neck glands, tooth and gum disorders ("somebody's bite is not right and God is actually manipulating your jaw right now so the teeth will hit the way they're supposed to.") On goes Robertson: a neck muscle, crooked toes ("The Lord is straightening out these toes on somebody's feet right now . . . People with flat feet, God is doing just great things to you").
While many Americans believe in the healing power of prayer, and are untroubled by TV preachers such as Robertson acting as conduits to God, many others, including evangelicals, view such sessions with suspicion and find them more than a little disturbing in a presidential candidate.
"His healing services are a disgrace," says Robert S. Alley, professor of humanities at the University of Richmond, a conservative, Baptist-affiliated school, where he has taught religion and social ethics for more than 20 years. "It's a use of people; playing on their emotions."
Says Robertson, "I think God answers prayer." He bristles at the term "faith healer." "That's charlatanism. I've said many times we don't have any faith healers, and if we do I'll fire them."
Those who tangle with Robertson know the wrath of one who feels that God is definitely on his side. Hollywood producer Norman Lear, director of People for the American Way, who demanded equal television time to answer Robertson's televised statements on court decisions, received a letter declaring: " . . . you are not merely trying to silence a member of the press, you are trying to silence a prophet of God . . . The suppression of the voice of God's servant is a terrible thing! God himself will fight for me against you -- and He will win."
Says the Rev. Dr. Charles V. Bergstrom of the Lutheran Council of the United States of America, also an evangelical, "Any person who would use Scripture and say he is God's prophet to attack a person regarding use of TV time, well, that's a complete misuse of the teaching of God." Seeking
Back in the '50s, religion was far from Marion G. (Pat) Robertson's mind. The son of then-Sen. A. Willis Robertson (D-Va.), Robertson was just out of Yale law school and off for New York to "make my fortune." He was heading down that Fortune 500 road, first as a management trainee with W.R. Grace, then starting a company that manufactured audio components. "I was beginning to enjoy some of the social life, the Stork Club, Le Pavillion and trying to cut a little bit of a figure in the Big Apple."
But, says Robertson, there was this emptiness; "a God-shaped vacuum" in his life. A missionary friend of his mother's took him "to this very expensive hotel dining room and brought out this enormous Bible and I was so humiliated!" But he became intrigued when another diner and a waiter sought the missionary's guidance; Robertson suddenly saw the possibilities of religious life. "I had thought that anyone who was religious was either a little old lady in tennis shoes or some child who didn't have any better sense. I began to examine my life. And I believed Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world and for my sins, too, and it was like a light went on! I entered a whole new world."
That new world included the New York Theological Seminary and, after graduating, a brief flirtation with starting a mission in an abandoned brothel in Bedford-Stuyvesant. But he says a Bible verse led him home to Virginia instead, to a run-down UHF station in nearby Portsmouth. With $70 to his name, he borrowed $37,000 and launched what has become the third largest cable network in the nation.
Now, in sharply creased black mohair suit, cuff links and wafer-thin watch, Robertson looks like he made a fortune after all.
Robertson says that his enterprises include charities and businesses that together raise about $230 million each year ("give or take $30 million).
"Well, we're not, like, making money," he says. "If we have a little surplus we use it to build university buildings." The only time the smile stops is when he's asked if he has a jet. "Yeah, we have a jet. It's a company plane . . . When I went to Central America we made four stops in about 2 1/2 days and I took film crews and staff with me. There's no other way to function."
The numbers of his prospective political minions, could Robertson galvanize his TV viewers, are wildly bandied about. Even skeptical politicos feel Robertson has a strong fund-raising and volunteer base among a segment of voters zealously politicized over such social issues as "secular humanist" school curriculums, prayer in school and abortion. Robertson's fund-raising ads for his CBN University, stating that the university is training young men and women to take "leadership roles in government, courts, institutions . . . As the toll-free number flashes on the screen and a voice urges "Call Now," music rises and the ad ends with "Now is the time to reclaim this land with strong Christian leadership."
Robertson prays on the air that "Godly people" will be elected to office, and prays to change an education system that teaches America's children a "philosophy that is amoral, anti-Christian, humanistic" and "will ultimately lead toward Marxism, socialism and a communistic type of ideology."
Robertson is not unaware that the religious right, while a steadily growing force within the Republican Party, is filled with strong leaders of enormous ego. There is some question of whether the Jerry Falwells, Jimmy Swaggarts and Jim Bakkers would ever encourage their flocks to unite behind the head of a rival TV congregation. Falwell already has endorsed George Bush, and the Christian Voice -- a Capitol Hill lobbying, political action and foundation organization -- leans to Jack Kemp. Robertson seems unfazed. "Nobody," he says, "thought somebody like me would be around."
Since 1980, when the born-again vote turned from one of its own -- President Jimmy Carter -- to prove a handsome windfall for the Republicans, party professionals have been stroking its members periodically, hoping to keep them content yet unobtrusive.
"And I don't think the evangelicals should be used," says Robertson. "I know the mindset of these people," the secular politicos "because I've been there. When I was just out of law school, I was head of the Adlai Stevenson for president campaign on Staten Island. I remember one rally and my concern was, where do you get a guy with a turned around collar who will come out and give a benediction? I didn't care about the religious thing. I just wanted to put the mantle of religion over the rally ." Praying
Inside the Williamsburg-colonial edifice of CBN, with its gleaming marble floors, exquisite antiques and Persian rugs; inside the massive studio -- a sophisticated, computerized telectronic world to rival the networks -- the audience is praying along with Robertson and his cohosts for Rock Hudson, who at this point is still dying of AIDS.
Actress Rhonda Fleming has just been interviewed ("I learned to let God guide my life and that's when my wonderful husband entered my life and I found so much contentment and inner joy . . . "). A CBN reporter, Scott Ross, in the breathless you-heard-it-hear-first style of reportage that is the hallmark of the 700 Club, says "Well this just came up. Rhonda has called a good friend of hers, Rock Hudson.
" . . . Perhaps this would be an opportunity for Rock to be exposed to the things of the Lord Jesus," says Ross, "and that God could grant the grace, the unmerited favor of repentance . . . Can you imagine??!! If God moved within the homosexual community and granted grace to a lot of those people to turn from their wicked ways, turn from their sin and turn to the Lord Jesus Christ and there would be an outpouring of his grace, his mercy and his spirit and his love upon the homosexual community there could be a revival there? . . ." Denuta Soderman, a female cohost, interjects "And let's ask that Rock would pray with us."
On the set, Robertson and company bow their heads. So do members of the overflow crowd seated in tiers several yards away. About the only people who don't are the bank of women answering phones. Their voices, muted by glass screens, rise and fall as they field some of the 16,000 daily calls from the troubled, and those who want to sign up for the 700 Club. Initially, Robertson sought 700 contributors at $10 a month; membership is now "more than 500,000" (aides refuse to give the exact number) paying a minimum of $15 a month to fuel this empire.
A visitor is struck by the high-gloss professionalism of CBN. Reporters and announcers are pros at everything from TVspeak, that mellifluous robot-like perfect phrasing, to camera angles. Robertson is as congenial as Carson and even has his Ed McMahon, the 6-foot-6 Ben Kinchow, a former Black Muslim, who interviews, plays straight man for Robertson and runs several of CBN's good works projects. There is a Green Room for waiting guests and public relations experts hover, ready with brochures. Two of them sit in on an interview. Borrowing from a practice of most politicians, the CBN tape recorder is placed, just for accuracy's sake, next to the reporter's.
The 700 Club, a sort of "Good Morning Christian America," is billed as a TV magazine and has its People-style mix of Hollywood celebrities and news-of-the-moment pieces. Sometimes there is a straight report, such as a recent one on the dangers of NutraSweet (possible depression and memory loss from excessive use), and Robertson scored a true scoop in June when CBN interviewed Laura Walker Snyder, daughter of accused spy John Anthony Walker Jr., while the big three nets cooled their heels. Little did they know that a troubled Snyder had called the 700 Club two years ago and one of those women answering the phone advised her to let Jesus into her life. She then told the FBI about her father's espionage activities.
But most of the time Robertson clearly uses the news to bolster his views on everything from Nicaragua (pro-Contra) to higher education leaders ("anti-Christian") to some who challenge the president's appointments ("way-out liberals").
"It's a highly opinionated, slanted approach to news, but not totally one-sided. He gives us our say -- and then comments upon it," says Tony Podesta, president of Lear's People for the American Way, a group designed to counter the religious right. "It's more likely people will swallow the sugar-coated poison of Robertson than Falwell or Swaggart or any of the others who give you the same thinking with eyes blazing," says Podesta. "If he weren't so slick and clever and ultimately friendly he would frighten people." Biblical Diplomacy
If Robertson would be a political novelty as a presidential candidate, more controversial still would be his practice of using the Bible to predict, interpret or analyze foreign policy. He has said on the air that the Bible "specifically, clearly, unequivocally says that Russia and other countries will enter into war and God will destroy Russia through earthquakes, volcanoes . . . " On one show in 1981, using a map and pointer, Robertson points to the Middle East. "I believe that the Bible indicates that ultimately Israel will take territory all the way up to the Euphrates River, which is north of Damascus. This might well be the trigger that would bring the Soviet Union down on Israel for an invasion that was spoken of in the book Ezekiel, Chapter 38, and I don't think we've got a long time to wait for that." Kinchow then talks about "the Young Lions of the Bible, the Tarshish," who might come to the aid of Israel and "which many Bible scholars" feel is the United States. Robertson nods in agreement. "The only time where the United States is talked about in the Bible is in connection with this area."
Biblical scholar Alley at the University of Richmond says "The whole idea that the Bible mentions the United States is totally outrageous! Once you've said the Bible is your guide, then who is the guide to the Bible? This is throwing an irrationality blanket over foreign affairs that is scary."
Dr. Bergstrom of the Lutheran Council adds, "We of the mainline churches do not attack his interest in politics, just as we were involved in civil rights, but his mixture of salvation and faith terminology with political issues is dangerous and awful. For example, he misuses the Bible to support the president's Nicaraguan policy." Journalist
As a one-man conglomerate, Robertson travels from Israel to Honduras as a "journalist" but one unclouded by neutrality; his "Operation Blessing," for example, raised $2 million in aid to Contra-run refugee camps in Honduras.
CBN programming now airs in 66 countries, covering most of Central and South America, the Middle East and the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan. CBN owns and operates three TV stations, in Boston, Dallas and Norfolk-Portsmouth. There are a lot of family type reruns; one night recently an old western had ads similar to the late late show -- from Midol to water beds. Robertson has just built a $12 million library for his fledgling university, which has 800 students and features courses in everything from journalism to biblical studies.
Robertson guards his private life and home from the press. According to an aide he wants no interviews or photographs in his home "for security reasons." CNN-TV showed a helicopter view of a sprawling estate -- his 12-room brick Georgian residence with stables, formal garden, patio and pool with statuary that one TV commentator compared to the fountains of Versailles. (An aide sensitive to such suggestions of wealth said the pool is a "drainage ditch" and that the $300,000-plus home is the CBNU "chancellery.") Although his wife Dede's resume says she is in demand as a speaker, repeated requests to interview her were rebuffed by both Robertson and his aides. A graduate of the Yale University School of Nursing and a former assistant professor of nursing at Tidewater Community College, she is listed as secretary of the CBN board of directors and a member of the university's board of regents. They have four children.
Unlike many on the religious right, Robertson advocates cuts in defense spending as well as cuts in social programs. Operation Blessing is administered with little overhead cost, says Robertson, unlike federal programs. "We just allocate money from our general revenue and we take that into an inner city and we tell a church there, 'If you are really concerned about helping your people we will match what you give.' We go to a private business and say 'if you've got some surplus rice, beans or flour we will facilitate the transportation and distribution.' So we call that leveraged things."
The plugs for the 700 Club, the promos for CBN's "user friendly" modern English Bible marketed by Robertson and sold in grocery stores, ads for his "powerful tapes" called "Knowing the Will of God" -- which you can get only by subscribing to the 700 Club -- linger long after the CBN show is over.
It prompts a major question: How could Robertson broaden his base to those uncomfortable with such strong religiosity mingling with public office. "The way I could do it is because I've been there. I've lived as they've lived. I've chased the dollar as vigorously as they have and (big chuckle) I've chased other things as vigorously too. As they say, I know where they're at."
He nods eagerly when asked whether promoting is, in large part, what politics is about. "We have superb public relations capabilities and marketing." He refers to the hard sell of CBN's Bible -- "A new version, if you will. That was an example of a 'unified marketing program.' That's what we do."
Robertson refers back to 1984 and a "cleavage in our society. Reagan's coalition includes those with passionate social concerns, whether it's prayer in school or whether they feel 700,000 abortions a year is murder. They desire less government with a strong defense and a resolute posture, if you will, concerning the expansion of communism." The Democratic Party is, he says, "more accommodating to communism, large budget deficits and higher taxes to pay for them and relative softness on what we call the social issues."
Robertson believes that the Republicans will successfully play capture the flag again in 1988. And he sees himself fitting in perfectly.
"I wouldn't see that I personally would be much different than Ronald Reagan on these issues."