From a distance, say from the back of the ballroom at the Crystal Gateway Marriott hotel, Beverly LaHaye looks an awful lot like Betty White, the actress who played television homemaker Sue Anne Nivens on the old Mary Tyler Moore show. Like Sue Anne, LaHaye has a sweet but steely smile, a teased cap of blond hair and a will of iron. Like Sue Anne, LaHaye's constituency includes a lot of full-time homemakers and mothers. And though LaHaye, like Sue Anne, has a lot to say about the importance of family and homemaking, it seems unlikely that she'll ever do that full time again.
LaHaye is founder and president of Concerned Women for America, a national Christian women's group that claims (though rival groups dispute the numbers) to be the largest, fastest-growing women's organization in the United States. (Half a million members and counting, 1 million projected by 1999 in the organization's "decade of destiny" plan.) It is certainly the largest with the stated desire to "preserve, protect, and promote traditional and Judeo-Christian values through education, legal defense, legislative programs, humanitarian aid and related activities."
LaHaye, the wife of diminutive evangelist Tim LaHaye, himself president of something called the American Coalition for Traditional Values, took her husband's lead 10 years ago and organized a small group of San Diego churchwomen to fight the Equal Rights Amendment. Things sort of took off from there, and now Concerned Women for America boasts a $6 million annual budget, tax-exempt status, a 26-person Capitol Hill staff, an annual convention and enough political clout to draw the president as yesterday's keynote speaker.
While Phyllis Schafly's Eagle Forum Leadership Conference, by coincidence celebrating the 20th anniversary of The Phyllis Schafly Report across the river at another Marriott this same weekend, had to make do with Interior Secretary Donald Hodel, LaHaye hit the jackpot. (Schafly professed not to be bothered by this. "There's absolutely no rivalry between us," she said. Anyway, she added, "Most of our people are frankly tired of hearing speeches that other people have written.")
The Concerned Women, judging from the crowd of about 1,000 who gathered to hear the president, are overwhelmingly white, fundamentalist and conservative. They are opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, homosexuality and premarital sex. They like Ronald Reagan, the Strategic Defense Initiative, prayer in the schools, aid to the Nicaraguan contras, Oliver North and embattled Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Especially Bork.
In fact, LaHaye, who recently was voted president for life of Concerned Women by its board of directors, had notified the Senate Judiciary Committee of her availability to testify on Bork's behalf. The shepherds of the Bork nomination demurred.
The president was less fainthearted.
"It's wonderful to see you all here," Reagan said with what sounded like genuine affection from the dais in the hotel ballroom yesterday. "It makes me feel as if the reinforcements have just arrived." The women shouted approval, waving pro-Bork placards aloft. The backs of the chairs facing the television cameras also were lined with posters: "We Need Bork," "Iowa Loves Bork," "Bork Bork Bork," and so on.
Reagan thanked the women for the hymns and patriotic songs they'd sung on his arrival. "Hearing those songs put a lump in my throat. I was just trying to control it ...", he said, then launched into his pro-Bork, pro-contra speech, declaring "I feel like I'm preaching to the choir." He predicted that Robert Bork would be confirmed, and would go down in history as the best Supreme Court justice ever.
Next, Reagan reiterated his support for the Nicaraguan contras. "Aid to the Nicaraguan freedom fighters must and will continue," he said. "The American people want it, justice demands it and it's the only way to make the Marxist-Leninists in Managua talk peace."
Lastly, he attributed the American success story to the will of God: "You may call it mysticism, if you will, but there had to be some great plan that put these great continents here in the Western Hemisphere between the two great oceans, to be found by people who had such a love of freedom ..."
He praised LaHaye as one of the "powerhouses on the political scene today ... Beverly LaHaye is changing the face of American politics." She gave him a gavel for the Supreme Court nominee. As he left the stage the president reportedly said, "You women made my day."
If Reagan managed to work God into the end of his speech, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, who appeared before the group Thursday night, went one better. She gave a long, chatty speech that intertwined the biblical story of Esther, who jeopardized her own security to save the Jews, with the difficulties of renouncing the demands of one's ego in order to better serve God's will. She finished by reminding the audience of her own recent decision to leave the Department of Transportation in order to campaign for her husband, senator and Republican presidential hopeful Robert Dole. "And you could say I'm laying aside one cause in order to pick up another -- one with even more serious implications for the future of Americans ... But wherever God leads me, I know that I have a duty to serve him through serving others. For that is our highest calling."
The hallway outside the ballroom was a conservative bazaar. Among the stalls were a Right to Life booth, a Messianic Jewish Movement booth (with placards advertising the availability of "Video Tapes of the Messianic Jewish Wedding of Sandra Sheskin and Manny Brotman") and a large display, with videotapes, picturing the Concerned Women's work in Costa Rica on behalf of the Nicaraguan refugees there. The video pictured LaHaye and other Concerned Women board members in Costa Rica. There was a photograph of LaHaye meeting with the first lady of Costa Rica, and the videotape showed LaHaye holding a refugee child while a narrator intoned: "Mrs. LaHaye's concern is evident in her devotion to the smallest child."
LaHaye has traveled to Costa Rica nine times in the past year, and she told the audience Thursday night that she had just returned from a fact-finding mission in Managua, where she met with the editor of the recently reopened La Prensa newspaper. A film clip of this encounter was shown Thursday night.
LaHaye also presented Thursday night's audience with a surprise guest -- sort of. Lowering her already dramatic speaking voice to a husky vibrato, she invoked the name of Oliver North. "We invited him to be with us tonight," she said, then paused. "But it was not permitted."
Instead, the audience watched a giant television screen showing Oliver North testifying before the Iran-contra committees, followed by the sound of fanfare, a shot of the U.S. Capitol and the words, "Oliver North: Fight for Freedom." This prompted a standing ovation.
"You are honoring him," LaHaye said. "In the quietness for a moment would you silently pray for Oliver North and his family?
"Amen," she concluded. "Will you please be seated?"
Other speakers in the past two days have included "Dr. and Mrs. John Wilke" of the Right to Life movement, a representative from the Justice Department's antipornography squad, and a man named Josh McDowell, who gave a stem-winder of a speech about how to keep one's children from engaging in premarital sex. He cited a study, purportedly the first ever done of the sex habits of 50,000 evangelical teen-agers, in which 43 percent of the respondents said they had engaged in sexual intercourse by the time they graduated from high school. "These are church kids -- our future pastors and missionaries," McDowell cried. "Ladies and gentlemen, we don't have a whole lot to say to the secular world until we get our own back yard cleared!"
All of which seemed quite invigorating to the women, who had paid upward of $85 to attend the four-day conference. In fact, were it not for its politics, Concerned Women could pass as a Dale Carnegie course for housewives and mothers, a flock largely bypassed by both feminists and the New Right. The convention's schedule of 70 workshops includes advice on everything from how to run for political office and how to compose an effective letter to one's elected representatives, to how to lobby from your kitchen table.
Marsha Williams, an articulate, friendly mother of two from Dallas, stood wiping tears from her eyes after the Reagan address. She described herself as a former liberal who had succumbed to despair until she was born again at the age of 24. She joined Concerned Women to help fight against the Equal Rights Amendment and wound up with responsibilities for organizing one-fourth of Texas. Like other women present, she gave the organization, its workshops and ideas, credit for boosting her self-confidence.
"We are an educational group," Williams said cheerfully. "The most important thing for us is to educate our women. We train them in all aspects of life -- spiritual, political, moral.
"Most of these women -- a lot of them -- have families. This is all new to them. They've never sat down and thought about pornography or abortion. All we do is educate them on the issues. The reasons why they should be against those things.