Upstairs in the otherwise staid University Club yesterday was a gathering designed to annoy President Bush: Members of a group called the Conservative Caucus sat around an oval table wearing Ten Commandments pins on their lapels and declining to speak in the polite tones favored by Bush in this "dignified debate" over judicial nominations.
Here at this news conference, outgoing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was not the "great American" deserving of a hug, as Bush said, but someone whose judicial philosophy concerning abortion rights was summarized as: "If it helps your career, then kill your baby." Here, the Supreme Court was not a venerable American institution but the body responsible for "decades of assault and abuse on the Constitution."
In this room, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, assumed to be Bush's personal favorite to replace O'Connor, is a "big step backward," and only one man, really, is qualified for the job: Roy Moore, former chief justice of Alabama, best known for refusing to follow a federal order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the state courthouse and was therefore removed himself two years ago.
Moore is not here, except as a gauzy robed portrait smiling up from dozens of copies of his book, "So Help Me God," spread around the table. Instead, this is a kind of Draft Roy Moore movement, where his absence only adds to his followers' conviction that he is destined for something grander than this mere press conference. "A national hero to millions," Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, says by way of introducing the man whose spirit hovers above the room. "The great patriot, that exemplary jurist, God's man for these times."
Let the circus begin! Perhaps because Bush refers to "the consultation process," many Americans have mistaken this judicial nomination process for a national brainstorming session. Here are the latest contributors. They are celebrities of the political fringe, professional political spoilers of the right: Phillips, who founded the U.S. Taxpayers Party in 1992 basically as a vehicle for Pat Buchanan to run for president, and tried desperately to recruit Moore to run in 2004; Alan Keyes, the perennial Republican religious alternative candidate known for speaking in perfect sermonic paragraphs; and a handful of other local religious leaders who aspire to be like them.
Earlier this month, the White House and Senate Republicans asked religious conservatives to back off their campaign against Gonzales, and for the most part they did, with some movement leaders agreeing, in theory at least, to support the president's choice. The crowd in this room is not playing that game.
Here Phillips make jokes about Karl Rove pulling the strings and preaches about the president "betraying his promise." In 30 or so years in politics, neither he nor Keyes seems to have softened or changed or even aged much: Phillips still has that fleshy face and eyebrows that look like a tangle of weeds, and Keyes still has those intense eyes, that perfectly smooth skin, the energy to mesmerize a crowd.
They would be relics of an earlier age of religious activism except for the existence of Moore. When he put the Ten Commandments up, Moore became an electric hero to many religious conservatives, the old-fashioned kind, principled and uncompromising.
Some of them backed off supporting him when he defied the federal order. Still, as a symbol he has become powerful.
Moore travels the national evangelical church circuit to standing ovations. He is thinking of running for governor of Alabama and regularly polls 10 points ahead of the current Republican governor, Bob Riley. His Ten Commandments monument travels the country like a holy relic.
In certain evangelical circles he is talked about like a saint. Rob Schenk, head of the National Clergy Council, who came to the news conference, calls him a "white martyr."
"A red martyr is someone who sacrifices blood," Schenk says. "A white martyr is someone who sacrifices the comforts of life and the benefits of achievement, and that is something people in Washington don't do. In Washington, people always sacrifice principle for position."
The word "humble" is used several times at the news conference. "He's not an ambitious man, he's a humble man," says Phillips, who mentions that Moore likes fishing and spending time with his family. "He is sincere. There is no guile in this man," Phillips goes on. "He does what he thinks it's his duty to do, whether in Vietnam or on the bench."
In the Conservative Caucus's worldview, the Supreme Court has "usurped" the will of the people, says Keyes, to advance the "whims" of the justices, leading to an assault on the "sanctity of human life, traditional marriage and the public acknowledgment of God." The justices particularly have misread the First Amendment and used it to discriminate against religion, the group's members believe.
"In this time of constitutional crisis, the president can act courageously . . . and propose Roy Moore," Keyes proclaims.
A judge who has defied a federal order might seem like a counterintuitive choice for the Supreme Court. But that kind of detail-oriented thinking disregards the ideological purity permeating this room.
"Judge Moore responds to a higher law," says Don Dwyer, a Maryland state delegate from Anne Arundel County. "His allegiance to the Creator God is paramount above everything."
In one view of politics, principle is the opposite of practicalities. The behavior of Phillips and company seems to confirm that view. The Conservative Caucus is impassioned but not so good on the details.
Did anyone in the room tell Moore about this news conference?
"I'll leave him to speak for himself about that," Phillips says.
(Moore, through his daughter, declined to speak for himself.)
"I haven't talked to him, either," Keyes says.
No one in the room, it turns out, had talked to Moore about this.
"I am certain he will do what God calls him to do," Phillips says.
Alan Keyes, far left, and Rob Schenk, head of the National Clergy Council, both came to praise Roy Moore at the news conference. Howard Phillips, right, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, with stacks of petitions backing Moore for the U.S. Supreme Court.