Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson acknowledges that he's fibbed about a good many things and has asked God for forgiveness. That was his biggest mistake -- he should have asked this of The Washington Post and a few others in the news business.
He's on the hot seat and it promises to get hotter, especially if it develops that he hasn't told the whole truth about his finances. His situation is different from that of the fallen presidential candidates in that he is fighting back and has the Lord on his side, or so he would have us believe. Everything he now says must be subject to close scrutiny.
The press is hounding him, and The Post is leading the pack. For two days' running, The Post splashed the story of his misleading biography on the front page. It all started with the sedate Wall Street Journal earlier in the week, in which there was a passing reference to the dates of his marriage and the birth of his first child, which made it clear the child was conceived out of wedlock. Post reporter T. R. Reid, who interviewed him last summer, had asked him for these dates, but Mr. Robertson waffled. He didn't lie; he misled. Mr. Reid then probed other details that had been glossed over by Mr. Robertson. The evangelist told the reporter that he'd "never had this kind of precision demanded of me before." That's because he'd only dealt with the Lord, who is apparently less demanding than The Post. While the fact that he had indulged in premarital sex was not the main thrust of the story, this is what leaps off of the page and probably the only thing the reader remembers.
It should be made clear that I do not think Pat Robertson ought to be president. And I do not think these stories will in any way reduce his support. To the contrary, they may increase it. If everyone who has engaged in premarital sex, and every child conceived out of wedlock since the 1950s, voted for him next year, he'd probably win by a landslide.
Nobody seems to care that he married the woman and has been a good husband and a fine father. The editors of The Post maintain that the real issue here is credibility. I have no argument with that. Voters want the person they pick for the White House, most of all, to be a person they can believe. But when does a fib become a lie? When does a white lie become horrendous deception?
Perhaps God-fearing parents and Sunday school teachers should abandon the Ten Commandments as a beacon for children to follow. But it would make far greater sense to start urging kids to live their daily lives as though one day they'll run for president and have to face the scrutiny of the Washington press. With that as the guiding light, our children will be far purer as adults than preceding generations. They'd also be pretty dull and sterile human beings. Comes to mind a legendary comment of St. Augustine's, quite a swinger in his day, who once reportedly prayed: "Dear God, give me chastity and continence, but not just yet."
I've been through the mill myself. A couple of years back, I appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee, seeking confirmation as assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. My predecessors had been asked if they'd ever lie; all replied with a firm no. To answer any other way would, of course, have meant rejection. The dreaded question came from Sen. Strom Thurmond. I gave a longish nonanswer and the senator, southern gentleman that he is, thanked me for my candor. But another senator was unimpressed and resumed the questioning. I was being painted into a corner when the chairman rapped the gavel and saved me.
The interrogator approached me afterward and said he still wanted to know whether I'd lie as a Pentagon spokesman. "Well, Senator," I said, ''let me put it this way. My great-grandmother was a Russian Jew, a very religious woman. At the time of the pogroms against the Jews, she told her children: 'If a Cossack puts a loaded gun to your head and asks if you're a Jew, tell him no. It is a lie but, under those conditions, God will forgive you.''' And then I said to Sen. Gary Hart: "My great-grandmother was right. Under those conditions God would forgive a lie, but I'm not so sure about the Washington press.