When Bob Billings, the Moral Majority's first executive director, joined the Department of Education, he coveted the job as head of the private school office.
But he backed off in the face of heavy opposition and, instead, took a slot running the department's 10 regional offices. He still considers himself a contact point for the religious right, though, and his recent travel schedule bears this out.
In recent weeks, he has attended a convention of the conservative Council for National Policy in Dallas and a meeting of the Delaware Association of Christian Schools teachers, and has spoken at a church school, Heritage University, in Ohio.
He also tried unsuccessfully to arrange a flight to London at government expense to attend a meeting of the conservative Council for National Policy, whose education committee he chairs.
"Is there any way that I could make this an official visit for the Department of Education?" he asked Secretary Terrel H. Bell in a March 1 memo. "Recently I read a memo from the president who suggested that such trips were in the best interests of our government."
The trip was vetoed after a reporter asked about it. Billings said in an interview the other day that he couldn't find the presidential memo he was referring to. The London jaunt, he added, "was a bad move. I didn't know any better. . . .Being new I thought it was something legitimate. I found out in a hurry that it wasn't legitimate."
But the other trips were official business, he said. At the Dallas convention, he was courting members of the New Right to support the administration's plan for turning the department into a sub-cabinet foundation, he said. The Delaware and Ohio trips were authorized because he spoke on educational issues, he added. He said he travels only about three days a month, although he has visited each of his 10 regional offices at least twice.
Billings ("a youthful 55," he says with a smile) is a graduate of Bob Jones University and a Baptist preacher who still heads for the pulpit on many weekends. He led the Christian right's fight against Internal Revenue Service regulation of private schools, and helped start the Moral Majority before getting his first taste of government life after Reagan's election.
Private school groups opposed his first choice of jobs. Robert L. Smith, executive director of the Council for American Private Education, said, "We fought tooth and nail to keep him out of that position." The council's member groups were concerned about what Smith delicately called "the ambivalent image" on discrimination that Billings' background displayed.
Because of his ties to Bob Jones University, the Greenville, S.C., school that is challenging the IRS's denial of its tax-exemption before the Supreme Court, Billings was reluctant to comment on the administration's tortured handling of the issue. "It's one of those things you have to live with," he said of the administration's on-again, off-again support for his alma mater.
The IRS lifted the school's exemption several years ago because of its policy barring interracial dating and marriage. The administration has taken the position that the IRS doesn't have the authority to deny such exemptions because the law doesn't mention race.
After a public outcry, Reagan officials backtracked and offered legislation to ban such tax exemptions retroactively. That infuriated the religious right, including Billings' son Bill, who heads the National Christian Action Coalition.
"I don't think any of us are supporters of segregated academies," the elder Billings said. "I feel the issue is really a religious issue, not a race issue . . . . That's why we're so glad the Supreme Court is going to look at it."
Besides the regional offices, Billings said he's now in charge of the department's Administrative Processing Unit, which looks at political appointments. He also signs some memos as "director, White House political liaison."
He explained that since December, he's also been in charge of the department's 99 "Schedule C" political appointees. On St. Patrick's Day, for instance, he invited them to a midday hour of entertainment and refreshments including Irish songs by John Longbottom and a talk by ABC-TV correspondent Susan King on "how to get along with the media."
In between trips, Billings said he's seen enough of the civil service to find "my opinion of bureacrats has taken almost a 180-degree turn." When he was on the outside, his view was "always negative," he said. He thought government workers were "lazy, after people's money, trying to control everyone, having their own agenda, not caring." Now, Billings said, he thinks most are "dedicated public servants."
Billings said he can't be as "out front" on the issues as he was in private life, but that he hasn't compromised his principles. "Maybe my tactics have changed. My principles certainly have not. I have a better platform on which to speak on the issues with my position in the department."
Bill Billings said his father still can help the religious right by taking its case to members of Congress. "He has a platform that's not open to us. What he can't do is give them the business, put the pressure on, or give them the ax."
Paul Weyrich, head of the conservative Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, said Billings remains on his Free Congress Foundation board, but he declined to assess his effectiveness on the inside. Connie Marshner, another New Right activist, said she wondered whether the administration gave Billings a meaningless position.
When asked about politics, Billings said he feels the president will keep his promises on the social issues highlighted during the campaign. "I try very hard to defend the administration," he said. "I explain why things are not moving as fast as some of them conservatives think we ought to go."
"I like to think I'm some kind of liaison between the administration and the 'Right,' especially the evangelical/fundamentalist community," he said. "I know them well. That's my crowd. I'm one of them. I speak their language.
"I'm very happy here," he said of his post. "I like this more than any job I ever had."