Under gothic arches in a Yale Law School classroom, Pat Robertson was listening to Dean Harry Shulman, "a brilliant lawyer," suggest why a case had been decided one way: "the judge who wrote the case might have been bribed." Robertson cites that as an example of why he was "disillusioned" in law school. "I had hoped to find a noble cause," he says, "there was an emptiness in my life." But he found instead "brilliant minds who would show how to tear cases apart intellectually."
Robertson, the son of a Virginia senator, had come to Yale in the heyday of the Legal Realists, skeptics who believed with Justice Holmes that the law is not a great omnipresence in the sky, but can be explained by politics, economic interests, and "what the judge had for breakfast." Robertson was looking for a "noble cause," for absolutes. Starting at Yale Law, he moved off one career path and onto another. Oddly, the road he took as a television minister and head of the Christian Broadcasting Network has led him to a place toward which his earlier path seemed more likely to head -- to his emergence as a potential presidential candidate.
His father was A. Willis Robertson, U.S. Senator for 20 years and congressman for 14 before that, member of House Ways and Means and chairman of Senate Banking. He was 42 years older than his son, who remembers him as "very cordial, gracious, handsome, athletic." He was a fisherman and hunter, a state legislator from the Shenandoah Valley college town of Lexington (Washington & Lee, VMI) who was a deskmate of Harry Byrd. He went to Congress "in 1932, when the Democrats were having their convention, and Byrd said, 'Robertson is the one.'" Pat, the younger son, was 2.
*Until World War II, the family lived the first six months of each year in the Washington area (places such as Alexandria, Foxhall Village and Wesley Heights) and the second six months in Lexington. At the beginning of the war, his mother decided life in Washington would be too hectic and decided to stay home; "a gracious and sparkling hostess" in Washington, she "had a profound religious experience and then was concerned with more permanent values."
Robertson went to many schools, and did well; he "read voraciously" ("space adventure" books as well as classics). He went to military school in Chattanooga, was on the honor roll for four years at W&L and was one of the leaders for Arthur Vandenberg at W&L's 1948 mock convention. He wrestled and played soccer, and, at his father's insistence, did farmwork summers from 5:30 to 9:00 at night. "I was looking to be a lawyer" all this time, but first came a year at the University of London ("if I was Phi Beta Kappa, my father said I could go to England") and two years in the Marines. He served in Korea in a headquarters battalion; "I wasn't in the front lines, but we were engaging the enemy."
Back home, he worked in the summer for the Senate Appropriations Committee, hobnobbing with young Sen. John Kennedy and "a dizzy-looking brunette who snapped pictures for the Times-Herald." Yale Law must have seemed another way station on the road to legal and maybe political success.
But "I had a yearning for something more noble, something a person could give his life to." Robertson finished law school, but perfunctorily; he flunked the New York Bar, as anyone who does not study for it will do, went to work for W.R. Grace & Co. in New York, then started an electronics components business. He and his wife, expecting their second child, lived in a carriage house in Staten Island, where, more liberal on race and other issues than his father, he was county chairman for Adlai Stevenson. He recalls with relish the Modigliani print over the couch, his "filthy vocabulary," "the upholstered sewers called night clubs." Then after dinner with a minister named Cornelius Vanderbreggen, he accepted Jesus Christ as his savior and threw the Modigliani in the trash and poured the liquor down the drain. He had found the goal and the absolutes he had been looking for.
Roberts enrolled in New York Theological Seminary on East 49th Street, and moved his young and growing family to a $56-a-month apartment in Bayside, Queens. While the people he'd known in Washington and at Yale were moving ahead in Camelot, he was learning to kneel on the floor with others and weep, to speak in tongues, to pray for cures. At the prompting of a passage in the Bible, and to the despair of his wife, he sold all their goods and moved the family into a parsonage in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Then from his mother came news that a bankrupt UHF station was for sale in Portsmouth, Va. He bought it for $37,000 -- just $70 of his own cash. That was in 1960. The station became the nucleus of Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network and CBN University, all in giant new-Georgian buildings on a square-mile campus in Virginia Beach.
His 700 Club (named because 700 people pledged $15 per month), according to a Nielsen survey, has a weekly audience of 28 million people. CBN has revenues over $100 million yearly, and CBN's Operation Blessing, Robertson says, has helped 8 1/2 million Inner City residents. "God sent me," he says, "that's how come it got done." He adds, "I'm, pragmatic. I believe in efficiency when I do something."
Including, apparently, politics. "Politics is a matter of simple organization, a lot of hard work." He decries how "nonelected politicians" in the judiciary and Federal Reserve have "insulated themselves from the democratic process." In contrast, "I respect the people out there." He sees "a certain sense of rage, building up in the country." It is a feeling that occasionally breaks through the soft, friendly, Virginia-accented words of this successful man who has come a long way on a tortuous path to the brink of political success.