BROOKLYN, OCT. 1 -- A narrow, tree-lined street of tall brownstone homes in the black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant turned into an uproarious political battleground today as Republican Marion G. (Pat) Robertson formally declared his presidential candidacy against a raucous backdrop of chanting protesters.
The normally suave religious broadcaster seemed shaken when he stepped up to the platform and was met by a chorus of rage from protesters calling out for causes ranging from gay rights to black pride. Robertson shelved his prepared text, shouted a brief speech into the noise, and then departed after an unsuccessful effort to make peace with one black activist.
With a group of Bedford-Stuyvesant residents chanting "Bigot! Bigot!" barely an arm's reach away, the longtime evangelist emphasized the core issue driving his race for the White House: the need to "restore fundamental moral values."
"Is it possible," he said, "to restore the industrial might of America through moral strength? Yes it is."
Robertson called himself "a candidate who's willing to take risks." It was not clear, though, how much political profit he would earn from his risky decision to launch his conservative crusade in the heart of black Brooklyn. Today's angry, disorderly street scene may convey the image of a gutsy candidate. But it may also strengthen the fears of some Republicans that Robertson and his largely religious following will be a polarizing force.
Robertson stayed at a friend's house on Monroe Street here for about 12 weeks in 1959. He came back to his old brownstone -- now painted a grayish purple -- for his formal declaration of candidacy, hoping to show that a white Republican could be welcomed in the inner city.
Robertson's campaign staff, partly veteran Republican workers and partly evangelical Christians new to politics, had set up a perfect TV setting for his speech. Local residents came out on the front stoops with babies on their laps or sat on high window ledges to watch the commotion as their tranquil street became jammed with cameras, cable, campaigners, and cops. An elementary school chorus of black children dressed in tartan jumpers and bright green sweaters launched into the National Anthem. But a group of gay-rights protesters swarmed up to the police barricades, chanting "Go Home Pat!" and waving posters comparing the evangelist to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian leader.
Some of the neighborhood residents on the front stoops started chanting against Robertson as well. The Robertson supporters present -- some black, most white -- chanted right back: "We want Pat!" Hearing this, a Monroe Street resident started shouting "Then take him out of our neighborhood!" With all the competitive yelling, the children's chorus singing, and a jazz band blaring away, the street was total din even before Robertson and his wife emerged from the old house for the formal announcement.
Sonny Carson, a neighbor from two streets over who joined the anti-Robertson chanters, said after the announcement that Bedford-Stuyvesant residents "just don't like to see these guys use our people as a backdrop, you know, or a prop, for their own ambition." In campaign speeches around the country, Robertson frequently mentions that he lived in the "slum" of Bedford-Stuyvesant and came to know the black and Hispanic residents. Today he said, "We came here because we care about people."
In his autobiography, "Shout It From the Housetops," Robertson relates that he moved here from a New York apartment after he heard a voice from God telling him to open his Bible to Luke 12:33. Robertson sensed that the verse -- "Sell all that ye have and give alms" -- was intended for him. The young seminarian sold all his furniture -- his wife, Robertson wrote later, was "almost hysterical" -- and left the apartment. With their three children, the Robertsons moved in with a fellow minister who lived here on Monroe Street.
About two months later, Robertson relates, he again heard a divine call, this time to read Jeremiah
16:2: " . . . neither shalt thou have sons or daughters in this place." He took that to mean he should leave Bedford-Stuyvesant. He then went to Tidewater Virginia and started the evangelical television station that he has since built into a worldwide network of charitable, educational and broadcast organizations.
Robertson mentioned none of this history today. Except for a call for spoken prayer in public schools, his announcement today had no reference to religion or the deity. This reflects his concern that mainstream voters will spurn him if they fear he would rely on conversations with God to run the country.
Among the Republican candidates, Robertson remains far down in the polls and suffers from the highest negative reactions. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll, he was the choice of 6 percent, compared with 46 percent for the front-runner, Vice President Bush. About 47 percent of Republicans said Robertson is not qualified to be president. But he has shown strong organizing ability in a number of states, including Michigan, Iowa and some in the South.
Today's announcement differed sharply from Robertson's speech a year ago in which he first said he would look at a race for president. Then he indicated that he felt his campaign was part of "God's plan for me."
The tone of that 1986 speech did come through yesterday morning when Robertson got a prayerful sendoff from followers of his television ministry at the "700 Club" program.
"Lord, send the revival, send the power into my life," he said. "I receive, Lord, your wisdom, for I need wisdom." Robertson's son, Tim, offered a prayer on his behalf: "Lord God, let nothing get in the way of your perfect plan for our brother Pat."
Amid this afternoon's noisy confrontation, the substance of Robertson's lengthy prepared text was largely lost. In it, he talked about the decline of moral values, the breakdown of the family, and the "failure" of public education (as a solution, he would eliminate the federal Department of Education).
He called for eliminating the deficit without raising taxes, but gave no specifics on how this would be done.
Robertson, 57, grew up in Virginia politics, the son of a Democratic U.S. senator, the late A. Willis Robertson. He graduated with honors from Washington & Lee University and took a law degree at Yale University. He served in South Korea as a Marine adjutant, or administrative officer.
In 1956, Robertson was "born again." He became a charismatic evangelical minister, saying he based his life on detailed directions from God. Following God's guidance, he built his Christian Broadcasting Network into a major force in television religion.
Several times over the past 30 years, Robertson reported that God had told him it was wrong for a minister to take part in politics. About 1977, however, he began to hear different guidance.