Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Farewell to Falwell

Smarmy preacher plays the State Capitol (and Cupid!)

In 1980 I was working as a legislative staffer under the golden dome of California's State Capitol building. The structure itself was undergoing the finishing touches of a long restoration project, but the stately west fa├žade was clear of scaffolding and available as a backdrop for demonstrations and political rallies. It was here that Jerry Falwell brought his traveling roadshow, an odd amalgam of revival meeting and electioneering dog-and-pony show.

It was an irresistible opportunity. Falwell's audience comprised mostly true believers in his Reagan-is-the-messiah whistle-stop tour, but the Sacramento rally probably had more than the customary share of scoffers and skeptics. I was one of many state employees who took some time that day to see the devil himself. With me was a legislative aide from another office (let's call her “Sherri”); she and I grinned nervously at each other and kept glancing suspiciously at our exceedingly earnest neighbors as the event began.

“Oleo” is a nickname for fake butter. “Oleaginous” is an adjective signifying greasy smoothness. Falwell was at his greasiest and smoothest and most artificial as he welcomed all the attendees to his Moral Majority campaign stop. His remarks were punctuated by occasional shouts of “Amen!” or “Praise God!” from the audience. Sherri and I both refrained from calling out, but I noticed that the occasional loud cries were multiplied many times over by the fervently muttered echoes of those who preferred to agree more quietly. It was a most Falwellian crowd.

The rally included some upbeat musical numbers, all performed by preternaturally preppy Barbie and Ken clones in matching ensembles of red, white, and blue. The performers' big, big smiles displayed blindingly white teeth to dazzle the audience. The singers were spared from blinding whiteness themselves by a judicious scattering of singers of color.

Falwell's most popular line of the day was his comment on religion in politics. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, of course, and Falwell had made common cause with a man of indifferent devotion (but excellent lip service) in a quest to turn the country to the hard right. Falwell smiled benignly at us while he said, “Some people say that religion and politics don't mix. They say that I'm on a campaign to impose born-again Christian values on the White House. The truth is ... I want to get a born-again Christian out of the White House.” The crowd laughed and applauded.

I don't recall that there were any hecklers at the Sacramento rally, apart from a few people waving signs along Tenth Street, well back from the State Capitol. As for Sherri and me, along with the other liberals mixed in among the Falwellian horde, we were astonished at the ease with which the oleaginous preacher man worked the assembled multitudes. He pulled all of our strings simultaneously, carrying the unwilling along with the perfervid true believers. It was a lesson in crowd manipulation.

When Falwell called for the Pledge of Allegiance, we were all reciting it in unison. That wasn't all. He prompted us to join hands to say the pledge, so that the entire crowd was linked together. Reluctant hands were snatched up by eager neighbors and the rally instantly became a huge prayer meeting with raised hands. When the zealots began to wave their hands back and forth, everyone ineluctably followed along. Sherri and I clung to each in self-defense, but we were captured on either side, tempest-tossed by the oscillating humanity. We exchanged sickly smiles and gritted our teeth, literally holding on.

When the ordeal was over and we decamped from the west lawn of the State Capitol, Sherri and I talked about what we had witnessed—and perforce participated in. Other legislative colleagues converged on us as we made it back toward our offices. All of us were shaken, although some of the Republican aides who worked for the so-called “Proposition 13 babies” elected in 1978 were giddy with anticipation. The election in November would give them even more occasion for delight, as Reagan romped to a landslide victory and GOP extremism took on a quality of overt and cloying religiosity. They could even out-hallelujah a genuinely devout Christian like Jimmy Carter with their noisy breast-beating. That legacy continues to pollute our body politic to the present day, as exemplified by the professed Christian currently in the White House. (Not that you could tell from his policies, though.)

Yes, great and significant events were unfolding in 1980. And so was one minor one. It turned out that Sherri and I had had a deeply personal bonding experience during the lengthy hand-holding amidst our enemies. Actually, to be more precise, she had had a deeply personal bonding experience. (Well, it was a couple of decades ago, back when I was younger and cuter—note the careful use of relative rather than absolute measure.) To my mind, however, our warm but casual friendship continued unchanged, and my obtuseness remained unpunished for several weeks. Then Sherri got an important promotion, I offered her a congratulatory dinner at an especially nice restaurant in Old Sacramento, and we both found out over dessert that our relationship was dramatically asymmetrical.

I don't think she's forgiven me yet.

Damn you, Jerry Falwell!

No comments: