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Berkowitz: Tony Perkins' Family Research Council

Tony Perkins' Family Research Council

Battling against same-sex marriage and activist judges, and raising hell over Terri Schiavo, Perkins has come a long way since his David Duke mail list-buying caper in Louisiana
by Bill Berkowitz
July 7, 2005

Tony Perkins, the president of the powerful Washington, DC-based lobbying group, the Family Research Council, is not a man given to uncertainty.

Same sex marriage? It will destroy traditional American marriages, and a constitutional amendment banning it is needed. Comprehensive sexuality education? It encourages promiscuity among America's youth and abstinence-only sex education is needed in our public schools. Covenant marriage? It is one of the only ways to ensure that people will take their marriage vows seriously and reduce the skyrocketing divorce rate in the country. Judicial activists? Those judges who do the wrong thing need to be suitably penalized.

Money to combat AIDS in Africa? At the urging of conservative U.S. churches, several African American bishops have been rejecting aid to African AIDS victims from churches that allow gay clergy. According to a recent posting at John Aravosis' Americablog, Perkins congratulated the bishops: "I applaud the actions of the African Anglican churches. No amount of silver is worth sacrificing your duty to your congregation and to God," Perkins said.

When Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement, Perkins told the Washington Post: "This is the moment that social conservatives have been awaiting for more than a decade -- a real chance to change the philosophical balance of the Supreme Court."

Earlier this year, Perkins spent a great deal of time rallying the troops in support of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who died in late-March after being in a "persistent vegetative state" for more than 15 years.

On June 15, after Schiavo's autopsy was released to the public, Americans United for Separation of Church and State issued a press release lambasting the religious right for their shameful behavior during the Schiavo Affair.

Americans United's executive director, the Rev. Barry Lynn, had special words for the Family Research Council's Perkins:

"During the controversy Perkins repeatedly issued Schiavo commentaries that referred to her husband as 'estranged', despite the fact that Michael Schiavo was caring for her, and [he] mention[ed] the 'questionable circumstances' surrounding her collapse, clearly implying foul play."

"I've worked in Washington a long time, but I've never seen anything as manipulative as what Perkins and the FRC did over Terri Schiavo," Lynn said. "They took a terminally ill woman and turned her into a political tool to gain leverage in Congress." (In fact, Michael Schiavo actually became a nurse after his wife's injury so he could better care for her.)

Shortly after Terri Schiavo's death, Perkins' FRC was the primary sponsor of an event called "Justice Sunday," subtitled "the filibuster against people of faith," held in a Louisville church in late April and "simulcast to churches, television and radio stations nationwide," according to Steven Thomma of Knight Ridder. The rally's organizers claimed the broadcast "reached 61 million households, which if accurate would put it on a par with the first presidential debate last year, which was broadcast on all the major television and cable networks and drew an estimated 61.5 million viewers," Thomma pointed out.

In early June, Perkins was among a coterie of religious conservatives who shared the stage with Texas Governor Rick Perry at a bill-signing ceremony held in a church school gymnasium. Perkins dismissed critics' objections to the location of the event, saying, "People of faith are not backing up, we are not giving up, we are here to stay."

And on Tuesday, June 14, Perkins applauded a New Jersey Appellate Court ruling that the New Jersey Constitution does not include same-sex couples in its definition of marriage. According to an FRC Press Release, Perkins pointed out that the "decision strengthens the legal battle against same-sex marriage but the need for a federal marriage amendment is still very much valid."

Perkins the Man

"To be honest, we don't know that much about Tony Perkins," the Rev. Barry Lynn said in a recent telephone interview. "One thing that seems clear is that he doesn't bring immediate negatives to the table as someone like the Rev. Jerry Falwell does. When people see Falwell, they immediately get a sense that they do not like him. Perkins doesn't appear to evoke that response."

While the FRC's Tony Perkins appears to have little in common with the late actor of the same name who died of pneumonia brought on by AIDS in 1992, there is a shared flair for the spotlight. The actor Tony Perkins, whose first starring role was as the psychologically troubled Boston Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall in "Fear Strikes Out" in 1957, captured the nation's attention by playing Norman Bates, the demented owner of the Bates Motel in Alfred Hitchcock's film "Psycho" three years later.

Similarly, the FRC's Perkins boyish good looks and winsome smile give him a leg up on other, older, Christian Right leaders.

Tony Perkins seems like a modern-day Ralph Reed, the right wing political operative now caught up in the Tom Delay/Jack Abramoff/Indian Gaming scandal. Reed made his reputation as executive director of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition during the organization's heyday in the early 1990s.

The key to Reed's success was his boyish good looks, a disarming manner -- soft-spoken effortlessly deflected the media's thornier questions, and his refusal to use over-the-top, smarmy, or intentionally harmful language when commenting about the opposition, at least in public discourse.

"Perkins is very political, very tough, and a very good tactician," the Rev. Lynn said. "He has surrounded himself with lots of people who are smart and telegenic and he appears to pick his own interview spots very carefully."

One of the most disturbing features not listed on Perkins' resume was his involvement in securing the mailing list of Ku Klux Klansman David Duke for a Louisiana Senate campaign he managed in 1996. Four years ago, reporter Max Blumenthal revealed in an April 26, 2005 article for The Nation,

"Perkins addressed the Louisiana chapter of the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) … the successor to the White Citizens Councils, which battled integration in the South."

Blumenthal wrote that in 1996, while Perkins was running the campaign of longtime conservative Woodie Jenkins, the right-wing Republican candidate for the US Senate in Louisiana, he "paid former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke $82,500 for his mailing list."

Blumenthal explained:

For years, Jenkins had been grooming Perkins as his political successor. "To Jenkins, Perkins was like a son, and the feeling was and is mutual," wrote former Jenkins staffer Christopher Tidmore. In 1996 Perkins cut his teeth as the manager of Jenkins's campaign for US Senate. It was during that campaign that, in an attempt to consolidate the support of Louisiana's conservative base, Perkins paid David Duke $82,000 for his mailing list. After Jenkins was defeated by his Democratic opponent, Mary Landrieu, he contested the election. But during the contest period, Perkins's surreptitious payment to Duke was exposed through an investigation conducted by the FEC, which fined the Jenkins campaign.

Six years later, in 2002, Perkins embarked on a campaign to avenge his mentor's defeat by running for the US Senate himself. But Perkins was dogged with questions about his involvement with David Duke. Perkins issued a flat denial that he had ever had anything to do with Duke, and he denounced him for good measure.

Unfortunately, Perkins's signature was on the document authorizing the purchase of Duke's list. Perkins's dalliance with the racist Council of Conservative Citizens in the run-up to his campaign also illuminates the seamy underside of his political associations. Despite endorsements from James Dobson and a host of prominent religious right, Perkins was not even the leading Republican in the senatorial race.

Dr. James Dobson: The FRC's Founding Father

The Family Research Council was founded in 1983 to serve as Focus on the Family's voice in the nation's capital. In recent years, it has become one of the most powerful and politically well-connected Christian conservative lobbying groups in the nation's capital. According to FRC's website, the organization:

"Champions marriage and family as the foundation of civilization, the seedbed of virtue, and the wellspring of society. FRC shapes public debate and formulate public policy that values human life and upholds the institutions of marriage and the family. Believing that God is the author of life, liberty, and the family, FRC promotes the Judeo-Christian worldview as the basis for a just, free, and stable society".

The idea of the Family Research Council "originated at the 1980 White House Conference on Families . . . [where] James Dobson stood out because of his rare combination of Christian social values and academic and professional credentials." Three years later, the FRC incorporated as a nonprofit educational institution in the District of Columbia; its founding board included Dobson and two noted psychiatrists, Armand Nicholoi, Jr. of Harvard University and George Rekers of the University of South Carolina.

The FRC website claims that, "under the leadership of Jerry Regier, a former Reagan Administration official at the Department of Health and Human Services, FRC began to link policy makers with researchers and professionals from a variety of disciplines. Gary Bauer, a domestic policy advisor to President Reagan, succeeded Regier in 1988 and by the mid-1990s the organization had grown into a $10 million operation with a nationwide network of support."

During his tenure Bauer was a conservative whirling dervish, although "he always appeared to be somewhat overshadowed by Ralph Reed," the Rev. Barry Lynn observed. Unlike other Christian right leaders, "Bauer was pretty much a straight shooter who was willing to call a spade a spade," said the Rev. Lynn.

Bauer ran the organization from 1988 through 1999, when he left to seek the Republican Party's presidential nomination in 2000. Replaced by Ken Connor, Bauer went on to found American Values (website).

Connor's tenure was significantly shorter than Bauer's, and he was replaced by Perkins.

Through his daily online Tony Perkins' Washington Update, Perkins comments about the days significant and buzzworthy issues.

"I have to admit that I have a certain amount of respect for his public relations abilities," the Rev. Lynn added. Perkins apparently "recognizes the power the Family Research Council currently wields in Washington," the Lynn noted. "He understands the importance of the organization's historic and current connection to Focus on the Family, and he makes good use of that connection."


Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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