“If you’re driving down the road wearing a seat belt and you get in a crash, that seat belt might not save your life, but it is a factor.” Somewhere in that analogy was Arizona Congressman Matt Salmon’s explanation of how posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms might have prevented the Columbine High School shootings. Salmon’s stab at logic was good enough for most of the audience at the Family Research Council’s Washington, D.C., press briefing. The event was billed as the kick-off of a campaign to build support for a bill that would allow the Ten Commandments to be posted in public buildings. The bill passed the House early in the summer, so the event — filled with reporters from sympathetic media outlets — was less an opening kick-off than the beginning of the second half.
Like any good halftime show, there were people in bad costumes and lots of awards to give out. The costume of the hour was the ubiquitous Republican male uniform (navy suit, white shirt, red tie), and the awards were handsomely framed copies of the Ten Commandments, presented to Representatives who pledged to hang them in their offices. There were a few fashion wild cards, including a female member of Congress (in a — gasp! — white suit) and Representative Salmon’s Texas-sized turquoise bolo tie. The tone, however, was a constant: just the right combination of glib and obtuse that marks a conservative Christian gathering on the Hill.
Asked about a recent poll that had 76 percent of Americans in favor of posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms, one congressman opined, “If you covered them with horse manure, the other 24 percent would want to put them up too, if you know what I mean.” (Well, not exactly.)
The Family Research Council’s Janet Parshall had an equally cryptic revelation for one of the few skeptics in the audience. “You [opponents] have to prove your case. We don’t have to prove ours. Ours is ancient.” (So is pre-Copernican astronomy, but that doesn’t mean the Sun revolves around the Earth.) When another reporter asked which version of the Ten Commandments the F.R.C. would prefer to see posted, there was confusion among the faithful. “Really, there’s only one version, and that’s the Hebrew version,” was the first answer, followed by, “Any version is just fine, thank you.” In response to a follow-up question about which version the F.R.C. was presenting to members of Congress and whether different versions would be provided to members of different faiths, an F.R.C. spokesperson said, “You are welcome to come up here and look for yourself to see if you know which version this is.”
For the record, Left Field has determined that it was the New International Version translation of the text in Exodus (as opposed to the version in Deuteronomy). Members of Congress got framed copies; members of the press got Ten Commandments book covers, which the F.R.C. is distributing nationwide (500,000 so far, according to their press release). In keeping with the current trend in conservative Christian evangelism, event organizers tried to be ecumenical. Parshall explained, “Not only do Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe in the Ten Commandments, but every world faith has tacitly acknowledged their power and truth.” F.R.C.’s book cover project gave away the game, though. In addition to the stately Ten Commandments covers (which are all in capitals except for selected words, including “adultery, “covet,” and “graven image”), the Council handed out book covers bearing Matthew 22:37-39, featuring an immense silver J at the beginning of Jesus’ name. The back of the cover includes a brief explanation of Anno Domini.
The press conference was a genteel (and gentile) event — except when F.R.C. bouncers had to quietly escort a representative of People for the American Way to the door, for circulating a press release describing a plan to send copies of the Bill of Rights to representatives who supported the F.R.C.’s Ten Commandments bill.
Discipline and Love
The George W. Bush presidential campaign has pulped a small forest faxing press releases to the news media, many of them trumpeting the candidate’s host of official endorsements. Filled with blather about “the leadership of the great state of so-and-so,” most do not bear reading, let alone reporting. But on October 20 a fax headlined “Arizona Sheriff Endorses Governor Bush” set off Left Field’s finely-tuned bullshit detector.
Datelined Maricopa County, this bulletin announced an enthusiastic Bush endorsement by Joe Arpaio, “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” Arpaio has garnered national publicity for his “tent cities” for Maricopa County jail inmates, where prisoners wear pink underwear and work on chain gangs — including special female chain gangs devoted to digging graves for local indigents. The Bush press release praised Arpaio’s “effective and inexpensive alternative to traditional jails,” and his “get-tough stance [which] stirred the interest of the national and foreign media.” The Governor said he was “honored” to have Arpaio’s support.
The Bush press release was more interesting for what it didn’t mention. Arpaio says he shares Bush’s philosophy of “compassionate conservatism.” But according to voluminous reports in the Arizona press, for the last several years Arpaio’s office has been the subject of several investigations for various forms of brutality and corruption. During his regime, an apparently helpless prisoner was beaten and suffocated to death; another in poor health died of heat stroke when deputies “punished” him by closing off all ventilation to his overheated cell; a third received a permanent neck injury and lost the use of his arm when deputies bound him tightly in a restraint chair and ignored his pleas for help. He was already a paraplegic when they arrested him.
Moreover, rather than saving money for the county, Arpaio’s treatment of prisoners (many county jail inmates, incidentally, are not serving sentences, but merely awaiting trial, often on minor charges) has resulted in more than 800 lawsuits against the county, according to The Phoenix New Times. Those suits — 170 of which are still active — have resulted in enormous legal expenses for the county. One suit cost taxpayers $1 million in attorney fees, plus $8.25 million in settlement costs; in another, a jury awarded a former inmate $1.5 million after it found that the county had negligently handled the inmate’s medical needs.
That’s not all. Over the years, The Phoenix New Times, which sued the sheriff’s office after Arpaio refused to release public county records, has chronicled the lowlights of Arpaio’s distinguished career:
Obsessed with supposed threats against his life, Arpaio recently had his office purchase for him an armored car costing $70,000. He proudly described it as “missile proof, bomb proof, and gun proof.”Arpaio used county funds to pay for a private attorney in a lawsuit against the county, and for videotapes of his own television appearances. The auditor general reported that Arpaio had misused a total of $122,419.Arpaio’s office was the subject of a two year F.B.I. investigation — stemming from complaints of former deputies — concerning mishandling and possible theft of “pink underwear money” (Arpaio’s citizen “Posses” sell pink underwear as souvenirs), bankruptcy fraud, and illegal surveillance of Arpaio’s political enemies — including potential candidates for county sheriff. Not enough evidence was found to prosecute.A separate Department of Justice investigation, however, found that inmates were subject to an unconstitutional mix of excessive force and negligent medical care in Maricopa County. And a federal civil rights investigation is still ongoing, stemming from the death of a prisoner in the county jail.
Still, Governor Bush is glad to have Arpaio on board. “He understands that in order to reduce the rate of juvenile crime, discipline and love must go hand in hand,” Bush said.
THE BUSH BEAT
School for Scandal
One of the goals of the new George Bush School of Government and Public Service, the former President’s namesake think tank at Texas A&M University in College Station, is to be a “major contributor to the continuing legacy of George Bush.” But after almost three years of legacy building, some of the faculty apparently still don’t get it, according to an August 22 report in the Bryan-College Station Eagle.
In October of 1998, Dale Laine, then manager of George W. Bush’s gubernatorial campaign, picked up the Dallas Morning News and read this comment from Professor Jim Aune, a researcher at the Center for Presidential Studies at the Bush School: “He [the Governor] is so much in demeanor like his father. But his father was so utterly inept as a public speaker. The Governor seems to have corrected all that.” That’s not the kind of endorsement the Governor was looking for. Laine picked up the phone and called down to College Station, where he suggested that, in the future, Aune confine himself to opinions based on “research or scientific evidence,” if he wanted to remain affiliated with the Bush School.
This wasn’t the first time faculty had caught flak from the Bush dynasty. In 1996, George Edwards, the director of the Center for Presidential Studies, was caught telling the Corpus Christi Caller-Times that President Clinton had “a decent chance of taking Texas, which shows how badly Bob Dole is doing.” And, by inference, how badly the Bush legacy was doing — Texas being, after all, the former president’s declared home state (though nobody is really certain how the presidential library and think tank ended up in College Station — at least 100 miles from the last purported residence of any Bush). That particular “personal opinion” earned a call from longtime Bush supporter Don Wilson, who was then director of the Bush Foundation, a fundraising arm of the Bush School. In response to such complaints, Bush School director Charles Hermann was moved to propose a new policy: as a “matter of sensitivity and simple courtesy to the people who have made this school possible,” Hermann wrote in an October 23, 1998 e-mail outlining the draft policy, faculty members would be barred from claiming affiliation with the Bush School if they give the media “their personal opinions or undocumented material pertaining to any member of the Bush family or an organization with which they are prominently associated.” Organizations like the Republican Party, presumably. Or the Texas Legislature.
Eventually, Hermann decided to scrap the proposed policy, because, he says, “Any kind of constraint was going to be regarded by faculty, we were quite certain, as an abridgement of academic freedom.” Real authority at the school is exercised by an external advisory board, reportedly hand-picked by the former president. The board is headed by Amarillo banking executive Don Powell, who also happens to be chairman of the Texas A&M Board of Regents. In keeping with longstanding tradition in Texas higher education, Powell was appointed to the A&M board by Governor Bush in exchange for large sums of money: Powell has supported the Governor in both gubernatorial campaigns, and is now a member of the Bush Pioneers — the elite club of $100,000-plus presidential campaign fundraisers. Serving alongside Powell is a gallery of old Reagan and Bush cronies: from Lynne Cheney, wife of former Bush Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, to presidential son Neil Bush (whose dubious contribution to the family’s “continuing legacy” was the billion-dollar bailout of his failed Colorado S&L, Silverado), to the ubiquitous Condoleeza Rice, Hoover Institute fellow and now the Bush campaign’s top foreign policy advisor. According to Hermann, the elder Bush visits every few weeks (he has a nicely appointed apartment and office at the school), perhaps swapping war stories with retired Lieutenant Colonel Marc Cisneros, an advisory board member who helped lead Bush’s legacy into Panama in 1989.
The advisory board flexed its muscle in July when, amid complaints of outside influence from the faculty senate, it railroaded through a reorganization that made the Bush School a freestanding graduate school, effective September 1. This was approved by the regents despite the fact that the fledgling school still has no core faculty, and no more than forty students (compared to 4,000 in a typical A&M college). As a separate college, the school will need a big name dean worthy of the title; in the meantime, Bush brought in Robert Gates, his old director of Central Intelligence, to act as interim dean. Who better than a lifelong spook to keep tabs on the faculty?
— Nate Blakeslee
(Left Field note: a previous version of this story appeared in The Nation, November 8, 1999.)