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Los Angeles Times Interview

Gary Bauer

A Virtue Vulture Circles as the President's Woes Mount

September 13, 1998|Mark Z. Barabak

WASHINGTON — Was there ever a better time to be a values monitor than now, in this age of presidential sexcapades? Will the public finally turn against a president with skeletons crammed in his Oval Office study and turn instead to a self-appointed patrolman for public piety?

Gary L. Bauer may soon test that proposition.

From a flossy brick-and-marble office building on a scruffy block not far from the White House, Bauer runs the Family Research Council, the powerhouse of today's Christian right--and the bane of Republican regulars and Democrats alike. Now, he's edging toward a run for president, all outrage and sanctimony. Last week he launched TV ads in Iowa--the kickoff caucus state--demanding Clinton's resignation. Talk about your morality plays.

Looks can be deceiving. With his diminutive stature (just over 5 feet), slightly pug nose and open face, Bauer is the very portrait of an aging, apple-cheeked altar boy. Politically, though, he's a hellion.

Bauer, 52, operates like a heat-seeking heretic. Winning is Washington's highest calling, compromise an article of faith. But Bauer is a down-the-line 100-percenter. Even Ivory soap, one imagines, wouldn't suffice.

Two years ago, Bauer fought his party's presidential nominee, the staunchly antiabortion Bob Dole, over the nuances of antiabortion language in the GOP platform. He's made common cause with Democrats to battle the White House (and GOP mandarins) on China policy. He single-handedly made "partial-birth" abortion the key issue in a California congressional contest earlier this year--and it backfired, quite possibly costing Republicans a Central Coast seat they desperately coveted.

Allies admire Bauer for his unswerving commitment to principle. Liberals see a zealot who preaches intolerance with a cherubic face. Congressional Republican leaders, who Bauer blithely snubs, are scarcely more enamored.

A former undersecretary of education and domestic-policy advisor in the Reagan administration, Bauer was recruited 10 years ago by evangelist James Dobson (of Christian policy group Focus on the Family) to run the Family Research Council, Dobson's moribund Washington outpost. By his own accounting, Bauer has built the now-independent operation from four employees and a $200,000 budget into today's $14-million, 100-employee enterprise with a base of nearly 500,000 donors. Separately, Bauer created a political action committee, Campaign for Working Families, that has raised millions more to advance his political agenda.

Bauer and his wife of 26 years, Carol, live in Fairfax, Va., with their daughter Sarah, 16, and son, Zachary, 11. A second daughter, Elyse, 20, attends college.

Question: What's wrong with America today and what would you do to fix it?

Answer: There are a number of things wrong. . . . In spite of a period of extraordinary economic growth and a rally on Wall Street . . . there is growing evidence of what I've called a virtue deficit. . . . It just seems to me one of the major issues is what the Founding Fathers meant when they said that only a virtuous people could remain free, and does our current leadership--and, for that matter, does the average American--understand the importance of those words?

Q: If you believe morality is important to the American people, how do you square President Clinton's still very respectable standing in the polls with the fact that he has admitted to having an affair with Monica Lewinsky and lying to cover it up?

A: Unfortunately, I think a lot of the public believes that everybody in Washington is guilty of this sort of thing to one degree or another. They're wrong about that, but that suspicion is out there. . . .

Until recently, I think a lot of the American people also said, "Look, this is an embarrassment and I wouldn't want Mark Z. Barabak is a political writer for The Times.

my children to act this way. But we're at peace and the economy is fine." But I think polls now are slowly beginning to reflect a different attitude. There are some signs [Clinton's] approval rating is dropping and, just in my own travels around the country, I don't find many defenders now that we know some of the details.

Q: While people may be disgusted with the president's personal behavior, they also have little patience with Kenneth Starr, whose standing in the polls is worse than Clinton's. Many people don't like someone snooping through dirty laundry and don't like a holier-than-thou attitude. So who's Gary Bauer to say what's right or wrong?

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