The Man Who Helped Drive Powell Away From His Party

Inside the longstanding feud between Colin Powell and Christian right leader James Dobson.

10.22.08 7:45 AM ET

After Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama on Meet the Press, Sarah Palin was interviewed by Christian right leader James Dobson on his Focus on the Family radio show. Though Palin did not mention Powell, she attacked Obama as a socialist by referencing his now famous encounter with Joe “the Plumber” Wurzelbacher.

“Joe the Plumber, you gotta hand it to him,” Palin told Dobson. “He's the one who got finally Barack Obama to say what he’d do with redistributing wealth and raising taxes. And Joe the Plumber said that certainly sounds like socialism to him, and I appreciate Joe having the boldness to get out there and ask the question.”

Powell’s endorsement and Palin’s appearance on Dobson’s show are not entirely unconnected. Dobson has long been one of the banes of Powell’s political life and the right’s warm embrace of Palin is part of what drove Powell away from McCain.

When Powell endorsed Obama, he offered a litany of factors, from Obama’s “transformational” potential to “steadiness.” But Powell, a military man and self-described “Rockefeller Republican,” also declared his disappointment with the “rightward shift” in the Republican Party.

There is a little understood, rancorous subplot behind this vague remark: Powell’s war with the religious right. That conflict began years before the current presidential campaign and, if Powell plays a role in an Obama administration, will almost certainly extend beyond it.

Over a decade ago, when General Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emerged as the Republican Party’s most popular figure, James Dobson targeted him, fearing his political ascendancy might spell doom for the party’s anti-abortion wing. Dobson’s tactics ranged from threatening conservative movement leaders who dared to praise Powell’s political potential, to devoting an entire broadcast of his top-rated radio show to attacking Powell’s advocacy of condom use. Dobson and his minions laid the groundwork for Powell’s castigation from the Republican Party. Yet by helping to force Powell into the wilderness, Dobson may have also provoked his momentous act of political vengeance.

While Dobson has not yet commented on Powell’s endorsement, his former Washington lobbyist and ally, Gary Bauer, dismissed it as an irrational act of racial solidarity. “Powell’s endorsement is nonsensical, and it leaves open the question of just how big a factor race was in his decision,” Bauer wrote in his daily email blast to supporters. Bauer, who now leads his own outfit, American Values, spent much of the 1990s building Dobson’s Family Research Council into one of the most formidable Christian right groups inside the Beltway.

Back during the run-up to the 1996 presidential primaries, when some movement conservatives advanced the notion of Powell as the GOP’s most viable presidential nominee, Dobson moved to intimidate and silence the general’s boosters. Among Powell’s fans was the ardently anti-abortion Jack Kemp, who called him “Republican on almost every issue.” Neoconservative former Education Secretary William Bennett repeatedly praised Powell on the pages of the National Review, while Weekly Standard editor William Kristol argued in an editorial for his magazine that Powell was the only figure who could defeat the increasingly popular Bill Clinton. Already annoyed by the swell of movement support for the pro-choice Powell, Dobson was furious when Christian Coalition President Ralph Reed refused to condemn Powell’s possible candidacy during his appearance on This Week with David Brinkley.

Immediately, Dobson faxed a five-page letter to Reed accusing him of unholy motives. “Is power the motivator of the great crusade?” Dobson asked the fresh-faced operator. “If so, it will sour and turn to bile in your mouth…This posture may elevate your influence in Washington, but it is unfaithful to the principles we are duty-bound as Christians to defend.” Bauer copied the letter and blasted it out to other Powell-friendly conservatives, including Bennett, whom Dobson baselessly accused of being “pro-abortion.” Shaken by Dobson’s jeremiad, Reed hastily composed a letter suggesting that attacks from the Christian right would only provoke Powell into running. The situation “required a delicate balancing act,” Reed insisted, according to Dobson’s official biography.

Reed’s advice fell on deaf ears. When another moderate Republican, Senator Bob Dole, won the GOP nomination, Dobson objected. Together with Bauer, Dobson summoned Dole to a private meeting where they harangued the Senate majority leader for three hours with their demands. Unaccustomed to being lectured and threatened, Dole stormed out. As soon as he learned that Dole had given Powell a prominent speaking role at the Republican National Convention a signal that Powell would serve in his administration Dobson transferred his support from Dole to his longtime friend, Howard Phillips, a far-right stalwart running under the banner of the so-called US Taxpayers Party. Dobson’s snub deprived Dole of crucial movement enthusiasm among evangelicals, contributing at least in small part to his defeat.

After Bauer terminated his hapless campaign for the presidency in 2000 a crusade that will be best remembered for an incident where the elfin candidate fell off a stage backward flipping pancakes Bauer inexplicably endorsed John McCain, a sworn enemy of the religious right. Dobson was so infuriated that he broke all contact with his former protégé, according to Dobson’s official biographer, Dale Buss, who says the two men did not restore their working relationship until 2004.

In 2000, Dobson lined up behind George W. Bush, the beginning of a special relationship that afforded Dobson weekly conference calls with Karl Rove’s underlings. Dobson soon leveraged his White House influence against his old enemy, Colin Powell, now elevated to secretary of state. Powell had roused his ire during an appearance at an MTV forum in February 2002, where, before an international audience of young people, he emphasized the importance of condoms in combating the global AIDS epidemic. “Forget about taboos, forget about conservative ideas with respect to what you should tell young people about,” the secretary of state replied when asked about the Vatican’s opposition to condoms. “It's the lives of young people that are put at risk by unsafe sex, and therefore, protect yourself.”

The following day, the Focus on the Family chairman fired off an angry press release. “Colin Powell is the secretary of state, not the secretary of health. He is talking about a subject he doesn't understand,” Dobson said. Then, he spent much of an appearance on Larry King Live railing against Powell, calling his condom advocacy “most uninformed.” Finally, Dobson devoted an entire broadcast of his radio show to berating Powell, while Bauer took to the media to demand that Powell “be taken to the woodshed.” By this time, White House switchboards overflowed with indignant calls from Focus on the Family’s supporters.

The day after Dobson’s broadcast, Bush delivered a speech directly contradicting Powell’s position on condoms. "When our children face a choice between self-restraint and self-destruction, government should not be neutral,” Bush declared, proposing a whopping $135 million budget for abstinence education while pointedly omitting any mention of condoms as an effective measure against sexually transmitted diseases. The Christian right celebrated Bush’s speech both as a victory for their movement and a defeat for Colin Powell.

Next, Focus on the Family demanded the ouster of an allegedly gay employee of USAID, the key foreign aid agency, which operates under the guidance of the secretary of state. “It was over the top, it was outrageous,” said former USAID director Andrew Natsios. Despite his objections, Natsios found himself authorizing a multimillion-dollar grant in 2004 to an abstinence education group founded by two of Dobson’s top staffers, the Children’s AIDS Fund. In approving the funds, Natsios had to overrule a finding by USAID’s technical review panel that the Dobson-linked group was “not suitable for funding.” While USAID turned into a slush fund for Dobson, Powell remained the good soldier, loyal to White House orders.

When the Republican primary began, Dobson initially vowed never to vote for McCain, tarring him during a 2007 radio broadcast as a closet liberal hostile to movement goals. But Bauer, who has become McCain’s top Christian right surrogate, lobbied Dobson to change his position. On his show this June, Dobson gave a little ground, announcing, “While I’m not endorsing John McCain, the possibility is there that I might.” He set only one condition: McCain must not nominate a “pro-abortion” politician as his running mate.

Powell might well have supported McCain’s bid for the presidency had things turned out differently. McCain yearned to select his friend, the turncoat Democrat, Senator Joseph Lieberman, as his running mate. Lieberman, who shared Powell’s positions on domestic policy, would have made the Republican ticket the most moderate since the pre-Goldwater era. But opposition from the Christian right especially from Dobson threatened a fight on the floor of the Republican convention, rendering the Lieberman option impossible. And so McCain chose Sarah Palin.

One day after McCain’s announcement, on September 2, Dobson hosted his top aides, including Bauer, to discuss Palin. “This is electric for us,” Dobson exclaimed, revealing that he had sent the Alaska governor a letter months earlier congratulating her for not aborting “that little Down Syndrome baby.” Tony Perkins, who replaced Bauer as the FRC’s president, remarked that he had just returned from Alaska to assess Palin’s culture war credentials. “This was a tremendous strategic achievement by the McCain campaign,” Perkins said. “He has shown that he listens.”

Dobson was finally ready to complete his 180-degree reversal. “I am moving closer and closer to being able to I’ll say it now,” Dobson declared. “If I went into the polling booth today, I would pull the lever for John McCain.”

Powell cited it as a principal motivation for endorsing Obama. “It's not what the American people are looking for,” Powell said. “And the party has moved even further to the right, and Governor Palin has indicated a further rightward shift.”

On the day of Powell’s cathartic endorsement, Palin gave an interview to one of her most influential allies: James Dobson. During their interview, Dobson assured Palin that he and his closest prayer partners “were rather boldly asking for a miracle with regard to the election this year.” On Election Day, Dobson’s foot soldiers will be on the march for McCain mainly because of Palin. But if their miracle fails to materialize, and Colin Powell advises the new President Obama as he has said he would, then the culture war against Powell will enter a new phase.