Via Radar, we caught up with what looks to have been an outstanding installment of "Anderson Cooper 360" last night reviewing the life and controversy of Jerry Falwell cogently and completely (see transcript) — and inviting two noted experts on to discuss Falwell and his legacy: Franklin Graham, son of Billy and head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and noted God-hater Christopher Hitchens. It is, of course, with the latter that we are concerned.
We will say this: No matter how frustrating, sexist and occasionally incoherent the guy can be, when he is on he's on. This appearance was a tour de force. A sample:
COOPER: Christopher, I'm not sure if you believe in heaven, but, if you do, do you think Jerry Falwell is in it?
HITCHENS: No. And I think it's a pity there isn't a hell for him to go to.
COOPER: What is it about him that brings up such vitriol?
HITCHENS: The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing, that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called reverend. Who would, even at your network, have invited on such a little toad to tell us that the attacks of September the 11th were the result of our sinfulness and were God's punishment if they hadn't got some kind of clerical qualification?
People like that should be out in the street, shouting and hollering with a cardboard sign and selling pencils from a cup. The whole consideration of this -- of this horrible little person is offensive to very, very many of us who have some regard for truth and for morality, and who think that ethics do not require that lies be told to children by evil old men, that we're -- we're not told that people who believe like Falwell will be snatched up into heaven, where I'm glad to see he skipped the rapture, just found on the floor of his office, while the rest of us go to hell.
How dare they talk to children like this? How dare they raise money from credulous people on their huckster-like Elmer Gantry radio stations, and fly around in private jets, as he did, giggling and sniggering all the time at what he was getting away with?
Do you get an idea now of what I mean to say?
COOPER: Yes, no, I think — I think you're making yourself very clear.
"Even at your network" — oy, Hitch, you certainly keep it interesting. In this case, though, Hitch went beyond the standard Falwell fare and zeroed in on his influence on Israel and his thinly-not-really-veiled anti-Semitism (i.e. his statement that the anti-Christ was probably a Jew), which is an angle that has been less examined than, say, the fact that Falwell was a big booster to Reagan (which should set off alarm bells for anyone who watched the Ronald Reagan Drinking Game Otherwise Known As The Republican Debate two weeks ago) (indeed, the ADL's Abe Foxman mourned Falwell's passing in a statement and called him "a dear friend of Israel"). Hitch's version: Falwell was guilty of "fawning on the worst elements in Israel, with his other hand pumping anti-Semitic innuendoes into American politics...encouraging the most extreme theocratic fanatics and maniacs on the West Bank and in Gaza not to give an inch of what he thought of was holy land to the people who already live there, undercutting and ruining every democratic and secularist in the Jewish state in the name of God." So I guess Foxman and Hitchens will agree to disagree.
It did make for great television, though (and Cooper gets some props for letting Hitch be Hitch while still keeping his composure and steering the interview in a responsive and natural manner). The whole interview is worth a watch (and the transcript is worth a read, too), if only for Graham's follow-up interview, where he talks about what a fun-loving prankster Falwell was to his friends and students: "Jerry was a person who loved to play jokes on you...he loved to play jokes on the students." (We are sure Hitch would agree archly with that.) He also said that Falwell loved sinners, including homosexuals: "[H]e wanted to warn the gay people that God is going to judge sin one day, but God is willing to forgive if we're willing to repent of our sins and receive Jesus Christ into our hearts by faith." Which clears up an awful lot.
A note on Fox's coverage: ETP received an email yesterday lauding their Falwell retrospecitve "news - real news, not crap" and "solid reporting," saying that the Moral Majority was not, in fact, a majority. ETP did not watch but we can say that our source is not one to go easy on Fox. So, noted.
p.s. Back to Cooper/Hitch one last time, because we love this understatement from Cooper later on in the show: "Christopher Hitchens...obviously, he's an atheist."