"He [Reed] got to Dobson who is going to mail Louisiana and get on the radio!"
--email from Jack Abramoff to Michael Scanlon, 2/6/02
As the Jack Abramoff scandal unfolds, it is becoming increasingly clear how extensively he collaborated with the Christian right to advance his casino schemes. Ralph Reed was paid no less than $4 million by Abramoff and his Indian casino clients to serve as a liasion to the Christian right. Reed managed to lasso Focus on the Family President James Dobson into a series of campaigns to stamp out competition to Abramoff's clients. Though Senate subpeonaed emails seem to confirm that Dobson was manipulated by Reed and Abramoff, he and his employees have repeatedly claimed that his activism against rivals to Abramoff's clients was a complete coincidence.
While I wrote about this for the Nation and Media Matters, there has been very little mainstream press interest on Dobson's role in Abramoff's schemes. So far, some of the best -- and most adversarial -- reporting on the Abramoff/Reed/Dobson saga is coming from the Christian media, namely from Marvin Olasky's World Magazine. As the former welfare guru to Gov. George W. Bush, Olasky coined the phrase, "compassionate conservatism." When Bush moved into the White House, he became the intellectual author of the Faith Based Initiative. Olasky's World Magazine is one of the largest evangelical publications in the country.
On February 4, World published a critical expose of Dobson's role in a 2002 Abramoff campaign to stop expansion of competition to his client, the Coushattas. A World reporter grilled Focus on the Family's Tom Minnery about Dobson's involvement. Minnery responded incredulously that Abramoff was "trying to take credit for" what Focus was supposedly already doing in Louisiana. He refused to criticize Reed, even though Reed clearly manipulated Dobson.
Two weeks later, Minnery and Dobson took to the airwaves in an attempt to defuse the conflict. Minnery claimed once again that "as it happens, we, Focus on the Family, we're fighting this new Indian casino in Louisiana at the very same time. Not because Ralph Reed asked us. Not because Jack Abramoff asked us." And he once again refused to criticize Reed. In fact, Minnery defended Reed, calling him "A wounded brother," who "regretted what he did, that he wouldn't do it again, and realizes that it was wrong." Minnery went on to attack Olasky's World:
"They [World] have a reporter who wanted me to dump on ralph reed because of Jack Abramoff. I wouldn't do it. So in the story they wrote, the made it seem like I was covering up for Ralph. they terribly misused the interview I gave them, and in the letter I wrote them, I tried to set the record straight. They refused to print it. So maybe I'm overreacting. But it is tough when your friends criticize you for something that shouldn't be."
Maybe Minnery was overreacting. Or maybe he was covering up for his old buddy Reed. In a follow-up piece for World, Olasky presented several Senate-subpeonaed emails between Abramoff and Reed showing Focus on the Family's involvement in their schemes. Olasky then suggested in as subtle a fashion as possible that Dobson and co. should come forward with the full story: "We hope that Focus on the Family will join us in insisting that Mr. Reed stop dodging and start explaining why his emails to Jack Abramoff stated that he was negotiating with Focus. Our sense is that Dr. Dobson is telling the truth, and our logical conclusion is that someone else was not."
Writing on his blog, Olasky had harsher words for Reed: "If Reed had been transparent, he would have faced disagreement but would not now be facing disgrace. He has shamed the evangelical community by providing evidence for the generally-untrue stereotype that evangelicals are easily-manipulated and that evangelical leaders are using moral issues to line their own pockets."
My sense is that this rift will deepen in the coming weeks as the mainstream press wakes up to its importance. Meanwhile, Focus on the Family will undoubtedly continue its face-saving effort, even if it means misleading both its supporters and the press. Dobson has been doing that for decades. Why should he stop now?