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The panda in winter

Claws out, eyes atwinkle, evangelist Pat Robertson plans to talk on but hold his tongue at times

The panda in winter

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - These should be diamond days for Pat Robertson. He'll be 76 next month. The 45th anniversary of the first Christian Broadcasting Network telecast is coming on Oct. 1. Next week he was supposed to be the main speaker at the closing banquet of the National Religious Broadcasters.

But instead of basking in the renown that could be his as the founder of five major Christian institutions, he is receiving enormous criticism for ad libs made on The 700 Club over the past half-year. The two most talked-about were his suggestions that the United States assassinate Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and that God punished Ariel Sharon with a major stroke because the Israeli prime minister did not hold onto Palestinian areas.

Interviewed earlier this month in his CBN office, which sports oil paintings on the walls, an oriental rug on the floor, and an American eagle on his desk, Mr. Robertson showed the trademark geniality-the crinkling eyes, the tough comments followed by a low chuckle-that has endeared him to millions of viewers, but he also flashed his claws at times.

A fine movie from 1968, The Lion in Winter, starred Peter O'Toole as the aged but still-brave Henry II holding onto his authority and holding off enemies: Pat Robertson, described by one Regent University young lady as "a cute old man," is the panda in winter. He castigated his critics for being on "a vendetta recently that is appalling. They're treating me as if my ad lib editorials on the air are presidential utterances."

He has apologized publicly for his Chavez and Sharon statements, but in our interview he defended the usefulness of them: "Take Hugo Chavez. People thought in America that he was a grape picker from California. They'd never heard of Hugo Chavez. . . . The nation has now been alerted to this man."

The Robertson statement about Mr. Sharon that created a furor last month was this: "Here he is at the point of death. He was dividing God's land, and I say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations, or the United States of America. God says 'this land belongs to Me. You better leave it alone.'"

Southern Baptist Convention leader Richard Land was one of many Christians to criticize that statement. Mr. Land said, "I am both stunned and appalled that Pat Robertson would claim to know the mind of God concerning whether particular tragic events, such as former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in 1995 or Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke, were the judgments of God. Pat Robertson should know better."

When asked about that statement during our interview, Mr. Robertson responded, "I don't know the mind of God on every issue. I know it on some." He referred to "repeated references in the Bible to the land of Israel as being My land . . . and it was given to the Jews. . . . There's an implied warning in there that somebody who divides His land is doing something that violates God's will. . . . All I'm doing as a faithful Bible teacher is teaching the Bible. And if Dr. Land doesn't believe the Bible, I'm sorry. That's his problem."

But with Regent University public-relations executive Baxter Ennis sitting in on the interview and seeming alarmed, Mr. Robertson said he was taking precautions to avoid more eruptions: Before broadcasts "I didn't use to review the news. Now prior to the air we go over the news stories. . . . I now have a former news producer from Good Morning America. I'm going to have an earpiece in my ear . . . he's going to be whispering in my ear . . . he's going to be in the control room, as the news comes up [he'll say], 'why don't you say this, why don't you suggest this, let's discuss this.'"

Mr. Robertson added, "With these people trying to destroy me I can't step into their trap anymore. . . . I have seen an intensity of attack against me that is unparalleled in the 40-some years of the broadcast. . . . I've just got to be careful. . . . I've just got to be more careful."

According to his website, Marion Gordon Robertson, born on March 22, 1930, in Lexington, Va., is from "the Bloodline of Statesmen and Noblemen: Pat Robertson has a family tree that traces its roots to kings of England." His father, Absalom Willis Robertson, served for 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.

He gained the nickname "Pat" after his 6-year-old brother, Willis Robertson Jr., kept patting him on the cheeks when he was a baby while saying, "pat, pat, pat." Mr. Robertson graduated from Washington and Lee University in 1950, from Yale Law School in 1955, and from New York Theological Seminary in 1959. He and his wife Dede have four children.

Mr. Robertson has founded and funded major Christian institutions that are showing staying power. Asked about his most important achievements, he began with CBN, started with "an initial capital of $70," and now broadcasting in 200 countries. Next he noted the American Center for Law and Justice, which he founded "to stand up to the ACLU."

Third is Regent University, which "may be the most lasting legacy." He started saying, "I wanted the university . . ." and then corrected himself, "the Lord wanted a university . . . that would have an impact on the world." He noted that "we've graduated about 10,000 students," including the attorney general of Virginia, a middle-school principal of the year, and a Miss America. He called Regent the "preeminent Christian graduate school in the nation."

Mr. Robertson touted that remarkable record and added several sentences about another success he generated, Operation Blessing, which has helped to feed the hungry around the world. He then mentioned his creation of the Christian Coalition and said of its former director, Ralph Reed, now being criticized for his work with indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, "He's a very capable political operative, and I hope he's successful in his current endeavor."

The Christian Coalition emerged after the failure of Mr. Robertson's bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. He attracted more support than George H.W. Bush in the Iowa caucus but his campaign faltered in the primaries as he was unable to enlist even most Christian voters. His office displays a poster from that era linking Mr. Robertson to John F. Kennedy as candidates criticized for their religious beliefs.

When asked in our interview about the liberal opponents who attacked him that year and have dogged him since, all geniality disappeared. He has obviously been stung by groups such as People for the American Way and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, along with their media allies: "They take everything I've said, parse every word, leave out connectives. . . . I see the game." He said, "I'm attacked because I'm viewed as a threat."

Mr. Robertson responded particularly vigorously to some evangelical portrayals of him not as a threat but an embarrassment with waning influence who makes controversial statements to gain an audience and is surrounded by "yes men": "I have an audience of 18 million people who watch my program. If they don't like it, they tell me in a hurry. . . . I also have a very fine board of directors. . . . I'm in the Hall of Fame of the National Religious Broadcasters. . . . My influence certainly isn't waning around the world."

(In a follow-up e-mail after our interview he added, "The only 'yes man' at CBN and Regent is me. It is my job to say yes to the dreams and aspirations of the outstanding employees who are employed here.")

Mr. Robertson discounted criticism of his claims to be instrumental in changing the course of numerous hurricanes that have threatened Virginia Beach: "We told [a hurricane] to go back where it came from and it did." Although Hurricane Isabel did hit Virginia Beach in 2003, he noted that it "didn't hit us with force." Mr. Robertson also rejected press contentions that his $8 million investment in a Liberian gold mine had led him to oppose U.S. undermining of Liberian dictator Charles Taylor in 2003: "Never met Charles Taylor. . . . It was no secret, a personal investment, and I lost a ton of money on it, too."

Concerning many other controversial statements, Mr. Robertson noted his enormous number of hours on live television and the impact he has had: "They say when a big ship goes through the water it makes waves, and I'm sure I've made waves. I've said stupid things." What do-over would he most like to have? "My biggest regret is that I didn't buy Channel 13 in Seattle when I could have gotten it for $165,000. I had it cleared through the FCC and I turned down the offer. I kick myself for that."

(In his post-interview e-mail Mr. Robertson volunteered another decision he wishes he had not made: the purchase in 1997 of a Los Angeles oil refinery, pipeline, and loading terminal. He wrote, "The experience became a nightmare" because of environmental regulations, which "resulted in my being forced to sell the refinery piecemeal and take a staggering financial write-down.")

At the heart of some of his disputes with other Christians is a theological difference. All evangelicals believe that God answers prayer (although often not as we in our fallenness might choose) and speaks to us through the Bible. Mr. Robertson, like some other charismatics, believes that God speaks to him directly "all the time": For example, "The Lord spoke to me last year. Israel is entering into the most dangerous time in its history as a nation."

Mr. Robertson explains, "It's not conceited. We ask for leading . . . God did speak to me directly concerning this university, and it was real simple. He said, 'I want you to buy the land and build a school for My glory.'. . . This is the heritage of every Christian believer. If some people haven't had that blessing, I'm sorry, but I have. . . . You read Jeremiah. He said, 'The word of the Lord came to me.'. . . You read the Torah, 'the word of the Lord came to Moses,' 'The Lord said to Moses, tell the people.' The Lord spoke to Joshua. The Lord spoke to David."

Asked how he's certain that it's God speaking to him, Mr. Robertson proclaimed, "The apostle Paul said, the peace of God be an umpire in your heart. Well, the peace of God is the way God speaks to us. That peace lifts when we're doing something wrong. . . . Over the years, and I've walked with God for years and years and years and years, you get your senses exercised."

For further study he suggested his new book, Miracles Can Be Yours Today: "It's moving up rapidly on the Amazon list." He has criticized the Israeli government for pulling back from the West Bank: The government sees Palestinians are having many children and Israelis few, so that a West Bank brought into Israel (absent a demographic reversal or a miracle) will lead to a majority-Muslim Israel, but Mr. Robertson argued, "They're assuming that God isn't sovereign. If God's sovereign He can protect the inheritance He gave them."

The CBN chairman insisted that he had decided on his own not to speak at the National Religious Broadcasters convention next week: "They told me that whatever I'd like to do would be fine. I was voted Broadcaster of the Year by the NRB. I was also voted into the Hall of Fame of the NRB." Did some members of the board suggest he not speak? "I'm on the board, for heaven's sake. I'm on the board. I'm going to vote to disinvite myself?"

But WORLD agreed to anonymity for one NRB board member intimately familiar with the situation, and he reported that some board members were appalled by the prospect of a Robertson address. NRB chairman and president Ronald Harris and Frank Wright met with the invitee, discussed the situation, and found him "gracious" in agreeing not to speak.

Overall, the chancellor of Regent University seems hardly ready to leave the stage. He's right not to want to retire, but will he be more retiring in his comments? He noted the 16th president's reluctance to make off-the-cuff speeches and concluded, "If Abraham Lincoln wouldn't give impromptu, maybe Pat Robertson shouldn't be impromptu." At the least, he said, "I will study more and be more reserved."

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books: His latest is Abortion at the Crossroads. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.