James Dobson launched his evangelical empire, Focus on the Family, and became the most influencial Christian in America. He's lectured millions of parents on how to spank their children and advised President George W. Bush on how to spank the Supreme Court. How did the once lonely son of a preacher man rise to such heights? It's no miracle.
Dobson was invited to join a secretive organization called the Council for National Policy, a coalition of powerful Republicans who want to cut taxes, shrink the government, and make the United States into a more God-fearing nation. Founded in 1981, the still-active CNP membership included some of the biggest names on the Religious Right, ardent gun-rights supporters, billionaires, Beltway strategists, politicians, fund-raising gurus, and a sprinkling of ex-John Birchers. In the invitation-only club, members are instructed to not talk about the meetings nor reveal the names of their colleagues. Recent speakers have included Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and W. himself, according to the watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “From the beginning,” the group writes, “ the CNP sought to merge two strains of far-right thought: the theocratic Religious Right with the low-tax, anti-government wing of the GOP. The theory was that the Religious Right would provide the grassroots activism and the muscle. The other faction would put up the money.”
For the next 14 years, Dobson attended the meetings of the Council for National Policy religiously and hobnobbed with some of the powerful Republican operatives that Hillary Clinton would one day claim were part of the “vast, right-wing conspiracy” who were trying to bring down her husband. He became a regular fixture on blue-ribbon panels dealing with family issues. He cemented friendships with powerful conservatives such as Edwin Meese, U.S. attorney general under President Reagan and a member of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. In the mid-’80s, Meese asked Dobson to serve on a blue-ribbon commission on pornography. For the next 14 months, the preacher’s boy from the heartland immersed himself in the world of hard-core porn.
Times Square was Beelzebub’s turf in the mid-’80s. Buildings bathed in the red glow of XXX signs, blocks of “adult bookstores,” and businesses offering sex aids and cellophane-wrapped magazines. Deciding they needed to sample their subject matter firsthand, members of the Meese Commission descended into the belly of the beast. Commission member James Dobson, middle-aged and beefy, ducked into one of the adult bookstores, which in other cities might offer visitors a private cubicle and 90 seconds of pornographic video. But in Times Square the fare was more, well, sumptuous: Customers pushed coins into a slot and a screen rolled up revealing an orgy. “Everything that is possible for heterosexuals, homosexuals, or lesbians to do was demonstrated a few feet from the viewers,” Dobson later wrote. “The booths from which these videos or live performers are viewed become filthy beyond description as the day progresses. Police investigators testified before our Commission that the stench is unbearable and that the floor becomes sticky with semen, urine, and saliva. Holes in the walls between the booths are often provided to permit male homosexuals to service one another.”
It would be an understatement to say such spectacles were a mind-warping experience for Dobson, who had been switched, paddled, and pummeled for sassing back and forbidden from saying “geez”—a man whose courtship with his wife included passing notes in soda bottles. He was also exposed to other disturbing images: photographs of children molested and killed by pedophiles, videos depicting women being raped, slashed, and dismembered. Describing what he saw, Dobson wrote: “The offerings today feature beribboned 18- to 20-year-old women whose genitalia have been shaved to make them look like little girls, and men giving enemas or whippings to one another, and metal bars to hold a woman’s legs apart, and 3-foot rubber penises and photographs of women sipping ejaculate from champagne glasses. In one shop, which our staff visited on Times Square, there were 46 films for sale, which depicted women having intercourse or performing oral sex with different animals…pigs, dogs, donkeys, and horses. This is the world of pornography today, and I believe the public would rise up in wrath to condemn it if they knew of its prominence.”
The panel completed its work and issued its findings in July 1986, with Dobson penning an impassioned commentary that argued for more law enforcement to stop the flow of obscene and violent material. Few people managed to plow through the 2,000-page Meese report, but one man who read it from cover to cover was serial killer Ted Bundy, who was awaiting execution on Florida’s death row. Bundy contacted Dobson in December 1986 and told him there might come a time when he would want to make a statement about his past.
On Jan. 23, 1989, only hours before Bundy was strapped into “Old Sparky,” the time came. Dobson and a camera crew were ushered into a prison cafeteria where the serial killer waited, dressed in a peach-colored T-shirt and looking rather natty, considering. Bundy was lean and handsome, with blue eyes and dark, curly hair just beginning to gray at the temples. Though Dobson was only 10 years older, he seemed like a member of a different generation. His glasses appeared as heavy as manhole covers, and his gray hair was arranged in an intricate comb-over, which appeared to be so firmly anchored that it could have sustained hurricane winds. As soon as the cameras started rolling, Dobson went straight to the heart of the matter: “Ted, how did it happen? Take me back. What are the antecedents of the behavior that we’ve seen? So much grief, so much sorrow, so much pain for so many people. Where did it start? How did this moment come about?”