George W. Bush Letter to Cardinal O’Connor May Have Gone Unread

Nobody ever said $70 million will buy luck, judgment or organization.

In attempting to cleanse himself of the taint of Bob Jones University’s anti-Catholic teachings, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas decided to confess his transgressions by dispatching a letter to John Cardinal O’Connor, spiritual leader of the New York Archdiocese’s 2.3 million Catholics. But this seemingly politic move, on the eve of a New York primary in which Catholics make up a key voting bloc, only seemed to confirm suspicions that the campaign is tone-deaf, disorganized and out of touch with local conditions. There apparently has been no follow-up, no attempt to coordinate with Catholic groups across the state. Bush campaign officials did not consult their allies in New York, chief among them Gov. George Pataki-a Catholic-before they sent the letter via overnight express to the Cardinal’s residence on Madison Avenue, according to Bush campaign spokesman Mindy Tucker.

Furthermore, Ms. Tucker told The Observer , campaign officials were not aware that the Cardinal was too ill to say his weekly public mass on Feb. 27, the day they released the letter’s contents. And the Cardinal’s worsening health precluded any reply or message of support; in fact, a spokesman for the Archdiocese said he wasn’t sure if the Cardinal had seen the letter. The Cardinal, who has undergone treatment for a brain tumor, is having trouble reading.

As Republican challenger John McCain continues to capitalize on Mr. Bush’s visit to Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian institution whose leaders have compared the Catholic Church to Satanic cults, New York’s leading Catholic, pro-Bush Republicans have vouched for Mr. Bush’s ecumenical bona fides. But Republican insiders say Mr. Pataki was “ripping mad” about the incident, and State Republican Party chairman William Powers was, according to an associate, calling around in an effort to “stop the hemorrhaging.”

But as of Feb. 29, there has been no mega-press conference featuring prominent Catholic New York Republicans who support Mr. Bush. Likewise, there apparently has been little outreach to prominent Catholic clergy elsewhere in New York. Campaign insiders say the letter to Cardinal O’Connor was not the first step in a larger strategy; it was, in fact, the strategy itself. Mr. Bush, whose father is close to Cardinal O’Connor, wrote that he should have been “more clear in disassociating myself from anti-Catholic sentiments…” But he could not resist adding a jab at his rival, Mr. McCain, in the letter’s closing paragraph.

The letter “probably was, under the circumstances, the best alternative,” said Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, co-chair of Mr. McCain’s campaign in New York. “But there really was no good alternative, 24 days after the event [at Bob Jones].”

One Republican insider complained of the Bush campaign’s disorganization in New York, saying there should have been a plan in place to counteract Mr. McCain’s exploitation of the Bob Jones issue. The Bush organization, he said, “should have been more coordinated with everybody.” Instead, New York’s Bush supporters got caught sleeping as the Bob Jones issue grew from a local controversy to a national story.

Catholics make up nearly half of the 3.1 million registered Republicans in New York State, and they dominate key leadership positions in statewide and local offices. They now find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being courted as a bloc by two Presidential contenders, one of whom-the embattled Mr. Bush-has little choice but to assume that the Bob Jones issue is resonating beyond the political talk-show circle.

The question is whether that assumption is valid. Some clergymen doubt that, for all the sound and fury, New York Catholics will vote for or against Mr. Bush based on his Bob Jones speech-which contained no criticisms of the university’s anti-Catholicism-or subsequent apology. “I think Catholics would have preferred that [Mr. Bush] stayed away from a place like that, but I don’t think that’s going to determine how Catholics vote in New York,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America . “I think there are other issues that they are more concerned about-economic issues, political issues. I don’t think Catholics feel that they’re being hounded. Now that [Mr. Bush] has apologized, it’s a non-issue.”

Joseph Scelsa, dean of the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College, likewise asserted that while Catholics may regret Mr. Bush’s trip to Bob Jones, “I don’t think it’s going to play a significant role in making their decision.”

The Power of Memory

Such sentiments, however, are unlikely to sway Representative Peter King of Long Island, who continues to pound away at the issue, playing on Catholic folk memories of a time when views such as those taught at Bob Jones University were deemed acceptable. The power of old images and past injustices remains potent despite Catholic successes in American society, and Mr. Bush unwittingly found himself in the middle of a historic American religious controversy. As most Catholic-school graduates know well, Gov. Al Smith of New York was denied the Presidency in 1928 in part because he was Catholic. Southern and Midwestern Protestants voted overwhelmingly against Smith, who saw crosses burned at his rallies. For some Catholics, the victory of John F. Kennedy in 1960 still didn’t take the sting out of the terrible rebuke meted out to Smith, the first Catholic to win a major party’s Presidential nomination. As executives at Miramax Films and the Brooklyn Museum of Art know well, many Catholics still regard themselves as perpetually embattled, their beliefs among the few allowed to be mocked in an otherwise politically correct culture. Monsignor Harry Byrne, retired pastor of Epiphany Church on the East Side, said Catholics “get so many blasts from so many different quarters” that many may have shrugged off the controversy as only the latest example of the culture’s historic hostility to Catholicism.

The Bob Jones incident, or more particularly Mr. Bush’s refusal to challenge the school’s teachings, recalled another incident from the annals of American anti-Catholicism: Republican James Blaine’s ill-fated Presidential campaign in 1884. Having won over urban Catholics suspicious of his Democratic opponent, Gov. Grover Cleveland of New York, Blaine-dogged by rumors that he actually was a closet Catholic-arranged a meeting with top Protestant clergymen. With Blaine at his side, one of the clergymen announced that the Republican Party would rescue the nation from “rum, Romanism and rebellion.” Catholics fled Blaine’s campaign, giving Cleveland the Presidency.

“Bob Jones University stirs a kind of collective memory among Catholics,” said novelist Peter Quinn. “People remember that during the 1960 election Republicans played footsie with anti-Catholics.”

Niall O’Dowd, founding publisher of the Manhattan-based Irish Voice newspaper, said that his office had received “a wave of calls from people who already feel that anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable form of prejudice.” Mr. O’Dowd, who has close ties to the Clinton Administration, said he found Mr. Bush’s letter to be a “purely political response to getting hurt.”

With Catholics in leadership positions in the State Republican Party, time has apparently healed old wounds. But if Mr. McCain makes headway with the issue, it will call into question the ad hoc alliance between Christian Coalition forces and conservative Catholics, who have found common cause on abortion, school vouchers and other cultural issues. The Rev. James Martin, associate editor of America , said the alliance between evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics has always been “shaky,” and the Bob Jones controversy could “lay bare” some of the differences between the two important voting blocs.

If that happens, Mr. McCain, basher of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, may yet find himself crowned by New York Catholics as a defender of the faith.