BLOG

The President’s Nemesis

01 Sep 1998, Posted by Steven Kotler in

John Whitehead is a true believer, a man who found his faith in a department store, nurtured it, built it and has now aimed it at an old acquaintance, William Jefferson Clinton. In his first magazine interview, Whitehead, the fire behind Paula Jones and hundreds of other underdogs, shows what it takes to take on the president.

If you believe John whitehead, if you believe him honest and moral—perhaps not right or not on your side—but if you believe him, then you must believe that when he agreed to put his weight behind Paula Jones, he did so for the same reason he has put his weight behind Christians and Orthodox Jews and white supremacists and Hare Krishnas and children. Because they were the underdogs. People on the losing end of this great bet we call America, these are the ones behind whom John Whitehead has put the force of himself and his God and the legions of the Rutherford Institute. If you believe him, then he agreed to fund Paula Jones’s lawsuit against Bill Clinton not because he once shared a strange sort of history with the man and not because it would put his name on the cover of every major newspaper and his face and voice on every major news network, not because he wanted to be on Crossfire or Larry King Live or Geraldo, but because she had been dropped by her lawyers and denied justice and left out in the great, anonymous American cold. If you believe him, then you believe that one man can make a difference, that democracy means everyone, means not only you and me but all the others in between.

And if you don’t? Well, you’ve got company. John Whitehead has been called a lot of things. By his enemies — and he is a man who has many enemies — he has been called an anathema, an embodiment of pure evil. The White House has called him “reasonably extreme,” whatever that means. He has been called shady, overzealous, evasive, a bundle of contradictions. Barry Lynn, the leader of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has said, “He’s just Jerry Falwell with a law degree. Then there are the big words, the ones that strike fear into our secular hearts, words like racist, homophobic and fascist.

Apart from quotes and dribbles and sound bites on the Paula Jones affair, John Whitehead has never given a major magazine interview before. And yet he has been there, near the microphones, by her side, almost a bodyguard, and continues to vow to do the same through her appeal. He is a tall man with a big head and deep-set eyes. His forehead is wide and expansive, and his hair, which has been cut by his wife for the last twenty years, seems to belong on someone else’s head. His gestures rarely seem natural. Not the gestures of a cerebral man, rather those of a man trying to appear cerebral, interested, single-minded and strong of heart and purpose. He has difficulty focusing and fidgets; on television and in person he has trouble with his hands. They float and quiver and draw imaginary maps. Still, they are fighting hands, and John Whitehead needs them. When he’s confronted with the plaints of his critics, they shoot, they loft, toward the ceiling and beyond; he is not an extremist, a zealot or a hypocrite. He is merely following the lead of two great men: his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and Samuel Rutherford. Samuel who? See, when Whitehead first started the Rutherford Institute, back in 1982, hoping to defend Christian America against the fat tide of secular humanism, he thought of Samuel Rutherford, a seventeenth-century Scottish intellectual who questioned the idea of the divine right of kings. In 1644 Rutherford published a book called LexRex, which argued that all people, even the king, are subject to the rule of law. He was promptly sentenced to death for his views. So it is fitting that more than three centuries later, the organization that has chosen to go head-to-head with William Jefferson Clinton is an organization that claims no person, regardless of his position in society, is above the law. The way John Whitehead sees it, the institute is merely fulfilling its namesake.

In the middle of John Whitehead’s living room is a telescope, a Christmas present from his family, which he uses to watch the night sky for UFO’s. He does not believe, as Pat Robertson supposedly does, that aliens are demons come down to torment us earthlings, but he does believe in their existence. In his office in Charlottesville, Virginia, his desk is a horror show of bloodsucking, limb-chewing, pus-ridden fiends from outer space. And above it all hangs the same poster that Fox Mulder has in his office—the grainy, grayed image of a flying saucer with the oversize lettering reading, I WANT TO BELIEVE. All of which begs one simple question:

What is it, exactly, that John Whitehead wants to believe?
“So you believe Paula Jones?”
“She’s very believable.”
“But do you believe her?”

“The American Psychological Association says that of all the sexual-harassment cases filed in the United States every year, 99 percent are true.”

“Uh-huh.”
“The FBI says that 13,000 women a year are raped in the workplace.”
“And Paula Jones?”
The Constitution gives women freedom from sexual harassment. It’s a women’s issue. The Rutherford Institute has always cared about women’s issues.”

Never mind that he’s written fund-raising letter after fund-raising letter about how the government is dismembering the family, driving housewives into the workplace. Never mind that in one scene from the institute’s 1994 educational film, Religious Apartheid, government storm troopers raid a small borne and force a mother to take off her apron and go to work. John Whitehead says he has always cared about women’s issues—so much so that he wrote a booklet on the subject. It’s all about why women shouldn’t have abortions, why abortion is a sin, why life is sacred and family is sacred and other such hee-haw, because, apparently, freedom from sexual harassment is a constitutional right and freedom to choose abortion is not.

Even though Paula Jones has been tossed out of court by the thunder of summary judgment, the institute is still busy. In a small room in the bowels of the Rutherford office are the “lippers,” legal intake personnel, with their ears glued to the Batphone: 275 pleas a week, 65 percent getting help. There are 700 lawyers in the Rutherford stable, currently handling 80 percent of the religious-freedom cases in America. “If it seems like the right thing to do,” says head legal coordinator Ron Rissler, “we do it. No matter the facts or the precedent. If it’s Goliath trying to smack David, we do it.”

The institute has an annual budget of roughly $4 million, all of it from private donations. The average contribution comes in twenty bucks at a time. Somewhere out there are people willing to believe, willing to pay twenty bucks to see David smack Goliath.

Staffers work out of a two-story building in Charlottesville — some post-Colonial crossover number, part dentist’s office, part 7-Eleven. The folks that make up the staff are not what you’d expect. Most are under 30. They’re not all white, and they are largely women—a fact Whitehead has been touting of late, something for the media, something to show his feminist side, something to help explain why in the sixteen years of Rutherford’s existence Paula Jones’s is the first sexual-harassment case the institute has taken.

Many staffers line up behind Whitehead’s pronouncements as they do his beliefs—things like prime-time TV is antiestablishment, the big bang is a pile of hooey, and “the government will increasingly prohibit people from meeting together to pray, even in their own homes.”

Then there’s that pesky little idea that the earth is 6,000, maybe 7,000 years old. Creationism. The literal belief in the Bible and in the Bible’s calendar, which places the age of the earth at no more than eight millennia. How about—what about dinosaurs? What about carbon dating? What about fossils? And they look at you, this staff of his, with that look. Their eyes go dewy and sad, just a little, and they almost want to shake their heads, because they know and you don’t. Forget carbon dating and dinosaurs and fossils, the direct effects of pressure and time; forget it all, because they’ll tell you there’s no proof. Forget the fact that carbon dating is the proof.

Rutherford lawyers have been busy defending Mildred Rosario, a Bronx public-school teacher who gave her students forehead benedictions in the name of Christ, and Ralph Forbes, an Arkansas white supremacist who was shut out of a television debate because he was considered a “nonviable” candidate. (Forbes lost when the case went to the Supreme Court in May.) They especially like the case of Ralph Forbes, because when Forbes called up and told them who he was and what he believed and what was wrong, the man who answered the phone, the man who first agreed to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court, happened to be black.

But the things to wonder about, the nagging, wheezy questions: Did they go down that road with Ralph Forbes so that the next time an American wants to get his constitutionally guaranteed word in edgewise, he can? Or did they do it so that the next time a soldier of Christ or a white supremacist wants to turn the thick heat of democracy into a pulpit, there will be a way?

So you want to know what it takes to take on the president of the United States of America? To brave the wrath of the First Lady crying cabal to explain her cuckold status and some tricky financial concerns. You need to look beyond a vast right-wing conspiracy to denude the president of power, and beyond a vast left-wing conspiracy to strip God from America—beyond the John Birch Society, the grassy knoll and the Red scare. You need to look where you might not think to look—down a trail of simple faith, because that’s what you need, faith, lots of it, and it needs to be the steel-tipped kind, and that’s what John Whitehead has.

John Wayne Whitehead. Born in 1946 and named after old Duke himself. He was a gunslinger from the go. Born in Tennessee and raised in Peoria, Illinois, he likes to tell people he was raised by the movies. The son of working-class parents, poor in that American way, not toting the child with them, instead dumping him at the local theater for the endless reels of ’50s monster-movie madness. Did his appreciation for science fiction pave the way for greater fictions? Did Creature From the Black Lagoon pave the way for a world where Christ and aliens live side by side?

“No. I don’t think most Christians like science fiction all that much,” he says. “They seem to lack the imagination for it.”

Rather, what paved the way was his ragtag youth and his time at the University of Arkansas and an early marriage to his childhood sweetheart and the bad back that kept him from the roar of Vietnam, instead logging a sweaty, paper-pushing tour at Fort Hood, Texas. All of it helped because all of it led him to Christ, to the choice of Christ. John Wayne Whitehead is a chosen man: chosen by direct divine intervention, chosen by the light of sacred grace, chosen because, for a time, he had nowhere to go.

He spent his time in the Devil’s playground. He was a two—six-packs—a-day fighter before he got to the army, and then, once there, under the lone Texas starlight, he did his part to bring on the dawning of Aquarius. “There were these posters all over the base—DRUGS: ESCAPE TO NOWHERE. We just cut out the ‘drugs’ part—left ESCAPE TO NOWHERE.” He became just another liberal, booze-drinking, pot-smoking, acid-dropping soldier. Imagine the demons John Whitehead must have seen on acid. But the beer wasn’t doing it, and the acid wasn’t doing it, and the army had started to feel like a plague. “After Kent State, things got worse,” Whitehead recounts. “There was this chalkboard in the barracks. Those kids got shot, and my commanding officer wrote, US 4, KENT STATE 0, across it.” Whitehead got pissed and told him so, and when the officer refused to erase it, Whitehead went over his head and eventually won his battle, which is a good battle to win if you don’t happen to be in the army in the middle of Texas at the peak of the Vietnam War.

So the army didn’t want him, and he no longer wanted it, and it was giving early outs to people who wanted to go to law school, so Whitehead decided to go. And go he did. To law school, but also into the pale snort of early-’70s cocaine. He started shoveling the shit up his nose. “It was a good thing I became a Christian,” he says. “That stuff will kill you.”

Whitehead had been raised a solid nonbeliever—in the early years of his marriage he would not let his wife so much as mention God or Jesus or pray or say grace or go to church. So where did this man find God? In a department-store checkout line. “It was Thanksgiving 1974. My wife had gone back to Illinois to spend the weekend with her parents. I was in JCPenney when I saw Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. I had no idea what it was about; I thought it was science fiction. I had no idea it was a Christian book.” He went home and read and read. He had never read anything like it. The book rattled his world. Never having read the Bible, he knew nothing about Christianity. Was there a bolt of lightning, a voice in the night? Did Jesus arrive bearing a fruit plate and canapes? No. Just something, finally, that made sense.

So John Whitehead found God in JCPenney. After finishing the book, he got down on his knees and asked Jesus into his heart. He repented and was reborn and then went to call his wife and tell her of his conversion. When he got her on the phone, he said, “Carol? Hi. I’m a Christian.” She said, “Are you drunk?”

John Whitehead and Bill Clinton go way back. They go back before the presidency, and they go back before the Rutherford Institute, back before Clinton held elected office and back before John Whitehead held an iota of an opinion about his current Lord and Savior. They go back to the town of Fayetteville, Arkansas, to a time when Whitehead was in law school at the University of Arkansas and Bill Clinton was a young professor there.

Clinton never taught Whitehead, but Whitehead at the time was working as a reporter for The Grapevine, a radical underground newspaper, and Clinton, Whitehead says, was little mole than a bachelor law professor with “a reputation as a good teacher and a campus lover.” If Bill Clinton has gained a few extra miles from his White House Rose Garden meeting with JFK, that’s nothing compared with the irony of hindsight that now holds sway over Whitehead and Clinton.

Clinton was about to announce his decision to run for Congress, and so the The Grapevine sent Whitehead, its veteran reporter, to have a few chats with him. Politically, things were turned around. “Back then I was pretty radical,” says Whitehead. “I subscribed to The Daily Worker. I was a Marxist, and Clinton was a moderate. I was the longhair, and he was the short hair.”

They met five or six times, mostly late at night, in bars, to have a few beers. Once Clinton invited Whitehead and his wife to his house for dinner. Whitehead remembers the president as a decent cook, as a charming host, as an incredibly sharp and polished man. But even back then there was something about Clinton that Whitehead didn’t quite trust; he was too unctuous, too eager to please.

“I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told another writer,” says Whitehead, looking as if he can’t believe what he’s about to say. “The first time I met Clinton, he said, ‘We ought to legalize heroin.’ “whitehead shakes his bead. Twenty-five years later and he still can’t figure it out. “Was he trying to impress me, or did he really believe that? I can’t believe anybody believes that. So, no, I guess I haven’t trusted him for a long time.”

Asked about whether Bill Clinton remembers advocating the legalization of heroin, White House Counsel Office spokesman Jim Kennedy has this to say: “The White House will not be commenting on a conversation that may or may not have taken place a quarter of a century ago.”

As for the Clinton interview, The Grapevine ran the article on February 13, 1974, and somehow, strangely, it’s still runnling today. As Whitehead puts it, this was the time of King Nixon, and the rule of law was on Whitehead’s mind. So he asked Bill Clinton for a definition of impeachment, and Clinton responded, “I think that the definition should include any criminal acts plus a willful failure of the President to fulfill his duty to uphold and execute the laws of the United States.” Later, in that same discussion, Clinton thought of a third factor that constitutes an impeachable offense, and it is this last point that has come home to roost. “The third factor that I think constitutes an impeachable offense,” said Bill Clinton, “would be willful, reckless behavior in office.”

We are a nation of religious dreamers and have been since our start. Our very first amendment claims that Congress, and by extension the states, “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These are the words of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, and they are our first principle in the battle of church versus state. And no matter what else you believe about Paula Jones and Karla Faye Tucker, whose execution the Rutherford Institute tried to stop, understand that one way or another these are battles of religious liberty, even if they’re disguised as sexual harassment or dead men walking. Believe this because these are John Whitehead’s fights, and John Whitehead is a man of vision, and his vision is entirely Christian. It just so happens that that vision is a defensive one—Whitehead feels Christians are a besieged minority. To have faith, in John Whitehead’s America, is to need the best damn lawyers in the country.

Whitehead has been doing the work of Jesus Christ and Samuel Rutherford since an early legal encounter he had while living at the Light and Power House, a freethinking seminary in Westwood, California. This was 1975. whitehead had already found the Lord but hadn’t found the right path, so he abandoned his law practice, packed his wife and child and a few possessions into an old beater and set out for California. He was lost and floundering. “I had become a Christian, but when I looked around, most of the Christians I saw were kind of goofy.” Whitehead wanted something down-to-earth, and he found it at the Light and Power House. The seminary provided basic education in the general philosophy of Christianity but favored converts and questions—exactly what Whitehead was looking for. Word soon got out that Whitehead used to be a lawyer, and one day a fellow student brought him a young Chinese American woman, a fourth-grade schoolteacher who wore a little gold cross around her neck. One of her students had asked her why she wore the cross, and she had answered, and the school freaked out and told her to take it off. It was Whitehead to the rescue. He took the matter to school officials, arguing that they had violated the woman’s constitutional right to free speech, and won. It was a groundbreaking fight. Now, more than twenty years later, he is still saving lost kittens.

Buoyed by his first victory, Whitehead set about doing the groundwork for what came to be the Rutherford Institute. He worked out of his home, trying to solicit funds from the Christian right. He talked to ministers and missionaries and the masses, and nobody wanted to come out to play. See, two decades ago, the Christian right didn’t go to court. They believed courts to be places of taint and Mammon, the lawsuit a tool in the sinister plans of fallen men.

“There was an unspoken rule in Christianity,” says Whitehead. “Christians didn’t sue Christians.”

Whitehead changed all that. He changed all that with his last $200 and the family’s Christmas-card list. He put pen to paper, begged friends, family, acquaintances, anyone he knew, for money and support. Sure, it took a while for the good word to spread, but spread it did.

Whitehead established the Rutherford Institute so he could “do God’s will,” and as it so happens, God’s will can be a fickle call. In the early days, the will of God meant a horde of small-change issues: students wanting to pray in school, zoning laws forbidding home worship. These were penny-ante battles, and even if Whitehead won most of them—even if he was the caped crusader of the religious right, Batman with a crucifix—he remained, at that early stage, a puppet soldier toeing a milquetoast Christian line: Gays bad, families good. Abortion bad, life good. The death penalty A-OK.

Eventually, the institute produced Religious Apartheid, and despite the fact that the institute doesn’t want you to see it or hear about it, and that it’s frankly a little ashamed now, the video has received attention. It decries the fall of traditional American society, the end of religion, the coming secular anarchy. Its apex occurs when Nazi storm troopers strap a man to a chair and tape his eyes open, Clockwork Orangestyle, before a wall of television monitors. The TVs depict inner-city strife, disintegrating families, poverty and violence, and all the while a sound track blares the four words that have led to such despair: love, tolerance, choice, diversity.

But that was four years ago, and Whitehead has kept moving. These days the institute’s caseload isn’t all Christian. These days Rutherford lawyers are defending a gaggle of Pennsylvania schoolgirls forced to undergo gynecologic exams without informed parental consent and against their wishes; Luciano Montalvo, a 12-year-old boy not allowed to enroll in a karate class because he is HIV positive; a Jewish prison inmate who was denied kosher meals; and a group of Muslim inmates who were forbidden to hold services. Also the Amish, Hindus, Rosicrucians, Native Americans, home schoolers and parents charged with Munchausen by proxy.

Over the years, they’ve had a few shots at the big leagues. In 1994 they offered their services to Paul Hill, who slew a doctor and his bodyguard at an abortion clinic—though they balked when Hill insisted on justifiable homicide as his defense. They tried to defend cult leader David Koresh. They’ve made it to the Supreme Court twice. The first time, in 1987, with William Frazee v. Illinois Department of Employment Security. They won because Frazee was denied unemployment for refusing to take a job that required he work on the Sabbath, and the Sabbath is a holy day, and, well, you know the rest.

Could the institute broaden its definition of the underdog to include victims of, say, racial discrimination? “We’re here to help the underdog,” says Whitehead, “but we can help only so many people. That’s why there’s the ACLU and the NAACP. Our existing load is about 250 cases. I wish we could take a thousand, but we can’t; we just don’t have the money.”

Lately the institute has even recanted some of its original hard line. Whitehead says it’s because he keeps reading the Bible. “The problem with most Christians is they don’t read the Bible. They know the Old Testament, but Jesus isn’t in the Old Testament. He’s in the New. Until three years ago, I believed in capital punishment. But when men brought an adulterous woman before Jesus, he spared her life. He said, ‘Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.’ ”

Yes, John Whitehead has been reborn and reborn and reborn. He has not strayed from the path, nor has the path strayed from him. It is just a bit clearer now. Today the Rutherford tag line is no longer “Christian legal foundation”; currently it’s a “human rights organization.” And if you need proof, well, last winter, when Karla Faye Tucker was about to die by lethal injection, the institute wrote letters to President Clinton and to Cardinal John O’Connor, hoping to stay the execution. In prison Tucker had found Jesus and married a minister; she was repentant.

But how much has the institute really changed its tune? Four months earlier, when the state of Missouri strapped a nondenominational A. J. Bannister to a cart and wheeled him down a hall and filled his veins with poison until his lungs collapsed and his heart beat no more, the institute wrote no letters and asked no favors.

We are walking through the campus of the University of Virginia, because that is where television takes us. In the school’s basement is a small cube of a TV studio disguised as a library. A leather chair, an antique table, shelves full of fake books, their pages sawed in half. He has just finished a ten-minute stint on CNN’s Burden of Proof—a squealing match disguised as news.

“I wouldn’t do that again,” he says, straightening his tie. “That show’s no place for a decent man.”

But he will do it again, and be will come back to this room, two or three times a week, to appear on more-civilized television. He will appear as the man who has taken on the Man, as the voice of the religious right, as the self-appointed crusader for women’s rights and, perhaps, as a key player in a vast right-wing conspiracy.

Whitehead has earned that particular distinction because of his association with other members of the religious right who seem intent on destroying the president. There’s Jerry Falwell, who in the early ‘90s put together The Clinton Chronicles, a video purporting to expose the president’s wanton past as a drug smuggler and an accomplice to murder. Whitehead and Falwell have a short history together. A while back, the folks at Falwell’s Liberty University became upset over a new ruling in college football that denied their players the right to kneel in prayer in the end zone. The rule was supposed to target showboating, but somehow Christ got caught in the mix. The Rutherford Institute took the case to court, and, yes, it won—arguing that kneeling in prayer was not an ego play but rather a way of giving thanks to the Lord for the hands that caught the pass that scored the goal that won the game. Amen.

And then there’s Pat Robertson, who has spent a great deal of time decrying Clinton on The 700 Club cable show. But there’s not much love going on between the minions of Pat Robertson and John Whitehead; Robertson seems to think Rutherford too liberal to conspire with. As Johan Conrod, the associate media coordinator for the Rutherford Institute, says, “Pat’s not a big fan of ours. We’re on better terms with the ACLU than with the ACLJ [Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice].”

However, it is not Falwell or Robertson who has drawn the most attention; it is Richard Mellon Scaife, the billionaire heir to the Mellon banking fortune, whom Newt Gingrich has credited with developing “modern conservativism; who spent $1.8 million on the Arkansas Project, Paying lawyers and private investigators and whomever else to muckrake the Clintons’ past; who forked over $675,000 to The American Spectator Education Foundation after the Spectator broke the Paula Jones story; whose donations to Pepperdine University fueled speculation be was trying to set Ken Starr up with an academic chair; and who may or may not have paid a key Whitewater witness to squeal anti-Clinton vitriol. Yes, Whitehead’s and Scaife’s paths have crossed—sort of. Scaife gave $650,000 to the Landmark Legal Foundation, which briefly advised Paula Jones. But the Rutherford Institute wasn’t involved in the case at that point. Johnny-on-the-spot Scaife arrived well before Johnny-better-late-than-never Whitehead. Which is why, after John Whitehead has given me a walking tour of the institute, why after we have trod the brown carpet, looking in on small rooms and his employees at work, he spreads his arms wide and raises his fists toward heaven and says, “Well, this is it, the epicenter of a vast right-wing conspiracy.”

He does not have the voice of a great orator. He mumbles. He could not keep time with Martin Luther King or Jerry Falwell or William Clinton. His sentences are punctuated by stutters and stammers and blunt metaphors. When asked about Paula Jones and Bill Clinton, when asked about the question of the presidential hardware’s bearing distinguishing marks that require further investigation—a matter that has raised questions about the dignity of the office and just what level of embarrassment Clinton must suffer to appease his accusers—Whitehead quotes Bob Dylan: “Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.”

Which may have something to do with Paula Jones or Bill Clinton, but which has more to do with John Whitehead’s deep love of rock and roll. His bedroom is a shrine to the Beatles. Albums, tapes, videos, dolls, pictures. An Abbey Road sign hangs above the closet, and three George Harrison paintings dominate a wall in the living room.

When I ask his eldest son, Jayson, if it was tough growing up in a devout Christian household, he says, “No, it was tough having to listen to Sgt. Pepper a hundred times a day.”

Whitehead uses a sizable chunk of his annual budget (yes, those little $20 envelopes) to fund one of his small side projects, Gadfly magazine, which is not a magazine of good Christian values, unless of course you believe in the sainthood of Hunter S. Thompson and the Sex Pistols. At one point, Gadfly was close in spirit to Rutherford: a proud demonstration of all that was wrong with the heathen world and all that was right with the path of righteousness. But these days Gadfly is a “cultural magazine,” with coverage of music, books, movies and more. It has done articles on Patti Smith, Wim Wenders, Kurt Vonnegut, the Coen brothers, Andy Warhol, U2, Dr. Strangelove, Frank Sinatra and Ray Bradbury.

You may not like the guy, but you’ve got to give it up. He’s got taste.

John Whitehead steps into the room, only he doesn’t step. He lifts his knee and stops, his foot halted at half-mast, a mime tripping up the first rung of an invisible ladder. His back straightens, and his shoulders start to roll forward. Time passes. People die. He puts the foot back on the ground, hoists the other. He teeters. Governments rise and fall.

“Hey, John, what the hell are you doing?”
“I’m walking in slow motion.”

Good. ‘Cause I was wondering. John Whitehead has developed a catalog of walks. He claims to be an impersonator of walks, a mimic in the foot-stepping way. I have seen the duck walk, the slow motion, the itinerant preacher’s stumble. I have seen him bound from his desk chair and cavort into the hallways of his building, his fists raised, his feet hopscotching—some kind of posttraumatic-stress-disorder version of Joe Louis. He punches ghosts, air, the enemies of Christianity everywhere— only to stop on a dime and head back into his office to do an interview with Frontline.

These are the things he does to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

Is he nefarious? Irascible, dangerous, curmudgeonly, secretly cruel to goldfish? Is his breath bad? Are his shirts stained and wrinkled? Does he drool or molest little girls? No. He’s not any of the things you want him to be. And, really, you want this man to be big evil. This John Wayne Whitehead, this founding father of the Christian legal crusade, you want him, need him, in all his vast right-wing conspiratorial glory, to be the bad man. But mostly you get discomfort, contradiction, bullheadedness and strange afflictions of the mind: John Whitehead suffers from the worst case of attention deficit disorder I’ve ever seen.

Forget sitting still. The man cannot, for one second, manage to pay attention. In the office, he is everywhere and nowhere all at once. Each time he speaks, there’s a midsentence that never makes it to locution. “The Rutherford Institute has always…” Then he’s up, saying, “OK, great, great, good, good, let’s take a break… Have you seen the shot of Hunter S. Thompson we want for the new issue of Gadfly?…Have you read any of the nineteen books I’ve written?… Have you met our head counsel, Alexis Crow?.. . Have you eaten lunch?…Will you be coming to my wife’s surprise party? She doesn’t know—you haven’t told her?—does she?”

And if you want a character issue, well, there’s always the question of the money. For years Whitehead was poor, barely drawing a salary, living on less than $1,000 a month and trying to support his wife and three children. The family did its time in closets and basements and bad neighborhoods. Now it lives, comparatively speaking, in a mansion—the house was designed to resemble a beach bungalow, and then the design was tripled. So the house is large, gaping, vast. They can afford to live here because John Whitehead draws a pretty sweet salary: $195,000 a year, and it is a salary he takes a lot of heat for. He takes heat from both sides, right and left, about the money, but it’s no secret. The Rutherford institute is a nonprofit organization; it is audited annually, and its financial records are carefully scrutinized.

John Whitehead will tell you he is always progressing—yes, maybe his early postconversion years were governed too much by the mindless militarism of the deep, dark Christian right, but he’s changed his ways and amended his errors not because he has grown moderate with age but because he has come to believe Jesus would have acted this way. But on a lot of key issues, he hasn’t changed at all, and to hear it from the other side, to hear Barry Lynn’s side, Whitehead is the same man now that he was ten years ago: “He wants an America run along Christian lines. He wants to change the Constitution. Do you think he’s not a part of the far right? What is the difference between Falwell and Rutherford? Forget church and state for a second—look at his record on gay rights.”

The photo shows a crowd scene. A few hundred people packed into a downtown street, their faces obscured by shadow, their eyes dark. These are serious people. Thick bandanna-wearing women. Men in leather. The center of the page is dominated by a sign that reads, I LOVE MY MOMS. It is not what you would call a positive image. Most gay-pride parades are more lively, but this image is not meant to be lively or fun filled; it’s meant to threaten, to scare, to fucking terrify in its depiction of the menace among us. The photo was tacked onto a four-page fund-raising letter sent out in 1994 by the institute. Below it, penned in, are the words “Here is an example of what the courts call a family.”

But Whitehead has gone through something of a conversion on gay issues since then. Whitehead’s current line goes like this: “Christ helped the lepers. If he were here today, he would help AIDS victims. Christ was all about the underdog, and today gays are the underdog. If you ask me, adultery is a much worse problem in churches than homosexuality. But the church never addresses that. There’s a real hang-up on this gay thing.”

So recently he’s gone to bat for this gay thing. This year not only is the institute defending HIV-positive Luciano Montalvo but it ran a radio spot entitled “Gays Have Rights Too,” supporting the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Colorado’s antigay Amendment 2. Which is fine if you are part of the hate-the-sin, love-the-sinner camp. But Whitehead doesn’t believe in a God who created gays. He doesn’t believe homosexuality is acceptable or natural. He has a track record that’s something to behold: in 1994, on the back cover of his book Religious Apartheid (the book came out around the same time as the video), he longs for a time when “prayer in school was… unquestioned and ministers were not pressured to hire homosexuals.” In 1994 the institute criticized Clinton’s choice of Joycelyn Elders as surgeon general because Elders thought gays could be Boy Scouts and should be accommodated in high school clinics. That same year, the institute sent out a fund-raising letter with a more personal note from Whitehead: “As a father, I am increasingly alarmed by the President’s open promotion of homosexuality, abortion, promiscuity, and sexual experimentation among our young people.” This year the head attorney on the Paula Jones case, a man named Don Campbell, a man who sits on the institute’s board of directors, was the same man who twelve years earlier, under the auspices of the Rutherford Institute, fought to have the Texas sodomy law reinstated. And so John Whitehead and the rest of the Rutherford camp have a way to go before you would call them batters for gay rights.

John Whitehead sits with paintbrushes at hand in the basement of his house, in the laundry room, on a tiny chair that looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland, that presses his legs nearly to his chin and makes him appear small and lost. This, besides rock and roll, is his hobby: painting. He works in thick swirls, making monster-headed bodies with gaping mouths and sharp teeth and long, lascivious tongues. He does not paint religious scenes. At some point, I ask him about rock star Marilyn Manson, that scourge of Christianity, and he says, “Oh yeah, I did a portrait of her; it hangs at the foot of my stairs.” Does he know Marilyn Manson is a man? Would he care?

The house is not decorated with the expected icons. Certainly there are images: On the wall outside the master bedroom hangs a print, The Baptism of Christ, done by one of those Renaissance masters, but directly beside it is Salvador Dali’s Crucifixion, the one where Christ is rendered in big, blocky chunks and appears to be floating through outer space, huge and astray, as if he had been chucked out of the starship Enterprise along with the garbage.

There are also several Francis Bacon prints. Bacon is Whitehead’s favorite painter. A man who painted monsters and ogres and torturous scenes, who was a committed atheist, who was famous as both an artist and a sadomasochistic homosexual, who, well, is about as far from a good Christian God as a man can get.

These days Whitehead doesn’t sleep so well. His childhood love of horror films left him with a lifelong fear of the dark. Often he finds himself startled and awake at 3 A.M. He sees only night. Beside him his wife groans and rolls and asks what’s wrong. But it’s not the darkness that keeps him up these nights. “It’s this case,” he says—the Paula Jones case. And it’s not the intricate web of lawyerly chicanery that gives him insomnia; it’s the very idea of loyalty.

It seeps in; it eats at him. He sees it at work in “this case,” in the fall-of-man disgrace of adultery. “Adultery’s impact on society,” he says, “is worse than almost anything besides murder.”

Worse than rape? Worse than child abuse?

“It destroys the most sacred human bond. It’s a question of loyalty—the most fundamental virtue, It’s what separates man from dogs and pigs. Bill Clinton is the leader of the Free World—if you can’t be loyal to your wife, how can you be loyal to your country? I mean, once you’re on that path, doesn’t it just magnify? People always say you have to hide a lie with a lie— so where does it end?”

Maybe what’s really at stake is John Whitehead’s ability to believe, to be comforted by that belief. He is the archetypal American believer. A man who believes in things, who needs to believe in things. “When I was growing up in the ‘60s, we had JFK and RFK and MLK. We had optimism and idealism. We had leaders who believed in things, who were going to change the world. These were men you would give your life for. How can you trust~ Clinton now? How do you believe in him? I mean, who’s going to give their life for Bill Clinton?”

John Whitehead is a believer in the amendments, in free speech and free religion and privacy. He’s so much a believer in privacy that if the tables were turned, he says, he would agree to take the president’s case, to fight on Bill’s side, to defend his right to wag his thing in whatever dogpatch he sees fit. Before you consider the image of John Whitehead defending Bill Clinton—it will never happen—remember that here, in the real world, privacy is no longer the issue. Now it’s about perjury. He could have said that he said under oath, ‘I didn’t do this. It’s a private thing—screw you.’ ”

But the tables are not turned. They are right where John Whitehead wants them. Still, it’s important to understand that for Whitehead, the Paula Jones case is not about taking on the president. It is about the possibility of taking on the president. It is about learning that, yes, one man can go after the chief, and if nothing comes of this case, if it is thrown out of court or lost to the world by a plague of amnesia, then there will come another time and another president, and we have not heard the last of John Whitehead. Not even close.

“The blast would still get us,” says John Whitehead. “We’d still be dead.” He is clenching an automatic car starter and pointing it across the concrete sweep of a parking lot.

They get death threats at the Rutherford Institute. The offices have a private security system. Last February, on a cold winter’s morning, a few months after taking the Jones case, Whitehead saw a black van parked across the street from his house. On the van’s roof was a small white satellite dish. His house is in Culpeper, an hour’s drive from Charlottesville. at the end of a twist of driveway at the end of a dead-end road in a dead-end town that no one arrives at accidentally.

“A security officer told me it was probably FBI.”
“FBI?”
“Or NSA—they weren’t sure.”

Which is when the Whiteheads had automatic starters put on all their cars. Which is why, tense in the cold Virginia rain, waiting for his car to start, John Wayne Whitehead is smiling. A king’s smile, a benediction, the smile of a man singled out, chosen by the promise of violence. It is no longer a question of whether they will come for him; it is only a question of how. Have they tapped his phone? Has his office been compromised? Will it be a stray bullet or a car bomb? He doesn’t think so; he doesn’t see himself that way. But they will come at him until he’s torturously dizzy, coming with charges of a vast right-wing conspiracy and questionable allegiances, coming with the high-and-mighty spin, with the palpable weight of the Oval Office. And he will withstand them all—with the spirit of Christ, the mantle of rock and roll, the authority of the courts and the supreme power of judgment.

A highly addictive derivative of opium, heroin is an effective painkiller that is often abused by those who use it. .



Want to learn the secrets to ultimate human performance?

 

Sign up for Steven Kotler’s newsletter to get the free pdf.

 

 

 

×