Televangelist Pat Robertson's flip-flop on his fantasy moment as an international assassin reminds me of a famous, if possibly apocryphal, story about David Niven as told by Christopher Buckley.
Niven is standing with another gentleman at the base of a staircase as two ladies in evening gowns descend.
Niven says: "That's the ugliest woman I've ever seen."
Other man replies: "That's my wife."
Niven: "I meant the other one."
Other man: "That's my daughter."
Niven: "I didn't say it."
Like Niven, Robertson backed off his now famous - would that it were apocryphal - remark that the U.S. should assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. His exact quote from his Christian Broadcasting Network program was:
"You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he (Chavez) thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it."
Seems clear enough. That is one ugly woman. But, no, on Wednesday Robertson said he didn't say it. He said he was "misinterpreted":
"I said our special forces should, quote, 'take him out,' and 'take him out' can be a number of things, including kidnapping," said Robertson.
But then Robertson apparently reconsidered - or re-remembered - and apologized for what he didn't say: "Is it right to call for assassination? No, and I apologize for that statement. I spoke in frustration that we should accommodate the man who thinks the U.S. is out to kill him."
Well, we've all had days like that. You think it might be a good idea to "take someone out" when they're giving your country a hard time . and then you recall that it's illegal, against U.S. policy and, well, a tad un-Christian.
Robertson, of course, is well known for his spontaneous foot tastings. This is the same Pat Robertson who has urged his flock to pray for a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy "one way or the other."
The same Pat Robertson who in 2003 responded to a book criticizing the State Department by saying, "If I could just get a nuclear device inside Foggy Bottom, I think that's the answer. I mean, you get through this (book), and you say, 'We've got to blow that thing up.'"
And the same Pat Robertson who agreed (by nodding his head) with fellow televangelist Jerry Falwell when the latter said that the Sept. 11 attacks were the consequence of "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way - all of them who have tried to secularize America."
The White House quickly distanced itself from Robertson's latest, pointing out that private citizens have a right to speak their minds, but that their remarks shouldn't be construed as representing U.S. policy. Noted. Americans know this without being told and, besides, are used to televangelists saying ridiculous things. It is factually true that televangelism is the reason God invented the mute button.
But Robertson is a problem on the world's stage where some audiences may be less sophisticated and where politicians (or dictators) are happy to embrace useful idiots.
"See?" they say, pausing between beheadings and stonings. "President George W. Bush and his imperialistic, oil-grubbing Christian constituency want to assassinate foreign leaders who disagree with them. Allahu Akbar!"
In an act of inadvertent Christian charity, Robertson has performed a great service for the world of Islam, not so much by lending credibility to those who insist the U.S. is conducting a religious crusade against the Muslim world. But by making vivid the necessary distinction between radicals who exploit religion to advance a political agenda and those who practice their religious beliefs in less dramatic, more peaceful ways.
When Robertson says something outrageous, we recognize that he speaks for himself and not for all the Christians. We wouldn't condemn Christianity, in other words, just because one man said something extreme, irrational and murderous.
Which should remind us that when Osama bin Laden or other radical extremists gripping Korans invoke Allah while murdering innocents, they are neither speaking nor acting for all followers of the Muslim faith. And though Americans know that Robertson and bin Laden are clearly not of the same school, the rest of the world - and especially our enemies - either does not know or is cunning enough to exploit Robertson's words to further fuel the machinery of jihadist hatred.
In Robertson's case, unlike Niven's, "I didn't say it," or even "I didn't mean it," is of little help when so much is at stake.