Networks Grill Rick Perry on Religious 'Can of Worms' Opened on Campaign Trail

Texas Governor Rick Perry conducted interviews with all three network morning shows on Friday and all used controversial comments made by Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress as a line of attack. This despite Perry having already distanced himself from the pastor's remarks labeling Mormonism a "cult."

On NBC's Today, co-host Matt Lauer led the charge by leveling this accusation against the Perry campaign: "...the issue of faith was really introduced – the can of worms was opened by a surrogate of your own campaign..."

On ABC's Good Morning America, co-host George Stephanopoulos wouldn't let the issue go: "The Romney campaign...have called on you to repudiate him and his comments. Will you do that?...do you want his support, or will you repudiate that?...do you repudiate Reverend Jeffress?"

On CBS's Early Show, co-host Chris Wragge asserted: "Now, you haven't dissociated yourself from those comments, and some people – New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – said that makes you unfit for the presidency." Wragge then asked: "Do you want to take this opportunity to distance yourself from those comments, or are you okay with it?"

On each broadcast, Perry had to correct the interviewer:

>To Lauer: "We've distanced ourselves from those comments. I clearly said that I did not agree with his comments..."
                
>To Stephanopoulos: "Well, I have a lot of people that endorse me. But I don't endorse what they say or what they believe, for that matter. And that's the case on this one..."

>To Wragge: "Well, from the get-go, first time we were asked, we said we did not agree with what that pastor said, and that's the fact."

In contrast to their treatment of Perry's tenuous connection to Jeffress, the networks worked hard to insulate Barack Obama from the litany of controversial rantings from his pastor of twenty years, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

Perry referenced that fact in each interview, including on Today: "If we're going to spend the time in the campaign defending what someone who has endorsed us has said out there in the public, President Obama's going to spend a lot of time talking about defending people who are saying things about him that he probably doesn't stand by."  


Here is a portion of Lauer's October 14 interview with Perry:

(...)

7:10AM ET

MATT LAUER: But I want to – sorry to keep harping on this, but when Anita said she thinks, "so much of it is that I think they at him because of his faith," I feel it's a little ironic, because the issue of faith was really introduced – the can of worms was opened by a surrogate of your own campaign while introducing you recently, who said that you are a "genuine follower of Jesus Christ." And then Pastor Jeffress went out to the hallway and said that the Morman religion is a cult and that Mitt Romney is not a true Christian. So isn't it a bit hypocritical to say you're being targeted because of for your faith when it was a surrogate for your campaign that introduced faith in the first place?

RICK PERRY: Well, I think you're stretching it to say that he was a surrogate. He was picked and he made his comments on his own. We have distanced himself from those comments. I clearly said that I did not agree with his comments and that stands on its faith. But if we're going to spend the time in the campaign defending what someone who has endorsed us has said out there in the public, President Obama's going to spend a lot of time talking about defending people who are saying things about him that he probably doesn't stand by. So again, these are all distractions, Matt, and I understand the issue of distractions. We got to get this country focused on getting back to work.

(...)

Here is a portion of Stephanopoulos' interview with Perry:

(...)

7:13AM ET

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Finally, governor, you said you stand by your wife's comments that you've been singled out for your faith. A lot of your opponents have said that's exactly what your supporter Reverend Jeffress did when he was introducing you at the Values Voter Convention. And the Romney campaign, Governor Romney, have called on you to repudiate him and his comments. Will you do that?

RICK PERRY: Well, I have a lot of people that endorse me. But I don't endorse what they say or what they believe, for that matter. And that's the case on this one, is I can't control those individuals who go out and say something who may be for me in a race. This is about freedom of speech, I mean freedom of religion. Our founding fathers were pretty wise in creating those rights, freedom of religion, and we have a great number of faiths. And I support the people's choice of being able to pick and choose their faith.

But I also choose to support the freedom of expression and so, um –

STEPHANOPOULOS: But do you want his support, or will you repudiate that?

(Crosstalk)

PERRY: – people are going to say things about me that I don't agree with.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But do you repudiate Reverend Jeffress?

PERRY: I'm not going to – I'm not going to say that he can't say what he wants to say. The issue is, are we going to tell people what they can say, and I'm not going to be one of those. This is a country where we truly have freedom of expression, and there are going to be people that say things about me – probably going to be people that say things about President Obama that are offensive to him and his family, but those folks who say those things are going to be the ones that you need to be asking the questions to, not those of us who are either associated with them, know them, or for that matter have endorsed President Obama.     

(...)    

Here is a portion of Wragge's interview with Perry:

(...)

7:07AM ET

CHRIS WRAGGE: And one other thing: you know, one of your supporters, Robert Jeffress, called Mormonism a cult. He said he did not believe that Governor [Mitt] Romney believed in God. Now, you haven't dissociated yourself from those comments, and some people- New Jersey Governor Chris Christie- said that makes you unfit for the presidency. Do you want to take this opportunity to distance yourself from those comments, or are you okay with it?

RICK PERRY: Well, from the get-go, first time we were asked, we said we did not agree with what that pastor said, and that's the fact. And the other side of this is, just because someone has endorsed me doesn't mean I endorse what they say or what they do, and that's the case here, and we've said that repeatedly. So I think anyone trying to use this as a political tool just needs to look at the facts. We clearly said we didn't agree with that statement-

WRAGGE: Yeah-

PERRY: But on the other side of it, if I have to spend all of my time disassociating myself with something that someone says about me- or, for that matter, if President Obama has to disassociate people who support him with things they say, we're not going to get much time to talk about how to create jobs in this country, and that's what Americans are interested in. They're not interested in these side issues and side shows. They're interested in how you're going to be able to get me, my family, to have an environment where we have the dignity to have a job. I'm laying out that today in Pittsburgh, and there are going to be a lot of Americans- Democrats, Republicans, independents that say, you know what? That's a fellow who's got a plan for America, and I'm going to be for him because he is the one that understands what's going on in this country.

(...)

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC