The televangelist has died. (Story here.) A few thoughts after the jump ...
Falwell's politics were not mine. When I observed one of his speeches a quarter-century ago, when his power was considerable, I was not delighted by what he had to say. Beyond my feelings, if you read Falwell's story in, say, William Martin's "With God on Our Side," you find someone who did considerable rewriting of his own history, especially on issues of race.
But I'm bringing up Falwell here not for a political fight but to consider him as a user of mass media. At that, he was quite good. His avuncular, smiling presence on television suggested someone who was likable and reasonable -- giving palatability to his words no matter how they might look in cold print.
And beyond presentation, Falwell made sure he had a place to present. As he told Cal Thomas in "Blinded by Might," a 1999 book by Thomas and Ed Dobson:
A person is identified in modern times by however the media wish to describe him. He is absolutely helpless to define himself, even if he has 150 television stations, has been on the air for 42 years, every week, without interruption. The only way that I have maintained my strength and a growing ministry is because of that [television base]. Had I not been on national television with all the other national media, and had I not had availability to the secular media -- be it "The Larry King Show" or "Crossfire" or whatever -- I would be today where Carl McIntire is, where Rex Humbard is, where all the other preachers are who have no way to answer back and defend themselves.
Of course, Falwell did considerably more than "defend" himself, famously scourging his enemies. (Remember his touting of the "Clinton Chronicles" video?) And, while I'm avoiding further comment on his politics, we could have a spirited debate about whether his tactics worked.
Dobson and Thomas, both formerly involved in Falwell's Moral Majority, were disenchanted. "Very little that we set out to do has gotten done," Thomas wrote. "In fact, the moral landscape of America has become worse." While Thomas might feel some more comfort now, notably in the tilt in the Supreme Court, overall he could find plenty of material to make him more pessimistic now than in '99.
But there was a time when Falwell was helping to shape the national argument. And he could do that because, in addition to a church pulpit, he had one on television. And he took full advantage of it.