"You are my rabbi," said the caller who claimed to be a Methodist. "Good," said the talk show host, "Everybody needs a rabbi."
This is no shock jock being irreverent — he's a real rabbi. But make no mistake, this is no jolly rebbe kvetching about marrying a nice Jewish boy, nor a lefty Jew talking about justice, diversity, and the Holocaust. He's Daniel Lapin, dubbed "the show rabbi of the Christian right" by the New York Times. And now he's a San Francisco talker, Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. on right-wing radio station KSFO.
But Lapin's more than a front man. He's a faith-based political operative who was deeply implicated in the Jack Abramoff scandals when Lapin's nonprofit, Toward Tradition, was exposed as one of a cluster of tax-exempt organizations through which Abramoff secretly routed tribal Indian and other gambling clients' funds to an aide to Rep. Tom DeLay in return for favorable legislation.
According to news reports published as recently as last month, Abramoff's nonprofit money-laundering operations are still under investigation. "It's not a tax-exempt activity to act as a bagman for Jack Abramoff," Marcus S. Owens, a tax lawyer and former IRS official, told the Washington Post in June.
The Post piece claims Lapin introduced Abramoff to deposed GOP House leader Tom DeLay, a social feat of epic political proportions. Lapin wrote in a letter to supporters after the scandal broke, "Although I have no clear recollection of having formally introduced them, it is certainly possible."
Former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has called Lapin his "spiritual adviser," and white supremacist David Duke wrote, "There are so few honest voices like that of Rabbi Lapin."
A rabbi without a congregation, the 59-year-old Lapin gave up his Seattle talk show in February. He'd been filling in for other KSFO hosts and began his show in April, broadcasting from a Seattle studio. Although Lapin denies it, observers opine that he moved to the Bay Area for a fresh start after national publicity about the Abramoff scandals made him radioactive in Seattle.
Toward Tradition has reportedly fallen on hard times after postscandal donations tanked. Lapin has given up his offices, laid off staff, and works out of his home on Mercer Island, a wealthy suburban enclave outside Seattle. He founded Toward Tradition with film critic and neocon radio talker Michael Medved and Abramoff in the early 1990s. The disgraced lobbyist joined the board and served a few terms as chairman. Lapin calls his organization a coalition of Jews and conservative Christians dedicated to faith-based American principles of constitutional and limited government, the rule of law, representative democracy, free markets, a strong military, and a moral public culture.
Until his recent problems, Toward Tradition allowed Lapin to pay himself a $165,000 annual salary, according to a 2003 IRS filing. He also fetched high speaker's fees and right-wing Christian street cred that's taken him to the George W. Bush White House for Shabbat dinners and the speaker's podium at the 1996 Republican National Convention.
Lapin has been a conduit between the GOP and the fundamentalist "values" crowd, but was also directly involved in Republican fundraising. Newsweek reported last year, "When fundraising began for Bush's re-election effort, Rabbi Daniel Lapin . . . urged friends and colleagues to steer campaign checks to Bush via Abramoff." For his loyalty, Bush appointed Lapin to the US Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, which helps protect cemeteries, monuments, and historic buildings in eastern and central Europe. He recently resigned from this post.
Although Lapin can be tedious on the radio, he's charismatic one-on-one and on the stump.