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Most powerful social conservative hits D.C.

He’s the kind of guy that anyone might want to talk to about their kids.  It’s that decency and civility that has made James Dobson such a force in the country.  But politics is another matter. He was venomous on the topic of the federal judiciary and Congress and he has a harsh message. By Howard Fineman.
Dr. James Dobson, founder of the Focus on the Family, talking about a key political priority -- ending the Senate's ability to filibuster federal judiciary nominees. His organization has launched an ad campaign in 16 states, urging calls to senators in support of an up-or-down vote on President Bush's nominees.Patti Longmire / AP file

When I flew to Colorado Springs recently to interview Dr. James Dobson, he had an urgent matter to interview ME about: why, he wondered, did Don Imus think that he (Dobson) was a nut? He was anything but, Dobson said.

When Dobson came to Washington the other day for the White House Correspondents Dinner, he met another radio guy, comedian Al Franken. I wasn’t at the event (a musical at my daughter’s school took precedence), but Franken told me about it later. In typical fashion, Franken had tried to deadpan Dobson into exploding. “It must be great to always know the absolute truth,” he told Dobson, “because, for me, you know, it’s such a burden not to….”  Dobson didn't bite. “He knew it was a joke,” Franken recalled. They proceeded to debate the morals of abortion in what apparently was a civil manner.

I mention these anecdotes to explain why Dobson is, arguably, the most powerful social conservative in the country, central to the battle over federal judges – and a danger to the people who would oppose him. He has built an empire – Focus on the Family – by projecting an avuncular, unflappable image. Unlike evangelical Christian provocateurs such as Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, Dobson isn’t a minister. He wants to convert souls to Christ, and denounce the evils of society, but there is no fire or brimstone in sight and no sound of doom in his voice. He wants to be on decent terms with – or at least win a modicum of respect from – the likes of Imus and Franken. He is media savvy.

And yet he is plunging into politics headlong after a lifetime of staying away from it, convinced that he must use all of his accumulated good will and power as a family counselor to render a harsh message of judgment against political leaders – federal judges and members of congress – he thinks are allowing the country to sink into a hellhole or relativism and licentiousness.

In person, Dobson’s voice is soothing, his manner careful, considerate. The Focus on the Family headquarters in a shopping mall (with a spectacular view of a snowy Rocky Mountain Front Range) is corporate but homey, with natural wood and light and walls of pictures of Dobson’s life and those of his colleagues.

He is at home in his state-of-the-art radio studio, where he records a daily broadcast that is heard on more than 2,000 stations – forming the core of his influence. Visit the bookstore on his campus and you see another part of the Focus on the Family machinery: row after row of books by Dobson on family issues and childrearing, the most famous of which is probably “Dare to Discipline.”

The point is, this is a man who can live in two worlds. With a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California and years of clinical experience, Dobson is the real thing in academic and professional terms. Liberals can’t gainsay his credentials. Yet his message – corporal punishment is necessary, if carefully used, especially on boys; Christian faith is the ultimate support that all families need to survive – is one that fellow evangelicals find helpful and inspiring.

He’s the kind of guy that anyone might want to talk to about their kids, and you have a sense that the discussion would be polite, even if you disagreed. It’s that decency and civility that has made Dobson such a force in the country.

But politics is another matter. He was venomous on the topic of the federal judiciary, which he sees largely as a coven of secular ayatollahs imposing a pro-abortion, pro-pornography, pro-gay-and-lesbian agenda on a Christian nation. He and his lieutenants have become deeply versed in the voting records and election prospects of the senators who will handle the judicial nominations.

I asked him what his top priority was in public life, and was astonished to hear him answer: ending the filibuster rule. Any Republicans who stray from the party line on that issue can expect the full weight of Dobson to come down on them.

Beneath the placid demeanor I sensed an urgency and intensity – a man close to the boiling point at what he sees as the iniquities of political leadership. Are members of Congress unruly children needing discipline from the "Dare to Discipline" author? Maybe so, but we don’t know how they will respond to Daddy Dobson. And we don't know how Dobson himself will react if they defy him. He's kept his cool so far, but that would be the ultimate test.