ROSS PEROT'S extravaganza was the Jerry Lewis Telethon of politics: an interminable rally at which thousands of decent citizens trying to do good had to indulge the high-pitched ravings of an egomaniacal clown.
William Bennett was right, if unsuccessful, when he advised his party's would-be presidents "not to pander to Mr. Perot" by showing up in Dallas, on the grounds that he is "nothing but trouble."
But however depressing the spectacle of Republicans and Democrats alike brown-nosing Perot, his pander-thon was not the most disturbing flexing of political muscle by a would-be demagogue we will see this year.
Far more alarming -- and less likely to be exposed to scrutiny by continuous cable TV coverage -- is the convention to be held by the Christian Coalition in Washington the weekend after Labor Day. Phil Gramm, Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich and Bennett himself have all signed up to pay court to Pat Robertson, that rare politician who makes Perot seem benign.
It has now been six months since Michael Lind documented in the New York Review of Books how Robertson's best-selling political tract, "The New World Order," regurgitates decades-old conspiracy theories about all-powerful bankers who just happen to be Jewish. But to this day, Robertson has not disowned these theories and no Republican leader except Arlen Specter, who is Jewish, has had the guts to repudiate him.
Instead Robertson's political allies are now engaged in an energetic effort to cover up and rationalize his crackpot ideas, lest anyone look askance at the GOP candidates who pander to him, as they do to Perot, in hopes of winning his constituency's votes.
The first effort to explain away Robertson's views came from Jay Lefkowitz, a former Bush administration aide, who told the Times in February: "I don't see Pat Robertson as being opposed to Jewish interests. Deep down, I believe that a little anti-Semitism is good for Jews -- it reminds us who we are."
Some months after that much-quoted and inflammatory statement compounded Robertson's image problem, the theologian Richard John Neuhaus argued at length in National Review that Robertson couldn't possibly be anti-Semitic because of "the happy fact" that anti-Semitism itself has largely disappeared from America except among fringe groups "such as Aryan Nation" and "racist skinheads." (So much for Louis Farrakhan!) Rather than prove this unsupportable assertion, Father Neuhaus instead hurled invective at Robertson's critics, including me. (I earned the sobriquet "attack dog," a step up from the "Jewish dog" of my hate mail.)
Raising the ante, he then accused the Anti-Defamation League of keeping anti-Semitism alive in America: "It has an institutional need for a steady supply of anti-Semitism. Its fund-raising depends on it."
As if to concede how much this piece backfired, Norman Podhoretz has taken yet another tack in Commentary. While speaking well of Neuhaus and impugning the motives of Lind, Podhoretz nonetheless upholds Lind's findings. He declares that Robertson "has subscribed to and purveyed ideas that have an old and well-established anti-Semitic pedigree," and he describes the "paranoid historical fantasies" of "The New World Order" as "demented." Then, in a surprise denouement, he forgives Robertson everything because he is pro-Israel.
All this frantic circling of the wagons is subterfuge, designed to belie the real threat posed by Robertson. Anti-Semitism is hardly the scariest issue here. Even if his book didn't contain dark theories about usurers named Warburg and Rothschild, it would still be the most widely disseminated promoter of paranoid fears of an incipient and totalitarian "new world order" -- the core ideology that the far right now uses to blame the federal government for the Oklahoma City bombing. No wonder that Eustace Mullins, a prominent conspiracy theorist who now accuses the Anti-Defamation League and the FBI of jointly planning the bombing to discredit the militia movement, turns up in Robertson's book as a bibliographical source.
The September convention at which our would-be presidents will be legitimizing Pat Robertson is called "Road to Victory." Cynical politicians, it seems, will travel that road at any price.
Frank Rich is a columnist for the New York Times.