Special Report

Crisis Management

The fall of a leading Catholic political operative.

By 9.27.04

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When news was about to break last week that Deal Hudson is being forced to step down as publisher of Crisis magazine, a D.C.-based conservative Catholic monthly, he tried to get out ahead of the story. In an e-mail to supporters last Tuesday, Hudson wrote that the move was his decision, because he was "tired of being a lightning rod." He announced that a new position had been created for him as head of the Morley Institute, where he would raise money for Crisis and pursue his own pet projects, starting with a Catholic version of Rock the Vote.

Both the action and the announcement were in keeping with how Hudson had been dealing with the revelation that he lost his tenured position at a Jesuit university on morals charges in 1994. In August, Hudson resigned as an adviser to the Bush campaign and published a pre-emptive response to a story that the liberal National Catholic Reporter was about to break, to be followed by a second blast from the New York Times. Last week's attempt at narrative control was, if possible, even less effective than his August public relations debacle.

Last time around, some of the wagons started to circle. Hudson's strategy was to admit to vague wrongdoing; paint it as far in the past, done with, and paid for (to the tune of $30,000, it turns out); and then lash out at the political motives of the paper looking into his history. This, the charge went, was payback for the fact that his open campaign against any official Catholic cooperation with John Kerry had resulted in the sacking of one Ono Ekeh, who had been simultaneously an employee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and proprietor of the Catholics for Kerry website.

In a press release, Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League, minimized the charges against Hudson and attempted a joke at the Virgin Mary's expense. "Effective today," Donahue wrote, his organization had "a new requirement for all future employees: all candidates must show proof of being immaculately conceived, that is, they must demonstrate that they were conceived without sin." Patrick Madrid, publisher of the non-political Catholic outreach magazine Envoy described Hudson as a "fundamentally good man trying to do good things for the Church" and asked readers to pray for him.

Lay theologian and sometime Crisis contributor Mark Shea (disclosure: we're good acquaintances) went the furthest of any of Hudson's defenders. Shea wrote that the National Catholic Reporter "covered itself in ignominy. Period." Though Shea allowed that "from a purely journalistic perspective" he could see why someone would want to pursue the story, he alleged that reporter Joe Feuerherd had "no other object in mind than to destroy somebody whose politics are inimical to the editorial posture of the National 'Catholic' Reporter." Shea called the Reporter's coverage -- and I wish I was making this up -- "as satanic a violation of the Sacrament of Reconciliation [Confession] as a predator priest is of the Sacrament of Holy Orders."

BUT IN THE LAST month, the wagons began to return to the trail. Responding to complaints, the Catholic League has removed the press release from its website and nothing was forthcoming when Hudson was forced out. Shea has backtracked some. Though he defends his broader point about the importance of forgiveness, and his bizarre, expansive interpretation of the Sacrament of Confession, Shea wrote last Thursday that Hudson strikes him "as a GOP Operator who happens to be Catholic much more than as a Catholic who happens to be a GOP Operator."

In an interview, Patrick Madrid told me that he didn't know Hudson very well and that while he initially thought the story was a counterattack for the Catholics for Kerry incident, he now takes Feuerherd "at his word as to why this article came out the way it did -- that he originally intended to write a profile piece and it morphed into this other thing because of what he was hearing." Though Madrid still worries this incident may frighten people away from doing "something good for the Church" for fear of reprisal, he acknowledges that Hudson did a lot to bring the roof down on himself.

Indeed, the interesting thing is how Feuerherd got his hands on the damning information. He insists that it came from Hudson's own associates with very little coaxing on his part. When the Reporter reported that Hudson had invited a "vulnerable freshman undergraduate, Cara Poppas, to join a group of older students for a pre-Lenten 'Fat Tuesday' night of partying at a Greenwich Village bar. The night concluded after midnight in Hudson's Fordham office, where he and the drunken 18-year-old exchanged sexual favors," it did so not based on leads from Catholics for Choice but from conservative Catholics with axes to grind.

IN THE QUARRELSOME WORLD of Beltway conservative Catholics, Deal Hudson was both powerful and reviled. In the infighting over this year's first ever National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, I heard several insults flung at him that you wouldn't want to repeat in front of your mother. Or your father.

Hudson had the ear of the White House -- which he defended, at times to a fault. The American bishops condemned the same stem cell compromise that he went out of his way to excuse. Bush strategist Karl Rove had contacted him about an article that Crisis ran in 1998 about how the GOP could more effectively reach out to Catholic voters, and it was a match made in Purgatory. The gist of Hudson's suggested approach was that the Bush campaign ought to target regular Mass-attending Catholics, who were much more likely be sympathetic to Bush's "compassionate conservative" pitch than the broader mass of nominal Catholics that make up the mythical "Catholic vote." The strategy had some positive results in 2000, which translated into influence for Hudson in the Bush administration.

The Catholic League's Donahue told the New York Times that Hudson had become "the point man" for conservative Catholics to communicate with the Bush administration. Hudson was in regular contact with Rove and company. He advised them how to tailor their message to a Catholic audience and he organized off-the-record briefings for a lot of Catholic writers. Over the last four years Hudson transformed himself from journalist to operator. As he admitted in his latest letter to supporters, his involvement in Crisis shrunk. He went from editor and publisher to just publisher, leaving Brian Saint-Paul in charge of the direction of the magazine. (The current crew that runs the magazine just oversaw a major redesign: new logo, new font, full color, all around cleaner look.)

Though it's hard to gauge the motives of anonymous whistleblowers with any kind of precision, Hudson was great at provoking people: would-be friend and foe alike. And by most reports he let his newfound status magnify a lot of his existing vices. Madrid acknowledged that Hudson has antagonized a lot of people. "That's a bad combination. When you have people who have a reason to dislike you and then when they find something that they can use against you -- that can be very sad," he opined. Sadder still was Hudson's response to the August revelations. He could have answered like a human being and penitent sinner. He might even have managed to hold onto his job. But instead he tried to spin the story his way.

AND HE'S STILL SPINNING. Last Wednesday, the Washington Times quickly made a lie of his final letter to supporters. The Times reported that the choice to leave was not his. Five contributing editors, including founding editors Michael Novak and Ralph McInerny, had issued an ultimatum to the Crisis oversight board -- them or Deal -- and the board chose them.

As McInerny explained his objections to the Times, "He withdrew from being an adviser to the White House, so one could conclude he should leave Crisis. If his presence had a negative effect on a Catholic campaign effort, certainly it'd affect a Catholic magazine." As one final kick in the pants, Peggy Noonan, honored in the September issue of Crisis, refused to accept the award at the magazine's annual banquet at the Willard Hotel on the same day that Hudson claimed he had informed the board he was leaving. Two other possible recipients turned it down before the event planners found a ringer: controversial Franciscan Rev. Benedict Groeschel, whose response to the Catholic Church's sex scandals has largely consisted of blaming journalists.

Further, though the staff of Crisis has been ordered to utter not one word to the press, a source close to the magazine helped me to sort out this Morley Institute business. Many people assumed that the magazine is published by the Institute, and that his transfer from one post to another amounted to a golden parachute from the Crisis board to Hudson. Au contraire, said my source. The magazine used to be published under the heading of the Morley Institute but at some point the title was changed to the Morley Publishing Group. The revived Morley Institute, my source insisted, will be utterly independent of the Publishing Group. So, ten years after a sex scandal cost him his last job, those same charges have forced Hudson to start over yet again, pretty much from scratch.

There are enough cautionary tales here probably to fill several notebooks. In a series of e-mails, Rod Dreher, assistant editorial page editor at the Dallas Morning News, said that it should have been a red flag "for the publisher of a Catholic magazine to serve as an adviser to a politician." By doing so, Hudson "opened himself up to the charge that he was politicizing Catholicism." Dreher worries that "in this case, Catholic journalism stood to become court flattery."

Perhaps. However, given Hudson's admitted withdrawal from oversight of the magazine and McInerny's comments relating to his ouster, another lesson suggests itself: When people begin to see journalists as politicians, there goes what little job security we posses. For some reason, they get the sudden and overwhelming urge to vote us out of office.

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.