After controversy, a new House chaplain

Posted: Friday, March 24, 2000

WASHINGTON -- Speaker Dennis Hastert appointed a Chicago priest, the Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin, as House chaplain on Thursday and blamed Democrats for ''whispered hints in dark places'' that anti-Catholic bias infected a four-month controversy over the post.

Coughlin was sworn in within minutes as the first Roman Catholic to hold the position of ministering to lawmakers and their families. He won bipartisan applause in the well of the House, a sharp contrast to the partisan struggle that prompted an earlier choice, the Rev. Charles Wright, a Presbyterian to withdraw.

Coughlin, the vicar for priests in the Chicago archdiocese, flew to Washington earlier in the day. He called his appointment ''terribly unexpected.''

With the appointment, Hastert sought to end a controversy that roiled the House for months and prompted Republicans to worry about the political impact of allegations of anti-Catholic bias.

''I am a patient man,'' said the Illinois Republican, who took office 15 months ago with a pledge to lower the level of acrimony in the House. ''But even I did not easily take in stride carelessly tossed accusations of bigotry.

''Where I come from such slander is an ugly business,'' he said. Those making the charges, he said, ''don't know me or are maliciously seeking political advantage by making these accusations.''

In remarks of his own, Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt said, ''I have never said and I never believed that there was a bias involved in the making of this selection.''

But even as Coughlin was meeting his new flock, Hastert and Gephardt's office offered sharply differing versions of the events leading to the appointment.

Wright, his appointment in limbo for months, met privately with Hastert in the Capitol on Tuesday and offered to withdraw. In a letter released by the speaker's office, he referred to the political controversy. ''Let us be thankful that God is not an independent, not a Democrat and not a Republican. He is for all of us,'' he wrote.

Wright's original selection triggered a charge of bias almost immediately last fall. The Rev. Tim O'Brien, passed over for the post, said in an interview at the time, ''I am convinced that if I were a mainline Protestant minister and not a Catholic priest, I would be the candidate.''

Democrats swiftly began questioning the selection process. ''I think there are tones of (bias) involved,'' said Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat who served on the selection committee. ''I do not say this gladly,'' she added.

Other Democrats stoked the controversy, some suggesting strongly that evangelical Republican lawmakers were particularly opposed to appointment of a priest as chaplain.

Democrats insisted that the bipartisan group of lawmakers who reviewed candidates last fall had forwarded three names to Hastert, House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Gephardt, with O'Brien ranked at the top.

Republicans countered -- and Hastert said in his floor speech -- that there were no rankings.

Hastert said Gephardt initially favored another candidate, Rev. Robert Dvorak, a Protestant, then switched his support to O'Brien.

Hastert ultimately chose Wright, and, he said in his speech, ''The choice was not unanimous,'' but both Armey and Gephardt agreed. ''We issued a joint press release ... I thought we had reached consensus.''

Laura Nichols, Gephardt's aide, disputed that, however, saying that he had supported O'Brien throughout. She said Gephardt had merely ''acquiesced'' in a press release. ''He was outvoted, 2-1,'' she said, adding that Hastert was guilty of a ''tactless, graceless, partisan maneuver.''

Whatever the truth, the controversy lingered. Gephardt did not act on Hastert's request to invite Wright to meet rank and file Democrats.

Republicans appeared divided. Some pressed for an effort to muscle Wright through a divided House. Others urged Hastert to permit the retiring Rev. James Ford to stay in the post. Still others suggested a rotating series of chaplains to mute the controversy.

At one point, Hastert told fellow Republicans the issue was weighing personally on him. At the same time, strategists fretted about the impact of the charge of bias, particularly given that Catholics make up for more than 25 percent of the electorate.

In his remarks, Hastert seemed at times like a man responding to his critics after months of silence.

Speaking of Wright, he said, ''Instead of hearing the positive voice of a Godly and caring man, the only voices we hear are the whispered hints in dark places that his selection is the result of anti-Catholic bias.''

Republican sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Hastert held a prearranged meeting with Coughlin in Chicago on Monday. The following day, he met privately with Wright, who signaled his intention to withdraw.

On Wednesday, Wright's letter was received. Coughlin was offered the job on Thursday, only hours before his appointment was made. He accepted and flew to Washington almost immediately.

Coughlin is the vicar for priests in the Chicago archdiocese whose mother -- at 85 -- is an usher at Wrigley Field where the Chicago Cubs play.

Coughlin told reporters the United States stood for ''unity mixed with diversity.''

Asked if he was aware he was walking into a Lion's den, he provoked laughter, saying, ''My name is Daniel.''

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