Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights president William A. Donohue took to the airwaves December 7 and 8, criticizing the White House holiday card for excluding the word “Christmas.” He described the omission as a “dumbing down” of the holiday, and charged President Bush with “pulling a Clinton” by “caving in to the forces of political correctness.” Donohue appeared in segments on the December 7 broadcasts of ABC's World News Tonight and MSNBC's Scarborough Country. On December 8, he was interviewed live on CNN's American Morning by anchors Miles O'Brien and Carol Costello. As anchors or commentators on all three networks noted, White House holiday cards have not included the word 'Christmas' during the terms of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. It was not included in the final six years of former President Ronald Reagan's term. This year's card does not mark a departure from the practices of recent previous administrations.
Donohue also indicated that his indictment of the White House holiday card stemmed from his desire to maintain “leverage” against retailers who similarly choose to employ non-Christian holiday greetings in advertisements or store displays. On American Morning, O'Brien pressed Donohue, “What if Jesus got this card, what would he do? Would he be angry about it? He'd be OK with it, wouldn't he?” Donohue responded, “Well, maybe he would, but I've never met him.” O'Brien subsequently asked twice, “WWJD?”
From the December 7 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight which featured anchor Bob Woodruff and ABC News correspondent John Donvan:
WOODRUFF: Finally tonight -- every year around this time, about a million and a half people get a card from the White House. And even in those kind of numbers, a lot of people enjoy the gesture from the president and Mrs. Bush. Well, this year, some of the president's most energetic supporters were less than thrilled with what they got in the mail. Here's ABC's John Donvan.
DONVAN: This most popular president among conservative Christians. He lights the tree. He discusses the true meaning of Christmas.
PRESIDENT BUSH [clip]: For over two millennia, Christmas has carried the message that God is with us.
DONVAN: But the card he sent out this year, that was not Christian enough, better make that “Christmassy” enough, for some: family pets; a nice gold seal inside; some Old Testament. But “Best Wishes for the Holiday Season,” that is not “Merry Christmas,” which infuriated William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
DONOHUE [clip]: At a time when a lot of Christians today are very upset about the way our society is dumbing down Christmas, they certainly don't want to see the president of the United States chiming in. We know him as a man of courage. So why is he caving in to the forces of political correctness?
DONVAN: It's that secular “Happy Holidays” thing that Donohue's and other groups can't stand. In recent years, they've threatened boycotts of stores like Macy's and Targets for failing to mention Christmas by name.
DONOHUE [clip]: Prior to Clinton, none of the presidents had a problem saying “Merry Christmas” at Christmastime. Now Bush is pulling a Clinton. I expected more from this guy.
DONVAN: Well, that's not quite right. Both Presidents Carter and Reagan sometimes sent cards that never said “Christmas.” By the way, President Bush almost never explicitly says the words “Jesus” or “Christ” out loud in public. A rare exception, in this debate, when asked to name his favorite philosopher.
BUSH [clip]: Jesus Christ. Because he changed my heart.
DONVAN: Conservative Christians like William Donohue, obviously, would like to see more of that. In fact, today I asked him, “What if we elect a Jewish president? He or she should send out cards every year that say 'Merry Christmas'?” “Absolutely,” was his answer. John Donvan, ABC News, Washington.
WOODRUFF: The White House released a statement late today saying that the holiday card is similar to what they've sent for the last five years and they went to people of many faiths.
From the December 7 broadcast of MSNBC's Scarborough Country which featured host Joe Scarborough and radio host Bill Press:
SCARBOROUGH: Welcome back. The controversy over Christmas continues. I just can't believe it, but it does. The latest flash point: the White House. This year's Christmas card is not a Christmas card at all. It's actually a holiday card. And some evangelical leaders out there are not happy. With me to talk about it, Jennifer Giroux. She's the founder of Women Influencing the Nation. She's running a website called OperationJustSayMerryChristmas.com. We also have Bill Donohue. He's the president of the Catholic League. And Bill Press, author of the new book How the Republicans Stole Christmas (Doubleday, October 2005). Well, William Donohue, people like Bill Press would say, this is a large country. It's a diverse country. Shouldn't the president of the United States represent everybody when he sends out holiday cards, and not just evangelical Christians?
DONOHUE: No. He had a Hanukkah party yesterday in the White House, and that's fine with me. And you know what? I have been invited to St. Patrick's Day get-together, and I guess he excluded everybody who is not Irish. Too bad for them. That's our day. Look, everybody in this country -- you have Gay Pride Week. That means straight guys like me are excluded. Too bad for me. Look, it's a Christmas card. Why can't you say 'Merry Christmas and Happy New Year' in a Christmas card? I am not going to be a hypocrite about this. If I am going after some of the retailers, I am not going to give W. a pass, even though I think he is basically a good guy.
SCARBOROUGH: Bill Press, though, what's the big deal, though, if the president does send out a card that says 'Merry Christmas,' just like George Bush 41 did, and just like presidents have been doing for quite some time?
PRESS: Some presidents have, and other presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton at some point and the first President Bush, I believe at some point, did send out 'Happy Holiday' cards.
DONOHUE: Look, in Kansas, they wanted to put on -- in Shawnee, Kansas, they wanted to put on a depiction of a nativity scene, and they said, “well, you can't, because we are not allowed to have Baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph there. So, you can just have some animals in the background, like they did in Memphis, Tennessee.” You've got friendship trees. You've got peace trees. You have union trees. Look, why are people so sensitive? As a matter of fact, from FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt], up until Bush's father, every president had at least one Christmas card where they said, “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” My question is this: Where is the evidence that the 15 percent of the population which is not Catholic -- or not Christian, I should say -- were in a rage over this? There's no evidence about this. As a matter of fact, I think it's really damnable, because you are suggesting that Jews and Muslims are a bunch of bigots who suffer apoplexy every time they hear the word Christmas. That is simply wrong. The bigotry is coming from the left, as usual.
PRESS: There's no bigotry from the -- there's no bigotry from the -- we are talking about the president of the United States. He is hardly a member of the left. The president -- listen, for one time, on national television, I want to defend George W. Bush. I think it's very keeping with the season that he is embracing all Americans. He is being very inclusive. And he is saying, “no matter what your faith is, we are all Americans, let's all celebrate a holiday season.” I have got to tell you, I think -- I don't want to get personal here -- but I think anybody's faith is awfully thin if they are -- their Christianity is so thin that it's thrown off by somebody saying “Happy Holiday.”
From the December 8 broadcast of CNN's American Morning which featured hosts Miles O'Brien and Costello:
COSTELLO: Let's talk about another controversy going on -- the White House Christmas card.
O'BRIEN: Well, but it's not a Christmas card, that's the problem.
COSTELLO: Oh yeah, it's a holiday card.
O'BRIEN: Holiday card. See, it doesn't mention Christmas. And so there's this whole thing -- it has -- it's interesting. There it is, there's Barney and -- what's the other one? -- the two Scottish terriers. I forget their names -- Beasley -- Beasley and whatever. Beasley and Barney. Beasley and Barney. OK. Outside -- the White House, very pretty thing. You open up the card and there is a passage from the Old Testament. The pre-Christmas testament. And then a happy holiday season greeting, and this is in keeping with what the Bush White House has done thus far during its tenure, and what the Clinton White House did and apparently six out of eight Reagan holiday cards were, you know, non-religious. People this year, because of all this discussion about Christmas, are upset about it.
COSTELLO: Oh, yeah. It's become quite the issue. Quite the explosive issue. We're gonna talk to someone from the Catholic League about this because he's really angry.
O'BRIEN: It is the holiday season, and I say that h-word with some trepidation, because you say that these days and people get upset with you. That's how things are going in this season of concern about what's happening to Christmas. And enter into all that along with all the other concerns about Wal-Mart and whether they're say -- doing things to exclude Christmas, the White House -- I would say Christmas card, but holiday card, which is distinctly well, it's Old Testament, put it that way. Joining me now is Bill Donohue. He's president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. He got this card in the mail -- not very happy about it. Why not?
DONOHUE: Well, when I first got it, I wasn't too unhappy, quite frankly, cause I thought this -- this kind of generic Christmas card is probably something all presidents did. Then I found out later in the day -- I got a phone call from Alan Cooperman from The Washington Post and said I was wrong on that, that every president from FDR up until Bush one [President George H.W. Bush] had at least one Christmas card where they mention 'Merry Christmas.' It began under Clinton, they decided to neuter it. So I began to wonder, why is W not following his father' precedent, as opposed to Clinton's. That made me a little bit angry, and after all we went after Wal-Mart, I'm not gonna be a phony about this and say that a president whom I've met and that I like -- I'm not gonna be be a phony about it and give him a pass. So I think he should put out a Christmas card after all, is it too much to ask people to say “Merry Christmas” at Christmastime in a Christmas card?
O'BRIEN: Well, maybe the concern is, there are people of other faiths and the White House is representative of all Americans who practice all kinds of religions.
DONOHUE: I don't know of any evidence whatsoever that there was a protest by any segment of the American population -- of those 15 percent of Americans who are not Christian, when they got a Christmas card from W's father, from Reagan, from [former President Jimmy] Carter, and everybody else going back to FDR. The assumption is that somehow these non-Christians are bigots, they get upset with a 'Merry Christmas' card at Christmastime. If somebody mistakenly gave me a 'Happy Hanukkah' card I might laugh at it, I certainly wouldn't feel insulted.
COSTELLO: Oh come on though, I mean, is this really hurting Christmas, is this really diminish--I mean is this really such a big deal?
DONOHUE: On one hand, no. However, when you put it together with everything else that's happening in our society, where you have nativity scenes that are banned but you have menorahs that are okay, and you get a president who's in there -- in office -- because traditional Catholics and evangelical Protestants put him there -- if he's gonna be the leader and he starts to dumb down Christmas, how can I then have any leverage against retailers who are trying to dumb it down at the same time?
COSTELLO: So, to heck with all the rest of the people, he's gotta just, you know, his backers, he's gotta please them, but nobody else in the country?
DONOHUE: No, I think that, you know, I'm Irish and I'm a veteran and if you're not Irish and you're not a veteran too bad for you on St. Patrick's Day and Veteran's Day. I am straight and I don't get celebrated during Gay Pride week. Too bad for me. What have we come to in this country? We can't celebrate real --
O'BRIEN: Okay, let me ask you this, I'm going to ask you a quick question, Bill. What if Jesus got this card, what would he do? Would he be angry about it? He'd be okay with it, wouldn't he?
DONOHUE: Well, maybe he would, but I've never met him.
O'BRIEN: Well, you know what I mean.
DONOHUE: No, but oh, come on --
O'BRIEN: No, but you follow his precepts: WWJD? He wouldn't be angry about this. He'd say, it's OK --
DONOHUE: Well, I'm not gonna be in a position of criticizing Jesus, but I will criticize the president because I think that he should have followed the lead of his father -- you're getting me in a very tough situation, Miles.
O'BRIEN: Well, I mean, I think that's a legitimate question. You're talking -- you know, if it's a Christian holiday and you as a Christian are demanding it, you have to ask, what would the person who invented Christianity do about it, right?
DONOHUE: Why do we have to dumb down and neuter Christmas? The assumption is if you say “Merry Christmas” to a non-Christian, they're gonna get angry? I don't believe it. Yes, there are some bigots, but I don't think most Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists and others and including atheists are a bunch of bigots who get upset with “Merry Christmas.” They know a Christmas card when they see it, they expect people to say 'Merry Christmas,' including the president.
COSTELLO: Well, I just have a final question. If we had a Jewish president, would the Jewish president --
DONOHUE: Of course he would send it out because --
COSTELLO: -- he would send out Christmas cards?
DONOHUE: It's not about him, it's about the fact that this is a recognition of a merry Christmas. If we -- look I mean -- what is the big deal here? People send me St. Patrick's Day cards who are Italian. I don't get upset about that and they're not angry because they send it to me. I mean, our sensitivities have gone too crazy here.
COSTELLO: Everybody celebrates St. Patrick's Day. We could argue about this --
O'BRIEN: And, and, and everybody celebrates Christmas in a sense because there is --
DONOHUE: That's right.
O'BRIEN: -- it's become a very secular, commercial --
DONOHUE: So why can't they say Christmas?
O'BRIEN: Well, I --
DONOHUE: What's wrong with “Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays” ? Or “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” ?
O'BRIEN: That sounds -- that sounds very [inaudible]. 'Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Happy Chanukah, Peaceful Kwanzaa,' do it all, just list it all.
DONOHUE: No, no, no --
O'BRIEN: No, you don't like that one either? (laughs)
DONOHUE: No, no, I don't. I don't want it dumbed down and generic, I want 'Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.' That's what I want.
O'BRIEN: That's what you want. Alright, Bill Donohue.
DONOHUE: Thank you.