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Combat Zone:Pat Robertson sues for libel

4 minute read
Amy Wilentz

The Rev. Pat Robertson tried his best to look unruffled, but the charge rankled. Did the famed televangelist, as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in 1951, ask his father, then a U.S. Senator from Virginia, to use his pull to help the young man avoid combat duty in Korea? After fielding reporters’ questions about the allegation, Robertson last week launched a counterattack. He filed two libel suits for $35 million each in Washington federal court against his accusers, former Republican Congressman Paul McCloskey Jr. and Democratic Congressman Andrew Jacobs Jr. of Indiana. “I may become a candidate for President of the United States,” said Robertson, who last month announced a campaign to obtain 3 million signatures and financial support for a possible race. “It is important that I demonstrate the falsehood of these stories.”

The controversy began last summer, when Jacobs heard Robertson make a speech supporting military action by U.S.-backed rebels in Nicaragua. Jacobs thought McCloskey, a Korean War veteran who had been assigned to the same unit as Robertson, had once singled out the evangelist as a hawkish conservative who had avoided combat service. Jacobs, who served as a combat infantryman with the Marines in Korea, asked McCloskey to provide greater detail.

Back came a six-page letter from McCloskey, who now works as a lawyer in Palo Alto, Calif. In January 1951 he left San Diego on the U.S.S. Breckinridge along with Robertson and some 2,000 other Marines. The ship stopped at Yokosuka and Kobe, Japan; Robertson did not continue on to Korea. “My single distinct memory,” McCloskey wrote, “is of Pat, with a big grin on his face, standing on the dock . . . saying something like, ‘So long, you guys — good luck,’ and telling us that his father (Democratic Senator A. Willis Robertson) had got him out of combat duty.” Several months later, according to McCloskey, Robertson and five other officers who had been pulled off the Breckinridge with him were reassigned to Korea. McCloskey wrote that Robertson had served as “division liquor officer,” flying alcoholic beverages in from Japan for his contingent.

According to Robertson’s office, he did leave the U.S.S. Breckinridge in Kobe, but was later transferred to Korea, where he served at 1st Marine Division headquarters as an assistant adjutant for six months. In his 1972 autobiography Shout It from the Housetops, Robertson fleetingly mentions his service as a “Marine combat officer in Korea”; at a press conference last month where he vehemently denied McCloskey’s charge, Robertson said his duties included transporting classified codes between Korea and Japan. But he did not claim any battle experience, and since then the words combat duty have been dropped from his official bio sheet.

After McCloskey’s letter was made public by Jacobs, at least one other ex- Marine offered a similar account of Robertson’s discussing his father’s string pulling. (Robertson Sr., who served in the Senate from 1946 to 1966, died in 1971.) “We are going to have to do something to put this thing down,” said a Robertson aide earlier this month. “It’s getting out of hand.” The suits dramatize Robertson’s intention to fight any hint that he sought to evade combat duty in Korea. In libel cases, however, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. It is likely to be difficult for Robertson to prove that his father did not use senatorial influence to protect him from combat. But if he is hoping that the prospect of an expensive, time-consuming suit will force a retraction from McCloskey, Robertson has underestimated his old shipmate. “Unfortunately, it will cost so much,” says McCloskey. “But there is nothing like cross-examination to bring out the truth in people.”

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