Tom Hanks

The liberal reporter and the conservative pastor: Inside Texas Monthly's big story on 'Trump's Apostle'

The liberal reporter and the conservative pastor: Inside Texas Monthly's big story on 'Trump's Apostle'

Social media went nuts this week — overwhelmingly positive nuts — over the official trailer for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a film starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers that will hit theaters just in time for Thanksgiving.

As Esquire notes, “The film is based on a profile of Mr. Rogers that journalist Tom Junod wrote for Esquire in 1998. In the film, Matthew Rhys plays a fictionalized version of the writer, embarking upon the profile of the kids television icon with initial reluctance before forging a friendship with his subject, the true guru of pretty much everything that’s good in the world.”

Hmmmm, a movie about the relationship that develops between a journalist and his subject.

Perhaps this formula could work for a future movie about Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas and a leading evangelical adviser to President Donald Trump.

Except that — when Hollywood tells Jeffress’ story — he’s not likely to be portrayed as “the true guru of pretty much everything that’s good in the world.” Instead, think Dick Cheney in “Vice.”

The basis for the Jeffress screenplay? The big screen could do worse than Texas Monthly’s long August cover story on “Trump’s Apostle.”

Writer Michael J. Mooney sets the scene this way:

Here’s Robert Jeffress, talking to the hundreds of thousands of people watching conservative cable news on a typical Friday evening, and he’s defending President Donald Trump against the latest array of accusations in the news this week. And he isn’t simply defending Trump—he’s defending him with one carefully crafted Bible-wrapped barb after another, and with more passion, more preparation, more devotion than anyone else on television.

As Lou Dobbs finishes his opening remarks, Jeffress laughs and nods. It’s early January, about two weeks into what will prove to be the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of federal workers are missing paychecks, worrying about mortgages, car payments, utility bills. Some have started going to food banks. But Dobbs waves his hand up and down and tells Jeffress that he hasn’t heard anyone—“literally no one!”—say they miss the government. The jowly host revels in Trump’s threats that the shutdown could continue “for months, if not years,” if that’s what it takes to get more wall built on America’s border with Mexico.

Jeffress, speaking from a remote studio in downtown Dallas, agrees completely. “Well, he’s doing exactly the right thing in keeping this government shut down until he gets that wall,” he says.

Jeffress is the senior pastor at First Baptist Dallas, a 13,000-member megachurch that’s one of the most influential in the country, but he’s known best for appearances like this one: he’s often on Fox & Friends or Hannity or any number of sound-bitey segments on Fox News or Fox Business. His own religious show airs six days a week on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. He has a daily radio program too, broadcast on more than nine hundred Christian stations across the country, though it’s TV he loves best. Dobbs invites Jeffress onto his show nearly every week.

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Brian Williams, Saint John Paul II, Charlton Heston, Kevin Bacon and, well, me

Brian Williams, Saint John Paul II, Charlton Heston, Kevin Bacon and, well, me

Remember that game that was so hot a few years ago, the whole "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" thing? One of the fun things about hanging out with experienced journalists is that you can play a similar game, based on who has interviewed who.

For example, as a religion writer I have interviewed Billy Graham. That puts me one degree of separation away from, what, half of the famous people in world culture in the second half of the 20th century? Or, in music, I have interviewed Dave Brubeck. Stop and think about that one, in terms of links to music royalty dating back into the early 20th century.

However, journalists do like to sweat the details.

For example, I have asked Tom Hanks a question in a live press conference. Is that the same thing as "meeting" Hanks? Perhaps you shook hands with the Archbishop of Canterbury and asked a quick question. Is that the same thing as "interviewing" him? How about a telephone interview with Robert Duvall? Twice? Is that the same as "meeting" him?

I attended the 1987 meeting between St. John Paul II and media leaders in Hollywood and greater Los Angeles, sneaking in with a pass from a Rocky Mountain News editor (a national officer in a press association) who was not able to attend. At the end, the pope moved down the aisle greeting people and shaking hands. I had a chance to shake his hand but, well, I let Charlton Heston get in front of me. You can't fight the voice of God, right? I did speak a greeting to the pope and he nodded. But is that "meeting" the pope?

Where am I going with this? To the latest wrinkles in the sad story of Brian Williams, of course.

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So what was the point of that 'Tom Hanks goes to church' post the other day?

So what was the point of that 'Tom Hanks goes to church' post the other day?

Hang in there with me for a moment on this one. I want to respond to a few comments I have heard after my recent post on that faith-free Washington Post feature story about superstar Tom Hanks.

But first, let me dig into a topic that "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I discussed in depth while recording this past week's podcast (we're getting to this late because of technical issues). Click here to tune in on that.

Why is Hanks such an important, symbolic cultural figure in the first place?

Let's ponder this for a bit.

Long ago, I had a chance to interview Hollywood director Phil Alden Robinson about some of the cultural and religious themes woven into his famous "Field of Dreams" blockbuster. We discussed, for example, (a) the mental process he went though as he was casting the highly symbolic role of Dr. Archibald "Moonlight" Graham and (b) what he thought of the theory, which some articulated even as he was preparing to film this classic, that he was trying to produce the Baby Boomer edition of "It's A Wonderful Life."

Imagine, he told me, how many people would have connected those two movies if his first choice to fill the Moonlight Graham role had been able to play the part.

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Was the Washington Post all that interested in the heart and soul of superstar Tom Hanks?

Was the Washington Post all that interested in the heart and soul of superstar Tom Hanks?

Every year, the Kennedy Center Honors are handed out and this often creates, in my opinion, some of the most interesting Beltway journalism about the arts and culture.

The point, of course, is that these honors are given to truly transcendent artists, those who have helped shape American life or who somehow symbolize essential trends in our times (as defined, of course, by the principalities and powers behind the honors process).

The Washington Post features team, as you would expect, rolls out massive, deeply researched stories about these artists. This brings me to the long, long feature that ran the other day about actor Tom Hanks, who is about as likely a Kennedy Center honoree as anyone who has ever lived.

The big theme in this piece is that people respect Hanks as a thinker, as an artist and as a man, yet they also know that he has kept his private life in the shadows. The bottom line: It's just hard to find out what makes this guy tick. Here is the crucial passage:

Poke around. Ask other actors. Google at will. There’s not much you can find on Hanks. No storming off sets. No DWIs. No errant tweets. He did once extend his middle finger to the paparazzi after being stalked at lunch, but he has never pulled an Alec Baldwin.
In person, he is warm, thoughtful and funny. ... Just don’t mistake that warmth for accessibility. Tom Hanks, the public figure, has rehearsed his lines as well as Tom Hanks, the actor. Long ago, he built a wall between his personal and professional lives. No magazine cover is worth scaling it. Over the years, the few snippy comments the genial Hanks has made to interviewers have come when others have tried to intrude.
“If people don’t know the real me or know what my life’s about, that’s good, because I don’t want them to,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1993.

All well and good. Hanks has been a rather private man, but not all THAT private. 

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Pod people: Does it matter if celebrities/royals have faith?

As the old saying goes, Americans don’t have a royal family. We have celebrities.

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