Reporting on Paula White and the White House: Trying to tell her side of the story

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Those of you who may have read my lengthy profile on Paula White in this past Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine may not know that it was this GetReligion post a year ago and then this one that helped make the Post story happen. I was fascinated by this ambitious woman and told journalists they needed to stop trashing her.

Her spokesman, Johnnie Moore, noticed these posts, and contacted me to express thanks for their fairness.

Mercenary creature that I am, the wheels started turning in my head. A lot of publications, I thought, would be interested in knowing the inner life of this woman; the backstory behind her relationship with President Donald Trump and how she has hung on over the years despite scandals that would deck most people.

So I floated a trial balloon: Would Paula, I asked him, consent to appearing before dozens of journalists at the Religion News Association convention in Nashville in September? As a member of the conference committee, I was putting together a panel and I wanted her to be on it. Through Moore, she said yes. (Note: I’ll be referring to everyone by their last names in this piece except for Paula).

By this time, I was in contact with pros at the Post’s Sunday magazine, since I have written 14 stories either for the magazine or the Style section. Most of the pieces were several thousand words long, including my latest: A 2015 profile on Alice Rogoff, wife of inside-the Beltway billionaire David Rubenstein and (at the time) publisher of the Anchorage-based Alaska Dispatch News. The folks at the magazine were definitely interested in a story since no other reporter had managed to get inside her head, as it were. Paula was on the road so much, I didn’t get through to her until June to explain what a story of close to 6,000 words would entail. She remembered me from an earlier story I'd done on her years ago. We agreed that I’d spend three days following her around Washington, D.C. in late July.

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Early in the afternoon of July 27, I was standing at the Northwest gate on Pennsylvania Avenue impatiently waiting for the right media person to allow me in. I didn’t know there was a titanic battle raging right then between communications director Anthony Scaramucci (who would be fired the following week) and chief of staff Reince Priebus who was about to be ousted.

No one seemed in charge at the communications office, but I was eventually escorted into the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, a 19th century Victorian edifice styled like an enormous wedding cake. There was Paula, standing in the hallway talking with a group of Southern Baptist pastors.

One always notices the outer stuff first: The death-defying high heels, false eyelashes, impeccable grooming and flaming red dress. It was hard not to feel like a whale next to her, as she’s about 5-feet, 4-inches tall and wears a size two. She was clearly in charge. Paula's access to Trump and evangelical leaders was unprecedented, as she was basically allowed free rein of the White House and allowed to bring in whomever she wanted to meet with a rainbow of higher-ups ranging from several of the Trumps (Ivanka, her husband Jared and of course Ivanka's dad); Vice President Mike Pence and more. No wonder folks in the media were dying to find out exactly what she does there. 

That was easier said than done. To my chagrin, I was told that I’d only be allowed to listen in for about five minutes on her session with the Baptists in that not everyone was wild about having a reporter sitting in the room. Sure enough, I got in only a few quotes from the participants when I was shown the door, but given the opportunity to talk with two of the Baptist officials. One was Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2014-2016 and current senior pastor of Cross Church in Springdale, Ark.

“As president of the SBC, I was never asked to come to the White House or be in relationship with anyone in DC,” he told me. “I prayed for President Obama every day. But even though Southern Baptists were the largest non-Catholic denomination, I’d received no invite.

“This White House wants to hear from us. It wants to know what we believe about the country and what’s important to us. This administration in their first six months has shown they are concerned about faith-based matters.”

Now Floyd was one of four SBC clergy on the platform during the post-inauguration interfaith prayer service at the National Cathedral. He had a private dinner with Trump and other clergy the eve of the National Day of Prayer. In July, he was one of a bevy of clergy shown laying their hands on Trump and praying in a now-famous photo on Twitter. So yes, I could see why he felt the current administration was quite the sea change from the Obama years. 

My other interview was SBC evangelist Jay Strack who was more up front about the aversion most of them had initially felt toward Paula. She was everything they despised: A thrice-married woman with a messy personal history and highly suspect fundraising practices. 

It was his quotes that woke me up to the utter weirdness of a Pentecostal female televangelist and pastor (the Southern Baptists hardly ever ordain women and most of them strongly disagree with Pentecostal theology) welcoming these men to the White House. Strack highly disliked White until he was invited to a June 2016 meeting of religious leaders at Trump Tower and the first person to greet him was White.

Strack was floored by the Trump family’s obvious fondness for White and her refusal to aggrandize herself with them.

“I watched this lady push others forward toward Trump,” he said. “None of us would have been in that room if not for something the Lord put together 16 years ago. I said, ‘Paula, I owe you an apology. I’m a Southern boy. I would never deliberately be rude, but you were not in my book. I’d written you off. I’d wanted nothing to do with you.’ ”

White’s riposte was quick. “There are times in my life when there were things I’ve said and done when I didn’t want anything to do with me.”

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I was drinking in all these great quotes when suddenly the door opened to the small room where I was interviewing these men and a staffer for the communications office stood there. Plans had changed, she informed me and I needed to leave the building. Now. I protested that I had Paula’s approval to be there but nothing I said made any difference.

I never did get a decent explanation of what happened that afternoon, but as I found myself deposited back on Pennsylvania Avenue, I messaged the photographer assigned to the story: Mary Calvert, an old friend from my Washington Times days who was now freelancing for the Post. We agreed to meet at the Trump Hotel, which was about an eight-block walk from where I stood.

Lots of folks have criticized the place as everything from a “frightful dump” to “eye-popping” but I have to say I agreed more with the latter view. (What is also eye-popping are the prices). The lobby had royal blue divans with white plush lounge chairs, large half-moon-shaped couches, glass tables, fresh flowers, blue and gold carpet and blue and white brocade pillows. There was an enormous bar (with TV screens) at one end and multiple gold chandeliers under a glass ceiling.

Mary and I had barely had time to talk when Paula and her entourage arrived; the latter including her son Bradley Knight; daughter-in-law Rachel, grand-daughter Asher, and husband Jonathan Cain. A few of the Baptists had come along, too.

Paula had been going since early that morning and needed a few minutes to kick back, so she asked me to interview her son and husband first. Usually when someone asks you to interview family members, you do an invisible eye roll and prepare to listen to some boring remarks.

Not this crowd. Knight, who had wavy, brown hair and wore a black T-shirt with characters from South Park, was a registered Democrat and had voted for Hillary. He’d been an anarchist for a time; could quote feminist theory and was a philosophy major and women/gender studies minor at University of Central Florida. The black sheep of the family during his teen years, he’d re-committed his life as a Christian seven years before at age 24 but was not the typical offspring of a Pentecostal minister. More recently, “I took a hard turn toward conservatism,” he told me. He had assigned his mom to read “The Conservative Mind” by Edmond Burke and “Capitalism and Freedom” by Milton Friedman.

Then there was Cain, the keyboardist for the band “Journey” of which I knew embarrassingly little about before doing the interview. He was a wealth of good quotes, including how he went through his wife's closet when they first got married and saw all black dresses. He began choosing more colorful outfits, such as the red Chanel coat she wore during the Inauguration.

“Vibrant colors are urgent messages,” he said. “You attract attention with color. You get to be a cliché in black dresses.”

As we talked more that day and into the next, I could see why the two were such a good match. It was hard to miss the smoldering sexual bond between them (she calls him #hothubby on Twitter) and I could see that for Paula, here was finally a man who could take care of her; who was not a drain but a support. I asked her plenty of questions about their wealthy lifestyle and how much she was worth (“Ask my accountant,” she joked) but she kept on coming back to how she has always had a knack for making money ever since she was 18 and running a cleaning business.

 “I am a business woman and my businesses have been successful,” she said. “And I’m married to a rock star and his pay is not shabby.”

I met with her again at the Trump Hotel the following day and accompanied the White-Cains to a Journey concert, including a lot of time in the green room beforehand. (A true Journey fan would have died and gone to heaven, as there were band members wandering in and out the whole evening). The following morning, I met her at a church where she was preaching. She looked pretty good for only having four hours sleep. She had awoken to a note from the church informing her she’d been scheduled for a second (afternoon) session, causing her to have to take a later plane out of DC and spend less time with her husband. Had I been her, I would have thrown a fit, but she took the last-minute switch in plans in stride.

When you spend a lot of time with a person, you occasionally pick up quotes that see more of their heart. For instance, “I wanted five children,” she told me plaintively while we were waiting for the Journey concert to start, “but that wasn’t God’s plan for me.”

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When I asked her what it was like to make history as the first clergywoman to pray at an inauguration, she came up with this very feminist statement:

“It was really a surreal moment for me. I had wanted to leave a legacy and I thought, ‘Wow, I am the first female clergy to pray.’ And a little girl can look up to me and say, ‘I can be a pastor too.’

“I thought about how good God is. I looked up at Jon (who was seated near the Mormon Tabernacle choir), then looked up to heaven and said, “Thank you God.”

We saw each other once after that in September at the RNA conference. She was a huge “get” for the RNA. Most well-known religious figures aren’t itching to get grilled by close to 100 religion-beat specialists but she agreed to show up on her own dime (the RNA doesn’t cover travel expenses). Her husband showed up, too and I got an hour with them afterwards to go over questions that came up while writing my first draft.

One thing that surprised me was all the basic biographical misinformation out there about Paula. Most articles I read on her had something factually wrong, especially in terms of dates. I spent a lot of time determining exactly when she first talked with Trump; when she first went on Black Entertainment Television, the exact month she and Cain got married, etc. 

Much of what she told me about 2007, her year from hell when she got divorced, her church was losing members and she was investigated by a U.S. Senate committee didn’t make it into the final draft but she lost 20 pounds during that time.

“I had my first glass of wine in 2007,” she said. “I asked God permission to cuss. I used every word except His in vain. I searched for what door I’d left open for all this to go wrong. Then the Holy Spirit said, ‘What if you did nothing wrong but did something right?’

“So, my mind shifted. I said, ‘There is some purpose in this pain.’ Sitting in 2017, I understood this much clearly. I had said things with head knowledge but I had to live it.”

She wasn’t saying she was blameless during that time. “Things I bring on myself,” she said, tapping her chest, “I get it. I take responsibility.”

As I was researching this story, a lot of folks kept on reminding me of all the dark corners of her past. Believe me, I was aware of them, but I felt those had been more than adequately reported on. But most of those pieces either had a 'no comment' from her or minimal quotes, so why reinvent the wheel? I wanted her version of her story.

My conclusions? The hatred for her out there is out of proportion to all she may or may not have done. The vitriol in the 1,137 comments below my piece is stunning. Johnnie Moore had told me early on that people use her as a surrogate for Trump and the ire they feel toward him gets dumped on her as well. He's right.

I do appreciate all the nice comments folks said to me -- many of which my colleague Bobby Ross has noted -- about how the piece but a lot of credit goes to Elizabeth Chang, the articles editor for the magazine, who worked weekends and crazy hours doing a ton of work editing my piece through at least five drafts. She picked up my loose ends and mistakes. For a piece this long to have no corrections is quite amazing and she and her fellow editors deserve lots of credit.

So how did Paula react? I got a gracious note from her afterwards that said nice things about me but did not mention the article. Whereas she’s posted a Nov. 17 Newsmax piece mentioning her several times to her millions of Twitter and Facebook followers, she has not retweeted or posted the Post piece. [Update: she and  Cain both retweeted the piece the night of Nov. 20, the same day I posted this column].

So, I am very thankful that she gave me access to herself and her family that no other journalist has enjoyed. Few televangelists would have done that. A lot of people have told me that the article helped them better understand her side of the story. For that, I am grateful.

Photos for this post were either taken by the author, are from the White House or from Johnnie Moore's and Paula White's Twitter and Facebook feeds.

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