When the Rev. Jerry Falwell died a year ago at age 73, his obituaries were like the mixed reviews of a blockbuster movie. While acknowledging his power and influence—Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979 and was largely credited with mobilizing millions of conservative evangelicals to help elect Ronald Reagan in 1980—the obit writers had some difficulty coughing up the accolades that usually accompany a public figure's death. In life Falwell could be a bomb-thrower and a loudmouth, a man who made evangelical Christians seem to many in the mainstream world both mean-spirited and politically avaricious. "Jerry Falwell expressed great hate for a lot of his fellow Americans," wrote Alan Wolfe in Salon. "It is no wonder that so many of them will greet his death with something less than love."
Who better, then, to set the record straight than Falwell's own wife of 49 years and the mother of his three children, a sheltered Christian beauty named Macel? Her new book, "Jerry Falwell: His Life and Legacy," is poignant in its earnest defensiveness, a kind of "you don't know him like I know him" Christian memoir. Though boosted with blurbs from a who's who of social and religious conservative heavy hitters—James Dobson, Mike Huckabee, Franklin Graham, and Karl Rove—and introduced by right-wing talk show host Sean Hannity, the book is lightweight and probably of interest only to Falwell's followers. Mrs. Falwell's enduring grief at her loss, however, is real. She spoke with NEWSWEEK's Lisa Miller. (To read a first-person account by Macel Falwell, click here). Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: A year after his death, what do you wish people knew about Jerry Falwell?
Macel Falwell: I would like for the people who said the horrible things about him to know that they are not true, and I would like people to see what a great man he is, was. He was so wonderful with people. He would talk with them for five, 10 minutes and they would leave thinking they were his best friend.
But he's been called "an agent of intolerance." Can you explain why people would say that about him?
Why would they say it? He got before the world, and he told people what he thought. He might have been right or wrong, but he thought he was right or he wouldn't have said it. He said things that he probably would have in hindsight changed some.
After 9/11 he blamed the attacks on paganists, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians. This has not helped his legacy. Did he mean what he said?
I think it was such a horrible time … I think the whole nation was in shock. In hindsight Jerry would rather have said things a bit differently. But then again, everyone makes mistakes.
Your husband was largely credited with the formation of the religious right. Now people are saying that the coalition of conservative evangelicals is foundering. Do you agree?
Yes, definitely. Jerry spoke about and said things that he believed, and he had a gathering around him that thought the same way he did. Today they don't have a leader that would go out on a limb … If he were here, it would be different. (To read a first-person account by Macel Falwell, click here).
Do you think the "religious right" will be an important factor in November's election?
I'm not too well bred on this kind of stuff. Jerry didn't really bring problems home, so I don't really know a lot about it.
Have you thought about who you'll vote for in November?
I'll vote for McCain, for sure.
I think you don't have much of a choice. It has to be one or the other, and I would prefer him. And I'm sure that would be Jerry's choice as well.
It's interesting to me that your husband—who was such a major figure—didn't bring his work home.
We talked about things, and I would say, "You shouldn't have done this" or something. But I really was not into it very much. When he came home he was just always with the children. He didn't want to bring it home.
Billy Graham's wife, the late Ruth Bell Graham, spoke openly about how difficult it was to raise children with their father away so much of the time. Did you find it difficult?
Jerry always made a thing about coming back at night, even if it was two o'clock in the morning. The children saw a lot of their dad. He would make it work. We decided when we first got married, if we had children, they wouldn't be secondary to anything. Jerry let the children decide where they wanted to go for their birthdays. When he was a little boy, Jonathan said he wanted to go to New York. So Jerry got a limousine, and they went to New York and ate at McDonald's.
When he was at home, was there anything he liked to do especially?
He could find a ballgame on television every hour of the day. He loved sports, absolutely loved sports.
Has writing the book helped you through the grieving process?
It makes me cry every time I read it. I've read it three times. It's so bad coming home at night, with nobody here. Jonathan realized that; he arranged for somebody to be here at night. I have not been alone at night. Jonathan will call and he will not go to bed before he's made sure that I've got somebody with me. He's arranged that, and it's helped a lot. You come in sometimes, and I don't have anything to do. It's very difficult.