The Virginian-Pilot, via GoMemphis.com, May 10, 2003
By Steven G. Vegh, The Virginian-Pilot
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – At 73, he’s still the face of television’s The 700 Club, watched by millions on the Christian Broadcasting Network he created in 1960.
As chancellor and acting president, he is still the ultimate authority at Regent University, which he founded in 1977.
He still chairs Operation Blessing International, which dispensed more than $50 million in charity in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2001. And his political and social commentaries still make headlines.
Publicly, there’s little indication that evangelist Pat Robertson sees himself entering the autumn of a life’s work. On the contrary, Robertson, who successfully underwent surgery for prostate cancer in February, remains fueled by a strong evangelical faith and an “age-defying” health regimen.
But the illness reminded Robertson loyalists and observers that no one lives forever, which raises inevitable questions: What happens after Pat is gone?
Can his enterprises flourish without his business acumen, his aura as a holy man and his celebrity power? Is Gordon Robertson, the son who co-hosts The 700 Club, destined to fill his father’s shoes? Can Gordon win the loyalty of Robertson’s supporters?
Pat and Gordon Robertson both declined to be interviewed on questions about succession.
Vinson Synan, a family friend and the dean of Regent’s divinity school, said the senior Robertson has given “not one hint” about when or how his leadership roles will be transferred to someone else.
Yet no image-conscious institution can ignore the need to raise up new leaders, especially an independent religious organization that depends on charitable donations inspired largely by a single personality.
Robertson’s various ventures became successful in large part because of his charisma and talent, said John Green, a University of Akron scholar who studies the religious right.
Those traits are hard to duplicate, which is why Robertson’s death or retirement could trigger a crisis within CBN or affiliated ministries, Green said.
“The 700 Club, in many ways, is all about Pat. That particular program might have a hard time surviving,” he said.
How brightly do Gordon Robertson’s accomplishments shine?
According to his biography on CBN’s Web site, Gordon grew up in Portsmouth, Va., and graduated from Yale University in 1980. He earned a law degree from Washington & Lee University, and practiced law in South Hampton Roads, Va., for 10 years. He is married and has three children.
As Republican party chairman in Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, Gordon Robertson helped lead local candidates’ campaigns during the early 1990s. He became a board member of KaloVita, a for-profit vitamin and cosmetics company owned by his father and CBN.
But during a short-term missionary trip to India, Gordon experienced a spiritual calling to evangelize Asia. He quit his law firm and moved with his family to the Philippines, where he became founder and president of CBN Asia Inc. He created The 700 Club Asia and oversaw the development of CBN programming in indigenous languages for India, Indonesia and other countries in the region.
Gordon is also the founder and president of the Asian Center for Missions, a nonprofit group based in the Philippines that trains Asians as missionaries.
In 1999, he returned to Virginia to co-host The 700 Club while remaining president of CBN Asia Inc.
The on-air job puts Gordon at the side of his famous father, and he stands in as host when the senior Robertson is absent. Robertson’s other son, Tim, is a businessman.
Gordon’s high profile is a clear sign he is being groomed as Robertson’s successor, said Mark Rozell, who has watched the religious right as a professor of politics at Catholic University of America.
But without a definitive statement from his father, there’s no certainty that Gordon will head The 700 Club, Rozell said.
Also uncertain is whether the viewers who now contribute regularly to CBN would give at the same level if Gordon hosted the show permanently.
CBN knows that who hosts The 700 Club is crucial for its finances. When Robertson ran for U.S. president in 1988, he stopped appearing on the show. Contributions to CBN dropped by $150 million, and about 600 employees had to be laid off.
The dependence on outside contributions is also clear from CBN’s tax statement for fiscal year 2001, which showed that direct support from the public accounted for $101 million of the ministry’s total revenue of $151 million.
In Rozell’s view, Gordon is a “somewhat bland” television personality who lacks his father’s charisma.
Simon Applebaum, who monitors television as a senior editor for Multichannel News, gives Gordon’s performances better marks.
“He seems to come across OK,” Applebaum said.
If CBN wants a crowd-pleaser as the show’s new host, it might do well to tap Terry Meeuwsen, a current co-host, Applebaum said. “People know her as a former Miss America and a magazine show host.”
An alternate possibility is that after Pat Robertson’s retirement, the show’s format could be changed by CBN so that no single person was emphasized, he said.
But being named publicly as the host could also transform Gordon’s showmanship, Applebaum said.
“Sometimes you’ll have people step into the role and, ‘Voila!’ Whatever you thought of them beforehand, they’ve moved to a whole different level.”