- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Former Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice, pilloried in 1992 by national Republican Party leaders for saying America is a Christian nation, died yesterday of leukemia at 70.

A self-made millionaire who founded a construction company, Mr. Fordice was elected in 1991 as Mississippi’s first Republican governor in more than 100 years.

Mr. Fordice became popular in office as much for his straight talk — and knack for political incorrectness — as for his tough-on-crime, tax-cutting and school-choice policies. He made headlines when, at a gathering of black Republicans, he denounced affirmative-action quotas as reverse discrimination.

“His frank, outspoken and unwavering style made him a respected figure with his political opponents and a beloved governor by Mississippians across the state who elected him twice,” said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman.

Mr. Fordice, the first Mississippi governor to serve two consecutive four-year terms, died at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

Silver-haired and with a square jaw, he quickly became both a combatant and a victim in the cultural wars.

“The United States is a Christian nation,” he said in response to a reporter’s question at a meeting of Republican governors in Fontana, Wis. “The less we emphasize the Christian religion, the further we fall into the abyss of poor character and chaos in the United States of America.”

Jewish and liberal groups immediately attacked his statement.

In response, Mr. Fordice told The Washington Times that he had “simply made a clear statement of truth.”

“It has nothing to do with running down anybody else’s religion. … If Israel is a Jewish state and Saudi Arabia is Islamic, we are Christian, and that gives us an anchor to windward — a basis for building character and a value system. And that transfers to what our party is and what it stands for as a course for morals and ethics, without excluding anybody.”

But his critics, even in his own party, weren’t buying it. Then-Republican National Committee Chairman Rich Bond demanded that Mr. Fordice recant. Mr. Bond’s demand was supported by Mr. Barbour; Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft, who is now U.S. attorney general; Michigan Sen. Spencer Abraham, now Bush administration energy secretary; Charles Black, senior adviser to many Republican presidential candidates; and former Army Secretary Bo Callaway.

Then-Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson was the only prominent elected Republican to defend Mr. Fordice and the point Mr. Fordice had tried to make.

“Kirk Fordice was speaking from his heart,” Mr. Thompson told The Washington Times at the time. “This country has some basic values that we have to adhere to, and I see nothing wrong with those values. The vast majority of Americans agree with them.”

William Bennett, a former education secretary and drug-policy chief, was one of the few nationally known Republican leaders willing to defend or even comment on Mr. Fordice’s tribulations at the time.

“The Republican Party should not be embarrassed to talk about the importance of religion in the lives of Americans,” Mr. Bennett said.

Mr. Fordice was touched by scandal in his second term as governor, when it was revealed that he had an affair. Eventually, he divorced his wife of 43 years and, shortly after leaving office in January 2000, married his high school sweetheart from Memphis, Tenn., whom he later divorced.

As governor, he had battled prostate cancer, and last month confirmed that he had been diagnosed with a form of leukemia.

He is survived by three sons and a daughter.

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