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Televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker Messner died this weekend. A larger-than-life figure, she inspired the faithful, galvanized the cynical, provided endless fodder for comics, and angered thousands of donors who were, in a word, swindled.
Day after day, Tammy Faye took to the airwaves and pleaded for money. She was good at it. Hundreds of millions of dollars poured in to her PTL ministries. And together with her husband, Jim Bakker, she squandered much of it on an obscenely opulent lifestyle: a mansion, fancy vacations homes, a Rolls Royce and even an air-conditioned doghouse.
It all came tumbling down, of course. Tammy Faye insisted she knew nothing of the financial fraud, that she simply spent the money. Her husband took the fall and went crying to prison.
Seventeen years ago I aired a series of investigative stories about Roe Messner. The feds called me asking for my files, and Messner was later carted off to prison for fraud. He was a rip-off artist, pure and simple. Yet Tammy Faye stayed with him to the bitter end.
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Was it just coincidence that she married two criminals? On our air this weekend, her long-time agent bragged about how smart she was. A member of Mensa, he said. So how could it be that Tammy Faye was truly as naive and uninvolved as she always claimed?
Which invites yet another question: What is her legacy? Her legions of admirers canonized her as a symbol of love and faith. Those fleeced by her chronic pleas for cash villainized her as the symbol of greed and hypocrisy.
Hours before her death, she predicted she'd go straight to heaven. Perhaps. But it prompted lots of e-mails, including the woman who predicted a different, warmer eternity for Tammy Faye. Why?
The woman told of how her grandmother — who had no money — used to send her Social Security checks to Tammy Faye. The granddaughter described Tammy Faye as a financial predator preying on the elderly, the gullible, the vulnerable, seeking their assets to support her own lavish lifestyle.
So was Tammy Faye Bakker Messner good or bad? I don't know. Maybe Shakespeare put it best: "There is nothing either good or bad. But thinking makes it so." — Hamlet
That's My Word.
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