Published April 07, 2008
WASHINGTON – Charlton Heston brought 10 commandments to the big screen and an 11th to big politics: Thou shalt not abridge gun rights.
He was much like Ronald Reagan, minus the presidency. Both were actors and union leaders whose politics switched to the right over time.
Both became strangers to Hollywood's Democratic mainstream. Both walked into an Alzheimer's twilight.
But Heston's conservatism was put to a more pointed, nearly single-issue use, as president of the National Rifle Association. To gun control activists, Heston stepped forward as a reassuring face for a movement they consider extremist, aggressive and sophisticated.
As Moses in the movies, he clutched the Ten Commandments to summon his followers. On the tablet of his political life, he carved the Second Amendment.
Heston was not just the public face of the gun-rights movement but a good deal of the fire in its belly during a transformational time in the decades-old debate.
He lived to see Democrats running away from a cause they once embraced, scared off by the likelihood that they lost the 2000 presidential election in part because of their gun-control advocacy.
For a conservative champion like Heston, that was pretty close to the Promised Land.
His death at age 84 brought tributes Sunday from public figures whose fortunes were linked in some way to his.
President Bush praised his commitment to liberty. Former first lady Nancy Reagan remembered Heston's long association with her late husband.
The most telling tribute may have come in 2003, when Heston stepped down after five years as president of the NRA, enfeebled by symptoms of Alzheimer's.
"Were it not for your active involvement," Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told him, "it's safe to say my brother may not have been president of the United States."
It was in the 2000 campaign that the NRA went after Democratic candidate Al Gore with a vengeance built up over years of confrontation with the Clinton administration and its "jack-booted government thugs," as others put it.
Heston may have had too regal a bearing to use such incendiary words. But in attacking a Democrat who favored mandatory photo ID licenses for future handgun buyers, Heston held little else back.
Heston held a musket dramatically above his head and dared Gore from afar to pry it "from my cold dead hands."
Gore lost blue-collar votes to Bush in an election so close any setback was perilous.
The key finding from 2000: About half of voters were from gun-owning households, and they voted for Bush by 61 percent to 36 percent. Voters from households without guns backed Gore 58-39.
Ever since, Democrats in presidential and many congressional and governors' races have scrambled to establish their bona fides as hunters, if they can, or as admirers of firearms or the Second Amendment if they can't.
After a student shot five people dead and then himself on the campus of Northern Illinois University in February, Democratic presidential rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton asserted their support for the right to bear arms.
Old positions, such as Clinton's support in 2000 for a federal requirement for state-issued photo gun licenses, were brushed aside. Clinton told an audience her dad taught her to hunt, and said to reporters that she shot a duck in Arkansas.
On his way to the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, John Kerry donned a flannel shirt and rubber boots on a hunting trip where he shot pheasants. In the 2004 campaign and again this year, John Edwards played up his hunting days.
Heston hadn't been a box-office star since the 1970s but upon his departure as NRA president, Eric Howard of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence credited him as a persuasive actor for his cause.
Heston was good at "acting as though these extreme measures -- basically, what the NRA is doing -- aren't extreme," he said.
Heston took up other issues, including violence in entertainment, and he marched for civil rights in the 1960s.
In 1992, he stunned a Time Warner annual meeting by reading aloud lyrics from an album by Body Count, a band featuring rapper Ice-T. The album included songs about killing police and sodomizing women.
"It's often been said that if Adolf Hitler came back with a hot movie synopsis, every studio in town would be after it," Heston said. "Would Warner's be among them?"
In response to such protests, Ice-T pulled the song "Cop Killer" from the album.
But gun rights are where Heston most left his mark.
He became NRA president in 1998 as the group was dealing with internal strife and hostility from Bill Clinton's administration and many in Congress. It raised its membership to 4 million members during his time as president.
After the 2000 election, Gore's campaign spokesman, Doug Hattaway, recalled flying over Gore's home state of Tennessee and overhearing two men talking in business class. "The problem with Al Gore is he'll take our guns away," one said.
"I knew we were in trouble," said Hattaway.
That exchange, it could be said, was his Holy Moses moment.