Up close, Michele Bachmann's secret-agent political organizer looked more like Elmer Gantry than James Bond
6:25 pm Aug. 17, 2011
LAGOS—As Michele Bachmann and her true-believing entourage begin to come under closer scrutiny, Garance Franke-Ruta of the Atlantic has come up with a spectacular revelation: One of the Republican candidate's organizers was once imprisoned on terrorism charges in the East African nation of Uganda.
Peter Waldron, an evangelical minister who told the publication that he is doing outreach on Bachmann's behalf to the born-again community, spent more than a month in Kampala's Luzira Prison in 2006, and possesses a resume more in keeping with a spy novel than a presidential campaign. Among other things, the Atlantic item reports, Waldron is now promoting an autobiographical movie on his website that asks, teasingly, "was he a businessman, a preacher, a spy?" Franke-Ruta adds that "one man who knew Waldron in 2004 told The St. Petersburg Times in 2006 that Waldron had told him he used to work for the CIA."
I bring this up because I happen to be that man who knew Waldron.
Saying that I "knew" Waldron is putting it a little strongly: I met him in 2004 in the course of writing an article on the evangelical movement in Uganda, where we both lived at the time. The piece was published in The New Republic, and is now regrettably behind a paywall. (Update: Link here. Thanks to TNR and Ben Smith.)
To summarize, it was in part an examination of Muslim-Christian relations in the country and also a profile of Martin Ssempa, a popular, controversial and publicity-savvy Ugandan preacher who seemed emblematic of the a wave of fervent Christianity that has lately been sweeping Africa. Ssempa invited me to his church on the campus of Makerere University one Sunday, where he was joined by a curious guest: Waldron. The American's role in the story was cut down a bit in the editing process, but since the question of how he presented himself at the time now seems important, I'll reproduce below what I wrote about him in my first draft of the article, back when our interaction was fresh on my mind.
The Sunday I attended Ssempa’s church, after he finished his sermon, the pastor told his audience that he had a special guest to introduce, a visitor from the United States. All eyes fixed on a stocky white man with a thick moustache, who wore a gray safari suit. He introduced himself as Dr. Peter Waldron, of Wyoming.
Waldron told the congregation that he had once been a military man, and that he used to travel around Africa a lot back in the 1960s. He was vague about the nature of his work. (“I’m not at liberty to say,” he later told me.) But he claimed that on one occasion it resulted in some good people getting executed by a firing squad. After that, he contemplated suicide, he told the audience. Then he found Jesus. “When you were born again, you became a new person. You left your tribe,” Waldron said. Now, he said, they were all bound together by their common love of God. “I am not American. I am a Christian who comes from America. You are not Ugandan. You are a Christian who comes from Uganda.”
A couple of days later, I met Waldron for a drink at a Kampala hotel. He told me some of his story. At different times in his career, he said, he had been a syndicated talk radio show host, a lobbyist and a Republican political consultant. More recently, he had run sports programs for underprivileged youths in Tampa, Florida. (He left under a cloud, after the St. Petersburg Times published an investigation into how he had spent more than $600,000, questioning, among other things, the cost of his house and the fact that he drove a Jaguar.) Now he was in Uganda, trying to sell computer software to government ministries while preaching on the weekends.
“They embrace Americans here,” he said enthusiastically. Indeed, as we sat together, a steady stream of young admirers came up to greet Waldron. They made complicated handshakes, the way Ugandans do. Earlier, Waldron had wowed Ssempa’s congregation with a story about how he’d recently been invited to the real White House, in the company of religious rapper MC Hammer. Now he boasted to me that he’d been meeting privately with President Museveni and his wife.
It occurred to me, not for the first time, that when it came to religion, the relationship between America and Africa is not at all one-way. For many Americans of faith, Uganda, a country where homosexuality and abortion are outlawed, where politicians freely mix church and state, and where outward displays of religious devotion are the norm, represents a kind of haven. America may have a born-again president, but it is far too diverse to be, as conservatives call it, “a Christian nation.” But Uganda is on its way to becoming one.
In case it wasn't accurately conveyed in the TNR article, I'll say here that my impression of Waldron at the time was that he was quite a vivid storyteller. The world is full of evangelists who confess to all sorts of heinous past sins; a nonbeliever might say that exaggeration makes their testimony about subsequent redemption all that much more powerful. But I wasn't exactly surprised, either, when I got a call from a St. Petersburg Times reporter a couple of years later, telling me the minister had been thrown in jail.
Speaking off the top of my head, under the mistaken impression that we were just having a collegial background conversation, I told the reporter that Waldron had mentioned involvement with the CIA. That was incorrect, I later discovered when I consulted my original notes—he had merely implied it strongly, as he continues to do to this day. I also cautioned the reporter to be careful about assuming Waldron was a martyr: he was trying to do deals with Ugandan government officials, which is not a vocation for the godly or the faint-hearted. Arrests, often on dubious charges, are sometimes just a part of the cost of doing that kind of business.
Indeed, after a while, under pressure from American evangelicals and the U.S. government, Waldron was quietly released and deported—not the kind of punishment apportioned to authentic rebel plotters in Uganda. When I look back now, my impression of him remains now what it was then, which is that he was a particularly flamboyant example of an archetypal character: the American who goes to Africa, a continent where a little money and a lot of talk can buy substantial power, in search of a position of influence.
It eluded him in Uganda, but maybe now he's found it back home, with the Bachmann campaign.
Andrew Rice is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and the author of The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda. He happens to be on assignment in Nigeria.
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