The Dubious Conversion of George W. Bush
I have pair of articles
over at Religion Dispatches
today that report some of the revelations from a new book by investigative journalist Russ Baker
, Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, The Powerful Forces that Put it in Power, and What Their Influence Means for America.
Among many other things, the book details how the patrician Bush family dynasty overcame the problems of "Poppy" Bush's preppy Episcopalianism -- to navigate the evangelicalism of the rising Religious Right, and how a conversion to evangelical Christianity was choreographed and sold to "wipe the slate clean" of young W's reckless and non-religious youth -- apparently including an illegal abortion W obtained for a girlfriend in Texas before Roe v. Wade.
Here are a few excerpts from New Book Reveals How Faith is Like a Covert Operation for the Bush Family
Faith has always been a special commodity for politicians. It is not only essential to have or appear to have it, but that it be of the right variety--especially if you're thinking of running for president. For nearly two centuries, you could be pretty much any religion you wanted, as long as it was mainline Protestant. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, who identified respectively as Roman Catholic and Quaker, stretched the definition of acceptable presidential faith, followed soon after by Jimmy Carter, the first evangelical Christian president, whose political rise prefigured and catalyzed the wider engagement of conservative evangelicals in politics and, as it happened, the rise of the religious right.
These social and political changes have posed distinct challenges for pols seeking to navigate the changes in American religious life and the successes of a culture of religious pluralism. This was particularly so for the patrician Bush family, whose challenges in this arena are a familiar part of their political tale. In addition, however, there remain astounding hidden dimensions involving the skills of "spy craft" acquired in a lifetime of covert intelligence activities by George H.W. ("Poppy") Bush and many of his closest associates.
... what was a starchy, Episcopalian heir to a blue-blooded Yankee political pedigree to do? And what of his reckless, apparently non-religious, playboy son? These were the intertwined questions faced by Vice President Bush and George W. in the 1980s as they planned Poppy Bush's run for president in 1988--and W.'s political future.
Baker's chapter titled "The Conversion" features startling revelations that challenge the well-known narratives of the Bush family's religious history-- including the way they crafted a strategy for winning over the religious right, and the creation of a conversion legend for George W. Bush. The purpose of the latter was not only to position him as a religious and political man of his time, but to neutralize the many issues from his past that threatened to undermine his future in politics (and possibly that of his father as well). The plan probably worked far better than anyone could have hoped. "I'm still amazed," Doug Wead, a key architect of the Bush family's evangelical outreach strategy told Baker, "how naïve so many journalists are who have covered politics all of their life."
Under [Doug] Wead's tutelage, Poppy would learn the ins and outs of the evangelical world. But Poppy and W. had a problem in common. Baker writes that they knew that W.'s "behavior before becoming governor [of Texas in 1994] his partying, his womanizing, and in particular his military service problems--posed a serious threat to his presidential ambitions. Their solution was to wipe the slate clean--through religious transformation."
A Tale of Two Conversions
For this to work they needed "a credible conversion experience and a presentable spiritual guide." And so the legend goes that none other than Billy Graham paid a visit to his longtime friends at the Bush family estate in Kennebunkport, Maine. This led to the famous walk on the beach that George W. Bush says "planted a mustard seed in my soul," and to his supposed rebirth as an evangelical Christian. That was the accepted narrative in the media and throughout the evangelical world for years. But Graham later told a journalist that he does not remember the encounter; and to another said he does remember a walk on the beach--but not, apparently, any kind of spiritually meaningful conversation. Whatever the facts of the Graham episode, there are actually two conversion stories. The second was deep-sixed in favor of the Graham story, and only emerged after George W. was elected president.
The itinerant evangelist Arthur Blessitt, famous for dragging (mostly on wheels) a 12-foot cross around the world, posted the story on his Web site in October 2001, noting that he met with George W. Bush a full year earlier than Graham. "Mr. George W. Bush," wrote Blessitt, "a Midland oilman, listened to the radio broadcast and asked one of his friends `Can you arrange for me to meet Arthur Blessitt and talk to him about Jesus?' And so it came to pass."
Wead, Baker reports, "had warned the Bushes that they had to be careful how they couched their conversion story. It couldn't be seen as something too radical or too tacky. Preachers who performed stunts with giant crosses would not do. Billy Graham, `spiritual counselor to presidents,' would do perfectly." And that was the story that speechwriter Karen Hughes wove into Bush's 1999 campaign book, A Charge to Keep. There was no mention of Blessitt.
Oh yeah. And there is one more thing. The story of how W. procured an illegal abortion for his girlfriend in Texas before Roe v. Wade. (see page 145-147 of Family of Secrets)
This is substantiated in part by four reporters whose stories were not published, but who shared their "experiences and detailed source notes" and even tapes with him. Two Bush pals took charge of arranging the abortion go to the hospital and who went to the hospital to inform her that he would not see her again. All of the names are named. Certainly as a candidate who was seeking to appeal to conservative evangelical, anti-abortion constituencies, this would have been a high hurdle to overcome.
"As president," Baker concludes, "Bush promulgated tough new policies that withheld U.S. funds not only to programs and countries that permitted abortions, but even to those that advocated contraception as opposed to abstinence. Moreover, his appointments to the Supreme Court put the panel on the verge of reversing Roe v. Wade. Like his insistence on long prison sentences for first time drug offenders and his support for military action, his own behavior in regard to sexual responsibility and abortion could be considered relevant and revealing."