To my knowledge only two Evangelicals with ties to the George W. Bush administration have spoken or written about experiences:
- David Kuo, former Deputy Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, published a book in 2006 called Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, about his disappointment with the focus of the Initiatives office and how it was used to deliver votes in key states (notably Ohio) in the 2004 election.
- Doug Wead, former special assistant to George W. Bush, was interviewed by Slate editor Jacob Weisberg for the latter’s 2007 book The Bush Tragedy, excerpted in Slate.
(We’re still waiting for a tell-all book by Michael Gerson, Wheaton graduate and Bush speechwriter, one of the men most responsible for helping Bush as candidate and President speak in Evangelical code in a way his father never could. Gerson is still gainfully employed, so it may be a while before he takes his turn.)
In one of the Slate excerpts [link] Weisberg tells a story about Bush editing his own past, rewriting his apparently true conversion story (from Episcopalianism to a self-styled Methodism) from a by-the-book born-again encounter with Cross walker Arthur Blessitt to a more picturesque story about a walk on a beach with Billy Graham. As Weisberg takes pains to point out, Bush’s conversion story was polished over time; published accounts differ, and Bush himself related the story differently on different occasions. Many of the various elements of his story are true: Billy Graham visited the Bush home in Maine; Graham and Bush conversed; Bush at some point “got right with God.” They just don’t fit together as advertised.
The result is something that was useful as a campaign narrative: Bush had something in common with an important voter bloc, and the published version made better telling than the truth, especially among voters who might find Billy Graham palatable but might be put off by Arthur Blessitt. Weisberg takes Bush’s appropriation of his conversion story as a campaign tool to be indicative of his faith as a whole:
What his faith stories have in common is the way they put George W. Bush’s religious experiences to political use. The beliefs themselves may be entirely genuine. But Bush does not appear to surrender himself to the will of God in the way a conventionally religious person does. If we look closely at his relationship to religion over a period of two decades, we see him repeatedly commandeering God for his exigent needs. His is an instrumentalist, utilitarian faith that puts religion to work for his own purposes.
This is a complaint about Bush that arose more than once during his time in the White House: that there were aspects to his personality that seemed entirely untouched by his faith, whatever it was.
As per usual I’m less interested in Bush than in what the loyalty he got from various evangelical leaders says about Evangelicalism. But I will need to deal with several other things Weisberg says before discussing that.
Turns out my local public library has a copy of Russ Baker’s book Family of Secrets, which is mostly a book about the two Presidents Bush and their relationship to the intelligence community. Baker also devotes a chapter (19: The Conversion) to the younger Bush’s born-again experience and how it was presented as a bona fide to the evangelical community. The short version: George W. Bush may or may not be a born-again Christian; Arthur Blessitt may have actually led Bush to Christ; the rest of the story (the walk with Billy Graham on the beach, any relationship between Bush’s faith and his alcohol or drug use) may or may not be um accretions by a later hand to heighten the effect. Any correspondence here to the Ergun Caner story is probably coincidental. Yeah.
Anyway, the selling of the two Bushes in the evangelical community can apparently be credited or blamed in large part to Doug Wead. Put simply, Wead put together a plan to sell the elder Bush to the community, the plan failed because of Bush, but his son “got it” and the rest as they say is history.
Wead is an interesting character: an Assemblies of God minister, motivational speaker, has connections to the DeVos family of Amway fame, and by 1985 was already an experienced ghostwriter. Baker seems to have gotten most of his interesting material on Wead and the Bushes from Jacob Weisberg’s book The Bush Tragedy, excerpted in Slate:
To help him with this problem, Bush Sr. brought in Doug Wead as his evangelical adviser and liaison. Wead had been involved in a group called Mercy Corps International, doing missionary relief work in Ethiopia and Cambodia, and gave inspirational speeches at Amway meetings. He was also a prolific memo writer. The most important of his memos is a 161-page document he wrote in the summer of 1985 and a long follow-up to it known as “The Red Memo.” Wead argued for “an effective, discreet evangelical strategy” to counter Jack Kemp, who had been courting the evangelicals for a decade, and Pat Robertson, whom he accurately predicted would run in the 1988 primaries. Wead compiled a long dossier on the evangelical “targets” he saw as most important for Bush. (“If Falwell is privately reassured from time to time of the Vice President’s personal friendship, he will be less likely to demand the limelight,” he wrote.) Wead made a chart rating nearly 200 leaders for various factors, including their influence within the movement, their influence outside of it, and their potential impact within early caucus and primary states. Billy Graham received the highest total score, 315, followed by Robert Schuller, 237; Jerry Falwell, 236; and Jim Bakker, 232.
Unbeknownst to Wead, Vice President Bush gave the Red memo to his oldest son. After George Jr. pronounced it sound, George Sr. closely followed much of its advice. [Salon]
Baker portrays Wead’s two memos as being more closely related (the Red Memo was a 44-page edit of the 120-page original) but more or less follows Weisberg’s description of Wead and his role in helping pitch the elder Bush.
Needless to say I’d love to see either version of The Red Memo.
It’s important to remember that in 1985 The Moral Majority was still a going concern, but Wead ranks Falwell’s ability to deliver votes as between Schuller and Bakker. Amazing.