Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Bush's beginning as an evangelical favorite

You've probably noticed that blogging has been fairly weak the past week. There is a reason for that, and it's that I've been in and out of town and, it seems, too frenetically reporting or writing to thoughtfully blather.

Not that I am going to pick that up again quite yet, but here is an interesting excerpt from Slate of editor Jacob Weisberg's new book "The Bush Tragedy" that focuses on the religious politics of our 43rd president:
If Bush's theology is free of content, his application of it to politics is sophisticated and artful. Evangelical politics is a subject on which he has exercised his intellect, and perhaps the only one on which he qualifies as an expert. Bush began his study in 1985 on behalf of his father's effort to become president. George H.W. Bush regarded televangelists like Pat Robertson as snake handlers and swindlers. Reflecting his parents' attitude, Neil Bush referred to evangelical Christians in a speech for his father in Iowa as "cockroaches" issuing "from the baseboards of the Bible-belt." For their part, the evangelicals felt no affinity for Bush Sr. They found his patrician background off-putting and suspected the sincerity of his conversion to the pro-life cause.

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. For instance, Wead recommended that the vice president read the first chapter of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, a book that had become a popular evangelical device for winning converts. "Evangelicals believe that this book is so effective that they will automatically assume that if the Vice President has read it, he will agree with it," Wead wrote. Vice President Bush made sure that religious figures saw a well-worn copy on top of a stack of books in his office when they visited the White House and cited Lewis' condemnation of the sin of pride as one of the reasons "we haven't been inclined to go around proclaiming that we are Christians." He also took Wead's advice on how to answer the born-again question; in courting the National Religious Broadcasters with three speeches in three years; in inviting Falwell, James Dobson, and others to the White House; in cooperating with a cover story in the Christian Herald, the largest-circulation evangelical magazine at the time; and in producing a volume for the Christian book market.

George W. Bush became the campaign's semiofficial liaison to the evangelical community in March 1987. "Wead, I'm taking you over," he said at their first meeting, over Mexican food in Corpus Christi, telling him to ignore Lee Atwater, whom Wead had been reporting to. Wead recalls how anxious George W. was in political conversations with his dad. "He was a nervous wreck," Wead told me. "He wanted his father to be proud of him." Wead also recalled the son's expressions of his own political interest. The campaign had prepared state-by-state analysis of the primary electorate in advance of Super Tuesday in 1988. "When he got the one on Texas, his eyes just bugged out," Wead remembered. "This is just great! I can become governor of Texas just with the evangelical vote."

The crucible of the campaign forged a close relationship between the two men. Wead, whom George W. called "Weadie," says the candidate's son spent an inordinate amount of time talking about sex. But he was so anxious to avoid any whiff or rumor of infidelity that he asked Wead to stay in his hotel room one night when he thought a young woman working on the campaign might knock on his door. "I tried to read to him from the Bible, because by that time he was sending me these signals," Wead told me. "But he wasn't interested. He just rolled over and went to sleep."

Having Wead put him to bed was a way to advertise his marital fidelity, and to reinforce a distinction with his father, who was facing rumors about the Big A. Wead said Bush also liked having him around as an alternative to the company of drinking buddies from his pre-conversion period. But Bush resisted religious overtures as firmly as sexual ones. "He has absolutely zero interest in anything theological—nothing," Wead said. "We spent hours talking about sex … who on the campaign was doing what to whom—but nothing about God. And I tried many, many times."

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