Bush’s Evangelical Politics

This is the third of three excerpts from Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg’s new book, The Bush Tragedy.

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.”

The Wead-George W. effort yielded spectacular political results: Poppy beat back the primary challenge from Pat Robertson and won 81 percent of the evangelical vote in 1988, exceeding the 78 percent share Ronald Reagan won in 1984. After the election, George W. turned to his evangelical friend for advice about how to handle having a father in the White House. Wead returned with a 44-page memo entitled All the Presidents’ Children, which he later developed into a book of the same title. The precedents were not encouraging. Burdened by impossibly high expectations, many sons of presidents struggled unsuccessfully to “complete” the work of their fathers. As a group, they disproportionately fell prey to various forms of failure, alcoholism, divorce, and early death. Bush, who was planning to move back to Texas and run for office, groaned when Wead told him that no presidential child had ever been elected governor of a state.

With the various roles he played in Bush’s life—life counselor, political adviser, spiritual companion—Wead became in the late 1980s the first in a series of what might be described as surrogate family members to George W. Like Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, the two others who subsequently played this kind of role, Wead originally worked for the old man before transferring loyalties to his son. Like them, he aided Bush with a crucial transition in relation to his father. What Rove would do in helping Bush launch his political career in Texas, and Cheney in helping him define his presidency, Wead did in Bush helping him assert and establish his independent identity as a person of faith. But the experience left Wead troubled about the sincerity of Bush’s beliefs. “I’m almost certain that a lot of it was calculated,” he says. “If you really believed that there’s some accountability to life, wouldn’t you have Billy Graham come down and have a magic moment with your daughters? Are you just going to let them go to hell? You have all these religious leaders coming through. If it changed your life, wouldn’t you invite them to sit down in the living room and have a talk with your daughters? Or is it all political?”

Envy over Rove’s closer relationship with Bush may have pushed Wead toward an act of betrayal he tried to portray as a service to history, his secretly tape-recording nine hours of his private phone conversations with Bush in 1999 and 2000. Wead played portions of these tapes for the  New York Times and a few other journalists at the time his book All the Presidents’ Children was published in 2003. He later apologized and signed a legal agreement to turn the tapes over to Bush’s lawyers and not discuss their content. These tapes, of which I’ve obtained a partial copy (not from Wead), provide a glimpse of the man behind the public mask. They capture Bush thinking aloud and rehearsing answers to questions he expected to get on the campaign trail. On one, he acknowledges illegal drug use decades back: “Doug,” Bush says, “it doesn’t just matter [about] cocaine—it’d be the same with marijuana. I wouldn’t answer the marijuana question. You know why? Because I don’t want some little kid doing what I tried. … I don’t want any kid doing what I tried to do [pause] 30 years ago.”

But the more interesting revelation is how politically Bush thinks about religion. Speaking of an upcoming meeting with evangelical leaders, he notes: “As you said, there are some code words. There are some proper ways to say things and some improper ways. I am going to say that I’ve accepted Christ into my life. And that’s a true statement.” On another tape, he rehearses his dodges. He goes over with Wead what he plans to tell James Robison, an evangelical minister in Texas who wanted him to promise not to appoint homosexuals in his administration: “Look, James, I got to tell you two things right off the bat. One, I’m not going to kick gays, because I’m a sinner. How can I differentiate sin?” For those interested in the details about what kind of sinner he was, Bush has another line: “That’s part of my shtick, which is, look, we have all made mistakes.”

The tapes reveal how calculated George W. Bush’s projection of faith is. Wead said that during the countless hours the two spent talking about religion over a dozen years, they discussed endlessly the implications of attending services at different congregations, how Bush could position himself in relation to various tricky questions, and how he should handle various ministers and evangelical leaders. But the substance of Bush’s own faith never came up. Wead told me he now struggles with the question of how sincere Bush’s expressions of devotion ever were. He often goes over their conversations from 1987 and 1988 in his mind, having grown more skeptical about what Bush was doing. “As these memos started flowing to him, he started feeding back to me what his faith was,” Wead said. “Now what is interesting for me, and I’m trying to understand, is, was I giving him his story?”

To say that Bush’s religious persona is a calculated projection does not mean that it is fraudulent. For practiced politicians, the question of whether any behavior is genuine can seldom be answered. For them, calculation and sincerity are not opposites. The skillful leader harmonizes them, coming to truly believe in what he needs to do to succeed. Piety, like any other political mask, tends to become the genuine face over time.

The secular misunderstanding of Bush is that his relationship with God has turned him into a harsh man, driven by absolute moral certainty and attempting to foist his evangelical views onto others. Many of those who know Bush best see the religious influence in his life cutting in precisely the opposite direction. As one of the evangelical staff members in the White House told me over lunch near the White House in the summer of 2007, Bush’s religion has made him more genuinely humble and less absolutist in the way he defends his views. Believing that he too is a lowly sinner, Bush learned to be more tolerant of the faults of others.

But if his eternal perspective improves Bush’s personality, it diminishes any ability he might otherwise have to take in ambiguity or complexity. Early in his presidency, Bush told Sen. Joe Biden, “I don’t do nuance.” That line was probably spoken with irony, but it captures a truth about the intellectually constricting lens of his faith. Bush rejects nuance not because he’s mentally incapable of engaging with it but because he has chosen to disavow it. Applying a crude religious lens that clarifies all decisions as moral choices rather than complicated trade-offs helps him fend off the deliberation and uncertainty he identifies with his father.

But closing one’s mind to complexity isn’t mere intellectual laziness; it’s a fundamental evasion of freedom, God-given or otherwise. A simple faith frees George W. from the kind of agonizing and struggles his father went though in handling the largest questions of his presidency and helps him cope with the heavy burden of the job. But it comes at a tragic cost. A too-crude religious understanding has limited Bush’s ability to comprehend the world. The habit of pious simplification has undermined The Decider’s decision-making.