Revealed In New Book... How Faith Is Like a Covert Operation for the Bush Family
A brand new investigation of the Bush family reveals a religious narrative that strays from the official story circulated to supporters and the press. How many conversions did George W. actually have and why? How did a blue-blooded Episcopalian family come to represent the evangelicals of America? ~ Photo: www.stillman.org
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.
This, according to a just-published investigative history of the Bush political dynasty, Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, the Powerful Forces that Put it in the White House, and what Their Influence Means for America (Bloomsbury Press, 2008). Author Russ Baker shows, among other things, that Poppy Bush’s well-known service as a Navy pilot in World War II was also part of his work for Naval Intelligence. This set the stage for an astonishing double life participating in covert operations of the Central Intelligence Agency throughout his career.
The story of the reinvention of the religious identities of two presidents and their faith-based political strategy could be easily obscured amidst Family of Secrets’ revelations of the Bush family ties to such murky matters as Watergate and the Kennedy assassination (see sidebar). But Baker’s discussion of how a prominent political family applied the tools of the spy trade to their religious transformation and political strategy is a story that merits attention as religious faith becomes an increasingly popular political commodity.
This dimension of the story of the Bush family dynasty emerges in the wake of the growth of the religious right political movement within the GOP in the early ’80s. In this context, 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.”
Poppy and W. Learn Evangelical Lessons
In the early 1980s, Vice President George H.W. Bush faced a political problem of historic proportions. The religious right, driven by politically energized evangelical Christians had altered the political landscape, helping deliver both the 1980 GOP nomination and the presidency to Ronald Reagan. How could the tragically preppy Poppy—a product of Andover and Yale, and secretive former director of the CIA—adjust to the new political reality in order to run for president in 1988? The answer to this question is part of the Bush family’s slow motion transition from old line Yankee blue bloods to good ol’ Red State politicians.
The story begins with Doug Wead, a former Assemblies of God minister turned what Baker terms a “hybrid marketer-author-speaker-historian-religious-political consultant,” who by 1985 had apparently been vetted and groomed to shape the Bush approach to the religious right. “Instinctively,” Baker writes, “he [Poppy Bush] was uncomfortable with pandering to the masses, and uncomfortable too with ascribing deep personal values to himself. For that matter, he didn’t like to reveal much of anything about himself, which was partly patrician reserve and partly perhaps an instinct reinforced by his covert endeavors over the years.”
If Poppy was going to be president, Wead advised, he needed to learn about “these people.” Eventually, Wead drafted a lengthy memo outlining a way for Bush to surf the rising wave of the religious right to the presidency. “This was the beginning,” according to Wead. But not only for their political strategy. Wead felt that Poppy himself had embarked on a spiritual journey, reworking his own spiritual identity even as he studied the evangelical world and developed a political approach for his 1988 presidential campaign.
All of this would be crucial since Representative Jack Kemp (R-NY), a well-known conservative evangelical, and televangelist Pat Robertson also planned to run for the GOP nomination, forcing Bush to compete for the evangelical vote. The three first clashed in the Michigan GOP caucuses, which preceded the usually first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. (Bush ultimately won after a critical court ruling.) But Wead revealed to Baker how the ‘covert operator’ orientation of the Bush camp played out on the ground. “I ran spies in our opponents political camps,” Wead said, including elected Robertson precinct delegates in Michigan. These Bush agents made headlines when they abandoned Robertson and publicly threw their support to Bush. “We helped them win… and totally infiltrate the Robertson campaign,” Wead declared. “I ran them essentially for [Lee] Atwater, but W. knew about them.”
“The spy argot here is suggestive,” Baker writes. “In the Bush milieu, an intelligence mentality spills over not just into politics but even into dealings with the church-based right. Domestic political constituencies,” he warns, “have replaced the citizens of Communist countries as a key target of American elites. They seek to win hearts and minds of devout Christians through quasi-intelligence techniques.”
The layers of secrecy were peeled back on a need-to-know basis over time. Unbeknownst to Wead, for example, the younger Bush had been a voracious consumer of Wead’s memos to Poppy and his top aides years before they met in 1987. W. had also quietly served as Poppy’s key adviser as they absorbed the lessons and formulated their strategic approach to religious identity and outreach.
Under 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.
Baker writes from the standpoint of a journalist, looking into the murky career and political and financial empire of one of America’s leading political dynasties. George H.W. Bush’s career in the CIA, capped by his brief tenure as director under Ford, reveals a politician comfortable with the workings of covert operations and their political applications sufficient to attain the highest office for himself. That the spiritual rebirth and transformation of his son was so well scripted and staged (even if the facts are in doubt) is unsurprising for a family and network of associates steeped in the geo-political theater of CIA covert operations. Furthermore, as damaging as the tales of W.’s reckless youth were to his campaigns and presidency, the personal redemption story worked at least as powerfully as Bush’s handlers had hoped—for the father as well as the son.
Frederick Clarkson - January 4, 2009 - source ReligionDispatches
Frederick Clarkson’s writing about about politics and religion has appeared in magazines and newspapers from Mother Jones, Conscience and Church & State, to The Village Voice and The Christian Science Monitor for 25 years. He is the editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America, (Ig Publishing 2008), and co-founder of the group blog, Talk to Action.