... 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."(Via Frederick Clarkson at Talk2Action.)
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.
I'm not sure how credible Baker's book is. The link I've just given also includes a quote from the book claiming that Bush helped a Texas girlfriend procure an illegal abortion prior to Roe v. Wade, and I think this is the book that I've heard suggests George H.W. Bush and the CIA had involvement in the JFK assassination, which I find wildly implausible.