Billy Graham has died. He is being remembered as a friend and confessor to presidents, one who gave them guidance and moral fortification. But just as much, Graham was a willing tool of politicians who used him and his supposed pipeline to divine authority to win over the electorate.
The role of “spiritual leaders” in cynically playing the public is both important and largely ignored. But it is well illustrated in this chapter from WhoWhatWhy Editor in Chief Russ Baker’s book, Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years.
I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. —Luke 15:7
George W. Bush and his handlers knew that his behavior before becoming governor — 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 a religious transformation.
The wholesale remaking of the man would require a credible conversion experience and a presentable spiritual guide. For the latter, they settled on the popular and respectable Billy Graham. He had proven a trustworthy friend to the powerful, and he happened to have visited the Bushes at a crucial time for W. and the Bush family.
In 1985 Poppy invited Reverend Graham to join the Bushes at their summer retreat in Kennebunkport. Though the Bush family was Episcopal and Graham Southern Baptist, Graham had for years been widely recognized as the religious leader in residence for the White House. Just associating publicly with him bestowed a certain moral legitimacy in the eyes of untold voters.
The beauty of the religious right as a political bloc was that it provided a large pool of voters that often acted in unison, based on a narrow set of issues that had relatively little to do with actual governance and did not inconvenience the corporate interests that finance the Republican Party. By and large, the things that mattered most to these voters mattered least in the Oval Office.
The Graham invite was likely part of an effort to build support for Poppy among self-identified Christian voters. But it included a bonus, because W. got his own path to validation too. According to a story that would later be repeated widely in the media, Graham preached at the tiny church favored by the Bushes. Afterward he engaged the Bush clan in private discussions of faith, including a chat beside the fireplace. W. would claim later that this chat, along with a walk on the beach, left him a changed man. He wrote in A Charge to Keep:
Over the course of that weekend, Reverend Graham planted a mustard seed in my soul, a seed that grew over the next year. He led me to the path, and I began walking. It was the beginning of a change in my life. I had always been a “religious” person, had regularly attended church, even taught Sunday School and served as an altar boy. But that weekend my faith took on a new meaning. It was the beginning of a new walk where I would commit my heart to Jesus Christ…
When I returned to Midland, I began reading the Bible regularly. Don Evans talked me into joining him and another friend, Don Jones, at a men’s community Bible study.1
Religious affiliation has long offered the ambitious more than just spiritual comfort. It presents opportunities for social and business networking, and for some a convenient counterweight to questionable behavior. John D. Rockefeller’s longtime involvement in the Baptist Church, along with his philanthropic activities, went a long way toward redeeming in some minds his ruthless business practices. Allen Dulles, the CIA’s master of assassinations and coups, served on the national board of the Presbyterian Church. Even Poppy Bush would become a board member of the Episcopal Church Foundation.
Among the moneyed and well-established, it once was typical that one son become an attorney and another a clergyman — occupations preferred over commerce, which was generally frowned upon. When the first wife of Poppy’s great-grandfather James Smith Bush died in childbirth, James entered divinity school. Originally trained as a lawyer at Yale, he ended up serving as minister to some of America’s most powerful congregations, from bastions of great wealth on the East Coast to San Francisco’s exclusive Nob Hill at the height of the California gold rush.
Of course, George W. Bush is not the first politician to tout his religious devotion. Certainly he will not be the last. The conversion narrative is a staple, and one that reporters are loath to question. It was especially appealing in 2000, given Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct and the consequent large role of “character” in the election.
As he noted in Charge to Keep, Bush had served communion during his Houston youth and taught Sunday school when he moved back to Midland in 1975.2 But the Bush family had long treated such activities as civic and political obligations. Inge Honneus, the woman Bush pursued when he was in the National Guard, recalled how W. felt free to discuss all manner of topics with her since she was so far out of his normal circle. “We talked about religion,” she said, and “he thought it was a joke. And when he started going and running for president, and trying to get the religious votes, I’m thinking, ‘What a hypocrite.’ I don’t know if he all of a sudden turned religious. But the core of him was not a very nice man.” Nice man or not, one thing is certain: with his entry into Bible study, Bush was reinventing himself.
It was a politically savvy idea, but, in truth, it was not his own. It appears that it was neither W.’s Midland friends nor the Reverend Billy Graham who helped him see the light. It was Doug Wead, marketing man.
The Religion Coach
Before W. sought to establish his credentials with the religious right — during his father’s vice presidency — Wead had written the Bushes a memo stressing the potential political benefits of preaching to that particular choir.
Wead, a handsome, amiable former minister of the Assemblies of God, had built a career as a motivational speaker. He was a master networker who had moved up the ranks at Amway, the multilevel marketing company run by the fundamentalist DeVos family, big players in the Republican Party. And he had used his charm and his unusual position as a bridge between the moneymaking world and the evangelicals to meet and build relationships with a range of powerful people. He got to know Jimmy Carter. In 1980 he wrote a quickie book, Reagan in Pursuit of the Presidency, timed for release just before the Republican convention. He studied the potential of the evangelical vote, and was soon a hybrid marketer-author-speaker-historian-religious-political-consultant.
Wead 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.
Wead’s entry into the Bush circle had nothing to do with religious politics. He came in as a ghostwriter. It was in this role that Wead was recommended to Senator Lowell Weicker in 1981 to help with the senator’s memoir — the revelations of which, Weicker believed, would finish off Vice President Poppy Bush. But as Weicker narrated his interactions with Poppy over the burning of the Town house documents, Wead began to imagine that Weicker was misreading his rival. And so, paradoxically, the more Weicker vented, the more Wead felt a growing sense of affection, from a distance, for Poppy Bush. (On a practical level, it also was certainly more useful to be friends with a vice president who might become president than with a maverick senator who most certainly would not.)
The ghostwriter contacted deputy assistant White House Chief of Staff Joe Canzeri, whom he knew. Almost immediately, Wead found himself ushered into a meeting in Poppy’s vice presidential offices at the Old Executive Office Building with Pete Teeley, the vice president’s press secretary. Teeley had been recruited onto Poppy’s 1980 campaign by none other than W., and the two men remained close.3
“I tell him what Weicker has, the goods he has,” Wead recalled in one of numerous conversations I had with him over several years. “And Teeley says: ‘Maybe Weicker is right. Maybe George Bush shouldn’t be president of the United States.’ ” Wead realized that Teeley was egging him on. Moreover, Wead recalled, “I had the distinct impression later — after I got to know all these characters — that Herbert Walker [Bush] was sitting in the next room,” listening to the conversation through an open door.
Teeley soon introduced Wead to Poppy’s aide Ron Kaufman, with whom he began having long discussions about the importance of the evangelical vote.
Some time later, Wead was speaking at a conference in Miami when he got an emergency phone call from Teeley, who informed the surprised Wead that he was staying at the hotel next door. “Now, I’ve always assumed, and always thought, it was a coincidence,” said Wead. “We ended up meeting together for lunch several times that week. I literally just walked down the beach and met with him.” Teeley claimed to have taken a leave of absence to write a book about the Colombian cocaine kingpin Carlos Lehder. “[The Vice President’s office] had all this CIA information on him, and they couldn’t go public with it and they couldn’t get him legally, and they were trying to put him out of business. They had finally decided a book was the best way,” Wead said.
In fact, on January 28, 1982, around the time Teeley reached out to Wead, President Reagan had created the high-profile South Florida Task Force, under Poppy’s leadership, ostensibly to control narcotics flowing into the United States. Poppy’s “war on drugs” as vice president and later president would become one of his signature issues.
Teeley told Wead that since he himself lacked experience writing books, he was hoping that Wead might offer guidance. Whatever the true reason for Teeley to be in Florida and seek out Wead, it did not benefit the purported Lehder book. Said Wead: “Come to think of it . . . I don’t think he ever wrote the book.”
In fact, Wead is correct. Teeley never wrote the book — if there ever was a book to write. But Teeley did use this tropical interlude to develop a closer relationship with Wead, and to examine him up close. In retrospect, Wead wondered whether Teeley’s confiding in him on this “confidential topic” was some kind of test.4
Wead soon was being ushered into the presence of Poppy himself. The ostensible reason was an opportunity for Wead to interview the VP for a cover story in an obscure publication Wead put out called On Magazine — Positive News of People and Events. This first meeting with Poppy, Wead recalled, took place in early 1982 — not long after his lunch with Pete Teeley in Florida, and while Wead was still working with Senator Weicker. Soon Wead was a regular in Bush circles.
Doug Wead’s relationship with Poppy Bush grew stronger in June 1984, when Wead sat next to Barbara Bush, and Poppy sat next to Wead’s wife, at a Washington charity dinner honoring Poppy for the “humanitarian” work he had done in Central America. (The Reagan administration’s secret arming of the Nicaraguan rebels, and Bush’s role in the so-called Iran-contra scandal, were not yet publicly known.)
In February 1985, the new friends got down to business. “One day I’m sitting in the office with Pete Teeley, and we’re talking about how to get some water-treatment systems for the vice president to take to Africa,” Wead recalled. “The vice president was there, and he said, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to go speak to the National Religious Broadcasters. I’d like to stay here and shoot the’ — whatever he said it was — ‘with you guys, but I’ve got to go speak to the National Religious Broadcasters.’ And Pete Teeley said, ‘Well, Mr. Vice President, Doug here is a born-again Christian.’ And he was bowled over. He couldn’t believe it. It was like he was stunned. He said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ I said, ‘No, I am. Sorry.’ He said, ‘I can’t believe that. You’re a born-again Christian?’ I said, yeah … I think he didn’t know anybody in his circle that was born-again. He had never met one.” Poppy was almost certainly being disingenuous and making Wead feel special. After all, there were many evangelicals around Reagan, and the GOP in general.
Wead then explained to Poppy that the wife of Poppy’s close friend James Baker was a Catholic Pentecostal, which is not unlike an evangelical, and again, though it is hard to see how the vice president could not have already known about Mrs. Baker, he expressed amazement. And then he asked Wead what he was doing right that minute, whether he would come with him to the National Religious Broadcasters speech.
“So we’re sitting in the car, in the motorcade … and he said, can you look at my speech. And I said sure. So I start to read his speech, and it’s just awful — for evangelicals it’s just terrible. He’s quoting Thomas Dewey. And I said … you know, you don’t want to quote him.” Wead felt it showed Poppy’s tin ear that he imagined evangelicals would want to hear sayings from Dewey, the mustachioed New York Episcopalian.
Certainly, it was a challenge for someone perceived as a preppy moderate to play well to that crowd. But Poppy could hardly have been unaware of the growing influence of the religious right on American politics. Indeed, even the pro-choice, socially liberal Jimmy Carter had very effectively garnered fundamentalist support in 1976 as the first self-described born-again Christian president. And of course Poppy would have known how effectively Ronald Reagan had wooed the same constituency.
When Reagan stood in front of a crowd of fifteen thousand evangelicals in Dallas in August 1980, his message had been framed in the most reassuring terms: “All the complex and horrendous questions confronting us at home and worldwide have their answer in that single book.”5 He eagerly tore into the ACLU, the NEA, and the USSR. Evolution, he assured his audience, “is a scientific theory only.”6
Poppy did not have Reagan’s oratorical gifts — nor his actor’s relish for a good role. Instinctively, he 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.
Wead knew none of this at the time. “So afterwards I tell Pete, I said, boy, if he’s going to be president of the United States, he’s got to have a little better working knowledge of who these people are because it’s going to come off, either it’s going to be terribly offensive that he doesn’t know about them and doesn’t care or that he’s missed one of the greatest religious revivals of his generation and he’s totally unaware of it. Either it’s ignorance or it’s going to be perceived as bias.”
The next thing he knew, Wead was meeting, this time formally, with Ron Kaufman, now Poppy’s national campaign director; their conversation late into the night led to a full week of intense dialogue, and then Kaufman asked Wead to write Poppy Bush a memo on the religious right.
Wead wrote up everything he could think of about the evangelical movement — who they were, how they thought and why they thought that way, and how to cater to them. It took him six months, and it amounted to something like 120 pages. But Kaufman said that wouldn’t do. “He said . . . [Poppy] only reads one-page memos.” Wead got it down to 44 pages, and despite Kaufman’s doubts, Teeley walked it over on a Sunday to Bush at the Admiralty (the vice president’s residence) and handed what became known as the Red Memo to the people at the gate. Shortly thereafter, Poppy sent Wead a note, telling him how helpful it was, that he had read and reread it, and that they needed to talk.
“That was the beginning,” said Wead. There would be much more — in total, according to Wead, thousands of pages anatomizing the evangelicals of the religious right and how to win their support. Wead provided me with copies of some of those memos.
Teeley, Poppy’s former press secretary, recalled Wead’s influence. “I was a little bit dismissive of the numbers of evangelicals and what they could do and one thing or another,” Teeley told me. “So Wead wrote this memo; it was forty pages. It was brilliant. It was one of the best documents that I have ever read in terms of a grassroots operation in politics. And that was basically his — basically Doug was saying, look, here’s the plan, and you should carry this out, and if you do, you’re going to get a lot of support from newborn Christians and one thing or another. Now the question that I had was, was that ever carried out? I don’t know if it was or not, because George Jr. and Doug Wead were fairly close at that time.” The fact that Teeley didn’t know more about what happened was typical of the compartmentalization that Poppy so rigorously enforced.
Wead recalled: “So then I started writing these memos and [Poppy] would write back and say, ‘What does this mean? And why does a Baptist do this? And does a Nazarene have, like, an emotional experience when they have sanctification? And does a Nazarene grow up a Nazarene? Do they have to have a separate experience then, separate from their born-again experience?’ Minutiae. So I realized, very quickly I realized, you know this is more than intellectual curiosity; this is, he is on his way to the White House and he’s also refining what he believes and what he doesn’t believe himself. This is a journey too, because it wasn’t a sufficient reason just for political purposes.”
Though Wead met Poppy Bush in 1982 and got him thinking about the need to understand and embrace religion in 1985, Wead would not actually meet the eldest son until March 1987. But it turns out that W. knew about Wead and his advice long before that.
“I knew the memos that I was sending to his dad were being vetted, and I assumed that they were being vetted by Billy Graham, because of the things his dad would say about Billy Graham,” Wead said. “Well, that was pretty naïve of me to think that.”
Wead realized that Poppy had to be talking with someone about the advice he was being given. “He’s making decisions based on what I’m writing him. Like he started developing his born-again thing, Senior, based on — I gave him several choices and he picked one of them. He’s making big decisions based on this paperwork back and forth, and that was making Atwater real nervous. So I assumed it was Billy Graham.
“It wasn’t: It was W. I hadn’t met W. yet, but he knew me because he was getting all these memos, and he was basically saying, ‘Dad, this is right. This is what people in Midland think. My born-again friends say this. He’s right.’
“When I finally met W., [he said] ‘I’ve read all of your stuff — it’s great stuff.’ He said, ‘We’re going to get this thing going.’ ”
Family Powwow at Camp David
As noted, when W. told the story of his own transformation, he credited Billy Graham’s summer 1985 visit to Kennebunkport. But an equally relevant event took place three months earlier. In the spring, the Bush family had gathered at Camp David with its closest advisers to mull strategy for Poppy’s upcoming 1988 presidential race. (Only a few months earlier, the Reagan-Bush ticket had been reelected to the White House, and in Poppy’s world, all eyes were already on the big prize.)
One factor that constituted both an asset and a liability was W. himself.
He was the family’s enforcer, expected to play a prominent role in maintaining focus and discipline among staff — and to “handle” the media. W. had a talent for such things, but he also brought with him a lot of baggage that was certain to become fodder for the press, as well as for the religious right, the influence of which was cresting.
Alcohol served well as a representative sin — a part that avoided the need to talk about the whole. It is a far more acceptable sin than, say, buying, selling, or using illegal drugs, or committing spousal abuse. And millions of Americans would relate to him.
At the Camp David gathering, George W. and Jeb took the lead in questioning the loyalty of the hired hands. A particular concern was Lee Atwater, whose GOP consulting firm partners were at the same time doing work for Jack Kemp, a rival to Poppy. According to some accounts, Atwater tried to reassure W., and even suggested the VP’s son move to Washington and keep an eye on him.7 Though it would be more than two years before W. physically moved to Washington, he would be very much involved with his father’s 1988 campaign from the outset, and would eventually be called on to serve as liaison to the evangelical community. The mere fact that W., of all people, was in charge of wooing this crucial group is striking. Without his own convincing redemption tale, he would never have been acceptable in that position.
Members of the media might start digging into the backgrounds of the Bush offspring. If they did, they would likely learn that W. had never accomplished anything of note, save for learning to fly a jet in the National Guard (and then cutting out prematurely), and that his businesses were family-and-friend-funded failures whose trail led to covert operations. They might also find that much of his social behavior since college had been an embarrassment. After all, he would soon turn forty.
W. Sees the Light
W. had reason to believe that his efforts to redefine himself would not receive heavy scrutiny in Texas. “Attacks on moral character are the province of the GOP,” said Mike Lavigne, a former Texas Democratic Party official. And being reborn was double insurance. “People figure what you did for forty years of your life doesn’t matter if you’re reborn. And Texas culture is very accepting of born-agains.”
W. saw how people turned to religion when everything seemed lost. He had seen it right there in Midland. At the same time, W. himself was looking for ways to cope with his worsening situation at home — where, according to some Midlanders, his relationship with Laura had become badly strained.
And, with his father preparing to run for the White House, the whole family would have to bear up well under media scrutiny.
The beauty of the religious right as a political bloc was that it provided a large pool of voters that often acted in unison, based on a narrow set of issues that had relatively little to do with actual governance and did not inconvenience the corporate interests that finance the Republican Party. By and large, the things that mattered most to these voters mattered least in the Oval Office. Despite the Bush family’s traditional aversion to its culture, Rove and the other strategists knew that they had to have that bloc.
In March 1987, after years of reading and vetting Wead’s memos, W. finally met the influential evangelical. He quickly developed a close relationship with the man he came to call “Weadie.” Wead would later use his experience with W. and other members of the Bush family as a basis for his accounts of presidential family dynamics, including 2004’s All the President’s Children.8
One day, the two were sitting in W.’s office on Fourteenth Street in Washington, discussing strategies for approaching various evangelicals. “We’re going through a list of the names of these religious leaders,” Wead told me in a 2006 interview, “and … [W.]’s not into details at all … His eyes glaze over in thirty seconds; you got to be right to the point, quick. We’re going over these leaders and how his dad can win them over one by one, discussing different strategies. And he looks down the list and bing! He sees this guy’s name, the guy with the cross. He says, tell me about him, tell me about this guy.” The guy was Arthur Blessitt.
At the time, Blessitt was perhaps best known for earning a mention in The Guinness Book of Records by dragging a ninety-six-pound cross on wheels across six continents. (It is apparently the “world’s longest walk.”) Author Jacob Weisberg notes that a decade earlier, Blessitt “declared he was running for president, though it wasn’t clear which party, if any, he belonged to.”9 In August 2008, the ambitious evangelist fulfilled a lifelong dream by launching the first-ever cross into outer space.
Recalled Wead: “I said basically, well, he’s very beloved, an honest person, innocent person. The rap, which may be very unfair, is that before his conversion he was very much into drugs; he is like a born-again Cheech and Chong sort of thing. He’s got a great sense of humor and [is] a loveable guy, seen [as] a little bit of an oddball to some, but certainly seen as someone who has integrity and [is] without guile and … And [W.] said, ‘Yeah, yeah, uh-huh.’ ”
W.’s Ears Prick Up
In fact, W. was playing dumb with Wead, because he already knew all about the fortuitously named Blessitt. He had met him in April 1984 when the itinerant minister had come to Midland on a crusade. It was a particularly bad moment for the oil-dominated town. The bottom had fallen out of the oil business — including W.’s small piece of it — and former playboys found themselves facing hard times; some suffered the humiliation of having their luxury cars repossessed. In their extremity, some turned to religion. An oil industry Bible study group had been formed that year, and W.’s friend, the banker Don Jones, who had put W. on his bank board, was a member. But Bush himself had not felt the need to join at that time. Raised Episcopal, he had begun attending a Methodist church when he married Laura, but it had been the normal Sunday-morning brand of religiosity.
W. has never spoken about his encounter with Blessitt, but the story emerged on the preacher’s web site in October 2001.10 According to Blessitt, an intermediary contacted him during his 1984 crusade stop in Midland to say that the vice president’s son had heard him on the radio and wished to meet with him discreetly. Blessitt invited Bush to meet with him, led him in a sinner’s prayer and praise, and then said, more or less: that’s it, your sins are forgiven, you’re a new creature, you’re born-again.
By 1987, when W. saw Blessitt on Wead’s list of evangelical leaders, he was being a bit disingenuous in asking Wead to tell him about the man — or why he was so interested. Paying it no further heed, Wead continued reading names. “But later, when I heard the story that [Blessitt] said Bush [became born-again through him]… I believed him.”
However, Wead 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. “My point to him was that evangelicals are not popular in the media and therefore you take a risk by identifying with any of them, and Graham may be the only one that you can,” said Wead. “So G. W. was aware of that before he told me the story that he had a walk with Graham.” Thus, W. was just repeating back to Wead what Wead had advised the Bushes, but with a twist.
“Something in that exchange [about Blessitt] told me that Bush decided Billy Graham’s got to be the guy. It can’t be this guy. It’s got to be Billy Graham.”
The Corporate Confessor: Billy Graham to the Rescue
Billy Graham was a congenial political confessor.11 He was forgiving of the misdoings of his powerful friends — such as Nixon and former Texas governor John Connally. In 1975, when Connally went on trial, accused of taking ten thousand dollars to influence a milk-price decision, one of his character witnesses was Billy Graham. Connally was acquitted.
Graham was also a friend to the Bushes, one who met their test of loyalty. He reportedly had even been among those urging Nixon to make Poppy his running mate back in 1968. In the final Sunday before the 2000 election, Graham would travel to Florida and very publicly embrace his supposed disciple. Speaking on W.’s behalf, Graham said, “I don’t endorse candidates, but I’ve come as close to it now as any time in my life. I believe in the integrity of this man.”12
Of course Billy Graham was often around political families, and of course he talked about his work. And of course they probably took that walk on the beach to which W. would refer. The misdirection came in the way the conversion story was worded. Reporters leaped to the assumption that Bush and Graham had had a private walk and a heart-to-heart, but the words in Charge to Keep don’t really say that. “We walked and talked at Walker’s Point,” Bush says, which is what everyone did while staying there. After W. began recounting the story publicly, Billy Graham admitted to one journalist that he didn’t remember the encounter.
In 2006, Graham told two Time reporters who tried to jog his memory: “I don’t remember what we talked about. There’s not much of a beach there. Mostly rocks. Some people have written — or maybe he has said, I don’t know — that it had an effect, our walk on the beach. I don’t remember. I do remember a walk on the beach.”13
Rocky Mountain Not High
Even after a conversion experience, it is hard to argue that you have changed your ways unless you actually . . . change your ways. And the iconic moment for that, a staple of virtually every profile written during Bush’s first presidential campaign, was the night he swore off drinking.
One of the rules of propaganda is that a transformative event must be dramatically staged. And so W.’s forswearing booze takes place the day after his fortieth birthday — July 7, 1986 — and with the majestic Rocky Mountains as the backdrop. For the occasion, Bush had assembled a small group of close friends at the Broadmoor Hotel, a renowned resort in Colorado Springs.
As Bush tells it, he had had a few too many drinks at his birthday dinner the night before, and had awoken the next morning feeling awful. On the spot he decided never to drink again. Like all the significant changes in Bush’s life, this one was described without inner texture or process. He simply flipped a switch. “People later asked whether something special happened, some incident, some argument or accident that turned the tide, but no, I just drank too much and woke up with a hangover. I got out of bed and went for my usual run … I felt worse than usual, and about halfway through, I decided that I would drink no more.”
It was not that his drinking had taken so much of a toll. Rather it was an act of prudent foresight. “I realized that alcohol was beginning to crowd out my energies and could crowd, eventually, my affections for other people … When you’re drinking, it can be an incredibly selfish act,” Bush said. “Well, I don’t think I had [an addiction]. You know, it’s hard for me to say. I’ve had friends who were, you know, very addicted … and they required hitting bottom [to start] going to AA. I don’t think that was my case.”14
Actually it is quite believable that Bush could abruptly end a longtime habit in this way. He has a steely resolve and a self-assurance that in some contexts can be a plus. He has talked about “not getting into a debate with myself.”
In his professional as well as personal life, W. often made snap decisions and stuck to them, no matter what. “It took my breath away,” recalled Wead. “When he first came in, we had a long list of things that needed to be done. He just went down the list, yes, yes, no, no, yes — things that for months we couldn’t get any action on. I said, ‘Why yes to number three? I mean, I’m glad you said that, but why yes to three?’ Well, he’d give his answers that just blew me away. I never met anybody that decisive in my life.
“I once met a guy named Nicholson … He was working for Gerald Ford, and he went on to corporate work, and he was like that. You’d be having a conversation like this, and he’d say, wait, that’s a good idea. And he’d get the phone, and he’d call somebody and say, sell this, do this, do that, build that. And then he’d say, OK, go on. And he was amazing, a businessman, a multimillionaire. But other than him, I’ve never met anybody else like that — and Bush Jr. was far more decisive than Nicholson. I just couldn’t believe it.”
Alcohol served well as a representative sin — a part that avoided the need to talk about the whole. It is a far more acceptable sin than, say, buying, selling, or using illegal drugs, or committing spousal abuse. And millions of Americans would relate to him. A weakness overcome could end up actually attracting voters. A negative would become a positive.
W. had been dipped into the cleansing waters, and he was triply absolved: 1) No one could criticize him for anything he had done before he had found the Lord and abandoned the bottle; 2) fundamentalist Christians would embrace him in large numbers; and 3) by emphasizing his “wild youth” he would create a striking contrast to stuffed shirts like his father, Al Gore, and John Kerry. To pollster after pollster, voters would admit that they liked George W. Bush largely because of what a regular guy he was. And he certainly was — even when in his post-born-again life, he didn’t take his conversion experience too seriously. When a Midland Bible teacher asked W.’s prayer group to define a prophet, the irreverent Harvard Business School grad piped up with this quip: “That is when revenues exceed expenditures. No one’s seen one out here in years.”15
Spy vs. Spy
If there were ever any doubts about just how crucial the religious right vote was to political success, they evaporated the moment the televangelist Pat Robertson entered the 1988 GOP race against Poppy. Then things moved beyond simple outreach.
“I ran spies in our opponents’ political camps,” Wead said. “We recruited precinct delegates that ran for office for Pat Robertson in Michigan. We helped them win, get elected, go to the state, and totally infiltrate Robertson’s campaign. I ran them essentially for [Lee] Atwater, but W. knew about them.”16 Wead said that front-page headlines in Detroit were declaring “Robertson Delegates Switch to Bush,” but of course these delegate spies were supporting Bush from the get-go. The spy argot here is suggestive. In the Bush milieu, an intelligence mentality spills over not just into politics generally, but even into dealings with the church- based right. Domestic political constituencies have replaced the citizens of Communist countries as a key target of American elites. They seek to win the hearts and minds of devout Christians through quasi-intelligence techniques.
Wead was struck by W.’s own mastery of the dark arts. “I’ve had long discussions with W. about planting stories deep so that journalists who find them have a great sense of authorship and so that they have great authenticity,” Wead said. “Like doing a good deed and planting it real, real deep, knowing it will be found.” It was subtle, and therefore it was effective, a classic strategy of misdirection that is one of the oldest weapons in the arsenal of the covert operative. “We talked about the importance of things that the press would have to find, that you leave a little nugget there, and you got to bury it deep enough that as [for example, Washington Post reporter] Lois Romano goes for it and finds it, she would never ever guess that it was planted. She would die for her story — pride of authorship. She’d fight her editors all the way. We talked about that.”
Once, Wead recalled with amusement, they were talking about Mad magazine, and which features were their favorites. W. volunteered that he particularly loved the intrigues of Spy vs. Spy. “He was talking about the subtlety of politics and how what meets the eye is so different from the political [reality],” Wead told me. “I’m still amazed how naïve so many journalists are who have covered politics all their life.”
In former White House press secretary Scott McClellan’s 2008 tell-all, What Happened, he recounts being invited to W.’s hotel suite during the 2004 campaign while the president is on the phone with a supporter. “The media won’t let go of these ridiculous cocaine rumors,” W. says into the phone as he motions for McClellan to sit and relax. “You know, the truth is I honestly don’t remember whether I tried it or not. We had some pretty wild parties back in the day,” the president continues.
In his book, McClellan recalls his own bewilderment. “How can that be? How can someone simply not remember whether or not they used an illegal substance like cocaine?” Though McClellan remembers that the phone call was arranged, and that W. “brought up the [cocaine] issue,” he doesn’t seem to realize that the president is indirectly relaying a message to the man who serves as his mouthpiece. If W. could only convince his press secretary, through an offhand moment of candor, that he didn’t remember using cocaine, then McClellan might repeat the statement to the press with all the conviction of someone telling the truth as he saw it.17
In politics, the essence of deceit is deniability: getting something done in such a way that you can plausibly claim that you had nothing to do with it. Not surprisingly, the first son of a longtime CIA operative was obsessed with deniability for both himself and his father. “What they did in ’85, ’86, ’87, ’88, ’89, is they didn’t have me write the memo to him,” said Wead. “They had me write the memo to Atwater or to Fuller or to Kaufman, so I’ve got a ton of memos that I can show you that are written to Kaufman, but they were for [both Georges] Bush.”
W. went to great lengths to remind “Weadie” of his value to the operation. “He would say to me, ‘Did you get reimbursed for that airline ticket?’ And I’d say, no, but it’s no problem. He’d yell to Gina or whatever her name was, ‘Get in here.’ And she’d come in, and he’d say, ‘Why haven’t you reimbursed him?’
“ ‘Well, we were going to do it.’
“ ‘Pay him now, now!’
“ ‘Well, I’ve got to—’
“ ‘OK.’ ”
The Safe with Two Keys
Given all they had to hide, it makes sense that the obsession with secrecy by George Bush, father and son, would be all-consuming.
Wead recalls that sometimes during the 1980s he would be talking on the phone with Poppy Bush and Poppy would say that he wanted to ring off and call Wead back on the “secure phone” — though what they were discussing was inherently political and in no way dealt with national security.
W. was sometimes more careless than his father, but he was always vigorous about cleaning up after the fact. This appears to have been the case in a previously undisclosed arrangement he made with Wead to safeguard tapes of conversations between the two aboard campaign planes in the 2000 election period.
During the 1980s, Wead had routinely taped some conversations with Poppy with the elder Bush’s permission. He had also instinctively taped his discussions with W. more than a decade later, for reasons Wead says were benign — a capturing of history, and a means of retaining a record of W.’s sentiments and instructions. But he had neglected to tell W. Those tapes would provoke a brief scandal some years later.
In 2005, the New York Times persuaded Wead, a self-styled presidential historian, to play snippets of those tapes, and the result was a front-page story — and a huge row with the White House. The excerpts Wead had chosen to play were largely benign, and featured W. discussing faith, politics, and the weaknesses of rival candidates — without making too many major gaffes. Yet the White House reacted with anger. In an unusual step, Laura Bush was sent out to chastise Wead and nip the story in the bud. With the resulting media hullabaloo, Wead was faced with a difficult decision. He told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he’d had lucrative offers to sell the tapes: “Tonight, my agent called me and said, ‘Well, do you want to retire a multimillionaire?’ ” But ultimately, Wead decided to hand the tapes back to the White House. “History can wait,” he said.18
What was not reported at the time was what else was on the tapes — or what became of them. I asked Wead, and he told me. “It’s a president speaking. He’s talking and he’s strategizing and he’s talking about rumors about his sex life, why they’re not true and details about his life and reporters and how he reacts to them and he’s putting me on assignment to go and put out some of these stories.”
Understandably, the White House did not want Wead sharing any more of their content than he already had, and he quickly heard from W.’s personal attorney, Jim Sharp. “He’d come out here, and we’d meet and talk and I gave him the tapes, and Bush listened to them…”
Wead and Bush signed an agreement that they would jointly own the tapes. The White House people proposed that Wead turn over the tapes, and that they be stored in a box to which he would have a key. But Wead’s son, an attorney, proposed instead that the parties get a safe that required two keys to open: “He said, ‘No, no, no, get a safe that has two keys, one for the president and one for you.’ And Sharp said, ‘We can’t do that, there is no such thing.’ And he insisted, ‘The president wants this resolved right away.’ And I go back to my son, and he says ‘There is too such thing.’ ”
And indeed there was. “We found that safe. My wife and I went to downtown Washington with the tapes, and we deposited them in a satchel. We locked the satchel, put it in the safe, and locked the keys. [Sharp] took it to the president, and I locked my key and I took that for me. And rolled it down the street to a bank.”
1. George W. Bush, A Charge to Keep (New York: William Morrow, 1999), pp. 136–37. Throughout the writings of Poppy, W., and Barbara Bush, a pattern emerges regarding the selective inclusion of names. Wherever a person is likely to provide reporters with a favorable story, that person’s name is included — no matter how gratuitous their mention or how obscure they may be. By contrast, the names of many important figures in their lives appear to have been excised.
2. Ibid., pp. 19, 86.
3. Elizabeth Mitchell, W.: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty (New York: Berkley Publishing, 2003), p. 220.
4. As president, Poppy appointed Teeley ambassador to Canada — a particularly nice perk for a former press secretary.
5. Jodi Kantor and David D. Kirkpatrick, “Pulpit Was the Springboard for Huckabee’s Rise,” New York Times, December 6, 2007.
6. Garry Wills, Under God: Religion and American Politics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), p. 120.
7. Eric Pooley with S. C. Gwynne, “How George Got His Groove,” Time, June 21, 1999.
8. Doug Wead, All the President’s Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America’s First Families (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).
9. Jacob Weisberg, The Bush Tragedy (New York: Random House, 2008), p. 78.
10. Arthur Blessitt, “Praying with George W. Bush,” www.blessitt .com/ ?q=praying _with _george _w _bush.
11. Graham also played to his friends’ prejudices, telling Nixon, who periodically complained about Jews, that he believed they had a “stranglehold” on the media. See “Graham Regrets Jewish Slur,” BBC News, March 2, 2002.
12. Terry M. Neal, “Nominees Make Final Forays to Tossup States,” Washington Post, November 6, 2000.
13. Weisberg, The Bush Tragedy, p. 77.
14. Lois Romano and George Lardner Jr., “1986: A Life- Changing Year; Epiphany Fueled Candidate’s Climb,” Washington Post, July 25, 1999.
15. David Maraniss, “The Bush Bunch,” Washington Post, January 22, 1989.
16. Author interview with Doug Wead, May 27, 2008.
17. Scott McClellan, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception (New York: PublicAffairs, 2008), pp. 48–49.
18. “Author: I Should Give Tapes to Bush,” CNN.com, February 21, 2005.
Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from White House (Victor R. Ruiz / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0) and Billy Graham (Paul Walsh / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0).