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Bush's 'Elmer Gantry' Politics

By Robert Parry
February 21, 2005

A central media narrative of Election 2000 was that Al Gore was a calculating politician who would do whatever it took to win, while George W. Bush was just a regular guy who spoke from the heart, wasn’t obsessed with winning, and disdained political calculation.

This narrative – combined with attacks on Gore’s honesty – was decisive in making Election 2000 close enough for Bush to seize victory despite losing the national popular vote. But new disclosures suggest that the dominant media narrative of that historically important campaign was way off the mark.

Not only did Bush display a political ruthlessness by stopping the vote-counting in Florida in December 2000, but just-released tape recordings reveal an ambitious Gov. Bush in 1998 honing his religious pitch to conservative Christians, rehearsing how he would nail down their support by stressing his devotion to Jesus Christ.

The tapes were recorded by Doug Wead, a longtime Bush family adviser who counseled both George Bushes on how to talk to religious conservatives. Wead’s strategies first surfaced before the 1988 presidential campaign as he gave pointers to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush on how to “signal” messages to Christian fundamentalists.

Wead’s Memos

In a series of memos, Wead advised the senior George Bush to “signal early and signal often,” meaning that references to God should be inserted into speeches and that meetings should be held with celebrity Evangelicals. The idea was that secular voters would miss the significance of these messages, but Christian fundamentalists would understand.

The elder George Bush resisted this manipulative advice apparently out of discomfort over mixing religion and politics. But the junior George Bush – then a senior adviser to his father’s campaign – seized on the recommendations.

“George would read my memos, and he would be licking his lips saying, ‘I can use this to win Texas,’” Wead said in an interview published in GQ magazine in September 2003.

George W. Bush indeed proved he could use Wead’s techniques for winning Texas. He defeated incumbent Gov. Ann Richards in 1994 and rolled to a resounding re-election in 1998. In September 1998, already eyeing the White House, Bush prepared for a meeting with conservative Christian leaders by again consulting Wead.

“As you said, there are some code words,” Bush said in a tape-recorded conversation, recently given by Wead to the New York Times. “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.”

Rehearsing how he would make the pitch, Bush said, “I’m going to tell them the five turning points in my life: accepting Christ, marrying my wife, having children, running for governor, and listening to my mother.”

Other “code words” delivered to the Christian fundamentalists appeared to be more blunt. On the first day of his second term as Texas governor, Bush told a group of supporters, “I believe that God wants me to be president,” according to Richard Land, a director of the Southern Baptist Convention who was at the meeting. [See PBS’s Frontline report, “The Jesus Factor”]

Past Drug Use

Bush’s conversations with conservative pastors also helped him refine how he would duck questions during Campaign 2000 about drug use and other indiscretions of his early adulthood, according to Wead’s tapes.

Reciting these lessons, Bush said, “What you need to say time and time again is not talk about the details of your transgressions but talk about what I have learned. ... I’ve sinned and I’ve learned.”

Bush called this mantra – admitting to “immature” actions without specifying what they were – “part of my shtick.”

The tapes also show that Bush was not just the easygoing fellow who didn’t care much about winning – the image that the national media fell for in 2000. George W. Bush was ready to play hardball against Al Gore, like his father had done with Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988.

“I may have to get a little rough for a while,” Bush told Wead. “But that is what the old man had to do with Dukakis, remember?”

As far as most of the American journalists on the campaign trail were concerned, however, Gore was the “ruthless” candidate who would do whatever it took to win. [For more on the media’s mishandling of Campaign 2000, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al Gore v. the Media” and “Protecting Bush-Cheney.” Wead, who still supports Bush, said he recorded the tapes for historical purposes. Excerpts appear in the New York Times, Feb. 20, 2005.]

God’s Choice

After winning the White House in 2000, Bush consolidated his hold over the Christian fundamentalists by presenting himself as one of the most overtly religious presidents in modern times. Though Bush rarely went to church, he peppered his speeches with phrases that had special meaning for Evangelicals.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Bush said “the Almighty” inspired his decisions and referred to the war against Islamic terrorism as a “crusade” and a “calling” that pitted good against evil. Many conservative Christians came to see Bush as the de facto leader of their movement, replacing Evangelical leaders, such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.  

The notion of Bush as God's messenger came to pervade the thinking of many Christian fundamentalists. Some viewed Bush’s unusual rise to the presidency – despite getting fewer votes than Gore in Florida and across the United States – as divine intervention. [For more on the results of Election 2000, see Consortiumnews.com’s “So Bush Did Steal the White House.”]

Even mainstream media and political figures began bowing to this quasi-religious idea that God wanted George W. Bush to be president.

On Dec. 23, 2001, for instance, NBC's Tim Russert joined New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and First Lady Laura Bush in ruminating about whether divine intervention put Bush in the White House to handle the Sept. 11 crisis.

Russert asked Mrs. Bush if “in an extraordinary way, this is why he was elected.” Mrs. Bush objected to Russert’s suggestion that “God picks the president, which he doesn’t.”

Giuliani thought otherwise. “I do think, Mrs. Bush, that there was some divine guidance in the president being elected. I do,” the mayor said. McCarrick also saw some larger purpose, saying: “I think I don’t thoroughly agree with the First Lady. I think that the president really, he was where he was when we needed him.”

While Mrs. Bush and other more moderate Christians found the notion of God picking presidents somewhere between silly and offensive, Bush’s White House image-makers have done nothing to discourage this growing belief among right-wing Christians. For some, Bush’s invasion of Iraq even became an omen of the coming Rapture, in which Christians go to Heaven and a vengeful Jesus returns to rule the non-believers on Earth.

Craig Paul Roberts, a former Reagan administration official and an associate editor on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, began to encounter these strange beliefs when he criticized the Iraq War.

“America has blundered into a needless and dangerous war, and fully half of the country’s population is enthusiastic,” Roberts wrote in an essay about the fury he finds among Bush’s true believers. “Many Christians think that war in the Middle East signals ‘end times’ and that they are about to be wafted up to Heaven.”

Roberts wrote that his Iraq War criticism made him an object of “much hate” often expressed in “violently worded, ignorant and irrational e-mails from self-professed conservatives who literally worship George Bush.”

Roberts even compared these pro-Bush extremists to the Brownshirts, the thugs who helped Adolf Hitler bully his way to power in Germany and who “were ignorant, violent, delusional, and they worshipped a man of no known distinction.”

 “Brownshirts’ delusions were protected by an emotional force field,” Roberts wrote. “Like Brownshirts, the new conservatives take personally any criticism of their leader and his policies. To be a critic is to be an enemy.”

Roberts added, “Even Christians have fallen into idolatry. There appears to be a large number of Americans who are prepared to kill anyone for George Bush.”

Though comparisons to Hitler’s Brownshirts may strike some readers as excessive, there can be little doubt that George W. Bush used Doug Wead’s advice in ways that George H.W. Bush resisted.

What is less clear is exactly where George W. Bush’s political expediency ends and his real political-religious views begin. In other words, is Bush someone who is simply making political hay out of his genuine religious feelings – or is he a political Elmer Gantry who cynically exploits religious “code words” to rally support and to shield himself from criticism?

Beyond the issue of Bush’s sincerity, there may be even a bigger question: whether Bush’s success in wrapping himself in a cloak of Christian mythology signals the “end times” for the United States as a democratic Republic based on rational discourse.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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