By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
To understand President Bush’s recent visitto the Vatican, you have to go back to the moment when George Bush and Karl Rove came to Jesus. Not in a religious, born-again sense. That happened to Bush shortly after his 40th birthday, when he and his Midland oil-field buddy Donnie Evans joined a men’s Bible-study group. Bush and his lifetime political adviser Rove found the political Jesus eight years later in Fort Worth. Until that moment, Rove was a secular, social Christian, openly contemptuous of the right-wing evangelical fanatics taking over the Republican Party. At the 1994 Republican State Convention in Fort Worth, Rove began to understand how useful the Christians could be. He was transformed into a secular, social Christian, quietly contemptuous of the right-wing evangelical fanatics taking over the Republican Party. He had no choice. As he was launching Bush’s political career, calculating that the road to Washington ran through Austin, the Christian right seized control of the Texas Republican Party.
This was the Christian right in Texas, where chairmen at Republican district caucuses would openly talk of segregating disease-bearing homosexuals at public events and accepting only completed Jews — Jews who accepted Christ as the Messiah — into the party. Now that their party holds all 24 statewide offices and both houses of the Legislature, they have toned it down. In a platform adopted earlier this month, they went no further than declaring the United States a Christian Nation and the Ten Commandments the basis of our legal system. There was also a line advocating a public policy embodying their opposition to “civil or criminal penalties against anyone who opposes homosexuality out of faith, conviction or belief in traditional values.” (Kind of the opposite of a hate-crimes statute: a special faith-based waiver for discrimination or abuse of gays and lesbians as long as it’s done in the name of a religious creed.)
When the Christian extremists seized control of the party in 1994, they unceremoniously tossed party chairman Fred Meyer out on his ass. Meyer was a veteran party organizer and funder, hand-picked chairman of George Bush the elder, and the former president’s friend and statewide finance committee chairman in 1988 and 1992. They even threw the alcohol out of the convention hospitality rooms, replacing open bars with gourmet sundae bars — which were okay up to a point. But it was hard to knock back four or five triple-dips with nuts and hot fudge as you worked your way from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s to Congressman Tom DeLay’s suites.
Initially, Rove tried to fight them. He proposed his own secular candidate in the race for the party chair: Congressman Joe Barton. And Rove’s operatives tried to keep some of the more extreme measures out of the platform that Bush would have to run on in his first political campaign since an ill-advised race for Congress in 1978. The Christians couldn’t be stopped. The guy the Texas press corps has always referred to as “Bush’s Brain” quickly concluded that American Christianity is a political movement. The closer Bush came to the presidency, the closer Rove came to Jesus. Rove understood that Bush’s religious belief was an asset and not a liability, if a few problems could be worked out.
One of the smarter things Rove did then was prep Bush for his big 1998 interview with New York Times reporter Sam Howe Verhovek. Verhovek was writing a big Sunday magazine piece. And Bush had a Jew problem. Caught up in the zeal that is the signature mark of Bible-study groups, Bush had openly talked of Jews not being able to get into heaven. In his interview with the Times, Bush told how his mother addressed the question by appealing to a higher authority: Billy Graham.
Bush was visiting his parents at the White House. “Mother and I were arguing — not arguing, having a discussion — and discussing who goes to heaven,” Bush told Verhovek. “I said, ‘Mom, look, all I can tell you is what the New Testament says.’ And she said, ‘Well, surely, God will accept others.’ And I said, ‘Mom, here’s what the New Testament says.’ And she said, ‘Okay,’ and she picks up the phone and calls Billy Graham. She says to the White House operator, get me Billy Graham. I said, ‘Mother, what are you doing?’”
Graham gets on the phone and gets the Bushes off the hook. “From a personal perspective, I agree with what George is saying, the New Testament has been my guide,” Graham said. “But I want to caution you both. Don’t play God. Who are the two of you to play God?” It was brilliant. A subtextual “no” for evangelicals and a small glimmer of hope for Jews; Graham thought they were screwed, but God might still let them in. (This was before Graham’s private loathing for Jews was turned up in the Nixon papers and tapes.)
That became the model. Religious moments that offered something for everyone (the exception was Bush’s ill-advised visit to anti-Catholic, anti-black, anti-Semitic Bob Jones University). Which brings us to the Vatican trip earlier this month.