To understand President Bush’s recent visit to 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.
Bush wasn’t invited to the Vatican. He asked if he could visit. When he was turned down the first time, he asked again, and reluctantly, the pope and the Holy See, who frown on election-year visits, said yes. Visiting Bob Jones, opposing stem-cell research, supporting a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and appointing the first U.S. attorney general to have himself anointed as he was sworn in — all have won Bush the unqualified backing of evangelical Protestants. American Catholics present a problem. They listen to the pope. And for more than a year, they have heard John Paul II’s condemnation of Bush’s war in Iraq. So Catholics who should solidly support Bush because of his stance on abortion are wavering because of the war in Iraq and some social-justice issues.
Iraq in particular is a problem. On the eve of the war, the pope had sent Cardinal Pio Laghi, the former papal nuncio, to Washington to meet with Bush. “There are still peaceful avenues within the context of the vast patrimony of international law,” the cardinal said at the time. “A decision regarding the use of military force can only be taken within the framework of the United Nations.” The pope himself expressed his strong anti-war sentiment in public. Then in May, as Norman Birnbaum reports in Salon, Cardinal Laghi went on the attack again, with an interview in an Italian newspaper: “We are at the edge of an abyss and have to stop. Above all, America has to re-establish respect for humanity and return to the family of nations, conquering the temptation to act alone.” The pope, Laghi told reporters at Corriere dela Sera, had warned Bush.
So why bother going to Rome? Bush had visited the pontiff twice before the war. Cardinal Laghi implied that Bush was in for a ritual humiliation. But 23 percent of the nation’s 63.4 million Catholics live in what we have come to call “the crucial battleground states.” Catholics split in the last election, with Al Gore getting 50 percent to Bush’s 47. Rove is pondering the question Hitler asked: “How many divisions has the pope?” Hitler referred to divisions in the Vatican army. Rove is focused on divisions of voters in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Bush went to Rome and sat still (with an utterly dumbstruck look on his face) while the pope delivered a ritual public humiliation, referring to “deplorable events that have come to light and troubled the civic and religious conscience of all and made more difficult a serene and absolute commitment to shared human values.” The pope also warned that if things continue on the course ordained by the American president, “neither the war nor terrorism will ever be overcome.”
Yet the visit was a huge success. Not even Bush’s clumsy and inappropriate demand that Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano lean on American bishops to get them to support Bush on social issues could ruin it (a story reported only because The National Catholic Reporter’s exceptional Vatican correspondent John L. Allen is so well sourced). How can a visit to Rome where the pope lectured a president who was later caught crossing the constitutional line that separates church and state be considered a success?
There’s a simple answer. The National Journal’s Carl Cannon (with whom I wrote Boy Genius, a Rove biography) followed the president to Rome and reported that at one point Rove jumped from a limo to take pictures of the Vatican’s Swiss Guard. These were, of course, personal snapshots. But among Rove’s cardinal principles of electoral politics (win the “money primary” first, do your opposition research and use it to define and destroy your opponent, stay on message, etc.) is the understanding that “only the images matter.”
The Bush campaign is in trouble. So the president traveled to the Vatican to have his picture taken with the pope. Look for it three months from now, after embarrassing press accounts of the trip are forgotten. You’ll find it in a Catholic parish neighborhood near you. It’s the pictures, stupid.