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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.]
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
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
“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
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.