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interviews: doug wead
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Doug Wead is a motivational speaker, a Bush family friend, and was a campaign adviser to George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election. In this interview, he tells the personal story behind President Bush becoming in middle age a born-again Christian and, as someone who has closely observed Bush over the decades, he explains how the president's faith has had a tempering effect on who he is. "[It] is the good angel of his personality. Without that faith, he is so hard, he is so decisive, he is so quick, he is so brutal, he is so unapologetic, so self-righteous…" he says. Wead also discusses evangelicals' growing impact in recent presidential elections and why, nonetheless, they still feel under assault by the country's press, government and culture. In a way, says Wead, evangelicals have only themselves to blame. "We have not been involved in public life, because we haven't felt a need to or a desire to. So it's going to take time. Catholics have been through this, Jews have been through this in this country. … We are resented, because our numbers are so huge… if we could ever get our act together, we could be formidable." This interview was conducted on Nov. 18, 2003.

Talk about your relationship with George W. Bush. How long have you known him? You're described in a couple of different bios about you as an old friend, and as one of his advisers.

I first met George W. in March 1987. I was working for his father, running coalitions in the pre-campaign part of his presidential run. I didn't know it, but apparently George W. was auditing some of the memos I was sending to his father. I knew that his father was vetting my memos with somebody. I suspected it was Billy Graham. It had to be someone sharp who understood evangelical Christianity, because he was acting on a lot of the information I was sending him. ...

Tell me a little bit about what you were doing in George Bush Sr.'s campaign. What were you helping him with? Could you explain your role, and the memos that you were writing therefore?

I was writing a memorandum for George Bush Sr. on how to build a relationship with the evangelical community -- how to define it, who they are, where they come from, what's their language. What are you saying when you speak? What are you saying when you say those words? ...

There's no question that the president's faith is real, genuine; and there's no question that it's calculated. I know that sounds like a contradiction. But that will always be the case for a public figure, regardless of their faith, whether they're Islamic, or Jewish, or Christian.

I was churning out hundreds of pages of memoranda, and he was sending them back with little notations. So someone was talking in his ear about this information I was feeding him. Basically, I was sending him memos to help him build a relationship with the evangelical movement, which was the most powerful new constituency in the GOP and that election cycle. It turned out he was vetting them with his son.

So in March 1987, I met George W. and Laura Bush and the twins in Corpus Christi. George W. said, "I've been reading your memorandum. Good stuff, Wead. I'm taking you over. You report to me. I'll be your boss." So that was that.

So you were writing your memoranda for Vice President Bush because he is not evangelical, he was not as tuned in to this community and what they think, or how they feel. Can you talk a little bit about how you were trying to bridge that with him? How were you trying to explain it to him?

It's hard to describe what was on those memoranda, because we're talking about a thousand-plus pages. But in building a relationship with evangelicals, I had to define who they are, and what they believe, and what they think. So a lot of it was polling data, demographics.

Then, I had to share language, because every subculture has its own nomenclature, its own language, its own style. You can be out on the street and someone can just put one word in front of another word, and you instantly know where they're from. The same is true with the evangelical subculture.

It was important that the vice president be speaking directly to them, saying to them what he believes. I didn't want to influence what he believed, but I wanted to make sure he was communicating. So a lot of it was language and communication, and "What does this mean?" and "What do you mean when you're saying this?"

Are there any things that you can tell me that are specific? What are the types of things that you would have said to him?

One very big issue for Vice President Bush at the time was understanding the terminology of being "born again." I didn't know it, but in the 1980 election, he had met with some evangelical leaders at the hotel there at O'Hare Airport. They'd ask him, "Are you a born-again Christian?" and he said, "No," that he wasn't.

So, [in] my memorandum I was saying to him, "Look, Mr. Vice President, if you're asked the question, "Are you a born-again Christian?" you can't say no. You can say anything else, but you can't say no.

Even Walter Mondale did not say "No." His campaign in 1984 actually made the strategic decision of attacking fundamentalists and fundamentalist leaders as a part of their political strategy. Even with that, in the debate, he would not say no to the question, "Are you born again?" He said, "Well, my father was a minister, and I have deep respect for people of faith," and he gave a different answer.

[I said to Vice President Bush], "You, too, must find a different answer than 'No,' because we're talking"-- it was then 36 percent of the American population [was born again], today, of course, it's 48 percent. But at that time, [without] 36 percent of the American population, you can't win the Republican nomination and say 'No' to this question. Say something else, and here are some options."

Well, that raised the whole issue of, what is a born-again Christian? As an Episcopalian, actually, his own church would teach that he becomes born again at baptism. Jesus said in the New Testament, "Unless you're born again, you won't enter the kingdom of heaven. So will you enter the kingdom of heaven?" Of course, he would believe he would enter the kingdom of heaven. He's a good Episcopalian. So when did he become born again? The point is, doctrinally, his own church would teach he was born again at baptism. So you have to come up with different language. ...

So it was obvious to me that, on the one hand, this was a blind spot. This was an area that he did not understand, had not tapped, and he was in a position where it was too late to publicly admit it and say it. He had to get the information.

Secondly, I was very much aware that something was going on in his own mind and philosophy in life. This was beyond politics. When you run for president, the first question anyone will ask you is, "Why are you running for president?"...

I could sense in the notes coming back and forth with Bush senior that he was in the process of redefining who he was and what he felt. There was no other reason for this back and forth, so many pages.

Do you think it also has to do with the fact that his son, just a few years before, had actually gone through a born-again experience himself, and had really taken his religion much more seriously with his talks with Billy Graham, and his conversion himself? Do you think that was part of the equation?

I think part of the equation was what was going on in the life of his son, George W. I remember one meeting where we thoroughly prepped the vice president, and he had been in many sessions already. He was very good, but we were with a group of evangelicals. They were really tough. They started peeling the onion back so fast that I thought, "Uh-oh."

Finally, the vice president said, "Hey, fellas, you need to talk to my son. He's a real born-again Christian." So the vice president was admitting, acknowledging that "I'm trying to learn this stuff; my son's already there."

I didn't know at the time what was going on in the life of George W. Bush. But obviously, this was part of the equation. The vice president was receiving this memorandum from me that had data, and facts, and demographics, and percentages, and language. Then he was hearing verbally at the same time, from his son, "Mom, Dad, this is real America. This is out here. I've tasted it myself." That must have brought it home in a much more keen way.

When George W. Bush said that he was going to be your boss, what was he like? How easy was it for him to speak to the evangelical community? ...

... Well, George W., the son, instantly understood. He only needed a short little verbal head start, and he's off and running, because he knew the culture. He knew the language. I [would] always get feedback after his father met with ministers, [as] to, "How did he do? What did he say? What do you think?" Then they'd give me their viewpoint on who he was, and what he thought, what's really going on, which was very interesting for me to hear.

But with the son, it was just instant. In 1998, 1999, 2000, within five minutes of any meetings with evangelicals, within minutes, they instantly knew he's a born-again Christian.

Was the same true in the late 1980s, with his dad? I mean, [George W.] met with the evangelical community. He was the liaison, right?

It was not true then as much as it was in the 2000 election. He was better. He was more effective.

I've read a couple of things you said about the fact that George W. Bush ran for governor after he helped his dad. He used a lot of the techniques that he learned with you, or he knew intuitively -- we don't know which is which. ... He sort of took what he learned in Washington working on his dad's campaign and applied it to the Texas races. Can you talk about how that happened?

Sometimes, when we would prepare these memos for his father, we would prepare a memorandum on a region or a state. For example, one memo was like a 20-pager on the state of Texas. Who are the evangelical leaders in Texas, and why? Who to stay away from, who's radioactive. What [are] the various doctrines and denominations, what percentages, where, what major churches, and some suggestions, or technique, or strategy, or hints.

I remember him reviewing the memorandum on Texas, and he just lit up. He said, "Ah, you know, I could do this in Texas. I could make this work in Texas." There was no secret he was talking about running for governor. But he'd see this, and said, "Whoa." To me, it was like the missing piece for him.

He had run for office in Texas, and his opponent had kind of played the evangelical culture card against him by saying, "Everybody at George's house is going to go out and have a beer," you know, before the election. "We're different, our people are different." And he got beat in the congressional election.

Now he had become an evangelical Christian himself. So he's reading this strategy, and he's thinking, "Whoa, this could certainly work for me."

Talk about George W. Bush's faith, and whether you think it's truly genuine. I don't think a lot of people question it, how he could be genuinely born again, but then also, he's a politician, so he's going to use it to his advantage.

There's no question that the president's faith is real, that it's authentic, that it's genuine, and there's no question that it's calculated. I know that sounds like a contradiction. But that will always be the case for a public figure, regardless of their faith, whether they're Islamic, or Jewish, or Christian.

Constantine, which was the first great Christian public figure, was accused of being calculated. "How else," the Christians said, "would he keep open the temples to the Greek gods and to the Roman gods, and fund some of the temples to the Roman gods?" So they were outraged. The Christian community was outraged. Yet he was their hero. He was the first Christian monarch, or sovereign, and he had had this born-again experience. He'd had this vision where Jesus came to him before he was right on the cusp of battle in Rome, his greatest victory, and [Jesus] said, "You will win this victory for me," and he won the great victory. He was the world's greatest ruler, the first Christian Roman emperor. So that's the beginning of politics.

Gandhi once said, "He who says that religion and politics don't mix understands neither one." I would say that I don't know when he's sincere and when he's calculated, and a reporter for FRONTLINE doesn't know. George Bush doesn't know when he's operating out of a genuine sense of his own faith, or when it's calculated, and there must be gray areas in between. I think he operates instinctively.

For example, in the Iowa debate, when he said Jesus was his favorite philosopher, it's very questionable whether that helped him. It didn't help him, especially in Iowa, especially not by very much. ... It happened too late, and it was too shocking to have a great impact on the Iowa caucus. It may have a cumulative effect today. It may be remembered by evangelicals along with other things, and may make them more likely to embrace him in 200[4].

Do you think, over the long run, did this actually further him in terms of his electoral base, which is largely evangelical? I believe 40 percent of his base is evangelical.

In the Iowa caucuses, I talked to him just before that debate, and just after the debate, and he made the statement Jesus was his favorite philosopher. I think that was instinctive, and genuine. Many in the media think it was calculated. I think it did him great harm in the media. It set off alarm bells ringing. [It] wouldn't have helped him in the general election.

Ironically, didn't help him in the Iowa caucuses, because it was too shocking for the evangelicals to hear it. You can't just go into a debate and say, "Well, I love the black people," and expect them to vote for you. You can't just say, "Jesus is my favorite philosopher," and expect evangelicals to fall into line.

We won the [election] in 1988 with the largest percentage of evangelical support ever in American history, more than Reagan got in 1984 when he had the landslide that carried every state in the nation but Minnesota -- by far more than George W. Bush had in 2000.

Yet, his father is not nearly considered the evangelical icon that Reagan is, or that George W. Bush is, because his father worked that constituency. You can't replace work. If you want to win a vote, you have to meet with the leaders. You can't just come out and make statements and expect them to fall into line.

George W. Bush's comment about Jesus being his favorite philosopher did not win him an appreciable difference in the voting in the Iowa caucus. It sent the alarm bells ringing among the media elite, and left him somewhat vulnerable -- and dangerous, confusing -- to people, and to editors especially at newspapers, who thought, "This public profession of faith is a contrast to the earthy frat boy guy my reporters are telling me about, that they're riding on the airplane with."

It was a dangerous time for him. It may have helped him, because of the fact that it was so obviously uncalculated to evangelicals. I mean, the media elite and non-evangelicals see that statement, and they think it's calculated. The evangelicals know it's not calculated. They know it didn't help him, So they tend to believe it's true. ...

So now, many years later, after having made that statement and having made many more, and having stuck to his guns on many issues -- partial birth abortion being one of the most controversial -- evangelicals can look back to that rather shocking, awkward, out-of-place statement, and conclude it's true. You know, "He's one of us."…

I remember one phone call prior to a meeting with evangelical Christians, in which I warned him about the trick question. James Kennedy would often ask candidates a trick question. He would say, "If you were to die and go to heaven and to appear before St. Peter, or Jesus or whoever, and they were to say, 'Why should I let you in,' what would you say?"

This question is [intended] to flush out someone who is pretending to be sympathetic to the evangelical movement and understand it and care about it, when, in fact, they're totally ignorant of it. It worked all throughout 1980. The only problem is, James Kennedy and these other ministers are not aware that politicians are not as stupid as they look. The word spread, and they were ready for him in the following elections. ...

In 1998 or 1999 -- maybe it was even earlier than that, before his re-election as governor, but I think it might've been 1997, before his re-election as governor -- George W. Bush was going to meet with some evangelical leaders. I called him to warn him of this surprise question that they occasionally pop. I repeated the question, which is, "If you were to die and suddenly appear before the pearly gates, and Peter said, 'Why should I let you in?' what would your answer be?"

He cut me off. He interrupted me before I even finished the question, and said, "I know, I know, I know. Because of the blood of Jesus Christ and because of his death for my sins," which is the argument evangelicals make -- that no one can be good enough to go to heaven, that the death of Christ is a sacrifice for our sins and you accept it in faith. That's the whole idea. So, no problem for him. I mean, he understood where evangelicals were coming from.

But isn't it also very controversial for people who aren't evangelical to hear that kind answer? So how do you talk to someone like President Bush about talking to people who aren't evangelical? How do you answer that question? Because it comes up all the time.

There are many evangelical positions on that subject. There are some who take a verse -- and I can't remember where it is, it's one of the Pauline books -- that says in essence, "God holds us accountable for what we know for when the information is come to us, that we have to make a decision on it and tell them we're forgiven." So there are evangelicals who believe that.

There are evangelicals who think, no, this is the only way to eternal life and salvation, and it's easy to take. As absurd as that sounds, a loving God allows people to be drowned. He allows them to be hit by cars. So he will allow them to be damned for eternity if they don't take this. There are evangelicals that believe that. A politician who's an evangelical isn't going to talk on that subject, as George W. Bush learned very quickly in Texas when the subject was raised.

When he did talk about that issue to Ken Herman, a local reporter in Houston, he said that the way into heaven is through your belief in Jesus ... accepting Jesus Christ as your savior. And he answered the question, I guess, honestly. So talk to me about that, and what it meant for him politically.

...Well, that was very controversial and the political ramifications of that were huge. I mean, if I'm not a Christian, if I'm Jewish or some other faith, I'm damned? So he doesn't talk about that anymore.

When the subject was raised later, he referred to an encounter he had with Barbara Bush -- who's very popular, incidentally -- and called Billy Graham -- who's very popular, incidentally. Billy Graham said "Nobody but God can make that decision." That's become the standard answer now for that question.

So that's a way to not offend people who aren't evangelical when you answer the question, right? It's basically God's decision. It's not like he believes something else than what he may have said before. It's just a different way to talk to the public about it?

Yes, it is. But all of this discussion is presuming you know the roots of George Bush's faith and why he believes the way he believes, and why he believes so strongly. When one understands that, one is pretty tolerant to his faith and sees that George W.'s faith is the good guy in his life. It's the restraining influence in his life. It's not something to be afraid of. George W. Bush is someone to be afraid of without his faith. His faith has brought more of a sensitivity, a feminine side, to his personality that was needed. ...

If you talk about the origins of his faith, what is that?

George W. Bush can be defined in two words -- Dad and daughters -- and in more recent years, Laura and Mom, because she's been so popular. His relationship with his father is not very public, because it does not serve his political interest to make that public. It does serve his political interest to make his relationship with his mom public. So his mom is what he talks about and carries around. But in fact, he loves his dad very much, talked to his dad all through the campaign. They're very close. ...

He loves his father and he loves his daughters. He was going to lose his daughters if he lost his marriage, and he was going to lose his marriage if he didn't stop drinking. The marriage was in trouble. The relationship within the marriage was in trouble. He's a handsome guy, and there were girls all over him during the campaign. He was faithful to Laura, but he's a handsome guy. That marriage was under stress, and he blamed himself. I know that he blamed himself.

He couldn't trust anybody. All through his life, his dad was a U.N. ambassador or was head of the CIA or head of the Republican Party, before he was vice president for eight years. So he couldn't go to a counselor. He couldn't talk to a friend about what's going on in his life. But he's going every Sunday to this Methodist church with Laura for the kids' sake, for the girls' sake, no matter what he believes. He's there. He's hearing this stuff, and he knows he's got a drinking problem.

One summer, Billy Graham's invited up there. He's already had some literature that shows that people who are able to beat their drinking problem often do so by invoking a higher power. So he asked Billy Graham some questions. I've talked to Billy Graham about it. He was not impressed with George being unusually inquisitive, but it was apparently a big deal to George W., because he told me about it back in 1987 and 1988. It was important in his life.

Then he had that birthday party, and he woke up one morning in Colorado Springs and he said, "Eureka, that's it. I'll take God. I'll beat drinking. I keep Laura and the girls. [It's] that simple. I will never take a drink again the rest of my life. Done."

So I'm not saying that today his faith is based on the fact that he wants to have a normal relationship with Laura and keep his daughters. I'm just saying that sure got his attention. That brought him into the process. "Yes, I'll take God if that'll help me beat drinking. If beating drinking will help me save my marriage and keep my daughters, done deal. So where do you go to sign up? How do you believe? I'll believe."

That's the missing piece in many biographies and many stories of George W., because they try to reconcile how did this frat boy, smart-talking, clever, hip -- I'm telling you, reporters that come down to Texas from Gentlemen's Quarterly or from Esquire leave swearing that he was pro-abortion, pro-gay rights. They couldn't imagine anybody this clever and smart and hip could not agree with them on every issue that they agreed with him, because he's likable. They liked him.

But that's how. He wanted to save his marriage, and in the process, he came to discover that this was real. It's something that happened to him, that he'd had a spiritual experience. So he's one of the most unusual political figures, as far as evangelicals are concerned, that they could ever imagine, because he actually respects them. No one respects evangelicals. Evangelicals are hated and despised.

Most of the journalists I meet carry their ignorance of evangelicals as bragging rights. They're glad that they're stupid about evangelicals. It makes them more sophisticated to not know anything about evangelicals. Evangelicals seem to hate themselves a little bit, like an abused child; will blame themselves, and therefore be offended when a politician placates Jerry Falwell. Evangelicals themselves will sometimes be offended by that.

So the bottom line is, here is a figure who came to his experience in Christ through a totally different avenue than the church. Not church culture, not church music, not church nomenclature, totally hip. He's like a young, new evangelical, even though he's an older man. He came to the same conclusion, however. So he actually looks at some of these evangelicals who feel crummy and excluded and out of place, and he respects them. That's magic for them. ...

In 1992, George senior lost the evangelical vote to President Clinton. What happened? How did you do so great and then lose so miserably?

In 1988, George Bush Sr. did so well because he touched all the bases, and he did it with subtlety. I talked about evangelicals hating themselves like an abused child will hate themselves, because they feel, "I must be bad if I'm disliked." Evangelicals have a sense of that. So if a candidate patronizes the evangelicals, he'll lose some of the evangelical votes who themselves would be offended by that. Or if they run with some of the evangelical bigwigs, sometimes, that's offensive to evangelicals. They don't want him to be captive of some evangelical TV celebrity.

In 1992, I was no longer there. President Bush Sr. did not have someone objectively advising him on what he should do and say, and how he should work with these evangelical leaders. He went directly to the evangelical leaders himself, and asked for advice. Of course, Jerry Falwell's advice was, "Come to Liberty University." So he flew into Liberty University the week before his election.

If I'd have been there, I'd have said, "Yes, let's go to Liberty University two years before the election. But after that, no." No. Certainly not the year of the election, and certainly not the week before the election. Pat Robertson offered to speak at the national convention. Well, he wasn't even a candidate for president. Why should he be speaking? Why should the convention be saddled with that baggage? Now, is that fair to Falwell or fair to Robertson? No. This isn't about fair to them. This is about fair to the candidate, and getting him elected.

Sure, I'd have Bush senior go ride horses with Pat Robertson on his private estates and say all kinds of things and kiss in secret, but not in public. He didn't have that kind of a calculated campaign, and the result was there was backlash.

That is the great danger for a politician with the evangelical constituency. As a Republican, you can't win without them. But sometimes, you can lose with them, too, because of the backlash. They now represent almost 48 percent of the American public in numbers. So you need them. But you have to be careful how and [in] what way you appeal to them.

When George W. Bush ran in 2000, he got a pretty high percentage of evangelical votes. He did better than Gore by a sliver. Talk to me about how he appealed to the evangelicals. I know you were advising him at the time, if just informally. You were talking to him through this. What sort of things were you telling him to do?

The George W. Bush campaign of 2000 was wholly inadequate in terms of reaching out to evangelicals. There is no question that he knew evangelicals. He had two or three meetings, four, maybe, with evangelical leaders, and he wowed them. That's all, though. He didn't have any more meetings. It's kind of like building the machinery, the tool-and-die machinery to manufacture ballpoint pens, and then turning out four ballpoint pens. ...

There were a ton of evangelical votes that were left on the table in the year 2000. Certainly [it] would've impacted Florida. If you can imagine in Florida, the week before the election, Billy Graham endorsed George W. Bush for president, you can wonder what might've happened if that hadn't occurred. Graham has not endorsed anyone for president since his experience with Richard Nixon. ...

You've been said to say "Signal early and signal often." What do you mean when you say that, and how would you apply this to George W. Bush now, when he talks to the evangelicals? What does it mean to signal to this community, to your community?

Well, my advice to George Bush Sr. was, "Signal early, signal often." My advice to George W. Bush would be, "Signal early." The reason George Bush Sr. needed to signal often was because he was not known as someone who had sympathies towards evangelicals, or even understood them. So he needed to drive that home. ...

The reason for any political figure to signal early to the evangelical movement is that the evangelical movement is feared and despised and resented by media elites. They don't like them. You take a risk if you're seen with them, if in any way you're associated with them. So if you do it early, when the media's not paying attention, then you don't risk the alienation and the anger of media elites who are offended by that relationship. You do it early, when they're not watching, when it's less important. ...

[Evangelicals] have to feel they have an investment. Here was the greatest difference between 1988 and 1992 and 1996 and 2000. In 1988, hundreds and hundreds of evangelical organizations spent millions of dollars promoting George Bush Sr. for president. We were tracking it. We were thankful to them. We appreciated it. In 1992, none of that happened. Neither did it happen in 1996 for Bob Dole, and neither did it happen in 2000 for George W. Bush.

Those are the unions of the Republican Party. They put out so much literature that we had big loose-leaf notebooks filled with the various types of literature. Some of them, as many as 20 million pieces [in] one mailing, and that covered two or three library shelves in my office. These were materials that we didn't pay for or authorize or know until they went out, that they had gone out, that were being produced for us by evangelicals, rallying their own people.

That didn't happen [up until then], and hasn't happened in any election since 1988. So the Republican Party has been virtually operating without the unions. The Democrat Party depends on the unions. Well, the so-called religious right are the unions of the Republican Party, and they've been dormant.

You've written about this, or at least you've been quoted about this, that when Bush senior won the presidency in 1988, W. turned to you and asked, "What's going to happen to me?" You wrote a memorandum in response to that question.

Yes. It was after the election, after his father had won in 1988. We were sitting in his office, and we were talking about who on the staff is going to go to transition -- who's going to go to inaugural, who's going to go to the White House, the various committees.

He sighed in the middle of that and said, "What's going to happen to me?" Which was startling, for me, because his whole emphasis was on his dad. All of us had to stay focused on his dad. He was very selfless. I mean, as far as he knew, this was his shot, his only chance. He'd been invited on the Today Show, all kinds of opportunities. He said no to all of them, without even hesitation. Like a gunslinger, hired gun. "I'm here, going to do my job and go back to Texas." So when he said, "What's going to happen to me?" I said, "Well," I hadn't thought about him. I said, "You want me to do a memo on what happens to presidential kids?" He said, "Yes."

... So we went to work, and we did a memo on presidential children. It was really shocking. It was higher than average rates of divorce and alcoholism. Among other things, I noticed, psychologists say if you're born a first-born, or if you're named after your parent, a daughter named after a mother, you tend to be a high achiever. They have studies that show [this].

But if you're a presidential son named after your father, it's almost like a curse. I mean, John Adams Jr. dies an alcoholic at 31, and William Henry Harrison at 35, and Andrew Johnson Jr. at 26. They die from accidents. Andrew Jackson Jr. after a hunting accident. Calvin Coolidge Jr. is only 16 years old when he dies after an accident on the White House tennis courts.

So I'm giving this study to George W. Bush, who's named after his dad. So it was kind of like, "See you. Here it is. Goodbye." Then 10 years later, John F. Kennedy Jr. died in that plane crash. When he disappeared over the Atlantic, I was listening to this on the radio, I had chills go down my spine. I was thinking, "You know, this is not a coincidence of history." This has happened too often to young people named after their fathers.

There's tremendous stress for them to achieve. People come up to them when they're little kids and say, "Well, when are you going to run for president?" because they have the name. That stress is deadly, and I believe it was in the life of George W. Bush, too. He had a drinking problem.

I must be one of the earliest people to have ever imagined him as president. Because when I did this memo, there are seven young sons of presidents who tried to be president themselves. John Van Buren and Bob Taft, and of course, John Quincy Adams, and others. So I immediately started thinking.

I mean, he's the guy I see every day, and I'm working for. So I immediately thought, "Whoa. What kind of president would he make? Oh, God, that would be funny. He's so decisive. He's so adamant, so dogmatic -- makes a decision, never looks back. Oh." I thought either he'd be terrific, or he'd be terrible. But he'd sure make news. There'd be sparks, because his personality today is the same as it was then. People said after 9/11, "Boy, he's changed." No. He's just exactly the same. They just finding out who he is. He was always like that. ...

Something that was surprising to me, as a non-evangelical, was his State of the Union address, where he said "The wonder-working power of the American people." ... Can you talk about how you can talk to the evangelical community without alienating other potential voters, and how important that is?

When the president used the line "wonder-working power" in his speech, it was a mistake that it became known that this was a little nod to the evangelicals. That was a mistake. Because presidents and presidential candidates nod all the time, and the Washington Post never notices, and nobody else ever notices. And they nod to many constituencies, not just the evangelicals.

It's just important to the evangelicals, because unlike the other constituencies, there's backlash. If a presidential candidate nods to black supporters, if he's a Republican, it increases the respect among other Republicans. They don't want a bigot for a candidate. Sometimes a Democrat candidate will want to show his independence from black voters -- which Clinton did at one point, and Dean has got a little controversy playing at that at one point, with the Confederate flag thing.

They're appealing to the general electorate and saying, "Nobody's going to own me. I'm going to try to be fair to everybody, and not owned by any constituency." What I had advised very early is to identify with evangelical sports stars and music stars, as opposed to preachers. Because if you're seen with a sports star -- and there are many of them who are evangelical Christians -- the evangelicals instantly know. They know, "Well, he's the tennis champion, and he's a born-again Christian," and you get all the advantages, and none of the disadvantages.

When he traveled with Roger Staubach -- who's a pretty high-profile evangelical --when he traveled with him in Iowa, that was a pretty strong signal. But it's softer than going in there with a minister in tow, which he would never do, and shouldn't do, doesn't need to do. ... The organized church is really in disrepute right now, all over the world. In Western Europe, there's a collapse of confidence in the organized church, and in the United States, too. So there's no need to. If there's another way of winning the vote, that's the way to go. ...

So those are the ways we look to signal respect to the evangelical community, to say, "We don't exclude you. If I'm president, I will love and respect you as much as any other American. I'm not going to judge, or deny you, just because of your religion." Evangelicals feel that.

See, the non-evangelical world doesn't care about the evangelical world. But when you pick up a newspaper, as an evangelical can do, and there can be a headline that says, "IRS targets 14 evangelical ministries," it sends chills down your spine. What if you were Jewish, and you pick up the newspaper, and there's a little headline of an article, and it says, "IRS targets 14 Jewish organizations?" You'd be scared. You'd be thinking, "My God. That's pretty bold." Evangelicals are scared when they see that. ...

[Evangelicals] don't care about politics. They don't care about Republicans or Democrats. They want to practice their faith and raise their families and be left alone. But they felt that government was beginning to intrude on their way of life, and so they were aroused to activity, if nothing else, to kind of stop the train.

Politicians can appeal to that. When they signal interest or concern of an evangelical, the evangelical is getting the message, "They're not going to exclude us." When a Democrat says, "We want to be inclusive," they don't mean evangelicals. They mean, "We want to be inclusive of every group of people in the United States, no matter what they are, except evangelicals."

So you'll have no outrage whatsoever from anyone if Bill Clinton has an administration with no evangelical on his senior staff, and no evangelical judge nominated, or no evangelical appointed to a high agency. No one says a word, and no one cares. But evangelicals notice it, and it scares them.

After 9/11, in particular, people have voiced concern that George Bush feels like he's doing God's will. Can you talk about that -- that he feels that God is almost on America's side, that divisions between president and being God's choice have been blurred?

Yes. I know that [in] France and Germany, and in New York, Washington, Boston, in the corridor, that there's concern that Bush's faith is playing an unhealthy role in his war on terrorism, somehow, makes him emboldened in attacking an Islamic state, maybe, for example. That's nonsense. George Bush's faith is the good angel of his personality. Without that faith, he is so hard, he is so decisive, he is so quick, he is so brutal, he is so unapologetic, so self-righteous. "I'm right, this is the right way to go, we're going."

I think the people could sense that in the war in Iraq. Part of the problem was they sensed he was going, even before there was evidence, before the American people were ready. They could sense, no matter what he said, that soon after 9/11, this guy was going, and it made it somewhat suspect. Then, the logic for the war, when it came along a little bit later, it was somewhat suspect, because certainly outside of this country, they could sense it that he's going. Just a very decisive guy.

It's his faith that would make him stop and say, "Wait, is this it right thing to do?" It's not his faith that would say, "Go attack those people. Start a war. Do this." It's just the opposite. His faith has been a real tempering effect on who he is and his personality. "You may not know everything, bigshot. Slow down. Listen to the other side." People ought to be thankful that he has a faith; [it's] not something to fear.

When he talks about evildoers, when he talks about evil -- I know part of the construct of being evangelical or being a conservative Christian is the belief in good and evil -- but people are concerned. Critics bring up this idea that somehow we're good and they're evil, and therefore, that gives us the right to go over and attack them. Can you address this issue?

When George W. Bush uses the term "evil," it's not a religious thing, it's a Reagan thing. It's "axis of evil," which was so controversial at the time, and proved so true. He's just plugging into something that works, that has appeal to conservatives, that has moral cement.

You'll notice he'll constantly say "evildoers," almost never says "evil people." He says "evildoers." The Holocaust, if it teaches anything, should teach that people can be evil; that bureaucracies can grow too arrogant and too strong and too sure of themselves and can be evil; and leaders can be too remote to understand how their policies and their hatreds and biases impact the common person. And horrible things can occur. If they aren't evil, what are they?

He felt 9/11 was wrong, and was evil. I don't know that that's all bad. I don't see that rooted in his religion especially. Maybe, but I don't see it as a conscious -- as a driving force, at all.

I did have this discussion once with him. When I was working for him and his dad in the 1988 cycle, the Council of Bishops -- the Catholic bishops -- at the time were advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament, and they were using all kinds of moral appeals on this basis.

The president, George Bush Sr., wanted to know how an evangelical would answer this, more for understanding evangelicals than understanding the Catholic bishops. What we came up with was an illustration from the Bible, it's called the story of the Good Samaritan. ...

This all came back in the year 2000 election, when Cokie Roberts on ABC, said, "Well, George W. Bush says his favorite philosopher's Jesus, but this is going to get him into trouble. What is he going to do if we're at war? Is he going to turn the other cheek if we're at war?"

So I called the governor up, and I referred to Cokie Roberts' question. We talked about it, and reminded him of the discussion we'd had back for his father about the Good Samaritan, and that a Christian, if he's acting on what Jesus taught, he turns his cheek if somebody insults him, or hurts him, or slaps him. But he has no right to turn your cheek if you're being hauled off to a concentration camp; his responsibility is like Bonhoeffer -- to risk his life to save you, not to turn his cheek.

So in this conflict with terrorism, I'm sure his philosophy would be -- because I've talked about it with him -- would be "Yes, I can turn my cheek. They call me stupid, fine. That's what they want to call me, fine." He doesn't react to it. "But, boy, they take out the World Trade Center and kill those people, they're going to have to answer to me. I'm going to respond to that. Those are evildoers."

When you talk about this, you say that it has nothing to do with his faith; but it feels very rooted in his faith. Is this Samaritan? Is that just a justification for going to war, for doing this? Is it really rooted in his faith, or is it a justification?

I think his instincts are to go after somebody who hurts his family. In this sense, he would see America as his responsibility. He believes a lot in responsibility. He talks a lot about opportunity and responsibility. …

What do you think George W. Bush is doing now to appeal to this [evangelical] base?

I think that George W. Bush has made a calculated decision to go over the heads of evangelical leaders and appeal directly to the people. It may work big-time. It has been a great risk.

It may be that we're at a little bit of a turning point, where the media is becoming more sympathetic to evangelicals. That may be happening because of the war in Iraq, and because of the president's increased support from Jewish Americans. It's not discussed at all -- hardly at all on TV, but it's a major paradigm shift, in my opinion, a major dynamic. Because of that dynamic, I think the evangelicals are beginning to get a little bit of a break that they've never had before. Because of that, the president may get away with appealing to evangelicals in a more public way, that previously might have backfired and hurt him.

The ideal way would be for him to subtly, under the radar screen, gear up the unions of the Republican Party -- which are all of these organizations -- like was done in 1988, and meet with tons of these people in low-key events that are non-public.

Is he doing that?

Not very aggressively, and he may not have to, because you don't see him with the major religious figures. You see him with a religious figure that nobody in the media elite even knows happens to be evangelical. And that's calculated; that's not an accident.

Like who?

There's just lots and lots of names. They're no-name figures. It gets on the evangelical word of mouth, gets ahead of wind, and it goes all over the country that that guy, John Doe, happens to be an evangelical pastor from Florida, or from Maryland, or wherever the president's tapping into.

He keeps it rotating. He keeps it changing, so that one figure does not gain credibility, and the right to speak on his behalf, [or] therefore, miscommunicate messages, which has been the discipline of this president politically throughout his life. ...

[Evangelicals are] sort of a wily vote, aren't they? President Bush will probably do quite well with them. But also he runs a chance of not doing so great, especially on issues like the environment and unemployment and the economy and all sorts of things that evangelicals really care about. What would you say about that?

I would say the primary issue for the evangelical is their survival. So environment is way down the list. They're feel[ing] that their right to practice their faith is under assault by culture and government and society. Therefore, they would tend to go Republican, if they feel that way, and many of them do feel that way. ...

There has to be some sort of root where this is coming from. Why is it permissible that there is anti-evangelical thought that's promulgated especially in the press? Where does this paranoia from the secularist side come from?

It's lack of knowing. To know is to understand. It's the evangelicals' fault. It's our fault. It doesn't make non-evangelicals right. But it is our fault. We have not been involved in public life, because we haven't felt a need to or a desire to. So it's going to take time.

Catholics have been through this in this country. Jews have been through this in this country. Blacks have been. It sounds absurd to think that evangelicals are the same. But when I worked in the White House, I learned very quickly blacks were way ahead of us. We were way back there. We were behind Hispanics in figuring out this. We are resented, because our numbers are so huge. We're like a seven-foot-tall basketball player who doesn't really know how to play, but scares the willies out of the other coaches. Because if we could ever get our act together, we could be formidable, because we're a lot of numbers.

Then part of the problem is the evangelical movement is self-defeating, because it's a myth. It doesn't exist as a monolithic movement. We talked about this a lot in the campaign. An evangelical doesn't think of himself as an evangelical. He thinks of himself as a Southern Baptist or a member of the McLean Bible Church or as a Presbyterian or as a Catholic charismatic. ...

You talk about a marginalized group, a group that is discriminated against. Yet the president of the free world, George W. Bush, is an evangelical Christian. What does this mean to the evangelical community that one of their own is in the White House?

Yes, I think it's very significant that George W. Bush is an evangelical Christian and is president. The type of evangelical Christian that he is, it's very significant, because it's been a real enigma for my journalist friends. I have journalist friends and writers who are on the press plane who call me up and say, "I can't figure this guy out. He just sat down next to me, and he said this, this, and this."

It's been an eye-opener for some. This is 48 percent of the American population. How it could be so marginalized is just pretty astonishing. The numbers overlap. You could take the numbers of people who believe in this or that or the other, and they overlap. It means you get a little bit of almost everything as evangelicals.

People often say that this White House is the most religious, really, in recent history. The people who are around President Bush are very likeminded. You've got Mike Gerson. You have Condoleezza Rice. You have John Ashcroft. You've got these people around him. We don't know what Karl Rove's religion is, but he certainly has a relationship with a religious community. ... I'm not making a charge that this is bad. ... If you really start to read about this, it seems interesting. So can you comment on the people inside who are close to Bush?

By the time in your career, your life, you end up on senior staff at the White House, you are not sectarian. You can't get there and be sectarian. You have a wider experience with the world. So is there some significance to the fact that the president has a lot of people around him who are evangelical? Yes, he might be more comfortable with that. He might know how they think.

I heard him once in a conversation with me say he liked John Ashcroft, because he was an evangelical who was a governor. He said he liked that, because as a governor, you have to compromise, or you can't get legislation through. The fact that he had served eight years as a governor of Missouri impressed him -- that here was a person who would have integrity and be careful about things, and yet knew how to function in government.

I think it's natural for anyone who becomes president to be comfortable with people around them who share similar thoughts. You'd have that if you were Kennedy, or you'd have that if you were George W. Bush. ...

We met with Richard Cizik from the National Association of Evangelicals. He was saying that this was a moment in time where the evangelical community can really get what they want in the White House. He didn't say it in a divisive way. He said, "But this is a moment in time that we have to seize, because one of our own is there. We can get our agenda through the White House. We have a voice." Can you talk about that?

The most important thing that evangelicals need is a share of federal judges -- not for purposes of abortion, which is the big preoccupation of the media -- but for purposes of freedom of religion and freedom of thought to function, so they aren't harassed by activist judges. The best chance for that is now.

But you have to understand, we may be talking-- out of 740, 750 federal judges, we may be talking about four or five evangelicals. If they get four or five, they're extremely lucky, and it will make their life easier. There will be less lawsuits that they have to fight against for the right to practice their faith and believe what they want to believe or operate their non-profit corporations. ...

What critics of something like the faith-based initiatives would say is that they really blur the lines in the sand. You have the church and you've got the state, and when you start to mix money and taking government money for church activities, there's the fear of proselytizing and all those things. Can you respond to this concern?

The only faith-based initiative grants that have gone out have gone out to groups that don't proselytize at all. There's no single example. You can't find a single person in the United States who, through federal money, was converted to some evangelical religion.

They're extremely effective organizations. If the evangelicals withdrew their soup kitchens and their daycare centers and their hospitals and their drug rehabilitation efforts, our civilization, American civilization would collapse. That money, those billions of dollars, if that role had to be assumed by the federal government, it would be prohibitive. It could not be done.

So this is just saying when an evangelical group or any other group, a Catholic group or Jewish group, has hit on a special way that they can solve a problem in our society, then we need to fund it, because it saves us money.

The other answer to that is, I worked in the White House, and all the other religious groups have that money. It's flowing to them and has been flowing to them. They may be Episcopalian. They may be Jewish. They may be LDS [Latter-day Saints]. They're community centers, where the board members are all of the same religion.

Now, they're careful. They don't make that a place where they promote their religion. It's a community center. People in the community can use it. Anybody can wander in there, if they want. ...

Americans like their president to have a deep faith in religion. What people get concerned about is that not that he's religious, but that his religion would then dictate his policies. Do believe that it's defendable that his religion actually doesn't dictate his policies? Or does it? Or is that area of gray -- which you talked about before -- which is you can't really separate them out completely?

I absolutely do not believe that his religion dictates his policies, absolutely. His faith in God is about if there is a God and there is eternity. It relates to those issues. They're far more significant than the morality of whether you should have a license before you own a gun or whether big companies dump pollution in this lake or that lake. It transcends that. ...

So how does he handle something like the issue of legislating gay marriage?

I don't know how the president is going to handle it. I know that the fears of the Democrats, in some, that he will make this a divisive issue that will help him win a landslide. I seriously doubt that. That's made from people who don't know him personally, because that's not his style.

It's his style to win big. He'd like to win big. But he's not going to hurt people as an issue to helping win big. It's not him. He's not going to do it, in my opinion. ...

The other question I had was the partial birth abortion [bill]. Was that really significant for the evangelical community? How would you characterize it?

I think the signing of that partial birth abortion bill will be a big statement to evangelicals, because they've never had anything on the right-to-life abortion front ever, from Reagan or anybody. So in that sense, it'll be significant, even to evangelicals who are pro-choice. I think at least they will stop and think, "You know, I'm pro-choice. But he had the guts to buck the whole media to sign that, and it's meant as a gesture towards me, even though I'm pro-choice." Therefore it will be meaningful to them. And most evangelicals are pro-life. ...

My last question actually is about President Carter. He's an evangelical Christian. He says he's born again. Yet there isn't that secular fear around Carter. I went back and read the press around him. There wasn't the same paranoia around Carter that there is around Bush's religion, and I'm curious. Can you tell me why?

Jimmy Carter was more acceptable to the media elites because of his politics. He was more left. But he did suffer also as an evangelical. I had an interesting conversation with he and Rosalynn. It was about the re-election, and Rosalynn said, "You know, they've never accepted us in Washington. Jimmy had Katharine Graham in to dinner the first meal he had." He said, "We were never accepted." I said, "Why? Why not?" He said [it was] his religion.

So that was the feeling of even the man who was president of the United States. So maybe it's valid, maybe it isn't valid, but evangelicals sure feel that way. They watch the same TV and read the same newspapers as everybody else, and they get that impression.

This was a Democrat, not a Republican. Jimmy Carter, of course when he ran for president, only 28 or 29 percent of the American population claimed to be born again, and that was enough to make it a huge issue. This was a classic election [in] 1976, because the Republicans and the Democrats basically made a deal, unintentionally. The Republicans said, "OK, we'll give you some of these born-again voters, and we're going to take some of your Catholic voters."

It worked for the Democrats. It was shocking, because the Democrats took Pennsylvania, they took Ohio, they took Missouri, they took Kentucky -- those key border states. The only states that the Republicans got out of the deal was Illinois.

In all of those states that I mentioned, the evangelical vote for Carter was higher than the normal evangelical vote for a Democrat. The Catholic vote for the Republican was higher than the normal Catholic vote for a Republican. ... The only state that the backlash worked for the Republicans was Illinois. This was a real shocker for political observers. It was the first time that evangelicals came into play.

Then in 1988, when we won with the Bush senior campaign and carried the highest total of evangelical votes ever in American history, we lost as we always do -- the Republicans -- we lost the Jewish vote and the Hispanic vote and all those votes. We lost the Catholic vote. We were the first modern presidency to win an election and it was a landslide and not win the Catholic vote. It was barely, but we lost the Catholic vote.

How did we do it? We carried 82 percent or 83 percent of the evangelical vote. I remember when it was all over-- this was one of the reasons I got a job in the White House -- but I remember when it was all over, there was great shock from me and others saying, "Whoa, this is unhealthy." We immediately began going after the Catholic vote.

While at the same time, we were frightened by the fact that we lost all these votes and still won the White House. The message did come home. My God, you can win the White House with nothing but evangelicals if you can get enough of them, if you get them all, and they're a huge number. ...

Why do you believe that Bush senior lost the evangelical vote in the second election after doing so well?

In 1992, several things were at play. One was the breaking of the pledge, "Read my lips. No new taxes." Remember, evangelicals are like everybody else. So they're going to feel betrayed if other people feel betrayed. So that was a factor.

The other factor was the approach to evangelicals. It was very clumsy in 1992. In 1988, we met with a thousand or more leaders, one-on-one, or in small groups. That's a lot of people. I mean, we had thick biographies on all the evangelical leaders, covered the bases. We knew how everybody was. We followed up after they met with the vice president. They had to feel like he was their best friend all the way up to the election -- which we did.

Then in 1992, there was none of that, partly because the president physically -- he had gone through a physical crisis and he wasn't working as hard; partly because they got overconfident because of the war in Iraq; and partly because of the, "Read my lips" and the sense of betrayal on the tax issue.

Then the icing on the cake was when they went to the evangelical leaders themselves and said, "Help us win the evangelical vote." You have to have someone objective there advising a president on who you should see, when and why. That convention was not in the best interests of the candidate to have Pat Robertson give a speech, to visit Liberty University and Jerry Falwell the week before the election. It should have been a more sophisticated approach to winning that vote.

That's too transparent.

Yes, and it doesn't take into consideration the antipathy that's there against evangelicals. You can't ignore it. ...

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posted april 29, 2004

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