As a companion piece to "W's Girlfriend's Illegal Abortion; Poppy Covered Up" and a salute to Russell Baker's new book, Family of Secrets, I thought I'd reprint this post from a litle more than a year ago. It's about his so-called "conversion" and how it really came about, and it's one of the stories in Baker's book.
When I first started researching George Bush's background in 2000 after he announced his intention to run for president, I of course read all about the famous conversation between Billy Graham and George W that supposedly resulted in W's conversion to born-again evangelical Christianity. It was stressed over and over again that W was a Methodist. But then I noticed something odd.Whenever Bush got into trouble, it wasn't Billy Graham or Methodist preachers he ran to for solace and counsel, it was Pat Robertson and Bob Jones. I began to suspect that Bush's Methodism was part of Karl Rove's For Campaign Purposes Only "compassionate conservative" illusion and that he was really a fundamentalist in disguise, a far-right-winger playing to the center. Then, when Graham himself debunked Bush's account after the publication of W's campaign biography, ghost-written by a sports writer named Mickey Herskowitz, I knew it.
"I was with him and I used to teach the Bible at Kennebunkport to the Bush family when he was a younger man, but I never feel that I in any way turned his life around."
Graham was, of course, telling the truth. Though Bush's "autobiography" was eloquent about the details and the meaning of that special night, the special night never happened. Karen Hughes, Bush's long-time PR handler, made it up.
Mickey Herskowitz, a sportswriter for the Houston Chronicle who became close friends with the Bush family and was originally contracted to ghostwrite "A Charge to Keep," recalled interviewing Bush about it when he was doing research for the book. "I remember asking him about the famous meeting at Kennebunkport with the Reverend Billy Graham...." Herskowitz said. "And you know what? He couldn't remember a single word that passed between them."
Herskowitz was so stunned by Bush's memory lapse that he began prompting him. "It was so unlikely he wouldn't remember anything Billy Graham said, especially because that was a defining moment in his life. So I asked, 'Well, Governor, would he have said something like, "Have you gotten right with God?'"
According to Herskowitz, Bush was visibly taken aback and bristled at the suggestion. "No," Bush replied. "Billy Graham isn't going to ask you a question like that."
Herskowitz met with Bush about twenty times for the project and submitted about ten chapters before Bush's staff, working under director of communications Karen Hughes, took control of it. But when Herskowitz finally read "A Charge to Keep" he was stunned by its contents. "Anyone who is writing a memoir of George Bush for campaign purposes knew you had to have some glimpse of what passed between Bush and Billy Graham," he said. But Hughes and her team had changed a key part. "It had Graham asking Bush, 'George, are you right with God?'"
In other words, Herskowitz's question to Bush was now coming out of Billy Graham's mouth. "Karen Hughes picked it off the tape," said Herskowitz.
The Graham/Bush conversion was supposed to have taken place in the summer of '85, but the real conversion actually took place a year earlier, and the preacher involved wasn't Billy but theatrical fundie named (so appropriately one has to wonder if the name was invented, a sort of religious stage name) Arthur Blessit.
"The Minister of Sunset Strip," as he was known, transformed himself into "The Man who Carried the Cross Around the World" by lugging a twelve-foot-long cross for Jesus through sixty countries all over the world, on what would become, according to the "Guinness Book of World Records," the longest walk in human history. Blessitt delivered countless lost souls to Jesus. He went to Jerusalem. He prayed on Mount Sinai. He crossed the Iron Curtain.
Sounds about right for a George W Bush deliverer.
Blessit may have been a bit of a showman but by all accounts his belief was - is - genuine enough. Introduced to Blessit by an oilman named Don Poage, one night the three of them prayed for George W's soul. Blessit asked him if he wanted to be "with Jesus...or without him?" Bush said, "With him" and with that was saved.
The truth is a long way from the Hughes fiction, and one has a duty to ask "Why?" What was the point of re-working a simple, honest moment of faith - if that's what it was - into an iconic fable of redemption involving a legendary figure whose ingrained sense of integrity was such that he would refute it when asked?
The answer, while obvious, is nevertheless deeply disturbing. In the world of George W Bush, political expediency trumps everything, even faith.