The President rides out
George Bush’s foes see him as an inarticulate bully. Friends say that evangelical faith underpins his every action. Ed Vulliamy goes back to Bush’s dusty Texan roots to find out what really drives the man who now stands on the brink of war
The Observer (England), Jan. 26, 2003
At 4.40pm on Friday 14 September 2001, George Walker Bush finally became President of the United States. He was amid the ruins of the World Trade Centre, greeting a crowd of rescue workers. On the way, New York governor George Pataki had jibed: ‘See those people? None of them voted for you.’ Then Bush overheard one of the multitude saying: ‘Don’t let me down.’ (‘Don’t let me down,’ Bush would later recall, ‘It was so personal .’) ‘They want to hear him,’ panted a presidential aide. A 69-year-old fireman called Bob Beckwith was standing on a charred truck, and was asked if he could test it for stability as a podium. He did. Bush clambered up, put his arm round the old man’s shoulder and kept it there. Someone thrust a megaphone into Bush’s hand, and he embarked on a version of the pedestrian speech he had been making all week: ‘America today is on bended knee in prayer… ‘
‘Can’t hear you!’ someone shouted. ‘Well, I can hear you!’ retorted Bush. ‘The rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!’ The hard hats drowned him out with a lusty chant of ‘USA! USA!’ The world heard loud and clear. Among the taut faces, one was beaming: that of Karen Hughes, Bush’s spin-mistress, watching a moment that she and the entire Bush power machine had previously failed to achieve. No wonder Bush later described himself as ‘comfortable’ that night.
This weekend will prove to be another defining moment for the Bush presidency. He is poised to lead his country into a controversial campaign to topple Saddam Hussein; he is preparing for a critical State of the Union address this week to rally wavering national and international opinion behind his strategy; and he is facing a wave of opposition to his plan to haul the world away from recession. But what kind of a man is George W Bush?
We know he’s the man who lost a presidential popular vote to the biggest centre-left majority since 1964; many would say he won office courtesy of a coup d’etat by the Supreme Court. Some believe he is the supposed leader of a nation who disappeared from sight on 11 September itself. What is beyond any doubt is that he has become the most powerful, popular, unfettered President in American history. Is he the stumbling, charmless, inarticulate bully caricatured so often by his liberal critics, especially in Europe? Or is he – as new insights into his White House suggest – a complex, intelligent man, driven by a strong morality and clear sense of political purpose?
‘I’m an observer, a listener, a learner,’ wrote Bush of himself. It is as though a banal, modern-day performance of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part Two is being played out, whereby the prince learns to set aside his cravings and appetites to assume an assigned role in the larger plan, as the Warrior King, Henry V.
There is a curious entwinement between Bush the youthful prankster, Bush the lucky millionaire, Bush the buffoon, Bush the politician and now Bush the warrior. The clue to that which binds them lies in his reply to speechwriter Michael Gerson after addressing Congress the Monday after he had won over the New York crowds with his impromptu speech. Gerson said: ‘God wanted you there.’ ‘He wants us all here, Gerson,’ replied his President.
George Bush Senior, the President’s father, was suspicious of what he called ‘that vision thing’. Bush the son, however, said recently in filial defiance: ‘The vision thing matters. That’s another lesson I learnt.’
A gust of wind whips up dry dirt around the neighbouring sister towns of Midland and Odessa in the high desert of Texas. Two dust devils rise on the endless horizon; pieces of loose brush blow across a scrubland spattered with flotsam, jetsam and countless ‘nodding donkeys’ pumping up liquid, black gold from the Permian oil basin. A couple of Harley Davidson motorbikes fart along the loop road, one bareheaded rider wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word: ‘WAR!’
It was to Odessa that George Bush senior was dispatched by his father, the imperious Senator Prescott Bush, director of Dresser Industries, then the world’s largest oil equipment company. ‘This west Texas is a fabulous place,’ wrote George to a friend in 1949. ‘Fortunes can be made in the oil business… If a man could go in and get just a few acres of land which later turned out to be good, he would be fixed for life.’
Odessa is spliced by railroad tracks: blacks and Hispanics on the ‘wrong’ side, huddled around refineries and chemical plants; roughneck and suburban whites sharing the other. This was the honky-tonk town to which the ‘wildcatter’ prospectors came on a hope in hell, and either made and kept their fortunes or else gambled them away at poker in the ‘End of the World’ hotel, often betting oil lots themselves when they ran out of cash. ‘You raise your family in Midland,’ goes the saying, ‘you raise hell in Odessa.’
Bush accordingly moved his family a little up the road to Midland: a colony of wealthy East-Coasters marooned in the desert, in which George W. Bush grew up. Midland, pretending to be Connecticut, once boasted more millionaires per capita than any other American city.
Last Sunday morning, like every Sunday, the gentry of the oil business met at the all-white Belle View Baptist Church on Big Spring Avenue. Rev Andrew Stewart prayed that ‘the foes of our nation be forever vanquished’, and asked God to bless ‘our President, friend and fellow Texan, George Walker Bush’. Afterwards at a lunch with a family in the congregation he prayed again that God might ‘guide our President against the enemy’. ‘You want to understand about President George Bush?’ inquired David Campbell, a real estate broker, over jelly and cream. ‘Well, you ain’t never going to understand President Bush unless you understand the faith of west Texas around here.’
Campbell is spot on; this is where the most powerful man in the world got his ‘vision thing’. Everything that has happened to Bush, the Republican party, America and – if Bush has his way – the world order, has its genesis here. As Bush himself says: ‘To understand my wife Laura and me, you must understand Midland. All that we are, all the things we believe in, come from that one place.’
George Bush’s Christian faith – with its messiah shared by both Martin Luther King and the racist Right – is a complex political weave. On the wrong side of the tracks in Odessa, blacks and Hispanics also went to church last Sunday. But at neither the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church on Dixie Boulevard nor that of El Divino Salvador on Muskingum Street were there prayers for the President, and few, if any, votes. The Catholic and black Baptist churches operate like radical opposition parties. ‘We are the people who have worked against Bush and his father for decades around here,’ said Gene Collins, pillar of the community on the ‘other’ side of Odessa’s tracks, who vividly remembered George W Bush. ‘For the poor, against the big interests.’
It is part of American lore that the Bush dynasty is based upon oil. As President Bush junior wrote in his autobiography: ‘I lived the energy industry.’ But more than just oil propels the presidency, personality and ‘vision’ of George W Bush. Conservative ideologue David Frum has just published the first book offering a glimpse into the White House (The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W Bush). Frum wrote speeches for Bush and coined the phrase ‘Axis of Evil’ to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The most compelling sentence is the first: ‘Missed you at Bible study,’ Frum was scolded, upon entering the White House. Bible study, concludes Frum, ‘if not compulsory, is not uncompulsory either’. Bush opens every Cabinet meeting with a prayer. ‘To understand the Bush White House,’ he writes, ‘you must understand its predominant creed.’ Frum calls it ‘modern evangelicalism’, and finds it, despite himself being Jewish, ‘a kindly faith’.
Another, less trumpeted but more illuminating, book has also appeared: Made In Texas by Michael Lind. It concerns two divergent religious and political traditions in Lind’s and Bush’s native state. One came from hill country where Catholics and Lutherans from Germany and Scandinavia had settled, spawned loyalty to the Union during the civil war and then the liberal ‘Great Society’ of President Lyndon Johnson. The other, among Confederate Anglo-Ulster-Scots, nurtured a vehement, millenarian Protestantism, now the ‘fundamentalism’ of the Christian hard Right in Texas, which believes the Bible to be the literal word of God and demands that politicians enact the faith. Bush’s father, a theologically temperate Anglican, remained very much the East-Coast paternalist. George W, by contrast, is an authentic cultural West Texan. ‘He is clearly the wild son,’ said Karl Rove, mastermind behind Bush’s political career. ‘Even today.’
People in Midland like to talk about how young Bush kicked a football through the classroom window or drew Elvis Presley sideburns on his face in Biro. But even the prankster had a sense of innate superiority: when he left for his father’s elite school at Andover in Massachusetts, classmate Bill Semple recalls: ‘He was one of the cool guys. He rose to prominence for no ostensible, visible reason… He really came as “to the manner born”.’ In 1964, Bush followed in his father’s footsteps to Yale, but unlike Bush senior, embarked on a student career of what he himself calls ‘things I wouldn’t want my daughters to do’.
An average student, he nevertheless devoted great energy to his presidency of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, exposed in the New York Times back then as prone to sadistic initiation rites. He had a couple of brushes with the law – one for removing goalposts on a football pitch at Princeton, the other for drunken driving, and, as a friend in Midland recalls: ‘He liked to go woman-hunting, and quite often caught one.’
During an after-dinner speech two years ago, Bush recognised the conservative leader William Buckley in the audience and cracked one of those inimitable Bush jokes (people who know him often mention his quick sense of humour, a quality not often noticed in public): ‘I see Bill Buckley’s here tonight,’ he said, ‘a fellow Yale man. We go way back and have a lot in common. Bill wrote a book at Yale and I read one. He founded the Conservative Party and I started a few parties myself.’
These days Bush can be relied upon to raise a laugh when he fails to remember the names of important world statesmen. But an episode recalled by friends from Yale reveals that Bush, like Clinton, has a politician’s photographic memory when it comes to what he regards as important. At college, Clay Johnson, his drinking partner, had been ordered by seniors in the DKE fraternity to stand up and name its every member. He stumbled after only a few. Bush, defiant, rose to his feet and recited the names of all 54 frats present, one by one.
A Jordanian fellow student, Muhammed Saleh, who went on to lead the Timex corporation, recalls: ‘We were in the Vietnam era, and the big thing about George is that he really was not doctrinaire about anything.’ Bush would be the first to agree. ‘I don’t remember any kind of heaviness ruining my time at Yale,’ he said.
Yet political instinct was hardwired into Bush’s DNA. ‘I’ll be a sort of surrogate for my father,’ he said, taking to George senior’s campaign trail in 1964. ‘I remember him well,’ says Don Dangerfield, a retired fireman in Odessa, then an activist against both racial segregation and Bush senior. ‘That boy knew he was going places, touring the white side of town like there was never going to be any doubt about it, just because of who he was.’
After Yale, Bush’s father arranged a spell in the Texas National Guard, allowing him to escape service in Vietnam. He won a notoriety, however, by being shipped from the barracks to Washington aboard a government plane for a date with Richard Nixon’s daughter, Tricia. Next, he tried the oil business. His lucrative venture through the boardrooms of the oil and then the baseball trade is well known: he was an inept executive who made a fortune in both, due to investment from those seeking influence with his father. Biographer JH Hatfield wrote during the presidential election campaign: ‘This is the man who, had he not been George Herbert Bush’s son, would not now be favourite for the Republican nomination. Despite attempts to step out of his father’s intimidating shadow, his life has been one lucky break after another because of that relationship.’
Bush would punctuate his working life with wild excursions down to Odessa with his old school buddy Clay Johnson. There were three-day, 24-hour bar parties for golfers at the Midland Country club. By the time of his fortieth birthday party, Bush was an alcoholic. In a Dallas restaurant, he spotted the Washington Bureau Chief for the Wall Street Journal, Al Hunt, who had omitted his father’s name from a potential list of candidates for the 1988 presidency. He lurched over to Hunt and his family (Hunt’s wife is the CNN anchor Judy Woodruff) and bawled: ‘You fucking son of a bitch – I’ll never forget what you wrote!’ ‘George was on the road to nowhere at age 40,’ admits John Ellis, his cousin.
But Bush had met Laura Welch, a librarian: she was quiet, apolitical; the antithesis of Bush. The couple married after three months’ dating. ‘It was like Aubrey Hepburn walking into Animal House,’ says Bush’s brother Marvin. ‘He was ready,’ says Laura, ‘to be rescued.’ Bush’s ‘moment’ came soon afterwards. ‘Most lives have defining moments,’ he would write later, ‘Moments that would forever change you. Moments that set you on a different course.’ Laura had given birth to twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara. Meanwhile, Bush launched himself on a series of drinking binges, including a week-long session at the end of which he looked into the mirror and saw his own face stained with dried vomit. He fell on his knees, and implored the help of God. Not only George Bush, but American politics – and then those of the world – were about to change.
Shortly beforehand, family friend and celebrated evangelist Billy Graham visited the Bush vacation compound in Maine. ‘Over the course of that weekend,’ Bush recalls, ‘Reverend Graham planted a mustard seed in my soul.’ Graham has remained a strong influence: he was once called from the White House during a debate between then Vice-President Bush senior and his son over whether those who had not accepted Jesus as their saviour could go to Heaven. George W thought this unthinkable; Graham ruled him correct.
Bush continued to work the network on his father’s campaigns, nurturing his own political ambitions. Old friend Joe O’Neill remembers him, ‘focused to prove something to his dad. Right away he started talking about running for Congress’. Bush’s initial motive, however, had nothing to do with religion: ‘What if I run?’ he said. ‘What if we sent a friend of oil to Congress?’
Bush duly met the man who – along with his father’s friend and the now Vice-President Dick Cheney – steered his political career more than any outside the family: Karl Rove. Rove was a Texas political consultant and is now, with Cheney, the most powerful man behind Bush in the White House. In 1994, helped by Rove and lavish donations from the father’s friends and the oil industry, Bush won the governorship of Texas. ‘I am convinced,’ he said, ‘to fundamentally and permanently change our culture. We need a spiritual renewal in America’.
Bush’s tenure in the governor’s mansion was not only a litany of favours to the oil industry, but also a programme to delight new friends on the Christian Right. On the wall of his office, he kept a framed copy of his favourite hymn: ‘A charge to keep I have…/To serve the present age/My calling to fulfil.’ (He entitled his autobiography A Charge to Keep.)
The catchphrase of his presidential campaign, ‘Compassionate Conservatism’, was seen to be a gesture to the political centre, but was in fact coined by a firebrand evangelist with the Assembly of God called Doug Wead whom Bush met in 1988, campaigning for his father. Wead had been asked to fend off challenges to Bush senior from the Christian Right, and counselled: ‘Do whatever for the evangelicals.’
Bush was the obvious – if sometimes apparently unlikely – figurehead to take his family and party back to the White House. He was duly presented to the nation by the fund-raising machine on his father’s Rolodex, the network on his mother’s so-called ‘Christmas card list’, Karl Rove’s genius and Dick Cheney’s guiding hand. But privately, Bush took counsel from people such as Dallas evangelist Tony Evans, who recalls: ‘One of the impetuses for his considering running for President was biblical teaching. He feels God is talking to him.’
On the campaign trail, it was impossible not to be struck by Bush’s tactile political skill, the eye-to-eye contact that secures instant loyalty (like that of Bill Clinton, indeed) and which his opponents underestimated. Yet George and Laura Bush proved the opposite of the Clintons as soon as they moved into the White House. An unabashed admirer of Jackie Kennedy (‘She had the most perfect taste’), Laura yanked down the Clintons’ living room curtains and had them replaced with Jackie’s. Bush had Jack Kennedy’s desk brought out of storage, a gift from Queen Victoria to President Rutherford Hayes in 1878.
Traditions of etiquette were restored among a staff appalled by the notion that Clinton and his Cabinet, dressed in jeans, would discuss policy at sweaty midnight sessions in the Oval Office over takeout pizza. Dark suits and ties were obligatory again; Bush’s name was never mentioned – he was ‘the President’. ‘Anyone who puts on airs and tries to get puffed is going to get punctured mighty quickly,’ says David Sibley, a close friend and former Texas senator who stays regularly at the White House and at Bush’s ranch.
The order is always the same: ‘We did the dinner, and we were all in bed by 10 o’clock,’ says John Rowland, governor of Connecticut, after one evening with the President. ‘Oh yeah, that’s the rule’.
And something else was installed: Bible study, and the prayers before cabinet meetings. Husband and wife praying together before bedtime. Early last year, the Texan Republican House whip Tom DeLay assured a congregation of Baptists in Houston of another cornerstone of the new White House: that God Almighty had himself placed Bush there, now using the President ‘to promote a Biblical world view’. Bill Clinton liked Tom Clancy; Bush does enjoy a novel by John Grisham, but his favourite book is ‘the Bible … a good political handbook’.
Now on the brink of war, George Bush has turned the ‘vision thing’ into an international crusade. On the world stage, where America is this weekend ready to stand alone if necessary, his faith has done two things: first, it has welded a curious alliance between gritty, hard-headed Christians and the East-Coast, moneyed, invariably intellectual, Zionist movement, making Ariel Sharon’s Israel by far Bush’s closest ally. Second, it has become a quest for unchallenged power.
In 1998, George and Laura Bush visited Israel. After dinner one night, Bush and a group of Mormons, Baptists, Methodists and Jews went down to the Sea of Galilee, joined hands underwater, ‘and prayed together on bended knee’, Bush recalls.
The Christian Bush has brought to prominence Israel’s heaviest hitters in America, such as Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Elliot Abrams as his special adviser on the Middle East. Abrams wrote a strident book about the danger of extinction to American Jewry through inter-marriage. David Frum’s book is too clever to be pure hagiography. Frum, an ardent Zionist, sometimes praises Bush with faint damnation, especially over his being ‘soft on Islam’ after 11 September. But then Frum traces Bush’s progression from ‘softness’ to his regarding Islam as ‘one of the world’s great empires’, against which the United States must ‘enforce respect’. Bush, he writes, is ‘one of the staunchest friends of Israel ever to occupy the Oval Office’ (to the chagrin of what Frum calls ‘the paranoiacs of Europe’). The rationale for war, says Frum is to bring ‘new stability’ which would ‘put America more wholly in charge of the region than any power since the Ottomans, or maybe the Romans’. Ironically, every Christian church in America (including Bush’s own First Methodists) now opposes his upcoming war against Iraq, with one exception: the extreme right-wing, all-white Southern Baptist church.
On 25 February last year, the fireman Bob Beckwith was invited to the White House to celebrate the admission of the megaphone Bush had used to make his crucial and impromptu speech to the Bush Presidential Library museum in Texas. As Beckwith walked in the door, someone greeted him warmly and said: ‘Nice job, Bob.’ Karl Rove ushered him through to the West Wing – it had been him, he let on, who asked the fireman to test the stability of the truck. Then Beckwith was re-united with George Walker Bush. ‘Bob,’ joked the President, ‘you made me famous that day.’