The Divine Calm of George W. Bush

So Iraq's a mess and half the country hates you. Just keep praying.

For George W. Bush, August 6, 2001, had to have been a pretty harrowing day, reading as he did in his Daily Brief that operatives of Osama bin Laden were "in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives," and surveilling federal buildings in New York, and mulling over plans to attack Washington, D.C. But a reporter who saw him cavorting on his Crawford ranch not long after said, "The president was probably at the most relaxed I've ever seen him."

April 9, 2004, couldn't have been too nice for the president either. That was when he was deciding whether to publicize the contents of that Daily Brief, after Condoleezza Rice's grilling at the hands of the commission investigating 9-11. He knew the document would unravel his cover story of several years' standing as to why he couldn’t have known Bin Laden was determined to strike in the U.S.; its title was "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." But Bush blithely spent the day pulling bass out of the lake on his ranch with a TV host, who observed, "The president was very relaxed."

It is one of the abiding mysteries of the Bush presidency: that when feces start hitting the fan, the man at the center seems not to have a care in the world.

Lyn Nofziger knows something about presidents under pressure: He worked with Nixon during Watergate and with Reagan during Iran-Contra. "There was a little panic on September 11," Nofziger, now a Republican lobbyist, observes of George W. Bush. "But I don’t really see any real signs of panic now."

Does it have something to do with growing up wealthy and handsome, the son of a powerful politician, breezing through Yale under the protection of his Skull and Bones confreres? But George Bush the father possessed those same attributes, and in the middle of his re-election campaign in 1992, his approval ratings likewise heading south, he looked about ready to walk into a wall. "Close associates and even some foreign leaders have talked privately about episodes in which Bush looked bad and seemed distracted, nervous, or not entirely focused on the subject at hand," the Los Angeles Times put it delicately at the time.

The pressures for Bush the elder were hardly as great as they are now for Bush the younger, with the occupation of Iraq falling into chaos. Yet the elder seemed wracked by doubts. The younger seems to harbor none. What accounts for the difference?

Consider this story.

Shortly after his 1998 re-election as governor of Texas, Republican heavyweights begin to discuss George Bush Jr. as a presidential prospect. W. is dubious. Then one day he's sitting in church, Highland Methodist in Dallas, with his mother. The pastor, Mark Craig, preaches on Moses' ambivalence about leading the Israelites out of bondage. ("Sorry, God, I'm busy," the minister has Moses responding. "I've got a family. I've got sheep to tend. I've got a life.")

Pastor Craig moves on from the allegorical portion of his sermon. The American people are "starved for leadership," he says, "starved for leaders who have ethical and moral courage." He reminds his congregation, "It's not always easy or convenient for leaders to step forward. Remember, even Moses had doubts."

Barbara Bush, the high-church Episcopalian whose husband rejected advice to insert scriptural references into his speeches because they made him uncomfortable, tells her son, "He was talking to you."

George W. Bush, the born-again Christian, apparently hears his mother's "he" as the providential He. According to Stephen Mansfield's sympathetic account in The Faith of George W. Bush, he then calls his friend, the Charismatic preacher James Robison, host of the TV show Life Today, and tells him, "I've heard the call. I believe God wants me to run for president."

It's hard to be perturbed when you believe what our president believes. According to Professor Bruce Lincoln, who teaches a seminar on the theology of George W. Bush at the University of Chicago Divinity School, the president "does feel that people are called upon by the Divine to undertake certain positions in the world, and undertake certain actions, and to be responsible for certain things. And he makes, I think, quite clear—explicitly in some contexts, and implicitly in a great many others—that he occupies the office by a Divine calling. That God put him there with a sense of purpose."

It has been a topic of some confusion, the meaning of George Bush's religious beliefs. Some commentators trumpet the president's ties to Howard Ahmanson, a fantastically wealthy Californian who is an acolyte of the "Christian Reconstructionist" movement—which aims to place the United States under Biblical law (though Ahmanson proclaims himself personally against, say, the stoning of homosexuals). Others point up his connections to apocalyptic millennialists like Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind novels. The problem is that, theologically, Bush can't serve both these masters at once. The likes of LaHaye actively search for signs of the Second Coming of Christ and spend their days feverishly speculating about and preparing for the seven years’ battle for the world that will follow. Reconstructionists, Alan Jacobs, a professor at the evangelical college Wheaton, has explained, "are pretty confident Jesus isn’t going to show up any time soon," which is precisely their rationale for bringing the Book of Leviticus to life in the here-and-now.

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