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.
There’s no evidence that George Bush believes what Christian Reconstructionists believe. And in contrast to Ronald Reagan, who was always letting loose intemperate slips about America’s role in Revelation’s End Times showdown, the University of Chicago’s Bruce Lincoln says, “in [Bush’s] public messages I find very little that’s apocalyptic.”
Cautioning that it’s almost impossible to know anyone’s true beliefs, Lincoln still thinks he’s got a pretty good sense of Bush’s. The results help illuminate this question of how Bush maintains his peace of mind under such unimaginable stress.
When the drunken and dissolute prodigal finally found Jesus in the mid 1980s, the book of the Bible his study group was poring over was the Acts of the Apostles. “It’s focused on missionizing, evangelizing, spreading the faith,” Lincoln explains. “It’s not end-of-the-world stuff. It’s expansionist—it’s religious imperialism, if you will. And I think that remains his primary orientation.”
What’s more, Lincoln adds, his primary orientation also holds that “the U.S. is the new Israel as God’s most favored nation, and those responsible for the state of America in the world also enjoy special favor. . . . Foremost among the signs of grace—if I read him correctly—are the cardinal American virtues of courage, on the one hand, and compassion, on the other.” For Bush to waver would be to tempt God’s disfavor; what’s more, we can speculate that the very act of holding to his resolve—what his critics identify as stubbornness and arrogance—becomes, tautologically, a way of both producing, and reassuring himself of, his special place in God’s plan. The existential benefits are obvious. “Wherever the U.S. happens to advance something that he can call ‘freedom,’ he thinks he’s serving God’s will, and he proclaims he’s serving God’s will.”
The Al Qaeda attacks play into this vision perfectly. They have allowed George Bush to move his administration into a Manichaean realm that pre–9-11 issues like stem cell research and estate tax repeal never could have. It’s why so much of his re-election rhetoric, both from the campaign and from his followers, proceeds as if his inauguration took place on September 12, 2001. Or, as the jacket copy for The Faith of George W. Bush puts it, “From the tragedy of September 11 to the present-day conflict in Iraq, President Bush has learned to use his faith to help him live his life—both in office and in private.” It is a field of force that Bush helps shape every time he ends his speeches with the homiletic “May God continue to bless America.”
Explains Lincoln in his book Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11, it’s a phrase that, by transcending the clichéd version of the formulation, “suggests Bush and his speechwriters gave serious thought to the phrase and decided to emphatically reaffirm the notion that the United States has enjoyed divine favor throughout its history—moreover, that it deserves said favor insofar as it remains firm in its faith.”
Lincoln points out an especially cunning aspect of the post–9-11 incarnation of Christian militancy: that Bush’s invocation of Islam as a “religion of peace,” a great religion hijacked by the terrorists, need not contradict the specifically Christian aspects of this vision. Some Christians, Lincoln observes, “would maintain that Christianity is not a religion. The others”—Islam, Shinto, whatever—”are religions.” Christianity, simply, is reality: the truth. Bush can praise Islam to the skies, but it needn’t take away from the Christian right’s sense that Bush knows it’s really Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
This belief among his followers is another element behind Bush’s apparent imperturbability. His signals to them have produced a mass of people who unequivocally embrace the notion that their president was given to them by Providence.
Jennifer Shroder is the pseudonym of a California housewife and religious-right activist whose agitations against textbooks she claims teach children “how to pray to Allah” and “to participate in any and all religions except that of His Son, Jesus Christ” have won her coverage from the Associated Press, the New York Post, and USA Today. In an e-mail to the Voice, she explains President Bush’s divine selection by way of 1 Corinthians, and also the Book of Isaiah—the latter for its injunction “Behold, I have given him for a witness to the people, a leader and commander to the people,” the former for its description of the leader Jehoiada, “who is very similar to President Bush, using ‘sword and shield’ along with the leaders with him.”
She illustrates an article on her website, blessedcause.org, called “President Bush, National Hero” with a painting of the president alongside the ghostly figures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who rest their hands upon his shoulders, heads bowed. A halo of light emanates from Bush’s head; in intersection with the horizontal of the presidential lectern, it appears to form a crucifix.
Lest you think Jen is alone, the painting comes from a another website, presidentialprayerteam.com, through which 2.8 million members receive daily instructions on how to coordinate prayer for the president. I don’t know about you, but if I had 2.8 million people advertising the fact that they were praying for my well-being every day—and, to boot, if I actually believed that prayer worked—I’d feel pretty damned relaxed, too.
No, President Bush feels little reason to doubt. “It’s different from, say, Dick Nixon,” says Lyn Nofziger, “who was putting on a brave front but knew underneath he was wrong—that he was doing things that if he ever got caught he would be in trouble. I don’t think this guy thinks that. He thinks he’s doing the proper thing.”