Morning Report 2/22/05The Zelig of the Religious Right


Look under the Bushes. This carefully cultivated Wead has helped them grow.

If you insist on being distracted by the strange case of longtime Bush ally Doug Wead playing the New York Times by letting one of its reporters listen to a supposedly candid George W. Bush, then you’re in the right place.

Start with my two stories about Wead from 1992, beginning with this one I posted yesterday, “The Tangled Roots of Doug Wead,” from June of that year. And here’s the other one I posted yesterday: “Doug Wead and the Bushes, Part II,” from September 1992. Both were published in Phoenix New Times, where I worked as an editor and writer.

Doug Wead is a fascinating fellow. He was George Bush Sr.‘s liaison to the religious right in the late ’80s White House. Before that, Wead had made his money in the Amway network, as a motivational speaker. He’s a very well-spoken guy, with lots of native smarts, though not much formal education. He seems to like journalists, and journalists seem to like him. His winning, positive hucksterism makes his rock-ribbed religious and conservative views all the more dangerous.

Wead has a history of helping reporters, of feeding them info. I ought to know, because I was one of them. During Wead’s 1992 campaign for Congress, Neil Bush came to Arizona to raise money for Wead. At the time, of course, Neil’s daddy was still president, so the Secret Service surrounded Wead’s house in Scottsdale, keeping reporters and the rest of the public out during Neil’s private pitch for campaign money to a small group of Wead’s wealthy supporters.

During a previous interview, Wead had told me about the upcoming private session with Neil Bush, and I asked if I could get in, even though reporters were barred. Wead not only agreed, but he snuck me into his own house, past the Secret Service guards, by having me pose as a wealthy GOP guy and personally escorting me inside through the kitchen door. It worked, and I wound up shaking hands with Neil Bush and listening to Neil’s ridiculously lame-ass schmoozing, as I circulated among about a dozen of Wead’s big-cigar supporters, striking a pose as a human instead of a reporter.

I’m reminded: What’s the opposite of “charisma”? What a loser Neil was. He makes his older brother Dubya seem like a genius.

But thanks, Doug. And I didn’t have to make any deal with Wead. I didn’t have to promise to give him a break on anything or to keep anything off the record. I had already done very thorough backgrounding on Wead, and I had asked him many questions about his Amway background and his evangelical Christian background, about his White House work and about what seemed to me to be his stealth campaign as a stalking horse for the religious right. He knew about the reputation of Phoenix New Times as the state’s premier muckraking publication, and he knew that I was a heathen and would probably not pull punches. I think the guy just likes journalism. So it doesn’t surprise me that he played secret tapes of Dubya for David D. Kirkpatrick of the New York Times.

Politics to Wead is not only his life, but it’s his business. I mean, there’s really no such thing as bad publicity, is there? If your goal is to be known and to make money for yourself and your friends, that is.

When Wead ran for Congress from Arizona, he meant business—the subterranean Amway style. His campaign coffers overflowed with out-of-state money from Amway believers.

An Assembly of God evangelist from that denomination’s home base of Springfield, Missouri, Wead was already well-known to thousands of Amway distributors, having spoken at scores of their huge, unpublicized rallies. Amway distributors purchased his “inspirational” sales-pitch tapes by the ton.

Wead and John Ashcroft (also from Springfield, where Ashcroft’s daddy was a powerful preacher in the fundamentalist Assemblies of God) were prominent speakers on the Amway lecture circuit. So was Jack Kemp. Ronald Reagan and Daddy Bush also basked in the tumultuous applause of an Amway rally or two.

When Neil Bush got into trouble in the ’80s for being the front man for a Colorado savings & loan that went under, and he was let off with a light fine, his career was destroyed. Wead lined up speaking engagements for Neil around the world, particularly to the European Amway-style network set up by Wead’s pal John Godzich.

If you wanted to get rich through the Amway network of getting a cut by signing up distributors “below” you, you damn well had a good chance if you embraced whatever the people “above” you in the network believed. Amway co-founder Rich DeVos is a strident religious conservative. (See this profile of powerful GOPer Betsy DeVos at Sourcewatch—formerly known as Disinfopedia.) Many, many powerful and rich Amwayers believe in a heavily conservative and Republican politics laced with evangelical Christianity.

Sound familiar?

Anyway, when Wead moved to Arizona just before his 1992 congressional run, he started a supposed tax-reform group called “It’s Time,” perfect in the nebulous nature of its title for transformation into a campaign vehicle. Then, when he started his campaign, Wead pal John Godzich bought his way into the job of finance chairman of the Arizona Republican Party by pouring money into the GOP’s coffers.

All of a sudden, John McCain—who had carpetbagged into Arizona and into Congress only a few years before by marrying the daughter of a powerful local liquor magnate—had to take a back seat—literally, at some GOP events—to the relative newcomer Wead.

The Arizona GOP of Barry Goldwater, by then an aging ex-senator, was being taken over by the religious right.

Funny, but we used to think of the Goldwater Republicans as conservative, but by today’s standards, they aren’t.

Wead swept aside other GOP challengers and seemed headed to a seat in Congress until Goldwater strongly endorsed a Democratic woman at the 11th hour. Arizona’s Republicans revolted inside their voting booths, and Wead narrowly lost.

Years later, Gail Sheehy described Wead as a mentor of George W. Bush, noting that Wead had taught Dubya how to use “code words” to get his message across to religious-right types below the radar of the media and the rest of the public. Here’s how Sheehy, in her October 2000 Vanity Fair story, described the invaluable lessons that Wead provided to Dubya:

It was in his first campaign for governor that George W. began to preach the gospel according to Bush. He literally gave sermons in Houston’s mega-churches, laying the blame for America’s “failed culture” on the excesses of his generation in the ’60s. “The culture of my generation, our generation, has clearly said, ‘If it feels good, do it, and be sure to blame somebody else if you have a problem.'”

Bush had been his father’s bridge builder to the Christian right during the 1988 presidential campaign. He had been tutored in the code words by Doug Wead, an associate of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker‘s. Wead introduced him to the most powerful evangelicals around the country.

Yes, Sheehy got it right. And Wead’s recent “revelations” about Bush seem perfectly in character with Wead’s salesmanship. He outed televangelist Jim Bakker’s personal life to TV FBI star Efrem Zimbalist Jr., a religious-right stalwart, during Bakker’s scandal-filled career in the ’80s. Wead did it not to hurt Bakker but to help him. That morsel is from crack reporter Charles E. Shepard‘s monumental Bakker tome Forgiven.

When Wead tried to go public with a run for elective office after spending years working either behind the scenes or in the closed-to-the-general-public-and-press Amway network, he represented a new kind of evangelical Christian politician. He wasn’t an idiotic, sanctimonious guy like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. Wead was a nice guy who downplayed his religious ties when he was talking to us heathens, while at the same time making it clear to his supporters that he was strongly for them. That’s a tactic that George W. Bush and his advisers have employed well.

And this latest “revelation” that George W. Bush is a flawed man of faith and prayer who is thoughtful is just more propaganda. And, gee, the president doesn’t hate gay people. In fact he’s against gay-bashing. Uh-huh. Let’s hear all of the tapes, Doug. But Wead is too smart for that.

Seems like George W. Bush, years after being mentored about how to win support among the electorally vibrant religious-right wing of his party, is finally a believer—in his own hype.

As I say, Doug Wead is a hell of a great salesman. And his pupil, George W. Bush, is coming right along.