The story Bush tells about how Billy Graham converted him is a fable, concocted during the 2000 presidential campaign. Here's the truth.
Conventional wisdom has it that George W. Bush became a “born-again” Christian in the summer of 1985, after extended private talks with Reverend Billy Graham. As recounted by Bush himself in “A Charge to Keep: My Journey to the White House,” a ghostwritten autobiography prepared for the 2000 presidential campaign, one evening at Walker’s Point, the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, Graham, spiritual confidant to Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan and a close friend of the Bush family, sat down by the fireplace and gave a talk. “I don’t remember the exact words,” Bush wrote. “It was more the power of his example. The Lord was so clearly reflected in his gentle and loving demeanor.”
The next morning, Bush and Graham went for a walk along the rugged Maine shore, past the Boony Wild Pool where Bush had skinny-dipped as a child. “I knew I was in the presence of a great man …” Bush wrote. “He was like a magnet; I felt drawn to seek something different. He didn’t lecture or admonish; he shared warmth and concern. Billy Graham didn’t make you feel guilty; he made you feel loved.”
“Over the course of that weekend, Reverend Graham planted a mustard seed in my soul, a seed that grew over the next year,” he continued. “He led me to the path, and I began walking.”
There’s just one problem with Bush’s account of his conversion experience: it’s not true. For one thing, when Billy Graham was asked about the episode by NBC’s Brian Williams, he declined to corroborate Bush’s account. “I’ve heard others say that [I converted Bush], and people have written it, but I cannot say that,” Graham said. “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.”
Even if one doesn’t accept Graham’s candid response, there’s another good reason to believe that the account in Bush’s book is fiction. 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.
There is yet another reason why the episode in Maine could not possibly have been the first time George Bush gave his soul to Christ. That’s because Bush had already been born again more than a year earlier, in April 1984 — thanks to an evangelical preacher named Arthur Blessitt.
Whereas Billy Graham was a distinguished public figure whose fame grew out of frequent visits to the Oval Office over several decades, Arthur Blessitt had a very different background. His evangelicalism was rooted in the Jesus movement of the sixties counterculture. To the extent he was famous it was because he had preached at concerts with the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, the Jefferson Airplane, and others, and had run a “Jesus coffeehouse” called His Place on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip during that turbulent decade. His flock consisted of bikers, druggies, hippies, and two Mafia hit men. The most celebrated ritual at Blessitt’s coffeehouse was the “toilet baptism,” a rite in which hippies announced they were giving up pot and LSD for Jesus, flushed the controlled substances down the toilet, and proclaimed they were “high on the Lord.”
In 1969, however, Blessitt was evicted from his coffeehouse and, in protest, chained himself to a cross in Hollywood and fasted for the next twenty-eight days. Over the next fifteen years, “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. Finally, in 1984, he came to Midland, Texas, to preach for six nights at the Chaparral Center before thousands of Texans night after night on a “Mission of Love and Joy.” He did not know it, but he was about to bring George W. Bush to Jesus.
Thirty-seven years old when Blessitt came to Midland, Bush had yet to make much of a name for himself and still struggled with the giant shadow cast by his father. The pattern had begun early, when Bush was playing sports in school. “His father had been the captain of the baseball team and star first baseman at Yale,” said Mickey Herskowitz. “He had met Babe Ruth at home plate at the stadium at Yale to accept the manuscript of the Babe’s autobiography. Dad was a star, a scholar, the leader of the team and the captain. And George never got much beyond Little League. He wanted to be a catcher, but one of his coaches said he had an unfortunate flaw — he blinked every time the guy swung the bat.” Whatever he did, his meager achievements were dwarfed by his father’s spectacular résumé.
When he was in his twenties, his alcohol-fueled clashes with his father disturbed his parents so much that they asked friends to rein in their unruly son. In the spring of 1972, the elder Bush, then ambassador to the United Nations, called Jimmy Allison, an old friend from Midland, Texas, who was a political consultant and the owner of the Midland Reporter-Telegram, to ask if George W. could work on a Senate campaign Allison was running in Alabama for Winton “Red” Blount. “Georgie was raising a lot of hell in Houston, getting in trouble and embarrassing the family, and they just really wanted to get him out of Houston and under Jimmy’s wing,” Allison’s widow, Linda, told Salon’s Mary Jacoby. “[The Bushes] wanted someone they trusted to keep an eye on him.”
When the younger Bush got to Alabama, however, he continued drinking, according to Allison, often ambling into work at midday, boasting about how much he’d drunk the night before. One night at a party, she saw George W. urinating on a car in the parking lot. He reportedly shouted obscenities at police officers, and trashed a home he rented, leaving behind broken furniture he refused to pay for. “He was just a rich kid who had no respect for other people’s possessions,” a member of the family who rented the house told the Birmingham News.
When Bush returned to Washington for Christmas that year, he got drunk with his sixteen-year-old brother Marvin, ran over the neighbor’s garbage cans, and found himself standing unsteadily in the doorway at home, confronting his father. “I hear you’re looking for me,” he said. “You wanna go mano a mano right here?”
The elder George Bush didn’t say a word. “He just looked at him over his glasses that had slid down the end of his nose,” Barbara Bush told a friend of the family. “And he just looked until [George W.] walked away. Everything he needed to communicate was in that glance.”
When young George went off to Harvard Business School in 1974, the differences between him and his father became more clearly defined. Where the older Bush embodied a genial and patrician preppy ethos, the son embraced the iconography of Texas as if determined to eradicate the last vestiges of East Coast elitism in his veins. At Harvard, his classmates “were drinking Chivas Regal, [but] he was drinking Wild Turkey,” April Foley, who dated Bush briefly, told the Washington Post. “They were smoking Benson and Hedges and he’s dipping Copenhagen, and while they were going to the opera he was listening to [country-and-western singer] Johnny Rodriguez over and over and over and over.”
After graduation, rather than join his classmates in the glittering canyons of Wall Street, Bush struck out for Midland’s arid landscape of oil rigs and pump jacks, mesquite trees and horned lizards — where he fit right in. But it was still unclear what he was doing with his life. A 1978 attempt to run for Congress was a disaster. Various stabs at making it in the oil industry — with companies named Arbusto Energy, Spectrum 7, and Harken Energy — failed. Even after marrying Laura Welch in 1977 and becoming the father of twins four years later, Bush’s reputation was that of an aging frat boy who worshipped what he called the four B’s — beer, bourbon, and B&B. Family members still wondered what he was going to be when he grew up.
Meanwhile, oil-rich Midland was going through its own spiritual crisis. When the price of oil soared in the seventies and early eighties, Midland had become a heady boomtown minting a new generation of hard-driving Texas oil barons. Its population exploded from 70,000 in 1980 to 92,000 just three years later. There were shimmering skyscrapers, Lear jets, and Rolls-Royce dealerships.
But in the eighties, as oil plummeted from $40 a barrel to $8, Midland’s boom gave way to unemployment lines, repo signs, and bankruptcies. In 1983, the First National Bank of Midland collapsed. “Fear set in…” said Midland evangelical Mark Leaverton. “Marriages broke up. People started having pretty serious emotional problems… It was a scary time for all of us… People started asking questions.”
By the time Arthur Blessitt came to Midland, several of Bush’s friends had become born-again Christians, including two Midland oilmen named Don Poage and Jim Sale. After preaching one night, Blessitt went over to Sale’s house with Poage and a few other followers. Before Blessitt left, Poage asked if they could pray together. Blessitt anointed him with Mazola oil because the Sales had no olive oil in their kitchen. “I got down on the floor with him and a group of people,” Poage said in the 2004 documentary, “With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right.” “We prayed a very powerful prayer for me. And … I felt big white lightning bolts coming out of my shoulders and even though I was on my knees, I felt like I was about three feet off the ground.”
Baptized as an Episcopalian in Connecticut, Bush had been a regular churchgoer his entire life, but for the most part he had just been going through the motions. As Stephen Mansfield reported in “The Faith of George W. Bush,” when a Midland pastor asked his congregation what a “prophet” was, Bush replied, “That’s when revenues exceed expenditures.” Obvious quips were more important to Bush than spiritual quest. But when Bush heard about Poage’s encounter with Blessitt, he was so interested that a meeting was arranged.
So, on the afternoon of April 3, 1984, Blessitt and Sale went to the coffeeshop in the local Holiday Inn. Bush had already arrived, and got straight to the point. “I didn’t bring up the subject of Jesus,” Blessitt recalled. “He did. That’s his personality.”
“Arthur,” Bush said, “I did not feel comfortable attending the meeting, but I want to talk to you about how to know Jesus Christ and how to follow Him.”
Stunned by Bush’s directness, Blessitt silently prayed, “Oh Jesus put your words in my mouth and lead him to understand and be saved.”
Then he picked up the Bible and leaned forward. “What is your relationship with Jesus?” Blessitt asked.
“I’m not sure,” Bush replied.
“Let me ask you this question. If you died this moment do you have the assurance you would go to heaven?”
“No,” Bush said.
“Then let me explain to you how you can have that assurance and know for sure that you are saved.”
“I like that.”
Blessitt then quoted several verses on sin and salvation — from Matthew, Romans, Mark, and John. “The call of Jesus is for us to repent and believe!” he explained. “The choice is like this. Would you rather live with Jesus in your life or live without Him?”
“With Him,” Bush replied.
“Had you rather spend eternity with Jesus or without Him?”
“With Jesus,” said Bush.
Blessitt told Bush that Jesus wanted to write his name in the Book of Life, and extended his hand. “I want to pray with you now,” he said.
“I’d like that,” Bush replied. He joined hands with Sale and Blessitt. Then, Blessitt prayed a variation on the Sinner’s Prayer aloud, one phrase at a time, with Bush repeating after him:
Dear God, I believe in you and I need you in my life. Have mercy on me as a sinner. Lord Jesus as best as I know how, I want to follow you. Cleanse me from my sins and come into my life as my Savior and Lord. I believe You lived without sin, died on the cross for my sins and arose again on the third day and have now ascended unto the Father. I love you Lord, take control of my life. I believe you hear my prayer. I welcome the Holy Spirit of God to lead me in Your way. I forgive everyone and ask You to fill me with Your Holy Spirit and give me love for all people. Lead me to care for the needs of others. Make my home in Heaven and write my name in Your book in Heaven. I accept the Lord Jesus Christ as my Savior and desire to be a true believer in and follower of Jesus. Thank you God for hearing my prayer. In Jesus’ name I pray.
The three men smiled. “It was a happy and glorious time,” said Blessitt. He explained to Bush exactly what had just happened. “Jesus has come to live within your heart,” he told Bush. “Your sins are forgiven … You are saved … You have received eternal life … You are now the Child of God … The Holy Spirit abides within you … You have become a new person.”
Jim Sale was present during the entire discourse. “You can never tell what goes on in a man’s heart and soul,” he said. “But the question was asked and answered.” George W. Bush had invited Christ into his life. “Why God chose to move in our president’s heart at that time, I don’t know,” Sale said. “I’m just glad he did.”
“A good and powerful day,” Blessit wrote in his diary. “Led Vice President Bush’s son to Jesus today. George Bush Jr.! This is great! Glory to God.”
Craig Unger is the author of 'Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove's Secret Kingdom of Power' (Scribner, September 2012). He is also a contributing editor of Vanity Fair, and wrote the New York Times bestseller, 'House of Bush, House of Saud.' For more about Boss Rove, and to buy the book, go to www.bossrove.com. More Craig Unger.
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