Bush, Jesus, and the Executioner

Article excerpt

One year before the Rehnquist Putsch, the GOP's contenders for the Oval Office were all lined up on a dais in Des Moines. For an hour or so, that odd Republican sextet held forth on Columbine and ethanol and Medicare: mad Allan Keyes hypnotically afire; the elfin yet ferocious Gary Bauer assailing Roe v. Wade and Chinese communism; Orrin Hatch attempting, with success, to keep himself awake; Steve Forbes talking very tough and never blinking (not once); John McCain surprising everyone from time to time; and George W. Bush expertly pandering to all, despite his broken English.

Having thus invoked a range of timely "issues," the show's managers turned to the subtler question of intellectual influence. NBC's John Bachman asked each of the six to name "the political philosopher or thinker you most identify with, and why." John Locke, then Thomas Jefferson, said Forbes. "The Founding Fathers," Keyes replied (as if they were unanimous).

Then thus spake Governor Bush: "Christ, because he changed my heart."

BACHMAN: I think the viewer[s] would like to know more on how he's changed your heart.

BUSH: Well, if they don't know, it's going to be hard to explain. When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the Savior, it changes your heart. It changes your life. And that's what happened to me.

That pious outburst did the governor a world of good. Right then and there, it knocked the conversation off its tracks and sent it screaming heavenward. The Iowans applauded thunderously, then Hatch named Honest Abe and Ronald Reagan as his own favorite thinkers. "But I bear witness to Christ, too," he added warily. "I really know him to be the Savior of the world. And that means more to me than almost anything else I know." The ornery McCain saluted Teddy Roosevelt, and left the Savior out of it; but Bauer then heavily re-Christianized the moment, quoting Matthew 25:35 and offering this ardent hymn of quantitative praise:

BAUER: There is no figure in human history who, through his life, his death and his resurrection, has changed the world for millions, billions, countless of people [sic]. If America's in trouble in the next century, it will be because we forgot what he taught us, Tom [sic].

Such anxious testimony proved the canniness of Bush's gambit--which helped him win the Iowa caucuses soon afterward. His seemingly humble show of tongue-tied bliss--"Well, if they don't know, it's going to be hard to explain"--was sure to please those Iowans who deem lucidity a sign of evil. On the other hand, Bush's cry of faith could not appeal to anyone who'd read and understood the Gospels, since Jesus certainly was not a "political philosopher or thinker." The Romans and the Pharisees thought otherwise, of course, but a redeemed believer should know better.

And yet, throughout the race, Bush betrayed a far more serious misunderstanding of his creed. If Jesus is the "thinker" whom he "most identifies with," the Texan must have many pages missing from his Bible, because his pitch for Christ just doesn't square with his position on--or passion for--the death penalty. As chief executive of Texas, he oversaw more executions than any other governor in U.S. history; he always categorically denied that any one of them might possibly have been unjust; and throughout his tenure he fervently opposed every effort to reform his state's barbarous judicial system. Such a record was, to say the least, at odds with his avowed imitatio christi--as Fox TV's chief rabble-rouser, Bob O'Reilly (of all people!), tried in vain to make him understand a few months after Iowa:

O'REILLY: Okay. Now in--so far in this campaign, the thing that sticks in my mind with you is the Jesus Christ political philosopher remark. Everybody remembers that. It's been played many, many times. When I heard you say that, I--I had no problem with it. I said, you know, that's a legitimate answer. …