Kathi Cordsen of Fullerton, Calif., is a Republican. And she is still a Bush supporter. Her support of George W. Bush ’68 may be surprising, considering that his approval rating hovers at 34 percent (after sliding into the twenties). His presidency has been characterized by a series of bumbling and incompetent moves and a cast of mean supporting characters with names like Dick. This is excellent fodder for late-night television (notably David Letterman’s brilliant “Great Moments in Presidential Speeches”), but nothing of which an American citizen should be proud.
But Ms. Cordsen is proud. She recently told CNN that she believes that Bush “is a funny man, a kind man, a bit of a goofball and not very well spoken” (David Letterman would agree with the latter), and that “his presidency was thwarted by the ‘evildoers.’ ” Cordsen likes that word. People like Cordsen keep Bush’s tattered record intact with the belief that he is a good, Christian man whose presidency was unable to overcome many overwhelming evils.
Bush makes evil “real and tangible,” and people like Cordsen also sense this evil (and appreciate Bush for attempting to fight it). Bush has turned foreign policy into a battle between good and evil. He is a member of the United Methodist Church, but is influenced by evangelical Christianity. Evangelical Christianity is a religion of absolutes, whose followers believe the Bible is the word of God. For Bush, evil is always present, and it casts shadows upon the good. Only a leader who is guided by God’s “essential goodness” can defeat the “evildoers.”
Bush’s Christian roots are deep, but I hold doubts about his sincerity. I do not doubt that his success is largely the result of a shrewd political mind, honed in his 1978 run for a seat in the United States House of Representatives.
Texas’s 19th Congressional District, where Bush ran, is a historically conservative area in West Texas, and Bush should have had a leg up against his Democratic rival, State Sen. Kent Hance. Bush’s discussions of inflation, as well as the Connecticut license plates on his Mercedes, alienated voters; he lost because Hance portrayed him as an elitist, Ivy League playboy. Bush campaigned vigorously, but his efforts lacked strategy.
Hance attacked Bush with vitriol. He used words like “Andover,” “Yale” and “Harvard” (familiar, anyone?) as epithets to emphasize Bush’s foreignness. Bush was an “outsider” who was “riding his daddy’s coattails.” In a famous radio spot, listeners were told they didn’t “need someone from the Northeast telling [them] what [their] problems [were].” When the Bush campaign served alcohol at a party intended to recruit young volunteers from Texas Tech University, Hance’s law partner wrote a letter denouncing the Bush campaign’s effort. The lawyer also distributed the letter to 4,000 Lubbock, Texas, churchgoers. According to Hance, alcohol-fueled parties (even tame ones), may be “cool at Harvard or Yale.” But they were out of sync with the conservative Christian values shared by many residents of the 19th District.
The campaign ultimately failed, but Bush learned to never let an opponent define him again. Hance also taught Bush to “cultivate” the religious right, a constituency that he largely ignored during the campaign, and a constituency that was appalled by the alcohol issue. Bush realized he could not run as an outsider, and he transformed himself into a “real” Texan.
In his 1994 gubernatorial campaign, he talked about fishing, church and his family. It did not matter that he was born in New Haven. He spoke in a Texas accent and wore cowboy boots. He was transformed, a politician who truly understood the social and cultural views of his constituency. And he would never (technically) lose another election again. As Hance later told The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof, Bush would never “be out-Christianed or out-good-old-boyed again. He’s going to be the good old boy next door.”
Hance’s statement appears to cast doubt upon Bush’s religious sincerity. But in the aftermath of the race, Bush learned to create his own image. For him, Christianity was a politically transformative tool that allowed him to seize the hearts and minds of evangelical Christians when he ran for higher office later. He has presented himself to Americans as a “crusader” and a “decider.”
Bush used his religious transformation to gain elected office. Before his recent failures, he had effectively cultivated an image as an approachable everyman, and he has recently worked to win it back. In his farewell address on Thursday, he said he leaves with a “thankful heart.” At the end of a presidency characterized by incompetence, Bush has attempted to leave Americans with a warm image of himself.
Kristen Wright is a freshman in Davenport College.