George W. Bush's 1985 walk on the beach with the Rev. Billy Graham has achieved legendary status in evangelical circles. By Bush's own account, Graham asked, "Are you right with God?" and the future president replied, "No, but I want to be."
A life-changing conversation ensued. But there's much more to the story.
Before 1985, Bush was a well-born, likable but purposeless mediocrity, according to Stephen Mansfield's new religious bio "The Faith of George W. Bush" (Tarcher-Penguin). James Robison, a Texas evangelist who later became a confidant, acknowledges to having been little impressed with Bush.
But things changed, as depicted in Mansfield's worshipful book and a summarized version in the October issue of Charisma, a magazine of the Charismatic-Pentecostal movement.
In astonishingly rapid sequence, Bush quit drinking, unloaded his failing oil exploration company, helped run his father's presidential campaign, organized the purchase of the Texas Rangers baseball team and operated the business, defeated Texas' incumbent governor and won the White House.
Mansfield's account is largely a pastiche of previous reporting on Bush's spiritual saga and lacks interviews with Bush and White House insiders. They probably figured any political benefit from Bush's being born-again has already been realized.
But Mansfield does provide some fresh nuggets.
The most telling is the importance of the prospering Bible study movement in Bush's maturation as a man and as a Christian.
By Mansfield's account, the pivotal person was Don Jones, a respected bank president in Midland, Texas, and fellow member at First Methodist Church with George and Laura Bush.
Months before the Bush-Graham conversation, Jones had sworn off drinking. Soon thereafter, while reading the Gospel of John, he had "an overwhelming sense of conviction and need for God's grace," then a sense of peace as sin's burdens lifted.
Jones plunged into intense Bible reading and started attending a weekly class sponsored by the Community Bible Study (CBS) organization.
Based in Reston, Va., CBS currently operates 526 classes in the United States and others overseas. That includes 38 new groups this year in 20 states. CBS classes are typically men-only, women-only or teens-only, and require systematic study between weekly sessions.
Several other nationwide organizations operate similar classes, and many American congregations and individuals hold less rigorous Bible get-togethers.
CBS originated in 1975 at the evangelical Fourth Presbyterian Church in suburban Washington, D.C. Early participants included Elizabeth Dole (now a senator) and the wives of Secretary of State James Baker and congressman Jack Kemp.
The change in Jones' life apparently impressed Bush prior to the Graham chat, and afterward he decided to join Jones' CBS class of 120 men. Reinforcing Bush's new interest, pal Donald Evans (now secretary of commerce) gave Bush a devotional Bible organized into readings for each day of the year.
In the process "George the Lightweight was being replaced by some other, as yet unknown, being," Mansfield enthuses.
According to David Frum's recent biography "The Right Man," Bush himself said "there is only one reason that I am in the Oval Office and not in a bar. I found faith. I found God."
Mansfield develops one aspect that became known only after the new president described his faith journey in the 2001 autobiography "A Charge to Keep." After Bush spoke out, colorful, Florida-based evangelist Arthur Blessitt (yes, that's his name) revealed the following on his Web site:
Before Graham and CBS entered the picture, Blessitt preached a revival in Midland. Bush didn't want to attend publicly but asked Jim Sale, a Baptist buddy and fellow oil man, to arrange a private meeting with Blessitt. Sale says Blessitt presented the Christian message and Bush prayed to receive forgiveness of sins and salvation through Jesus.
Blessitt wrote in his diary for April 3, 1984: "A good and powerful day. Led Vice President Bush's son to Jesus today. George Bush Jr.! This is great! Glory to God."
On the Net:
Community Bible Study: http://www.communitybiblestudy.org
Blessitt's account: http://www.blessitt.com/bush.html