Bush Places U.S. Under Cardinal Law

Sex-scandal figure's long history as Bush family pal was spawned by (who else) Doug Wead

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Simply divine: Bush at Catholic University in D.C. in March 2001 with far-right Cardinal Bernard Law (far right). Detroit's Cardinal Maida is the other guy. (White House photo)


GEORGE W. BUSH's publicly proclaimed devotion to the carcass of Pope John Paul II should be no surprise, and neither should the prominence of disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law at the pope's funeral. Conservative institutions do all they can these days to support each other.

Bush's daddy was first hooked up back in the '80s with the incorrigably right-wing Law—poster boy for the Roman Catholic Church's coverup of its priests' sexual-abuse scandal. And wouldn't you know it: The person who brought them together was Doug Wead, Junior's erstwhile tape worm. (See this Bush Beat item and several others.)

Until 2002, the self-proclaimed moralist Cardinal Law was riding high. But the sex scandal finally smacked him down that December, and he resigned as archbishop of the Boston Archdiocese. As CNN noted at the time:

    Massachusetts' attorney general told reporters that the Boston Archdiocese engaged in "an elaborate scheme" to keep the issue quiet.

    The Boston Archdiocese released extensive documents detailing startling examples of clergy sexual misconduct related to claims priests molested children.

The disgraced cardinal is one of the few things bearing the name "Law" that the Bushes seem to respect.

Early in Dubya's first term, before 9/11 gave him an excuse to run amok, his handlers worked him hard to win favor with Catholics. On March 22, 2001, Bush spoke at the the dedication of Catholic University's Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in D.C., where the president used the code phrase "culture of life" to signal his strong opposition to abortion and then told the crowd: "We must defend in love the innocent child waiting to be born."

Ryan Lizza of The New Republic, in a story the following month on Bush's fervent bid to win over Catholics, wrote about that moment in the speech:

    Pro-choice Democrats in attendance, like Ted Kennedy, shifted uncomfortably in their seats. But the rest of the audience rose in a standing ovation.

And Bush ended his speech with a nod to fellow "believers," no matter what denomination: "Always, the Pope points us to the things that last and the love that saves."

Lizza, who termed that speech a "Christ-drenched tribute" to the pope, also noted in his April 2001 story:

    Bush has courted the Catholic vote more doggedly than any modern president, explicitly—and often eloquently—placing "compassionate conservatism" within the context of the Catholic tradition of aiding the underprivileged and protecting the sanctity of life. The president makes a point of meeting with local bishops wherever he travels, but especially on visits to swing states. He has made Catholic leaders fixtures at White House events, and his political staff holds a weekly conference call with conservative Catholics.

    The reason for all this attention? Bush advisers have concluded that what they call the "religiously active Catholic" vote was the key to W.'s narrow victory in November. And they believe it could bring him a landslide in 2004.

Well, a few months later, 9/11 changed everything. But Bush's courting of the Catholic establishment has continued unabated, and it no doubt helped him in 2004 against Massachusetts Catholic John Kerry, who was publicly roasted by his own church's officials.

The Bush regime, well-practiced from pecking at the nearly dead bodies of Kerry and Terri Schiavo, has been playing that Catholic card for the past week for all it's worth. It's only fitting that his political chum Cardinal Law has a starring role in the memorial services for the pope.

In the early '90s, when I covered Doug Wead's unsuccessful run for a new Congressional seat in Arizona, he told me the story of how he wound up getting Bush Sr. and Bernard Law together.

The story really starts in the '70s, when Wead was a high-powered Amway evangelist flying under the media radar from state to state, nation to nation. Ordained by both the Assemblies of God and by Amway powerhouse salesman Dexter Yager, Wead recited the "Sermon on the Mount" from memory and delivered sales pitches to stadiums and arenas packed with cheering people. He wrote fawning "biographies" of Ronald Reagan, James Watt, and even Dexter and Birdie Yager, a North Carolina couple whose Web site touts "faith, fun, family, finance, and freedom":

    In politics, in business, in sports, and in ministry, the heroes of the great success stories meet and overcome obstacles on the way to their victory. Such is the case in the story of Dexter Yager, who has become a hero to many.

From 1973 to 1984, Bernard Law was still a bishop and he ran the Church's Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese in the Missouri Ozarks, deep in the Protestant Bible Belt—Springfield is the international HQ for the Assemblies of God, the denomination of John Ashcroft.

Evangelical Protestants have long been instructed to hate the pope and the Catholic Church. But that's changing, as political alliances between equally conservative Protestants, Catholics, and even some Jews are finding voice through the Christocratic White House run by Dubya's handlers.

Concerning Wead and Law, I'll let the Boston Globe's deep and detailed pre–sex-scandal profile of Law in 1990, by Daniel Golden, tell the next part of their tale:

    Shuttling to and from his Missouri home for his nationwide schedule as a motivational speaker in the 1970s, Douglas Wead often found himself on the same airplane as Law. The Protestant evangelical and author introduced himself to the bishop. Soon Wead was donating money to keep his newfound buddy's daily, five-minute television program on the air. "It was not a big check, but a very nice check," Law recalls.

    In 1985, when Wead became a consultant to Bush [Senior], he urged his boss to call Law. "I knew these were two kindred spirits," he says. He was right. The veep and the cardinal hit it off immediately. After they shared the podium in Atlanta in February 1986 at a celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday, Law accepted Bush's offer to ride back to Washington on Air Force Two and stay overnight at his house. "I do want to see more of Cardinal Law," Bush wrote to Wead later. "I would never exploit what I hope will grow into a fast friendship."

Law and Bush Sr. were both interested in foreign policy, and they were like-minded about it. Law was a strong ally back then of the elder Bush's right-wing Central American regimes—you know, the ones that ran death squads. (See my item on John Negroponte for more on this.) As Golden wrote:

    Still, whether Bush or Law avoids exploiting the relationship is open to question. Since most American bishops are liberal critics of the administration, a conservative prelate is a godsend to Bush. For his part, Law gains power and prestige. . . .

    After six Jesuit priests were murdered by the El Salvador military in November [1989], Law did not join other religious leaders in lobbying Bush to cut off U.S. military aid to the regime there. . . . Law argued that President Alfredo Cristiani's government was conducting an effective investigation.

Naturally, Law didn't attend memorial services for the slain Jesuits. Golden noted:

    When a Boston Globe columnist accused him of keeping silent about the murders in return for Bush's support on the abortion issue, Law called a press conference and denounced the Globe as anti-Catholic.

That's it: Attack the attackers. Looks as if Law has a lot in common with Karl Rove, too.

As for Wead? I've called him a Zelig, but that's really selling him short. He's not only a dynamic speaker, but he's also a skilled political operative, especially with reporters. He's been a source for many journalists, including me, over the years. A nice guy who doesn't exhibit the openly smug contempt for the "secular media" that evangelicals like the old Jerry Falwell and the prehistoric Pat Robertson used to express, Wead has a natural affinity for journalism; he was highly quotable during his years as a White House aide in the late '80s.

I don't want to overestimate what Wead did for Bush Sr.'s White House, but he did spend a lot of time spreading the word that conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics had plenty of common interests. And that collaboration is looking pretty strong these days.

"One Nation Under God," a 1998 story by John Swomley in The Humanist, examined the National Council of Catholic Bishops' political agenda, revolving around abortion and birth control, and recalled the impact of Wead's work—well, Swomley quoted Wead as saying back during his tenure as Bush's White House liaison to evangelicals that it had impact. But in the area of politics and appearances, that's the same thing. Here's an excerpt from the Humanist story:

    A massive political campaign is underway in an effort to achieve religious and political control of crucial American policies and institutions, an effort which the popular press and television have virtually ignored. It was inspired by the Vatican and has been carried out over a period of years under the supervision of the National Council of Catholic Bishops. The bishops have created the impression that they speak for 59 million Catholics, which makes them a formidable political force, able to influence or intimidate presidents and other public officials.

    For example, they had an important and close relationship with President George Bush. Within a month after Bush took office, he included all five of the U.S. cardinals in meetings at the White House and, thereafter, Cardinals Bernard Law of Boston and John O'Connor of New York spent overnights at the White House as guests of the president.

    Doug Wead, a special assistant to the president, was quoted in the December 29, 1989, National Catholic Reporter as saying that Bush "has been more sensitive and accessible to the needs of the Catholic Church than any president I know of in American history.... We want the Church to feel loved and wanted, and we want them to have input." That relationship and input was maintained through the cardinals. Wead also boasted that "this administration has appointed more Catholic cabinet officers than any other in American history." There were, however, a number in the Reagan administration, as well.

The Humanist story added this:

    In his book Catholic Bishops in American Politics, Catholic writer Timothy A. Byrnes calls the bishops' plan the "most focused and aggressive political leadership" ever exerted by the American Catholic hierarchy.

One of my favorite Bernie Law anecdotes is from 1990, when the Church was generally still succeeding in suppressing the scandal of priests who were sexing up altar boys and other kids. This excerpt from the Globe profile by Golden describes Law at a meeting of priests:

    With his legal pad open to a fresh sheet, Law asks for a list of obstacles to recruitment [of young men to the priesthood]. The priests recite problems that he can't solve and wouldn't if he could: celibacy, lifetime commitment, no ordination of women. "I have a tremendous fear that many young men, when they have a vocation, worry that their peers will tag them as being gay," one priest says.

    Instead of exorcising these demons of gloom, Law sounds uncharacteristically weary. "I struggle," he says. "I trust you struggle. Some days are better than others."

    To recharge himself after the meeting, Law bursts into a religious-education class in a parochial school down the hall. His opening gambit is reminiscent of Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City, who used to call out to passersby, "How'm I doing?" Law asks the fourth graders, "Does anybody here recognize me?" One student guesses he is a priest. A second says, ''You're the pope." To the relief of their teacher, who is overwhelmed by Law's visit, a third says, "You're the cardinal."

    The children have been cutting hearts out of red construction paper for Valentine's Day. Law picks up a heart and delivers an impromptu sermon on love. He talks about visiting a woman in the hospital. She was dying of cancer, but she wasn't afraid. Jesus died for her, and she will live forever.

    Law shakes hands with the students, asking their names. He removes his ring and passes it around. "That's a ring the pope touched," he says. Now that he has impressed them, he makes his pitch. "You better sign up for altar boys," he says.

    There is a silence. Then one boy asks, "Do you get paid?"

No, as it turns out, some altar boys were the ones who paid.


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