“A good and powerful day. Led Vice President Bush’s son to Jesus today. George Bush Jr.!! This is great. Glory to God.” —From the April 3, 1984, entry of the diary of Arthur Blessitt
The story of the redemption of George W. Bush, like any good parable, is richer for its several tellings. In the orthodox version, Billy Graham ministered to the prodigal Bush son at the family’s Kennebunkport, Maine, compound in 1985, planting “a mustard seed” of faith that would blossom in George’s soul. But in another account, Bush’s come-to-Jesus moment arrived a year earlier, in the more humble setting of the Holidome restaurant at the Midland, Texas, Holiday Inn.
By the time he broke bread with Bush, Arthur Blessitt was already 15 years into his mission from God. The peripatetic preacher had taken up a 12-foot-tall, one-wheeled wooden crucifix in 1969, carried it from the Sunset Strip to Capitol Hill, and never stopped walking. If Blessitt lacked a formal pulpit, he didn’t want for Graham’s global reach: By 1984, he had preached his way across 60 countries on six continents, on a quest to bear his cross in every nation in the world (which he has now done, clocking more than 36,000 miles).
Such exploits made Blessitt an evangelical icon, and in the spring of the Reagan/Mondale election year he came to Midland to preach at “Decision ’84,” a political summit for fundamentalists. As Blessitt tells the story, the young George W., hearing his ministry on the radio, requested a private meeting. This much has been confirmed by Karl Rove. For the rest of the tale, we must rely on the preacher’s account posted on his website (Blessitt doesn’t speak to the media about the encounter).
In the empty restaurant, Bush stared into Blessitt’s eyes and spoke bluntly: “Arthur,” he said, “I want to talk to you about how to know Jesus Christ and how to follow Him.”
Blessitt replied with an eternal question: “If you died this moment, do you have the assurance you would go to heaven?”
“Then let me explain to you how you can have that assurance and know for sure that you are saved.”
“I like that,” said Bush.
Blessitt ministered from Romans, John, Matthew, and Mark, before asking Bush to join him in prayer, whereupon Bush accepted Christ as his savior and declared himself “a true believer in and follower of Jesus.”
There’s more than a touch of irony in a story that has Bush being converted by a self-described liberal fundamentalist who in the 1960s was known as the “Minister of Sunset Strip,” preaching to Hollywood’s hookers and hippies from a free coffeehouse called His Place. In footage from the era, Blessitt possesses all the gawky grace and comic overearnest intensity of a Will Ferrell character. Then, on Christmas Day in 1969, Blessitt says, he answered a call from Jesus. He lifted the 90-pound cross off of the coffeehouse wall and began his trek across the United States.
When he discovered that he was losing an inch of wood a day to the forces of gravel and gravity, Blessitt decided to add a tricycle wheel to the base of his cross. As he expanded his travels overseas, he also discovered that airlines couldn’t stow the 12-foot cross, forcing him to saw it in half and brace it with bolts so he could break it down and check it in a triple ski bag.
Blessitt has prayed with the likes of Yasser Arafat (an encounter he describes as “one fanatic meeting another”), Muammar Khaddafi, former U.N. Secretary Boutros Boutros Ghali, and Pope John Paul II. In 1976, Blessitt ran for president himself—on a platform of flat taxes, a living wage, and universal health care. But his most daring political acts have involved simply showing up: In Soviet Russia and Red China. In Franco’s Spain and Kim Jong Il’s North Korea. In West Beirut and East Berlin. He was nearly stoned in Morocco, and credits angels for his escape from a Nicaraguan firing squad.
Today, with his bold smile and thinning shock of white-gray hair, Blessitt could be mistaken for David Carradine’s beatific twin. He speaks in a brassy Bayou drawl and takes great joy in the fact that his shoulder has built up an extra inch of bone where he bears the crucifix, that his body, as he puts it, “has been reshaped by the cross.”
Blessitt says he’s been turned away from more than half the churches where he’s asked to spend the night (though he claims he has never been denied lodging in a bar or nightclub anywhere in the world). Seeing him walk with his giant cross, he says, “people always roll down their windows and say, ‘You’re a nut!’ And I say, ‘But at least I’m screwed on the right bolt. How ’bout you!?’ ”