Published May 11, 2006
On March 17 Bobby Welch, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, met with George W. Bush at the request of the White House. Two weeks prior to the meeting Peggy Campbell, Welch’s administrative assistant at First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach received the invitation requesting that the Florida pastor come to Washington for the meeting.
Welch inquired, “Who is the group and what is the purpose of the meeting with the president?
Campbell replied, “There is no group. The president wants to meet with you.”
“What’s the agenda?” the SBC president asked,
“He did not say,” Campbell replied, “but he wants you to come and I felt certain you would feel the need to go.”
Welch was scheduled to preach at Englewood Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, N.C. on the evening of the scheduled appointment in Washington. This assignment presented somewhat of a logistical problem. Welch called Michael Cloer, pastor of the Englewood Church, and Cloer managed to solve the problem by getting a black and blue helicopter belonging to one of the owners of the Carolina Panthers of the National Football League to transport Welch from Washington to the Rocky Mount church’s parking lot in time for the evening sermon.
Since the SBC president’s term of office is limited, Welch felt the need for someone to accompany him who would represent some continuity in Southern Baptist life, so he requested the privilege of bringing another Convention leader with him. That request was granted and Welch asked Morris Chapman, president and chief executive officer of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, to join him for the meeting in Washington.
Welch mentioned the security checkpoints that had to be negotiated before reaching the West Wing of the White House where he and Chapman were met by Tim Goeglein, special assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Public Liaison, and Jim Towey, who at the time was heading up the president’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. (Since that time Towey has been tapped as the new president of St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa.)
After a brief waiting period Welch and Chapman were informed by the president’s appointment secretary that the he was an hour behind in his schedule and his time with them would be very limited due to President Bush’s need to leave to go to Camp David.
Ken Connor, a D.C. trial lawyer, is a longtime friend to Welch, having met and joined forces years ago in an all out pro-life battle for the unborn in Florida. Connor encouraged Welch on his protocol with President Bush, “Just be yourself, vintage Bobby Welch! The president appreciates people who are authentic, non-pretentious and straight talking. He likes for people to just be themselves, because that is the way he is.”
Authentic and winsome
This was an echo of what Welch had already heard when he visited Alabama during the plethora of church burnings and Bob Riley, the governor of that state, had related practically the exact thing, “President Bush is one of the most authentic and winsome people you will ever meet.”
Welch recalled, “At last the president’s appointment secretary said ‘please stand at the door.’ The door to the Oval Office then opened and there stood the president with his hand stretching toward me. ‘Hey Bobby, it’s good to see you,’ was the warm and friendly greeting given by President Bush.”
The Oval Office is the president’s formal workspace, where he confers with heads of state, diplomats, his staff, and other dignitaries; where he often addresses the American public and the world on television or radio, and where he deals with the issues of the day.
The Oval Office is located on the southeast corner of the West Wing and overlooks the Rose Garden. It features the white marble mantel from the original 1909 Oval Office, the presidential seal in the ceiling, and the two flags behind the president’s desk – the U.S. flag and the president’s flag. President Bush has given his own personal touch to the Oval Office by adding several paintings depicting Texas scenes by Texas artists.
Upon entering the office the president and Welch shook hands, had the official, formal pictures taken, then the president pointed to two chairs opposite his desk and the conversation began. Chapman, Towey and Goeglein sat on sofas nearby.
Welch indicated that the president expressed his heartfelt appreciation for all that Southern Baptists have done to help with the hurricane relief efforts. The Convention president commented, “Mr. Bush spoke with much detail and understanding about what Southern Baptists have done to help in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as well as other natural disasters. In fact, he quoted a lot of statistics regarding the assistance we have offered and added that the disaster relief efforts could never have made the progress achieved without Southern Baptists being a close standard bearer in the cause.”
Welch and the president then talked about how the nation, other disaster relief organizations and Southern Baptists could work together to provide an even more meaningful response in the eventuality of future natural calamities.
Welch then remarked, “Mr. President, we believe the best things we can do for you is to thank you, encourage you and pray with and for you because you are in this extraordinary place of leadership and we cannot imagine the depth of your responsibility.”
With that comment the SBC leader handed the president his book, You, The Warrior Leader and stated, “I’m giving you this Mr. President, because I believe you are a warrior leader. Further, I have recently traveled in all 50 states and around the world preaching in hundreds of meetings. I asked people what they would say if they had the chance to meet the president of the United States and I have written a number of their responses in the flyleaf of this book.”
In the flyleaf of the book were written such expressions as: “God will be your strength and provider,” “You’re the man,” “We’re praying for you” and “Make your decisions not based on legacy, but on eternity.”
Welch indicated that the conversation then shifted to Iraq and clearly remembered that the president expressed heartache over the loss of troops and expressed his gratitude for the commitment and sacrifice of the United States military forces and especially their families and loved ones.
Welch, a reconnaissance platoon leader who was shot and given up for dead in the Vietnam War, reached over and put his hand on the arm of George W. Bush and said, “Mr. President, I volunteered for everything I did in the war. As I lay wounded on the battlefield there was not a minute or a second I regretted attempting to give my life for my family and my country. As you know Mr. President, we have the same kind of men and women in our military today.”
Charge the enemy
As SBC President Welch and U.S. President Bush engaged each other in conversation (what was supposed to be reduced to a very brief meeting had now been extended to more than 25 minutes) they continued to talk about the Iraqi war.
Welch remarked, “Once I was asked, ‘How did you get up out of a foxhole or ditch and run headlong into the enemy fire?’ Well, I knew if I didn’t get out of the foxhole and get the enemy they would come and get me; so I moved out of safety and charged the enemy. If you don’t get the enemy, they will get you.” The president nodded knowingly.
Several other topics were discussed, including the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, Faith Based and Community Initiatives, and the invitation for President and Mrs. Bush to appear at this years’ Southern Baptist Convention in Greensboro, N.C. on June 13-14. Welch said the visit was concluded with a prayer as both he and Chapman interceded for the president.
When Welch was asked to describe the demeanor of the president he explained, “He is very warm, extremely courteous and obviously remarkably smart. He is much kinder and more sensitive than the media portrays him. I felt like I was talking to a genuinely nice person who I’d like to have as a friend.
“Furthermore, I believe he is a compassionate man who wants the country to do well and wants every person to have a good life and success. The president certainly is committed to the fact that people should be able to live in a free world. In short, he’s the kind of man I’d like to have as a companion on a long trip.”
As Welch and Chapman departed the Oval Office they assured the president of prayer support and his departing reply was, “Please tell Southern Baptists I appreciate them and all their prayers!”
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