Secretly made tapes offer record of Bush on eve of presidency

Future chief executive revealed in private talks with ex-aide to elder Bush

February 20, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - As George W. Bush was first moving onto the national political stage, he often turned for advice to an old friend who secretly taped some of their private conversations, creating a rare record of the future president as a politician and personality.

In the past several weeks, that friend, Doug Wead, an author and former aide to Bush's father, disclosed the tapes' existence to a reporter and played about a dozen of them.

Variously earnest, confident or prickly in those conversations, Bush weighs the political risks and benefits of his religious faith, discusses campaign strategy and comments on rivals. John McCain "will wear thin," he predicted. John Ashcroft, he confided, would be a "very good Supreme Court pick" or "fabulous" vice president. And in exchanges about his handling of media questions about his past, Bush appears to have acknowledged trying marijuana.

Wead said he recorded the conversations because he viewed Bush as a historic figure, but he said he knew that the president might regard his actions as a betrayal. As the author of a new book about presidential childhoods, Wead could benefit from any publicity, but he said that was not a motive in disclosing the tapes.

The White House did not dispute the authenticity of the tapes or respond to their contents. Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, said, "The governor was having casual conversations with someone he believed was his friend." Asked about drug use, Duffy said, "That has been asked and answered so many times there is nothing more to add."

The conversations Wead played offer insights into Bush's thinking from the time he was weighing a run for president in 1998 to shortly before he accepted the Republican nomination in 2000. Wead had been a liaison to evangelical Protestants for the president's father, and the intersection of religion and politics is a recurring theme in the talks.

Preparing to meet Christian leaders in September 1998, Bush told Wead, "As you said, there are some code words. There are some proper ways to say things, and some improper ways." He added, "I am going to say that I've accepted Christ into my life. And that's a true statement."

But Bush also repeatedly worried that prominent evangelical Christians would not like his refusal "to kick gays." At the same time, he was wary of unnerving secular voters by meeting publicly with evangelical leaders. When he thought his aides had agreed to such a meeting, Bush complained to Karl Rove, his political strategist, "What the hell is this about?"

Bush, who has acknowledged a drinking problem years ago, told Wead on the tapes that he could withstand scrutiny of his past. He said it involved nothing more than "just, you know, wild behavior." He worried, though, that allegations of cocaine use would surface in the campaign and blamed his opponents for stirring up rumors. "If nobody shows up, there's no story," he told Wead, "and if somebody shows up, it is going to be made up." But when Wead said that Bush had in the past publicly denied using cocaine, Bush replied, "I haven't denied anything."

He refused to answer reporters' questions about his past behavior, he said, even though it might cost him the election. Defending his approach, Bush said, "I wouldn't answer the marijuana questions. You know why? Because I don't want some little kid doing what I tried."

He mocked Vice President Al Gore for acknowledging marijuana use. "Baby boomers have got to grow up and say, yeah, I may have done drugs, but instead of admitting it, say to kids, `Don't do them,'" he said.

Bush threatened that if his rival Steve Forbes attacked him too hard during the campaign and won, both he, then the Texas governor, and his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, would withhold support. "He can forget Texas. And he can forget Florida," Bush said.

The private Bush sounds remarkably similar in many ways to the public President Bush. Many of the taped comments foreshadow aspects of his presidency, including his opposition to both anti-gay language and recognizing same-sex marriage, his skepticism about the United Nations, his sense of moral purpose and his focus on cultivating conservative Christian voters.

Wead said he withheld many tapes of conversations that were repetitive or of a purely personal nature. The dozen conversations he agreed to play ranged in length from five minutes to nearly a half-hour. In them, the future president affectionately addresses Wead as "Weadie" or "Weadnik," asks if his children still believe in Santa Claus, and chides him for skipping a doctor's appointment. Bush also regularly gripes about the barbs of the press and his rivals. And he is cocky at times. "It's me versus the world," he told Wead. "The good news is, the world is on my side. Or more than half of it anyway."

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