Bush the same then and now, and that's not reassuring

February 27, 2005|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON — I yam what I yam.

- Popeye

WASHINGTON - We are gathered here to ponder Bush Unplugged.

Meaning, the recent story of how Texas Gov. George W. Bush was secretly recorded on tape by a "friend." And that word requires quote marks because, let's face it, with friends like Doug Wead, Mr. Bush hardly needs lib'rals. Mr. Wead's decision to record their private conversations without Mr. Bush's knowledge was legal, but legal isn't always laudable. In this case, it's downright despicable.

For those who came in late: It was reported last week by The New York Times that Mr. Wead, a former aide to the first President Bush, did this sneak recording back when the Oval Office was but a gleam in the younger Mr. Bush's eye. Mr. Wead has said he viewed Mr. Bush as a potentially historic figure. Evidently, he felt the tapes might be of interest to future scholars.

But it turns out the future is now. Mr. Wead played several of the recordings for the Times, which dutifully reported their contents. Having read that report several times, I find myself wondering: What, if anything, is the story here?

Yes, Mr. Bush seems to implicitly acknowledge on the tape that he once used marijuana, but it's hard to regard that as above-the-fold news, given that his age (58) puts him smack in the middle of a generation for whom drug use was once ubiquitous. Not to trivialize the thing, but frankly, it would be bigger news if Mr. Bush had not tried pot.

The Times also quotes Mr. Bush on the tape praising John Ashcroft, disparaging Sen. John McCain, ruminating over the advantages and drawbacks of allying too closely with the Christian right and opposing gay marriage. Again, hardly anything for which you'd want to pause the presses.

Which is why I tend to believe the headline here can be found in the spinach connoisseur's statement that heads this column. And in the part of the Times report that says, "The private Mr. Bush sounds remarkably similar in many ways to the public President Bush."

Bush partisans would look at the absence of dissonance between private Mr. Bush and public Mr. Bush and say it proves his lack of artifice. As Mr. Bush himself is fond of saying, you may not agree with him, but you'll always know where he stands.

Bush critics would say that what is proved here is the president's lack of intellectual agility and resistance to change.

It occurs to me that those views are not mutually exclusive. And that maybe reconciling them is the key to understanding the strengths and weaknesses of Mr. Bush. His critics are loath to do that. Which is, I think, why they are prone to misreading him.

I'm thinking specifically of the invasion of Iraq and the often repeated claim that Mr. Bush intentionally misled the nation into war - a claim I've never been able to buy. Yes, he and his aides gave us facts that turned out to be fictions. My problem is that I think Mr. Bush believed everything he said, mainly because he wanted to believe it. And that if he misled anybody, he misled himself, first. In its way, that's scarier than a lie, suggesting as it does an unwillingness or inability to question beliefs once formed.

To my mind, that same unwillingness and inability are suggested by the fact that the man in the conversations Mr. Wead taped years ago sounds so much like the man who is president of the United States now.

You might read that as consistency, the iron resolve of a man who knows what he thinks. Maybe that comforts you.

Where famous people are concerned - and few people are more famous than a president - we are all armchair shrinks, peeling away layers of public artifice to reach private truth. But the Wead tapes suggest that, where this famous person is concerned, you can peel to your heart's content: For better or for worse, you will find only more of the same.

What you see is what you get. He is what he is.

With apologies to a certain sailor man, some of us don't find that comforting at all.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.

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