February 20, 2005
In Secretly Taped Conversations, Glimpses of the
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
WASHINGTON, Feb. 19 - 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 a
In the last several weeks, that friend, Doug Wead, an
author and former aide to Mr. 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, Mr. 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 a
"fabulous" vice president. And in exchanges about his
handling of media questions about his past, Mr. Bush
appears to have acknowledged trying marijuana.
Mr. Wead said he recorded the conversations because he
viewed Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. Duffy said, "That
has been asked and answered so many times there is
nothing more to add."
The conversations Mr. Wead played offer insights into
Mr. 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. Mr. 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,
Mr. Bush told Mr. 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
But Mr. 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, Mr. Bush complained to Karl Rove, his
political strategist, "What the hell is this about?"
Mr. Bush, who has acknowledged a drinking problem
years ago, told Mr. 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 he blamed his opponents
for stirring rumors. "If nobody shows up, there's no
story," he told Mr. Wead, "and if somebody shows up,
it is going to be made up." But when Mr. Wead said
that Mr. Bush had in the past publicly denied using
cocaine, Mr. Bush replied, "I haven't denied
He refused to answer reporters' questions about his
past behavior, he said, even though it might cost him
the election. Defending his approach, Mr. Bush said:
"I wouldn't answer the marijuana questions. You know
why? Because I don't want some little kid doing what I
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.
Mr. Bush threatened that if his rival Steve Forbes
attacked him too hard during the campaign and won,
both Mr. Bush, then the Texas governor, and his
brother, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, would withhold
their support. "He can forget Texas. And he can forget
Florida. And I will sit on my hands," Mr. Bush said.
The private Mr. 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.
Mr. 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 half an hour. In
them, the future president affectionately addresses
Mr. Wead as "Weadie" or "Weadnik," asks if his
children still believe in Santa Claus, and chides him
for skipping a doctor's appointment. Mr. 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 Mr. Wead. "The good news is, the world
is on my side. Or more than half of it."
Other presidents, such as Richard M. Nixon and Lyndon
B. Johnson, secretly recorded conversations from the
White House without the knowledge of others. Some
former associates of President Bill Clinton taped
personal conversations in apparent efforts to
embarrass or entrap him. But Mr. Wead's recordings are
a rare example of a future president taped at length
without his knowledge talking about matters of public
interest like his political strategy and priorities.
Mr. Wead first acknowledged the tapes to a reporter in
December to defend the accuracy of a passage about Mr.
Bush in his new book, "The Raising of a President." He
did not mention the tapes in the book or footnotes,
saying he drew on them for only one page of the book.
He said he never sought to sell or profit from them.
He said he made the tapes in states where it was legal
to do so with only one party's knowledge.
Mr. Wead eventually agreed to play a dozen tapes on
the condition that the names of any private citizens
be withheld. The New York Times hired Tom Owen, an
expert on audio authentication, to examine samples
from the tapes. He concluded the voice was that of the
A White House adviser to the first President Bush, Mr.
Wead said in an interview in The Washington Post in
1990 that Andrew H. Card Jr., then deputy chief of
staff, told him to leave the administration "sooner
rather than later" after he sent conservatives a
letter faulting the White House for inviting gay
activists to an event. But Mr. Wead said he left on
good terms. He never had a formal role in the current
president's campaign, though the tapes suggest he had
angled for one.
Mr. Wead said he admired George W. Bush and stayed in
touch with some members of his family. While he said
he has not communicated with the president since early
in his first term, he attributed that to Mr. Bush's
Mr. Wead said he recorded his conversations with the
president in part because he thought he might be asked
to write a book for the campaign. He also wanted a
clear account of any requests Mr. Bush made of him.
But he said his main motivation in making the tapes,
which he originally intended to be released only after
his own death, was to leave the nation a unique record
of Mr. Bush.
"I believe that, like him or not, he is going to be a
huge historical figure," Mr. Wead said. "If I was on
the telephone with Churchill or Gandhi, I would tape
record them too."
Summer of 1998
The first of the taped conversations Mr. Wead
disclosed took place in the summer of 1998, when Mr.
Bush was running for his second term as Texas
governor. At the time, Mr. Bush was considered a
political moderate who worked well with Democrats and
was widely admired by Texans of both parties. His
family name made him a strong presidential contender,
but he had not yet committed to run.
Still, in a conversation that November on the eve of
Mr. Bush's re-election, his confidence was soaring. "I
believe tomorrow is going to change Texas politics
forever," he told Mr. Wead. "The top three offices
right below me will be the first time there has been a
Republican in that slot since the Civil War. Isn't
that amazing? And I hate to be a braggart, but they
are going to win for one reason: me."
Talking to Mr. Wead, a former Assemblies of God
minister who was well connected in conservative
evangelical circles, Mr. Bush's biggest concern about
the Republican presidential primary was shoring up his
right flank. Mr. Forbes was working hard to win the
support of conservative Christians by emphasizing his
opposition to abortion. "I view him as a problem,
don't you?" Mr. Bush asked.
Mr. Bush knew that his own religious faith could be an
asset with conservative Christian voters, and his
personal devotion was often evident in the taped
conversations. When Mr. Wead warned him that "power
corrupts," for example, Mr. Bush told him not to
worry: "I have got a great wife. And I read the Bible
daily. The Bible is pretty good about keeping your ego
In November 1999, he told his friend that he had been
deeply moved by a memorial service for students who
died in an accident when constructing a Thanksgiving
weekend bonfire at Texas A & M University, especially
by the prayers by friends of the students.
In another conversation, he described a "powerful
moment" visiting the site of the Sermon on the Mount
in Israel with a group of state governors, where he
read "Amazing Grace" aloud. "I look forward to sharing
this at some point in time," he told Mr. Wead about
Preparing to meet with influential Christian
conservatives, Mr. Bush tested his lines with Mr.
Wead. "I'm going to tell them the five turning points
in my life," he said. "Accepting Christ. Marrying my
wife. Having children. Running for governor. And
listening to my mother."
In September 1998, Mr. Bush told Mr. Wead that he was
getting ready for his first meeting with James C.
Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, an evangelical
self-help group. Dr. Dobson, probably the most
influential evangelical conservative, wanted to
examine the candidate's Christian credentials.
"He said he would like to meet me, you know, he had
heard some nice things, you know, well, 'I don't know
if he is a true believer' kind of attitude," Mr. Bush
Mr. Bush said he intended to reassure Dr. Dobson of
his opposition to abortion. Mr. Bush said he was
concerned about rumors that Dr. Dobson had been
telling others that the "Bushes weren't going to be
involved in abortion," meaning that the Bush family
preferred to avoid the issue rather than fight over
"I just don't believe I said that. Why would I have
said that?" Mr. Bush told Mr. Wead with annoyance.
By the end of the primary, Mr. Bush alluded to Dr.
Dobson's strong views on abortion again, apparently
ruling out potential vice presidents including Gov.
Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and Gen. Colin L. Powell,
who favored abortion rights. Picking any of them could
turn conservative Christians away from the ticket, Mr.
"They are not going to like it anyway, boy," Mr. Bush
said. "Dobson made it clear."
Signs of Concern
Early on, though, Mr. Bush appeared most worried that
Christian conservatives would object to his
determination not to criticize gay people. "I think he
wants me to attack homosexuals," Mr. Bush said after
meeting James Robison, a prominent evangelical
minister in Texas.
But Mr. Bush said he did not intend to change his
position. He said he told Mr. Robison: "Look, James, I
got to tell you two things right off the bat. One, I'm
not going to kick gays, because I'm a sinner. How can
I differentiate sin?"
Later, he read aloud an aide's report from a
convention of the Christian Coalition, a conservative
political group: "This crowd uses gays as the enemy.
It's hard to distinguish between fear of the
homosexual political agenda and fear of homosexuality,
"This is an issue I have been trying to downplay," Mr.
Bush said. "I think it is bad for Republicans to be
Told that one conservative supporter was saying Mr.
Bush had pledged not to hire gay people, Mr. Bush said
sharply: "No, what I said was, I wouldn't fire gays."
As early as 1998, however, Mr. Bush had already
identified one gay-rights issue where he found common
ground with conservative Christians: same-sex
marriage. "Gay marriage, I am against that. Special
rights, I am against that," Mr. Bush told Mr. Wead,
five years before a Massachusetts court brought the
issue to national attention.
Mr. Bush took stock of conservative Christian views of
foreign policy as well. Reading more of the report
from the Christian Coalition meeting, Mr. Bush said to
Mr. Wead: "Sovereignty. The issue is huge. The mere
mention of Kofi Annan in the U.N. caused the crowd to
go into a veritable fit. The coalition wants America
strong and wants the American flag flying overseas,
not the pale blue of the U.N."
As eager as Mr. Bush was to cultivate the support of
Christian conservatives, he did not want to do it too
publicly for fear of driving away more secular voters.
When Mr. Wead warned Mr. Bush to avoid big meetings
with evangelical leaders, Mr. Bush said, "I'm just
going to have one," and, "This is not meant to be
Many of the taped conversations revolve around Mr.
Bush's handling of questions about his past behavior.
In August 1998, he worried that the scandals of the
Clinton administration had sharpened journalists'
determination to investigate the private lives of
candidates. He even expressed a hint of sympathy for
his Democratic predecessor.
"I don't like it either," Mr. Bush said of the Clinton
investigations. "But on the other hand, I think he has
disgraced the nation."
When Mr. Wead warned that he had heard reporters
talking about Mr. Bush's "immature" past, Mr. Bush
said, "That's part of my schtick, which is, look, we
have all made mistakes."
He said he learned "a couple of really good lines"
from Mr. Robison, the Texas pastor: "What you need to
say time and time again is not talk about the details
of your transgressions but talk about what I have
learned. I've sinned and I've learned."
"I said, 'James' - he stopped - I said, 'I did some
things when I was young that were immature,' " Mr.
Bush said. "He said, 'But have you learned?' I said,
'James, that's the difference between me and the
president. I've learned. I am prepared to accept the
responsibility of this office.' "
By the summer of 1999, Mr. Bush was telling Mr. Wead
his approach to such prying questions had evolved. "I
think it is time for somebody to just draw the line
and look people in the eye and say, I am not going to
participate in ugly rumors about me, and blame my
opponents, and hold the line, and stand up for a
system that will not allow this kind of crap to go
Later, however, Mr. Bush worried that his refusal to
answer questions about whether he had used illegal
drugs in the past could prove costly, but he held out
nonetheless. "I am just not going to answer those
questions. And it might cost me the election," he told
He complained repeatedly about the press scrutiny,
accusing the news media of a "campaign" against him.
While he talked of certain reporters as "pro-Bush" and
commented favorably on some publications (U.S. News &
World Report is "halfway decent," but Time magazine is
"awful"), he vented frequently to Mr. Wead about what
he considered the liberal bias and invasiveness of the
news media in general.
"It's unbelievable," Mr. Bush said, reciting various
rumors about his past that his aides had picked up
from reporters. "They just float sewer out there."
Mr. Bush bristled at even an implicit aspersion on his
past behavior from Dan Quayle, the former vice
president and a rival candidate.
"He's gone ugly on me, man," Mr. Bush told Mr. Wead.
Mr. Bush quoted Mr. Quayle as saying, "I'm proud of
what I did before 40."
"As if I am not!" Mr. Bush said.
Sizing Up Opponents
During the primary contest, Mr. Bush often sized up
his dozen Republican rivals, assessing their appeal to
conservative Christian voters, their treatment of him
and their prospects of serving in a future Bush
administration. He paid particular attention to
Senator John Ashcroft. "I like Ashcroft a lot," he
told Mr. Wead in November 1998. "He is a competent
man. He would be a good Supreme Court pick. He would
be a good attorney general. He would be a good vice
When Mr. Wead predicted an uproar if Mr. Ashcroft were
appointed to the court because of his conservative
religious views, Mr. Bush replied, "Well, tough."
While Mr. Bush thought the conservative Christian
candidates Gary L. Bauer and Alan Keyes would probably
scare away moderates, he saw Mr. Ashcroft as an ally
because he would draw evangelical voters into the
"I want Ashcroft to stay in there, and I want him to
be very strong," Mr. Bush said. " I would love it to
be a Bush-Ashcroft race. Only because I respect him.
He wouldn't say ugly things about me. And I damn sure
wouldn't say ugly things about him."
But Mr. Bush was sharply critical of Mr. Forbes,
another son of privilege with a famous last name.
Evangelicals were not going to like him, Mr. Bush
said. "He's too preppy," Mr. Bush said, calling Mr.
Forbes "mean spirited."
Recalling the bruising primary fight Mr. Forbes waged
against Bob Dole in 1996, Mr. Bush told Mr. Wead,
"Steve Forbes is going to hear this message from me. I
will do nothing for him if he does to me what he did
to Dole. Period. There is going to be a consequence.
He is not dealing with the average, you know, 'Oh
gosh, let's all get together after it's over.' I will
promise you, I will not help him. I don't care."
Another time, Mr. Bush discussed offering Mr. Forbes a
job as economic adviser or even secretary of commerce,
if Mr. Forbes would approach him first.
Mr. Bush's political predictions were not always on
the mark. Before the New Hampshire primary, Mr. Bush
all but dismissed Senator John McCain, who turned out
to be his strongest challenger.
"He's going to wear very thin when it is all said and
done," he said.
When Mr. Wead suggested in June 2000 that Mr. McCain's
popularity with Democrats and moderate voters might
make him a strong vice presidential candidate, Mr.
Bush almost laughed. "Oh, come on!" He added, "I don't
know if he helps us win."
Mr. Bush could hardly contain his disdain for Mr.
Gore, his Democratic opponent, at one point calling
him "pathologically a liar." His confidence in the
moral purpose of his campaign to usher in "a
responsibility era" never wavered, but he acknowledged
that winning might require hard jabs. "I may have to
get a little rough for a while," he told Mr. Wead,
"but that is what the old man had to do with Dukakis,
For his part, Mr. Wead said what was most resonant
about the conversations with Mr. Bush was his concern
that his past behavior might come back to haunt him.
Mr. Wead said he used the tapes for his book because
Mr. Bush's life so clearly fit his thesis: that
presidents often grow up overshadowed by another
"What I saw in George W. Bush is that he purposefully
put himself in the shadows by his irresponsible
behavior as a young person," Mr. Wead said. That
enabled him to come into his own outside the glare of
his parents' expectations, Mr. Wead said.
Why disclose the tapes? "I just felt that the
historical point I was making trumped a personal
relationship," Mr. Wead said. Asked about
consequences, Mr. Wead said, "I'll always be friendly