David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times is doing yeoman’s work on the conservative beat, especially in observing conservatives saying and doing the darndest things.
“Now comes the revolution,” Richard Viguerie crowed in a Kirkpatrick report on Nov. 4. The first hint of James Dobson’s dissatisfaction with an all-star inclusivity video including SpongeBob Squarepants? Kirkpatrick again. If there is a social conservative in Congress who’s leading a double life and decides to come clean about it, I expect Kirkpatrick to be first on the story with a series of lengthy Q&As.
For now, I’ll have to be content with a bizarre but captivating feature story from Saturday in which Doug Wead plays secretly taped conversations with his longtime friend George W. Bush. Wead, who was ordained in the Assemblies of God, worked in the administration of President George H.W. Bush as a liaison to evangelicals. W was Wead’s boss in those years, but it was Andrew Card Jr., Kirkpatrick writes, who invited Wead to leave “sooner rather than later” after he criticized the administration in a letter to other conservatives.
Kirkpatrick reports that Wead turned to the tapes to defend a point about Bush in his new book, The Raising of a President.
Evangelicals may be disappointed to hear Bush speaking about the importance of “code words” when addressing them, but it’s also clear from the story that Bush’s faith is more than just a campaign strategy:
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 true statement.”
. . . 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 the event.
Bush’s remarks on his past — including rumors of his using marijuana and cocaine — sound both Clintonian (“I haven’t denied anything”) and incoherent (Why is being honest about past drug use a sign of baby boomers’ immaturity?):
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 anything.”
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 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.
Kirkpatrick mentions that the Times “hired Tom Owen, an expert on audio authentication, to examine samples from the tapes.” But there are enough Bushisms present to suggest this is the W we all know:
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.”
. . . “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 could hardly contain his disdain for Mr. Gore, his Democratic opponent, at one point calling him “pathologically a liar.”
One of the more entertaining passages involves Bush’s preparing to meet with James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family (which the Times, in its inimitable “idiot’s guide to Red America” style, informs us is “an evangelical self-help group”):
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 said.
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 it.
“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. Bush said.
“They are not going to like it anyway, boy,” Mr. Bush said. “Dobson made it clear.”
One disappointment in the piece: Kirkpatrick does not mention that Wead’s new book follows up on themes he covered two years ago, in the deliciously titled All the Presidents’ Children (somewhere, Richard Nixon is chuckling). Wead’s previous book explored how so many children of presidents have struggled with failures or even early deaths because of the pressures they face. Noemie Emery praised it in The Weekly Standard as “a heart-wrenching and impressive book,” but in The Washingtonian, Cristy Lytal called it “a poorly written, reductive catalog of lifeless facts.”