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 Bush responds to Wead's tapes 
Doubting the Times' secret leaks

On March 4, The New York Times had a very strange piece at the top of the Metro Section, page B1. It describes how a political operative for a mayoral candidate inadvertently enabled a reporter to eavesdrop on a private brainstorming session.

According to the article, the caller left a message, forgot to hang up the phone, and then engaged in a discussion of campaign strategy for Fernando Ferrer, who hopes to be the Democratic nominee against Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg this year.

The conversation was described in the paper as providing “a rare glimpse into the otherwise tightly scripted world of mayoral politics.” But on close inspection, the private chat is actually less revealing than it is helpful to Ferrer in being publicly released. Among the main points: Ferrer’s advisers are confident that he will snag the Democratic nomination; expect to raise substantial funds not just in New York City but nationally, and, perhaps most non-shockingly of all, consider it important that “donors..feel a part of this.”

Now maybe I missed the revelations there, but the reporting of the conversation smacked of an inadvertent Times gift to Ferrer. Could the person who “accidentally” forgot to hang up have gotten the idea of how to generate favorable free publicity from another credulous Times story of recent vintage? That other story, which concerns President Bush and is therefore of far greater significance, certainly smells of disinformation.

Caution should certainly apply to the curious New York Times front-page exclusive from the Sunday of Presidents’ weekend, containing excerpts from what are described as “secretly taped conversations” between then Governor George W. Bush and an “old friend.” Partially because it broke in the Times, partially because it involved “secret tapes,” the article became a minor sensation, and was picked up by major media worldwide, leading some broadcasts.

With the growing evidence of the Bush Administration’s effort to control and spin the news, put out false stories and anoint fake reporters, it’s apparent that few insider “revelations” or leaks of any kind should be taken at face value. Put bluntly, we are being na´ve if we do not at least scrutinize each new development for signs of chicanery from right-wing allies of the president, or even from the White House itself.

According to the Times, Bush’s “old friend” Doug Wead secretly taped more than a dozen conversations with the then-Texas Governor between 1998 and 2000. Summarizing the most eye-opening material, the article notes that on the tapes Bush “weighs the political risks and benefits of his religious faith, discusses campaign strategy…and appears to have acknowledged trying marijuana.”

On the surface, such topics promise at least insight and perhaps controversy. What one might say privately to a friend (in what the White House described as “casual conversations”) could indeed be of great interest. Such are the circumstances from which spring the juiciest of heartfelt confessions. But the supporting material turns out, almost uniformly, to cast Bush in an even better light than before the tape excerpts were released, offering almost exclusively self-flattering banter that positions Bush well as a thoughtful man who is in control, and contains what seem carefully crafted sentiments designed to address potential perception problems and to appeal to several crucial constituencies.

Even Jon Stewart, the super-skeptical anchor of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” seems to have taken the bait. “I like the tape guy…the tape guy seems nice.” The Daily Show may be parody, but Stewart’s sentiments are heartfelt – and here, an increasingly influential outlet is confirming the thrust of the tapes – a portrayal, if a stilted one, of a human being struggling with his own moral failings.

The Times reporter offered little by way of Wead’s motivation for coming forward now, except to quote Wead to the effect that it had nothing to do with the publication of new book, released in January and called “The Raising of a President: The Mothers and Fathers of Our Nation’s Leaders.”

The White House itself put up only the mildest of objections – of the sort that actually served to enhance the titillation factor –announcing that “the governor was having casual conversations with someone he believed was his friend.” Several days later, the ‘controversy’ grew when the rarely outspoken Laura Bush publicly criticized Wead, as did two prominent Christian Right figures.

Yet the front-page original, and a follow-up front-pager four days later, are weak tea with a strange aftertaste. Typical of the many unexamined but odd assertions by the Times reporter is the observation that the secretly taped Bush is “almost identical” to the public Bush. From this we can conclude that (1) the ‘private’ Bush presented therein was both being candid and offering notable revelations, and (2) that Bush is an honorable and sincere man whose public persona is entirely consistent with his private musings. But is that true? Did the taped conversations really catch Bush in unguarded moments, spilling his heart to a trusted confidant?

Despite the article’s crucial characterization of Wead as an intimate, nowhere does the writer establish that Wead truly is a Bush friend—much less a good, close, or old friend. The Sunday exclusive contained not a single word about how they first met, or about the nature of the relationship or the extent of their friendship. This in itself is strange, since the entire value of the article is dependent in our understanding the exact relationship with the person to whom Bush was speaking.

Moreover, the Times piece is stunning for its crucial omissions – which, cumulatively give us the entirely wrong impression of what is going on. Here are some facts that the writer, David Kirkpatrick, might have told readers but did not:

Wead is a longtime GOP propagandist. He penned campaign biographies for both Ronald Reagan and Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush and claimed that he taped Bush because he thought he might be asked to write the biography of George W. as well.

In 1988, when G. H.W. Bush was elected president, Wead presented the younger Bush with a report laying out the historically difficult path to glory for the offspring of presidents.

At the time of the taped conversations, Wead was one of the prime architects of the strategy to reposition Bush from a Texas moderate with bipartisan instincts to a darling of the national GOP’s indispensable Christian right. Not only was Wead involved in coaching Bush in evangelic code words, he is said to have invented the infamously disingenuous but astonishingly effective Bush campaign slogan “compassionate conservative.”

Wead was such a crucial political advisor during Bush’s run for the White House that he plays a prominent role in the documentary film, ‘Faith in the White House,’ an examination of the role of Bush’s religious beliefs.

Before and after the “secret” tapings, Wead was profiting handsomely from his ongoing association with the Bush family, with a lucrative career as a corporate consultant and international motivational speaker.

Wead was close with two key figures surrounding Bush – John Ashcroft and Karl Rove. The former Attorney General benefits enormously from the release of the tapes by being setup as an appealing future Supreme Court justice, and Rove, who had every reason to support their release as a classic fingerprintless positioning of his client, triangulating him trickily on a series of sensitive matters, including drug use, gay rights and his Christian Right base, is almost invisible.

The reality, not clear from the Times pieces, is that Wead was less a “friend” than a useful political operative for Governor Bush at the time he was gearing up for a run at the presidency. In a conversation the day after his ‘exclusive’ appeared, the _Times’_ Kirkpatrick declined to shed light on how the Wead piece came to be, or why Wead’s full identity was not laid out for readers. “Due to the sensitivity of the story,” he told me, “ I’m not going to talk about anything relating to it. I’m going to draw a big ‘Let the story speak for itself’ circle around the story.”

Perhaps a more authentic and confessional George W. Bush can be found in another story that did not get nearly as much attention. In early October, 2004, I interviewed Mickey Herskowitz, a professional ghostwriter who is also a longtime friend of the Bush family. Herskowitz, unlike Wead, actually did sign a contract with George W. Bush to write his pre-presidential biography, “A Charge to Keep,” and had churned out a majority of chapters before being removed from the project by Bush staffers for including too many candid comments by the candidate. These came from taped interviews, the gist of which were later shared with me, in a conversation that I taped.

Among the revelatory comments that Herskowitz claimed Bush made:

Bush told Herskowitz back in 1999 that he hoped to invade Iraq if elected president, because it would gain him “political capital” and the benefits of being seen as a “commander in chief.”

Bush blithely admitted to Herskowitz that he had failed to fulfill any of his Vietnam-era National Guard obligations during a half-year in Alabama and had stopped flying for good. These admissions stand in stark contrast to the repeated public assertions later made both by Bush and White House spokesmen that he had in fact served in Alabama and that he continued to fly until his discharge.

The Herskowitz story, published by the online Guerrilla News Network, gained relatively wide circulation on the Internet and on talk radio, though no mention of it ever made it into The New York Times.

Herskowitz was not alone in offering a more candid glimpse of Bush. Former insiders like ex-Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill have given us glimpses of a rather nasty man with imperial airs and a startlingly short attention span. The arch-conservative Rev. Pat Robertson last year offered his own account of Bush’s naivetÚ and bravado, claiming that Bush assured him that the Iraq invasion would produce absolutely zero casualties.

It’s interesting to note that the Times’_ exclusive tapes story comes on the heels of an exclusive that nearly did in another top-drawer news organization. The _Times gave front-page treatment to bloodletting at CBS News over CBS’s failure to properly authenticate purportedly fake documents concerning Bush’s mysterious Guard service. Yet, in a near-parody of journalistic probity, the Times goes out of its way to validate its own tapes. “_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 president.” Ironically, this tape hardly needed authenticating once the White House confirmed the authenticity, yet the very act serves to add gravitas to the ‘revelatory nature’ of non-revelatory tapes.

Compared to Herskowitz’s and Robertson’s revelations, the contents of the Wead tapes, purportedly made without Bush’s knowledge, are almost entirely self-serving. In this new account, he’s unexpectedly thoughtful, balanced, and engaged. Even the revelation that he may have smoked marijuana, highlighted in the Times piece, turns out to be a piece of disinformation. “I wouldn’t answer the marijuana questions,” Bush says on the tape. “You know why? Because I don’t want some little kid trying what I tried.” But marijuana use, already admitted to by numerous other politicians, was not the question. The question was, whether Bush had, as widely alleged, a serious problem with cocaine.

On that more explosive point about extensive hard drug use – beginning perhaps around the time Bush inexplicably began having problems flying his jet and vanished from the Texas Air National Guard— the Wead tapes have Bush further muddying the issue. Bush tells Wead that no one will be coming forward with cocaine allegations, and that if someone does, “it is going to be made up,” and then gives one final spin, disagreeing with Wead’s contention that he has publicly denied cocaine use, saying “I haven’t denied anything.”

The entire newsworthiness of the tapes is that they were secretly made, without Bush’s permission. But whether that’s true or not, one might ask why Doug Wead would risk the White House’s ire by releasing these private conversations at this time without approval. Given the administration’s – and chief strategist Karl Rove’s – history of aggressively going after those who wrong it, how likely is it that Wead would needlessly put himself in such a dangerous position? It’s important to note that, according to the Times, Wead withheld some tapes, which he said were of a purely personal nature. Who, one wonders, was deciding what could and could not be released. (Wead later said he would turn over all of the tapes to Bush – and, several days later, the White House confirmed that the tapes were in the possession of Bush’s private counsel.)

Is it just possible that Wead had prior approval if not even encouragement from the White House to take his tapes to the Times? And if that is the case, is it also possible that the Times suspected as much but went along with the charade for its own reasons? One is tempted to think so, because everyone wins with this story — the White House, Wead and he New York Times.

Wead, like Karen Hughes and other advisers who have done books, would like to cash in on the relationship. Besides book sales, Wead stands to significantly enhance himself on the highly lucrative lecture circuit for years to come even if he follows through on his promise to give his book profits to charity. In an interview with CNN February 21, the day after the Times piece, Wead claimed to have lost a million dollars by delaying the book until after the election. Yet in the campaign’s final months, the market was flooded with books about Bush, albeit most of them critical. By waiting until after the election, Wead arguably created an improved climate for his book. It was a gamble – hold off till 2005, when the field would be cleared, and release the tapes to ensure a bonanza.

As for the White House, might agreeing to the release of selected tapes after the election have served the dual purpose of correcting “negative” impressions of Bush while rewarding Wead?

To those who would discount such speculation, here are some additional facts that were not in the _Times’_ piece: Doug Wead worked closely for years with John Ashcroft, whom Bush cites in the tapes as a potential presidential campaign opponent whom he nevertheless considers a spectacular human being and ideal Supreme Court justice. Ashcroft’s campaign consultant during that period, along with Bush’s, was none other than Karl Rove. Bush’s lavish praise for Ashcroft on the tapes can only help to tee up a possible high court nomination should one be in the offing.

The tapes, meanwhile, serve to distance Rove from Bush, presenting the highly dependent Bush as more of his own man precisely at a time when Rove has become more powerful than ever. They enhance Rove’s vision of a GOP Revolution lasting well beyond the current term, by advancing the cause of his friend and former employer, the highly controversial Ashcroft. And the _Times’_ publication of the tapes elevates Bush in the eyes of the Christian Right while tossing scraps to supporters who are socially more moderate. (By stressing his commitment to the Religious Right and to opposing gay marriage while at the same time pointedly refusing to “kick gays.”)

Finally, the tapes help the Times where it needs help the most—in the White House. Besides getting a “scoop” – the currency of the realm in the news business—the Times gets to address the crucial problem of White House access. At a time when all mainstream media – including the Times, but also CNN, PBS and others – are under incredible pressure from what the converted former conservative hit man David Brock labeled “The Republican Noise Machine,” the Times certainly benefits from throwing the occasional sop to the White House.

During Bush’s first term, the paper was almost entirely shut out. It did not gain a single interview with the president until his reelection campaign, and columnist Maureen Dowd could not even get White House accreditation – while phony reporter/conservative ringer/alleged male prostitute Jim Guckert aka Jeff Gannon did. The Wead revelations are only the latest in a series of recent front-page Times softball pieces about Bush’s friends – giving the definite impression that the paper will do what it takes to defrost the relationship with the White House. The Wead story, like the previous two front-page articles on Bush’s friends, purport to be pieces of trenchant journalism while blowing wet kisses over the White House fence.

Whether the White House deliberately suckered the Times or not, several parties clearly benefit from this peculiar exercise in front-page journalism. The Times got its ‘scoop.’ Wead got Presidents’ Weekend super-publicity for a potential bestseller. And the White House got a whole basket of goodies.

Not everyone gained —certainly not the increasingly hapless average American. As portrayed in the book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” by Thomas Frank, the public in recent years has been spun and spun and spun away from reality. We may not be in Dorothy’s Kansas anymore, but if even The New York Times seemingly can’t avoid getting taken in, we’ve got serious problems.

Russ Baker is an award-winning independent journalist who has been published in The New York Times, The Nation, Washington Post, The Telegraph (UK), Sydney Morning-Herald, and Der Spiegel, among many others.