The man who speaks for Gov.-elect Pete Wilson didn’t even speak English until he was 13.
Otto Bos, who came to America from the Netherlands as a teen-ager, recalls telling high school classmates in Kalamazoo, Mich., that he enjoyed having “liquor” with his family. Stunned silence turned to laughter when the teacher and students realized that young Bos meant to say he had a taste not for liquor but for black licorice candy.
Today, Bos has no trouble communicating his oft-repeated message: Pete Wilson is just the man to turn Republicans into California’s majority party.
The son of a hotel doorman and a housekeeper, Bos is part pitchman, part philosopher, and fully loyal to Wilson, who snatched him from the ranks of newspaper reporters 13 years ago and made him press secretary. He is the insider seen and heard most often by outsiders. In the new Administration, Bos will be director of communications and public affairs, a title that reflects the broader duties he has long pursued on Wilson’s behalf.
“Otto is a lot more than the person who is just going to report to the world where we are on an issue,” said Bob White, Wilson’s chief of staff. “He has input into what we do. I could not imagine coming here without him.”
Bos used to create quotations for reporters to use in Wilson’s name. He rarely does so now--mainly, he says, because journalistic ethics have changed and left that practice in their wake. But the habit illustrates the close relationship between Wilson and Bos.
In fact, people who know either the politician or his longtime aide usually can tell when Bos has fed Wilson a line.
“Sometimes when I read things in the newspaper that are unattributed, or are attributed to Wilson, I think, that’s an ‘Otto,’ ” said Susan Carruthers, a San Diego State University official who has known Bos socially for 15 years.
Bos, 47, operates the same way whether he is on the campaign trail or in a government position, according to reporters who have covered Wilson through the years. He returns every phone call and chats amiably, but rarely provides insight into how Wilson or his top lieutenants are thinking.
“Otto Bos has never lied to me, but he will seldom share inside information or offer much help in understanding how insiders are analyzing a situation or a problem or an issue,” said Philip J. Trounstine, political editor for the San Jose Mercury News.
Keith Love, a former Times reporter who covered Wilson extensively, put it this way: “Otto is more of an impresario, a promoter, than he is a press secretary. As long as you understand that, you’re fine. You need to run everything he says through that filter.”
But some believe Bos is so eager to promote Wilson that he is willing to stretch the facts. One reporter described him as “too clever by half.”
In 1982, when Wilson made his first run for the Senate, Bos distributed to the California press a New York Times profile of the candidate. Missing from the copy of the clipping Bos handed out was a passage in which the reporter had noted that Wilson’s real goal was to become governor, not senator--a fact that was a sore point for the candidate at the time.
Earlier this year, Bos became annoyed at the frequent use of a quote from the 1988 Almanac of American Politics describing Wilson as “one of the more anonymous” politicians in America. After an updated edition of the almanac appeared with a more favorable description of Wilson, Bos circulated the new passage, described it as the full quote from the old book and accused “opponents” of having misrepresented the facts.
Bos insisted that he did not tamper with the New York Times clipping, which would be considered a cardinal sin among reporters. He said he inadvertently left out the offending paragraph. As for the almanac, Bos said he was not aware of his error until asked about it by a reporter.
“The most important thing you have in this life is credibility,” Bos said. “If your credibility is undermined, you might as well roll up your rug and go home.”
Otto Jacob Bos was born in Groningen in the war-torn northern Netherlands in 1943. His father was the black sheep in a well-to-do family who spent time in North America as a teen-ager and, Otto Bos said, ran rum across Lake Erie during Prohibition.
During the war, Bos’ parents used their attic to hide Jews from the Nazis--a fact Bos learned only recently. The elder Bos was captured for snooping on the German soldiers who had occupied the area. He was taken to Germany but escaped, his son said.
The family immigrated to the United States in the mid-1950s and lived in upstate New York and in Michigan before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area. Bos quickly mastered his new language and graduated at 16 from Jefferson High School in Daly City.
The 6-foot, 4-inch Bos was an All-American soccer player at San Francisco State College, but his grades were poor and he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He quit school to join the Peace Corps in 1963 but fell ill before completing his training. Drafted into the Army, he served in Vietnam as a combat surgery technician.
After his discharge, Bos returned to San Francisco State, which in 1968 was roiling with student unrest. He went to work on the campus newspaper and remembers opposing U.S. involvement in Indochina.
“I spoke out against the war. But it’s very important to recognize how I spoke out,” Bos said. “I did not get swept up. There were a lot of people who were not in good faith, some who had other agendas.”
Bos took a course in intellectual history that sparked an interest in the classics. He said his eclectic reading interests range from philosophy to rock ‘n’ roll reviews.
“I came to the conclusion that the institutions I participated in were very important,” he said. “There were radicals calling for burning down the institutions and I thought they were wrong.”
Bos considered careers as a police officer, an insurance salesman and a teacher before accepting a position as a reporter with the San Diego Union. He soon was assigned to cover the new mayor, Pete Wilson, which he did with vigor. Some colleagues remember him as so well-connected that they called him “the switchboard through which City Hall operated.”
After six years, Wilson asked Bos to stop writing about him and start speaking for him. Bos became the mayor’s press secretary and quickly displayed a skill for dreaming up news events that could get Wilson’s picture in the paper or his face on television. “Otto has a touch of P.T. Barnum,” recalled one former reporter.
Bos has left the government payroll three times to help run Wilson’s campaigns: for the Senate in 1982 and 1988 and for governor in 1990. He is expected to leave Wilson’s staff again in 1991 to work as a private political consultant, a job that will give him more income and more time with his family--wife, Florence, and three children--than government service can provide.
His partner in a political consulting firm and fellow Wilson loyalist, George Gorton, said Bos’ skill at pleasing the media and candidate alike makes him attractive to politicians other than Wilson.
“He can communicate honestly with reporters while at the same time selling them the story that needs to be sold,” Gorton said.