Behind the secret tapings of Bush, a life is changed

Times Staff Writer

Doug Wead’s Hair Shirt Tour started shortly after news broke that he’d secretly tape-recorded President Bush back when Bush was Texas governor. In the tapes, Bush seemed to admit having smoked marijuana, he pondered how to handle questions about what he called “the cocaine thing” and he said he would not discriminate against gays in his administration.

Deluged with criticism over the surreptitious taping, what followed for Wead was a trajectory of defensiveness, then contrition, apology and shame.

Not to mention depression.

It was a sobering turn of events for the 58-year-old evangelical Christian who has longtime ties to the Bush clan and who has called the current president a friend.

Wead, a motivational speaker and author, has parlayed his interest in the presidency into a series of books about presidential families. The secret taping came to light after the New York Times received an advance copy of his most recent book, “The Raising of a President” and began pressing Wead to show that his assertions about Bush -- who, Wead wrote, was worried that questions about drug use would haunt a presidential campaign -- were based on fact or firsthand knowledge. Now Wead faces an uncertain future. Furious criticism has come from the right, left and center. And though the president joked at the recent Gridiron dinner about Wead, (“Anyone looking for a transcript of the program should call Doug Wead”), the Bushes are famous for remembering and punishing breaches of trust. All the apologies in the world are unlikely to reopen doors that have slammed in Wead’s face.

Wead is a former Assemblies of God minister and motivational speaker who has written quickie political and religious-themed books aimed at the evangelical right. He was once a high-level distributor for Amway and said he speaks at Amway conventions three or four times a year. In 1992, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Arizona. In the last several years, he has produced two intensively researched books on presidential family dynamics. “For most of my life research and writing has paid the bills,” he wrote on Wednesday in an e-mail.


His ties to the Bushes and to the evangelical movement conferred on him the kind of authority that led reporters to call him during last year’s presidential campaign. In apparently good but somewhat distanced standing with the Bushes, Wead was never at a loss for a good quote or a slightly more-candid-than-usual anecdote.

Then came the Jan. 4 publication of “The Raising of a President,” followed more than a month later by news that he’d secretly taped Bush over a period of time when Bush was mulling a run for the White House.

Wead defended taping Bush because he saw his friend as a “historical figure.” He revealed the tapes’ existence, he said, only after his publisher and the New York Times, which broke the story along with ABC, persuaded him to document his assertions.

The day after the Times splashed the secret tapes story on its front page, as Wead was being hammered far and wide by folks of all political persuasions for tactics many saw as sleazy, he threw in the towel.

Wead told CNN’s Anderson Cooper he wouldn’t be doing any more interviews. “I’ve already told my publicists here, I don’t want any more TV,” said Wead. “I’m going home, forget it.”

Publicly, a Bush spokesman said the tapes were casual conversations that the president had “with someone he thought was a friend.” Privately, the White House was said to be furious and urged, through intermediaries, the surrender of the tapes. On the “Today” show, Laura Bush said the secret tapes were “awkward” and “odd” though she refrained, when asked, from using the word “betrayal.”

Three weeks after talking to Cooper, on March 14, Weed penned an essay for USA Today detailing how very sorry he still was. In that brief piece, headlined “I’m Sorry, Mr. President,” Wead wrote that he had been “prideful,” “arrogant,” “foolish,” “wrong” and had paid a “terrible price” for betraying the president in such a manner. He called off his book promotion, he wrote, and he’d be assigning all future royalties to charity.

On March 16, Wead appeared on “Hardball With Chris Matthews” and reiterated his abject apology but was able to make a number of references to his book, “The Raising of a President,” which examines the role that parents of presidents have played in their sons’ lives. His thesis about Bush is that the president’s younger brother, Jeb, was the anointed son, which took pressure off George W., whom the Bushes regarded as “the family clown.” George W. was therefore allowed to mature, slowly, out of the public glare.

On March 21, Wead was a guest on Fox’s “Hannity & Colmes” and repeated his apologies once more. In that interview, Wead implied he’d been nearly suicidal about his bad judgment.

It’s not clear yet whether Wead’s sorry-palooza tour will be a good marketing move, but the tapes’ revelation seemed to boost sales, at least temporarily. PR Week, a trade publication, awarded the story its “PR Play of the Week,” and gave it a rating of 4 (“savvy”) on a scale of 1 (“clueless”) to 5 (“ingenious”).

“There was a spike,” said Justin Loeber, vice president, director of publicity for Atria Books, the division of Simon & Schuster that published “The Raising of a President.” The day before the New York Times splashed the secret tapes story on A-1, Loeber said, the book was ranked by Amazon at No. 5,000. A day later, “it was No. 70,” Loeber said. “The book went into a second printing.” (On Thursday, the ranking had dropped to No. 39,935.)

In an interview from his home in Virginia last week, Wead said he appeared on “Hardball” and “Hannity” only because he had canceled appearances on those shows when the tapes scandal broke, and he wanted to air his apology in as high profile a manner as possible.

“It’s not fun doing these,” he said. “It’s one of those times in your life where you’re absolutely naked.... You’ve lost everything that you ever held dear. It’s pretty devastating.”

Wead, who said he has earned $20,000 per speech, is not accepting speaking engagements for now. He will fulfill a commitment to give a lecture in April at the Smithsonian but is not receiving a fee, he said. He said his agent told him he has been offered enough money for the tapes to be able to retire comfortably, but he turned the tapes over to the president’s lawyer shortly after the story first broke, and says he did not keep copies. His agent declined a request for an interview.

“The conservative base was betrayed over me releasing the tapes to the New York Times,” Wead said. James Dobson of Focus on the Family told the New York Times he was “shocked by this breach of trust.” Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention told the newspaper Wead’s revelation “wasn’t all that great a career move if he wants to speak at evangelical events.”

Wead sighed: “You can’t get the salt back in the shaker.”

Wead became important to the Bushes in the 1980s when he helped tutor George H.W. Bush about the importance of the evangelical voting bloc.

In 1985, he wrote a long memo to the then vice president about how to build a movement of evangelicals within the Republican Party. “There was a lot of denial about the evangelical movement back then,” Wead said in an interview last year. George W. Bush helped argue Wead’s case to Lee Atwater, his father’s campaign manager.

Once the presidential campaign got underway, George W. became Wead’s boss. About this time, Wead began taping him, with permission, for specific tasks he was working on, usually as a liaison with reporters or the evangelical community.

In January 1988, Wead was asked to produce a campaign biography with religious overtones for George H.W. Bush, to be published in time for the March “Super Tuesday” primaries. “George Bush: Man of Integrity” hit bookshelves in late February.

Wead was hired to work in the first Bush White House, charged with continuing evangelical outreach, but left in 1990 in what was widely reported as a dismissal after he wrote a letter to evangelicals criticizing the administration for inviting gay activists to an event celebrating the passage of hate crimes legislation. He disputes that he was fired, saying that he was already planning to leave the post.

By the time George W. Bush was thinking about running for president, Wead, who had continued to act as an informal advisor to the Bushes, thought it was possible that the son might call on him to produce a campaign biography like the one he had done for the senior Bush. This time, he decided, he would approach the task systematically.

“In 1997, for a full year, I had conversations with him, I took notes like a good boy,” said Wead. “But I couldn’t read my notes. I was dealing with reporters and I didn’t want to get it wrong. I would hang up after a phone call with George W. and we’d discussed so many things, so many options, that I’d be confused.”

After the future president mentioned that he needed to get a book underway, said Wead, “I started tape recording. And in my prideful wrong thinking I justified it by my good intentions: Nobody will ever hear the tapes, I am his loyal friend, I will never harm him. When you ghostwrite a book, you have to sound like the person. I thought, I’m going to be a Boy Scout this time and be prepared.”

As it turned out, Wead was never called upon to write Bush’s campaign biography, “A Charge to Keep.” That task fell to longtime Bush aide Karen Hughes. He went on to other projects.

When Wead began his current book about presidential families, he relied in part on nine hours of secretly taped conversations with Bush in which the future president grappled with how to handle questions about alleged drug use in the past.

After the New York Times received a copy of the book in December, its reporter began pressing Wead on his sources.

“It was a cat-and-mouse game to get more out of me....” said Wead. “I practically vomited after the reporter left my house. But it wasn’t his fault. That’s where my arrogance lies. I thought I could be master of the tapes. Did you see ‘Lord of the Rings’? I was like Frodo and the ring. If I could have tossed the ring in the Mountain of Doom or to someone wiser, maybe it would have been OK.”

Most ensuing media attention has revolved around Bush’s seeming admission that he smoked pot. “I wouldn’t answer the marijuana question,” Bush says on tape. “You know why? Because I don’t want some little kid doing what I tried.” But Wead did not include that exchange in his book.

He reluctantly played the secret tapes for his publisher’s lawyers (and later the Times) when he was challenged to prove that he was on solid ground when he wrote this passage:

“George Bush apparently experimented with cocaine. He has never spoken about it publicly and so we can only speculate on if and when it happened.... The fear that it might flare into the open would become at times an obsession. Privately he brought the subject up often in his run for the presidency in 2000.... “

When asked about that passage last week, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said, “That question has been asked and answered so many times.” As for Wead and the secret tapes, Duffy said, “That’s a closed issue as far as we’re concerned.”

The issue may be closed for the president, but it’s still an open, if self-inflicted, wound for Wead. He is at work on his third book about presidential families -- this one will focus on siblings. In the chapter on the Bushes, he will rely on some tapes he has made over the years with various family members. These, he said, were made with permission.


Times staff writer Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.