the choice 2000

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interview: doug wead
photo of doug wead

Wead is an Assembly of God evangelist who was Vice President Bush's liaison to the Christian Right. He campaigned with George W. during the elder Bush's 1988 campaign and has remained a close friend and advisor for 14 years. He provides insight into the importance of religion in George W.'s life and speaks about the relationship Bush has to his family and the Bush name.
How important is it to understand what religion means to George W. Bush? At core, how is religion sort of the base of his life?

I don't know that religion is the base of his life or at the core of his life, because in some respects he's rather irreligious and smart and hip; I mean, journalists come down from Esquire or Gentleman's Quarterly and love it. But God, and his relationship with God, is at the core of who he is. And that's...simple and it's complex. If there is a God, ...and you believe that and you encounter him, then it becomes very important to the decisions you make, to how you treat your fellow man, and especially to your sense of responsibility, to do the responsible thing, the right thing.

How much of that was a reawakening, and how much of it was a political story?

It was real, it was not political. I mean, without going into personal stories that would invade his own privacy, I can say that this was a real experience for him. You don't do this for your father, you don't do this for political reasons. As a matter of fact, you can make a strong argument to do the opposite for political reasons. He understood very well, as many times I've pointed out, he understood the antipathy of the non-evangelical public towards evangelicals. There was no advantage for him identifying with the last hated group. This was something that was real in his life.

How difficult is it to mix religion with politics?

Mahatma Gandhi says that, "He who says religion and politics don't mix understands neither one." You can't separate them, and this brief game, this moment in time where we pretend that our society has been secularized and that's the fashion in news media and, is a tiny, tiny, infinitesimal moment in a context of history and time and is self-deception. Religion drives the thinking of many people, even some of the colleagues that work with these media people. When there's a crisis, when your infant child is in a crib and is dying, at that moment no matter what you believe of what you teach in your class at Harvard, there's a god and you're kicking out to him for help.

And is G.W. aware of this period of time where what we think about God is private and it is not good form to discuss it openly?

Yes, he's aware of that, he is aware of that despite of the answer he gave today, he knows it very well. Is he aware of the resentment towards people who publicly talk about their faith at a time like this, at the anti-intellectual aura to that type of person, yes he's aware of that, he's keen to that. But unlike some, he also knows the numbers, he knows how important faith is to millions of people in America. Ninety-five percent believe in a personal god in the United States. It's a very high number.

Do you have a story of G.W. walking into one of these churches or someplace? What does he do? What are the reactions of the people?

Every subculture has its own language and its own inflection. Even, sometimes, it's the emphasis of a syllable in a word, or you could have one word out of order, and instantly you recognize someone from your own subculture. And the evangelical subculture is no different. When G.W. meets with evangelical Christians, they know within minutes that he's one of theirs. Now, most presidential candidates, they have to probe, and they have to look, try to find common denominators that they can say, "Well, he's kind of ours, he just doesn't know it;" or, "He's ours but he doesn't understand the culture." And with G.W., they knew it was real. I don't know how to explain that without defining the whole subculture itself, which you can't do in 30-second answers. But they knew it.

Responsibility, public service. They seem to be a key part of the Bush family tradition. Is George W. buying into that part of the family tradition?

I don't think that consciously G.W. buys into that family tradition. He's raised in Midland, he's isolated in a way from that tradition. But he's found it in his own way, he's come back to it on his own route, his own path, he's come right back to it. It's a little different route back to it, but it's the same place, and that is his whole emphasis on responsibility and opportunity. That you have an opportunity, well then, you have a responsibility. This applies to the family and it applies to your career. And he applied it to himself.

It's why he ran for president. He had an opportunity: You're leading in the polls, you're flush with cash, with the sale of this baseball team in a way that you never will be in your life, this may not happen again, you've got a brother who's governor of Florida, this may not happen again...You can't walk away from this. If you're the best basketball player on the floor, doesn't matter if someone's good somewhere else, if you're the best basketball player on the floor, "Give me the ball, I'll take it." And he's a leader.

In his mind, is it somewhere predetermined?

No. I mean, he knows that he can lose, and he's ready to lose, and he's ready to win. And it's that cavalier attitude, it's in some ways an unselfish attitude, his dad had it. In his case he does not have a burning ego-driven decider to be president of the United States or dominate people, or dominate anything. He's a born natural leader because he's fearless. He's the sort of guy that you're sitting in the classroom and nobody knows what the teacher's talking about, and he's the guy who will raise his hands to the relief of everybody else and say, "What are you talking about?" He's a gutsy guy. Some, incidentally, when he was younger, called that immaturity. I don't think it was immaturity at all, as I experienced it, it was tremendous self-confidence. He knew who he was, he knew what he believed, he knew he was ok, that he didn't need everybody else's affirmation. If he was curious, he'd ask.

What are his strengths as a politician?

G.W. is extremely sharp politically. Right on the money. So if you have a conversation with him that's off the record, that's loose and free-flowing, you pick up very quickly that this guy is right, again and again and again, he's right. Again, you can look from the outside and say, "That's luck." Well, it's not, as is often the case with successful people-- it's more than luck...This is a dream politician; I was at private dinners with Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford, George Bush, and nobody can hold a candle to G.W. Bush in politicking. He just is instantly friends with whomever I meet. And they feel it and they know it. The press corps that rides on his plane, the first time in quite awhile now, they're shifting the press corps, they're shifting people off of his press plane because of the familiarity that's developing, because they like the guy.

How does he compare, as a politician to his father?

A lot of people say that George W. Bush is much more decisive than his father. And I'm one of the people who said that because I saw it. I came into the campaign and he joined in eighty-seven. He made decisions that just took your breath away, just bam bam bam bam, yes yes yes, no no yes no. Decisions that had been laying around, collecting dust for a long time that he could instantly get to the bottom line and decide. And it was wonderful, it was like the train took off, started moving because he had the guts to make those decisions...I've realized that he is just like his father at making strategic decisions, very methodical, very deliberate ad nauseam.... The difference is, once he has made a strategic decision, that tactical decisions are no-brainers. He spends no time on them. It's just "Yes, no, yes, no," and they all fall like dominos under these great strategic decisions that he has taken time to arrive at.

Considering the race in Texas in 1992, is it surprising for someone like George W. Bush to come in through a Democratic majority? Is it surprising that he had that ability?

Surprising to people who didn't know George W., very surprising. To those who knew George W. it was modus operandi. It was his life, it's his personality...Does he honor loyalty and keep track of those who are disloyal and make sure the machine functions and he's oiled? Absolutely. He will make the decision, whatever it may be politically, just as he did when he talked about the hard decisions he made on death row in Texas, he'll make those decisions politically but I've seen him disarm so many opponents so many members of the news media who think the very opposite of the way thinks, and totally disarm them. If for one moment Mr. Bullock thought there was a layer of varnish on that, there was a secret agenda behind that, it never would have worked. It only worked because it was real.

One of the things that comes back over and over again is that he's George Bush's son, he's got the name, he's handed opportunities other people would never have gotten without the name. Is that the case?

There are people who say that because he was a son of a vice president or then the son of a president, that he had an advantage. But the study I did on presidential children shows the opposite, exactly the opposite. The lives of these presidential kids were scandalized. Steven Ford gets a job as a journalist and people say it's because of his dad. But this is a talented, remarkable young man. He can't be a journalist? I mean, anything they do in life, they're discredited.

What [George W. Bush has] done is remarkable. No presidential son has ever been elected governor, and only one has ever been elected president. And I know, you look on in every discipline and you say, well, they're lucky, and then you get into that discipline, whether it's the arts or media or whatever it may be, the church, military, education, and you find out that it's some luck, but there's a lot of work. And people underestimate George W. It isn't luck, he's not lucky. And it isn't just his father's name. He's been able to do something that other presidential children haven't done.

Do you have a sense of how George W. reacts to this assumption that he's been handed everything because of the name?

He is the most unpretentious person you would ever meet. I mean, when we'd travel on the road I'd try to make life easier for him, so I called the concierge at United Airlines on a trip and said, "Hey, meet us at O'Hare, I've got the vice president's son, we're flying through." He said, "Great, thanks for telling me, yeah, we'll be there." So we land, here's this little guy with a carnation in his lapel and, "Mr. Bush!" and takes his briefcase and takes us to the red carpet lounge and upgrades our tickets, and does the thing that airline concierges do for people.

Well, G.W. was not impressed with that. He sat me down, he said, "Wead, what's this?" I said, "You know, they do this for Congressman's kids and Senator's kids, and you're the son of a vice president, and they do it so celebrities won't be bothered, and it doesn't cost anything. Yes, everything costs. They've got empty seats, they upgrade you." He said, "Wead, I want you to understand something right now. I am not a big-shot, and I got news for you, pal, you are not a big-shot, either."

Is there any story you can tell us that helps define another aspect of him that you think is important?

Yeah, one thing I haven't seen covered in the press a lot is his almost anal sense of integrity; anything fishy, anything grey. When he was running his dad's campaign, there were girls who would have loved to have slept with the vice-president's son, the future president of the United States, and they'd send signals out and he'd send signals back saying, "Not interested."

There was even one that was kind of pushed. I remember sitting in his office when a very prominent public figure walked in and said, "G.W., you really made her feel bad, you really hurt her." G.W. said, "Good. I'm married. Not interested. Case closed. Good, I hope she feels bad, good. Glad she got the message." And in his business life I saw that.

There was a congressman, former congressman, who came to me with a wonderful business deal that would be good for the cause, it involved a media purchase, it was a good deal. They had one little piece of the puzzle missing and G.W. had the contact and could make the phone call to make this work, to add, to make this work. So this congressman, I said, "Ok, I'll get you in to see G.W."

And we were rehearsing in his hotel room before the meeting, and he gets to a part where he's going to say to G.W., "And there's something in this for you, if you can be helpful to us, da da da da da." ...So I plead with the congressman "Don't do this, don't say this to G.W., he'll spot it" and, he says, "That's not the way Washington works, this is what we do here, it's quid pro quo, this is long before Washington, this is the essence of people, of politics and business and there's nothing illegal about this." I said, "You understand Washington, I understand G.W. Bush. Please don't do that, you're going to embarrass me and it will backfire." He says, "Alright," I say, "Promise me," he says, "Ok, I promise." So I took him in there, and sure enough, we get in the middle of this thing, G.W.'s listening to it, sounds good, and then this congressman says, "And we're not going to take advantage of you, and if you can help us and da da da da da" and G.W. jumped out of his chair so fast and lifted the congressman up-- former congressman-- and said, "Well, this was great, thanks, buddy, thanks," and basically threw him out of his office...

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