Secretly recorded conversations between President George W. Bush and evangelical writer Doug Wead made before Bush became president show Bush struggling to please conservative Christians without alienating other voters.
In one conversation, taped in September of 1998, Bush tells Wead about his upcoming meeting with James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family.
“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,” Bush said.
Bush said he planned to assure Dobson of his opposition to abortion and dispel rumors that he did not consider the issue important.
“I just don’t believe I said that. Why would I say that?” Bush asked Wead.
Bush apparently decided against putting Colin Powell and former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge on the ticket in 2000, fearing it would upset Dobson and other Christian conservatives.
“They are not going to like it anyway, boy,” Bush said. “Dobson made it clear.”
Bush obviously wanted to keep the Religious Right happy but worried that movement leaders might try to push him too far. In one conversation with Wead, he recounted a discussion he had had with TV preacher James Robison.
“I think he wants me to attack homosexuals,” Bush said. He claimed he told Robison, “Look, James, I got to tell you two things right off the bat: One, I’m not going to kick gays, because I’m a sinner. How can I differentiate sin?”
Bush added, “This is an issue I have been trying to downplay. I think it is bad for Republicans to be kicking gays.”
The tapes indicate that as early as 1998, however, Bush expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage. He has since endorsed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, an issue the Religious Right used to energize its troops during the 2004 election.
The tapes also show that Bush was aware that getting too close to the Religious Right could hurt him with moderate voters. When Wead warned Bush not to have too many meetings with evangelicals, Bush replied, “I’m just going to have one. This is not meant to be public.”
When Bush thought his aides had arranged a meeting with evangelicals, he reacted with some anger, asking, “What the hell is this about?”
Wead, who has been involved in conservative politics for many years, made the tapes available to The New York Times. He told Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick that he felt justified in secretly taping Bush to create a record of him as a political leader. Wead also said he did the taping in states where it is not illegal to secretly tape a conversation with another.
“I believe that, like him or not, he is going to be a huge historical figure,” Wead said. “If I was on the telephone with Churchill or Gandhi, I would tape record them too.”
Dobson later condemned Wead for making the recordings.
“I know Doug Wead,” Dobson said. “I am shocked by his breach of trust and his relationship with then Governor Bush, who had welcomed him into his confidence.”
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, also criticized Wead.
“I would say it wasn’t all that great a career move if he wants to speak at evangelical events,” Land said.
In light of the controversy, Wead cancelled media appearances and issued a statement promising to turn the tapes over to Bush.