Without George W. Bush knowing it, a friend taped private conversations with him, has now made some of those tapes available to The New York Times and a moral lapse has been revealed. It was nothing Bush said. The lapse is the friend’s betrayal of Bush’s trust.
Bush’s reported remarks were mostly innocuous. There’s a hint he may have tried marijuana when he said in the conversation that it would send the wrong message to young people to admit having used it. He underlined that, in his view, a presidential candidate should simply refuse to answer questions aimed at digging up certain kinds of dirt, even if the candidate is innocent. He said some sour things about Steve Forbes and also considered the political implications of his religious faith without in any way indicating that his faith was false.
Add the remarks up and what you find is Bush saying things in sessions with a buddy that he would not say publicly, as would be the case with just about any of us. That’s one reason why the buddy, Doug Wead, should not have recorded the sessions in the first place without getting permission and certainly should not have made his tapes publicly available. Wead knew that Bush would either refuse to be recorded or would be more guarded with the recorder running. He dishonestly took advantage of Bush’s fondness for him and confidence in his discretion.
Wead has said he could have made lots of money off the tapes but has made no move to sell them. A former minister who now writes history, he has also said his chief interest in making the secret recordings was in being precise and accurate. Even if this last assertion is true, most of us learn while young that the end does not justify the means, especially when the means is disproportionate to the cause and utterly disgraceful. Wead is guilty of a breathtakingly devious misuse of friendship.
Is this a big deal? After all, we’re talking about a single moral error that hardly seems as awful as all kinds of terrible deeds done daily, and the president is not likely to come out of this bruised and bleeding unless people are astonished that he has a political bone or two in his body. But as the playwright Arthur Miller instructed us in “After the Fall,” betrayal opens the way to fearful consequences.
I have not seen the play, but ran across one memorable quote from it and other references to its theme when Miller died recently, and I then looked up more of what has been written about it. The play is narrated by a man who betrays dear friends when he reveals their past association with the Communist Party, as well as two women in his life. A New York Times critic says that the protagonist “even winds up arguing that the same impulses that might lead someone to contemplate betrayal of a spouse or a colleague differ only in degree from the mind set that permitted the building of Nazi concentration camps.”
Some people regard the play itself as a betrayal. Miller is said to be exploiting his brief marriage to Marilyn Monroe through treating a character clearly based on her as a dim-witted drug addict. And while the play is reportedly full of fury at those who cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee during an era of exposing communists, some believe Miller’s own betrayal of freedom and democracy were greater than anything the committee ever did. He was a lifelong leftist and once a great believer in Stalinist communism. It is pointed out that the House committee wrecked careers, no small thing, but did not go around killing millions, as Stalin did.
It does not follow that Miller was lacking in poetic insight. We can argue that there is more than a difference of degree between some kinds of sadly common betrayal and genocidal Nazis, and we can observe, too, that there are in fact occasions when high principle dictates disloyalty to former friends. We can simultaneously agree that betrayal is omnipresent – hardly just an affliction of an old Bush pal – and represents a human flaw to be taken with utmost seriousness. “God,” asks a character in the play, “why is betrayal the only truth that sticks?”
(Jay Ambrose, formerly the Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, writes columns in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)