Do future presidents have privacy rights?

March 7, 2005

See what you think. A Bush family friend and political loyalist records a series of conversations with George W. Bush from 1998 to 2000, when the future president is weighing his political prospects. Bush doesn’t know he’s being taped and speaks unguardedly about his plans and hopes.

Years pass, and now the friend, who’s preparing a book on presidential families, plays a dozen of the tapes for a New York Times reporter. The Times runs a front-page story on the pre-president’s private musings.

The story is a yawner. The Times itself admits: “The private Mr. Bush sounds remarkably similar in many ways to the public President Bush.” The most newsworthy elements? Bush tap-dances around the question of whether he “tried” pot — hardly the worst of the indulgences commonly assumed of young W’s pagan period. And he and makes some conciliatory comments about gays.

All in all he sounds earnest, sober-minded, like a serious young pol on the make. Indeed, if the leak had been quietly authorized to soften loathing for the president in some quarters, I for one wouldn’t be surprised.

But that apparently isn’t the case, and it’s clear the leaker, an evangelical politico named Doug Wead, won’t be attending the White House Christmas party any time soon. In a second Page One story The Times says Wead, now remorseful, is feeling the chill of Bush family disapproval, and has indicated he’ll turn over the tapes instead of holding them as the historical treasures he says he thought they were.

So let’s agree the tapes contain comments Bush made privately to someone he trusted and neither he nor his people approved their release.

Isn’t this just a little troubling? Are the personal confidences of somebody in public life, recorded without his knowledge and released without his approval, automatically grist for the media mill? Don’t we want to insist that they meet some minimum threshold of public importance before we agree to listen in on things that weren’t meant for us to hear?

The Times seemed to acknowledge that it owes some explanation for putting its ear to the keyhole. It notes that some presidents — Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson — secretly recorded White House visitors. (It does not add that Nixon’s tapes became public only because they implicated him in criminal behavior and Johnson’s weren’t released until after he was dead.) Wead’s recordings, The Times says, are “a rare example of a future president taped at length without his knowledge talking about matters of public interest like his political strategy and priorities.”

Look carefully at that sentence. Since there’s nothing unusual about future presidents talking about strategies and priorities, the justification here is that these musings were taped “without his knowledge.”

That, I think, is a problem. When reporting depends on invading the sphere of privacy we claim for ourselves and concede to others, and when it feeds off a betrayal of the trust we all assume when we speak privately, it shouldn’t be a casual thing. Those are values we should care about. If they’re being trashed — especially on the front page of the world’s most influential newspaper — the story better be worth it.

That’s a heavy burden but not an impossible one. Young Bush might have been confessing to plans, ambitions, a world view, a chiliastic religious extremism, that was so startling and so different from what he has said publicly that keeping his words secret would be denying the public information it ought to have.

But that wasn’t the case. The Times article wasn’t particularly illuminating, contained no compelling new facts, added little to the store of public knowledge of Bush or his politics.

What it did, momentarily, was to make the world’s most powerful leader a victim.

History may eventually insist that these tapes, and even more intrusive personal information, be handed over to Bush’s biographers. But the legitimate needs of historians don’t necessarily create entitlements for journalists.

Journalists work in the here and now. And privacy is already under unrelenting attack from law enforcement, marketers, bosses, manipulators and profiteers of all kinds. Journalists, unless they have good reason to the contrary, should be repelling that assault, not joining it.

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