Revelations this past weekend that author Doug Wead secretly taped conversations with his close friend, President George W. Bush, for use in a book reveal less about the president than they do about Wead and our culture.
Between street cameras, hidden spycams, cell-phone hackings and involuntary "outings" - and now (again) "friends" who secretly tape-record friends - privacy is long dead. And with it, perhaps, is the trust implicit and candor permitted in friendship.
It's no longer just lonely at the top. The democratization of technology has made life lonely everywhere. If you're a public person, lunch with a friend is a potential land mine; lunch with a new acquaintance may not be worth the risk without a frisk.
Despite the portentous nature of Wead's tapes, reported in Sunday's New York Times, the revelations about the president's possible prior drug use were less than stunning. Bush didn't specifically say in the tapes that he once used drugs, but one could infer as much from his explanation about why he never answered reporters' questions about drugs.
The gist was that he felt it was time to "just say no" and decline to answer potentially damaging personal questions. Whereupon millions of baby boomer parents nodded in bobbleheaded unison.
As a parent, I applauded Bush's resolve at the time. I understood, as did most adults, that confessing to the drug use rampant on college campuses in the late '60s and the '70s risked giving children permission to behave likewise. Children inevitably would infer: 'Hey, if you can smoke dope and grow up to be president/dean of the cathedral/a teacher, then it must be OK to smoke dope."
Few parents would find this logic appealing as they try to raise healthy children. At my own house, I responded to such questions similarly: "When we're both adults, we'll swap war stories. In the meantime, I'm the boss, what I say goes, case closed."
For the record, the little darlings found this answer both satisfactory and comforting. Children like it when parents act like grown-ups and establish clear boundaries. It gives them confidence that someone is in charge and that the person responsible for keeping them safe isn't likely to be whacked out on the couch when they come home from school.
On the not-so-secret tapes, Bush articulates this idea in language that redeems more than indicts.
"Do you want your little kid to say, 'Hey daddy, President Bush tried marijuana; I think I will?'" Bush said, according to a transcript excerpt posted on ABC's "Good Morning America" Web site. "That's the message we've been sending out. I wouldn't answer the marijuana question."
On the cocaine question, he said: "Rather than saying no . I think it's time for someone to draw the line and look people in the eye and say, you know, 'I'm not going to participate in ugly rumors about me and blame my opponents,' and hold the line. Stand up for a system that will not allow this kind of crap to go on.'"
And yes, I would have been just as happy had Bill Clinton answered the same way. His "didn't inhale" dodge undermined his credibility far more than a straight "yes" or "no" would have. Besides, veterans of those smoke-filled times recall that breathing was inhaling.
Bush's straight comments, meanwhile, were made to a trusted friend - an Assembly of God minister who was an aide to Bush's father as well as the junior Bush's liaison to the Christian right.
Wead has been unapologetic about the tapes, recorded from 1998 to 2000, except to say he meant the president no harm. He made the tapes, he said, because he felt that Bush was a historic person. He wanted to get the words exactly right.
Translation: Wead felt that he might need proof of what the future president said so that he could sell books. In a "didn't inhale" defense, Wead pointed out that he recorded the conversations in states where it is legal to do so without notifying the person being taped.
Wead may have behaved legally, but not ethically. What he did was dishonest, period.
When Bush drew a line by refusing to answer questions, he did so at least in part to protect his own and the nation's children. Americans concerned about the future of privacy might draw a similar line by censuring Wead.