[Paleopsych] NYT: For President and Close Friend, Forget the Politics
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Fri Jan 14 15:00:37 UTC 2005
For President and Close Friend, Forget the Politics
NYT January 14, 2005
By ELISABETH BUMILLER
[I've been staying away from politics, but this one is about friendship.
Does anyone remember Bebe Rebozo, Nixon's confidant?]
When people ask Roland Betts how a New York Democrat can be
such a good friend of President Bush, he whips out a ready
answer. "Which would you prefer: my being close to him, or
some right-wing zealot being close to him?" Mr. Betts said
in a recent interview. "Who do you want to have his ear? So
it's not a bad thing. Maybe I give him a little balance."
It was Mr. Betts, after all, who persuaded Mr. Bush to hold
the Republican National Convention last summer in the heart
of Democratic America, the West Side of Manhattan, and it
was Mr. Betts who stuck to that decision under incoming
fire from the president.
"I had an anxious year, to tell you the truth," said Mr.
Betts, recalling that as the threat of protests grew, Mr.
Bush took to tormenting him with comments like: "You're
ruining me politically. Why did you make me come to New
Mr. Betts chuckled. "It was all good-natured," he said,
"but I was thinking, 'Oh my God, there's probably a grain
of truth in there. Should he have gone to Tampa?' "
Roland W. Betts and George W. Bush have been needling each
other for more than 40 years, ever since the day they met
as remarkably similar freshmen at Yale. Mr. Bush was the
eldest child of a blue-blooded Republican transplanted in
Texas and Mr. Betts the son of a man who managed money for
Vincent Astor. Both came from families that stretched
generations back into the aristocratic precincts of the
East Coast, both had sharp senses of humor, both loved
sports and jocks. Most important, both were rebels in their
Today Mr. Betts - a founder of the Chelsea Piers sports and
entertainment complex in Manhattan, a force behind the
rebuilding of ground zero, a former public school teacher
in Harlem and the financier of films like "Beauty and the
Beast" and "Gandhi" - is one of the president's closest and
most unusual confidants.
To no one's surprise, he will be seated near the Bush
family when the president takes the oath of office next
Mr. Betts's relationship with the president is a window
into Mr. Bush, who for the past four years has relied more
than ever on his old Yale classmate as a safe harbor, a
sounding board and an adviser. Friends say the two are like
brothers, but without the familial complications. Over long
weekends at Camp David, at the president's Texas ranch or
at Mr. Betts's vacation homes in Santa Fe, N.M., and
Jackson Hole, Wyo., Mr. Betts and Mr. Bush talk about
cabinet appointments, the war in Iraq, Social Security, tax
cuts, politics, architecture, sports and family.
"Roland is a guy with a big appetite for life, and the
president likes all that," said Tom A. Bernstein, Mr.
Betts's business partner at Chelsea Piers and a friend of
Mr. Bush. "They talk about absolutely everything."
New Yorkers who work with Mr. Betts note that his
friendship with the president has benefited him by raising
his profile and making him a bigger force in the city. Mr.
Bush made Mr. Betts his personal representative in
negotiations between Major League Baseball and the players'
union to institute a drug-testing policy, and city
officials know that he operates as the president's eyes and
ears in the development of ground zero.
Friends say Mr. Betts does not boast about his relationship
with the president, although the friendship is hard to miss
in his office, which is filled with photographs of himself
and Mr. Bush spanning four decades.
But Mr. Betts, who claims no political ambitions of his
own, insisted that the friendship cuts both ways. "Living
in New York, it's an irritant to some people and it helps
me with other people," he said. "It's a mixed bag."
Mr. Bush declined to comment for this article, as did his
aides. As in other first-friend presidential relationships
- Jimmy Carter and Charles H. Kirbo, George H. W. Bush and
James A. Baker III, Bill Clinton and Vernon E. Jordan Jr. -
Mr. Betts operates outside the range of White House
advisers, and the extent of his influence is difficult to
gauge. But there is no question that Mr. Bush depends on
him to bring stability and some perspective to his life.
"The president said to me when he was elected something to
the effect that, 'Laura and I are smart enough to know that
when you're president of the United States, you don't make
new friends,' meaning anybody who purports to be a new
friend wants something," Mr. Betts said in a long
conversation in his Chelsea Piers office overlooking the
Hudson River. "And therefore, his comfort level with people
who have known him his whole life is higher. He can truly
relax, and not worry about people positioning him on
Not that Mr. Betts doesn't try. In early 2003, he called
Mr. Bush and asked him not to denounce outright the
University of Michigan's race-conscious admissions
policies, a position the president was considering for a
brief the administration was to file in an affirmative
action case before the Supreme Court. "I said, 'Look, I
can't sit still for this,' " said Mr. Betts, whose wife of
32 years, Lois, is African-American.
"And he said, 'Well, actually your timing's perfect,
because there's a big debate about that within the office,'
" Mr. Betts recalled that Mr. Bush said.
The administration's brief ended up denouncing the
specifics of Michigan's system, but left open the prospect
that race could be considered under narrow circumstances in
"I don't know if I persuade him on anything," Mr. Betts
said. "I'm not looking for credit. I just like to get my 2
Mr. Betts is circumspect about many of his conversations
with Mr. Bush, so it is hard to know how much he debates
the president politically. He will say that he has
disagreed with the president's position limiting stem cell
research to a handful of existing colonies- "he listens,"
he said - but Mr. Betts refuses to answer questions about
any conversations he has had with Mr. Bush about a proposed
constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage,
legislation the president supported during the campaign.
"I don't think he's as conservative a person as the media
generally characterizes him as," Mr. Betts said.
What is indisputable is that Mr. Betts, a burly former Yale
hockey player who goes to work in golf clothes, has helped
Mr. Bush at important moments in the president's life. In
1989, he was the single-largest investor in a group that
bought the Texas Rangers baseball team and set up Mr. Bush
as a general partner, a deal that eventually made Mr. Bush
a multimillionaire and kicked off his political career. Mr.
Betts also put Mr. Bush on the board of Silver Screen
Management, which financed more than 75 Disney movies,
including "The Little Mermaid" and "Pretty Woman."
"Our business was fundamentally a marriage of Wall Street
and Hollywood, so you would say to yourself, 'Well, Bush
didn't come from either of those worlds, why would he be
valuable?' " Mr. Betts said. His friend, he said, had a
common sense that he brought to board debates about the
company's relationship with Disney.
"His advice was sort of 'don't stretch the rubber band too
thin,' " Mr. Betts said, recalling that Mr. Bush used to
counsel him that "when you compare the $10 million you're
fighting over against the hundreds of thousands of millions
of dollars you're involved with, they're not material."
Clearly, Mr. Betts is not the person to go to for an
unvarnished view of the president, and he invariably
describes a more thoughtful and curious chief executive
than Mr. Bush's public image suggests.
"He asks me a lot of questions," Mr. Betts said. "As we're
going for walks, he wants to know, 'Well, who do you think
would be good here, and what should I do here?' "
Before the war with Iraq, Mr. Betts said Mr. Bush
frequently asked him, "As a citizen, what do you think
here? Do you think the case is adequately made?"
Mr. Betts said that he often responded no, but that by the
eve of the invasion he had said yes.
At the same time, Mr. Betts describes a president more
concerned than he lets on about the perception among some
critics that Vice President Dick Cheney is running the
country. When Mr. Bush spoke to the commission
investigating the attacks of Sept. 11, Mr. Betts said that
the president took along Mr. Cheney not to present a
consistent story but to show the panel that Mr. Bush was in
charge. "What he told me was that he wanted people to see
how deeply he understood all this," Mr. Betts said, "and
how he was calling all the shots."
Mr. Betts was born six weeks before Mr. Bush, on May 25,
1946, and grew up in the hamlet of Laurel Hollow near Cold
Spring Harbor, N.Y., an upper-crust enclave on the North
Shore of Long Island. Like the president, he was dispatched
in due course to boarding school, St. Paul's. At Yale he
joined Mr. Bush in Delta Kappa Epsilon, or Deke, the jock
house, where Mr. Bush was the fraternity's president and
Mr. Betts was his rush chairman. Both Mr. Betts and Mr.
Bush were known as enthusiastic partiers, but some
classmates noticed that Mr. Betts worked hard on the sly.
(He is now the senior fellow of the Yale Corporation, the
university's title for chairman of the board.)
Once out of Yale, Mr. Betts became a math and history
teacher in Harlem at what was then Intermediate School 201,
and spent the next decade as an instructor, substitute and
administrator in the New York and New Jersey public
schools. He said he was drawn to teaching through a thesis
he wrote about the community-school movement, but also as a
way to avoid the draft during Vietnam.
In 1972, he married a fellow teacher, the former Lois
Phifer, who had passed muster with Mr. Bush. "I wanted her
to meet George; I wanted George to meet her," Mr. Betts
said. "An interracial marriage in 1972 was a very uncommon
thing." Mr. Bush approved, and by the time Mrs. Betts was
in the hospital after the birth of the first of the
couple's two children, in 1975, the still-single Mr. Bush
came to keep his old fraternity brother company at Mr.
Betts's town house on West 102nd Street, where the Bettses
Next week, Mr. Betts will be in Washington to celebrate Mr.
Bush's inauguration, but he is cagey about where he will
stay and what he will do. It is a safe bet, however, that
at some point he will be needled by the president of the
United States. "I'm going to be happy for my friend," Mr.
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