Friday, January 14, 2005

For President and Close Friend, Forget the Politics

The New York Times
January 14, 2005
For President and Close Friend, Forget the Politics

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 York?"

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 own fashion.

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 week.

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 something."

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 college admissions.

"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 cents in."

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 still live.

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. Betts said.