In 1987, at a news conference which I was covering for a national magazine, Vice President George H. W. Bush told me, in response to a question that I raised, "I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God." Ever since then, many have asked where my proof is that Mr. Bush actually said that. On March 31, 2006, I received documents from the Bush Presidential Library that prove that Mr. Bush made those remarks.
BackgroundVice President Bush came to Chicago on Thursday, August 27, 1987, to announce that additional townships had been declared flood disaster relief areas, subsequent to rainfall of seven inches in one day, earlier in the week. (We in the Chicagoland area can only deal with an inch or two at a time. Otherwise, we flood. Seven inches in one day happens only a very few times per century.)
After Mr. Bush took several questions about the disaster declaration, reporters' questions turned to politics, as Mr. Bush had just announced his candidacy, one week earlier, for the nomination of his party for President. The Republican National Convention and the election were one year away.
Mr. Bush questions whether atheists should be regarded as citizens
I asked Mr. Bush, "What are you going to do to win the votes of Americans who are atheists?"
Mr. Bush replied, "I guess I'm pretty weak in the atheist community. Faith in God is important to me."
I followed up: "Do you support the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists?"
Mr. Bush replied, "I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God."
After other reporters asked a few questions about issues that they were concerned about, I was then able to get in one more follow-up question on my subject: "Do you support the constitutionality of state/church separation?"
Vice President Bush responded, "I support separation of church and
state. I'm just not very high on atheists."
I wrote up my story and submitted it to my editor to be considered for publication in the magazine. All of the star reporters from the Chicago political press corps were there, along with members of the White House press corps (those who regularly cover the President and Vice President) and other national news reporters, but no other reporter did anything with the story about Mr. Bush's anti-atheist comments.
The demand for proof
Beginning a few years after my story was published, some atheists and other concerned citizens began to ask for proof that the conversation between Mr. Bush and myself actually took place, and that Mr. Bush actually said what he said. I had nothing but my spotless reputation to go on, but that's not enough for many who don't know me. Being that I was a print journalist, I had no need for a tape. All I needed to do was to take accurate notes and report the story in writing.
Urban legend has it that I supposedly made some kind of tape, but that I refuse to release it. The fact of the matter is that I never made a tape. Anybody who really knows me would know that, if I had made a tape, I not only would make it available, I would put it up on this web site so that you could listen to it. However, the reality is that I never made a tape.
A related question that comes up is: What about the tapes made by all the television and radio stations? Why can't I get it from them? The answer is that broadcasters save only that portion of their tapes that are broadcast over the air. After that, tapes are erased and re-used.
With regards to the story about Mr. Bush's anti-atheist comments, broadcasters already had three big stories out of the news conference: The Vice President of the United States had come to Chicago; the federal government was to provide us with disaster relief; and the Vice President talked about how he was going to win the Republican nomination for President. There was other news that day that newscasts had to cover, so three stories out of the news conference was deemed enough. The story about Bush's anti-atheist comments simply did not make the cut. That happens in broadcast news. They take the biggest stories and go with them.
Documents at Bush Library prove that
conversation between Sherman and Bush took place
An exchange of letters that took place in 1989 between the late Jon Garth Murray, then President of American Atheists, and White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray, prove that the conversation between Vice President Bush took place, exactly as I reported it. Those two letters are on file at the Bush Presidential Library in Texas. The letter from Mr. Murray to Mr. Gray is expected to be available later this year as a part of a file called Item # CF 01193-002, but a related letter by Mr. Murray to the Members of Congress, which referenced Mr. Murray's letter to Mr. Gray, is available for public view. The reply letter from Mr. Gray to Mr. Murray is also available for public view.
The letter from Mr. Murray to the Members of Congress is from a file identified as White House Office of Records Management, Subject Code RM, Document Number 157715 CU. This document is a letter that Jon Murray sent to every Member of Congress on February 21, 1990. In this letter, Mr. Murray describes the news conference that I attended, quotes exactly the conversation between Mr. Bush and myself, and then states:
Subsequent to these astonishing statements, I wrote to (then) Vice President Bush demanding a clarification of these remarks. More than two months later, on February 21, 1989, C. Boyden Gray, Counsel to the President, wrote to me from the White House as follows:
Your letter of December 19, 1988, to President Bush has been referred to me for reply. As you are aware, the President is a religious man who neither supports atheism nor believes that atheism should be unnecessarily encouraged or supported by the government. Needless to say, the President supports the Constitution and laws of the United States, and you may rest assured that this Administration will proceed at all times with due regard for the legal rights of atheists, as will as others with whom the President disagrees.
This letter was a clear admission by the President, through his counsel, that he had indeed made the remarks and was not backing down from them.
Mr. Murray's letter to the Members of Congress went on to say that Mr. Bush must issue "an apology and retraction of the remarks or alternately the Congress of the United States must pass a resolution censuring President Bush for the remarks."
The letter from Mr. Gray to Mr. Murray, which was quoted above, is located in a file identified as White House Office of Records Management, Subject Code RM, Document Number 041388 CU.
The significance of Mr. Gray's letter is that it corroborates my conversation with Mr. Bush. Mr. Gray is a lawyer. If his client, Mr. Bush, had not made those statements to me, Mr. Gray would have denied that they were said rather than trying to justify the statements. If Mr. Bush wanted to distance himself from the statements, Mr. Gray could have tried to create doubt about whether Mr. Bush had made the statements. Here, Mr. Gray makes it clear that Mr. Bush acknowledges making the statements reported above.
Updated January 17, 2007: Click here to view a 40-page PDF file of all of the relevant documents from the Bush Presidential Library.
You can get your own copy of the two letters described above by contacting the Archive Department at the Bush Presidential Library. They will mail or fax them to you. You'll need to file a Freedom of Information Act request, but that can be done very easily and quickly by e-mail to email@example.com . In the subject line, say: FOIA Request. In the body of the letter, say: Under the Freedom of Information Act, I request to view White House Office of Records Management, Subject Code RM, Document Numbers 041388 CU and 157715 CU. Include your full name, street address, phone number and whether you want the documents mailed or faxed to you. For a fax, include your fax number and state whether you have a dedicated fax line or if you use your voice line to receive faxes. They'll take care of you within a day or two. They're very fast, professional and courteous.