For seven years, the junior senator from Connecticut kept the story to himself, an embarrassing tale about George Bush, a fellow Republican but not exactly a friend.
This season, when George Bush is running for president and reporters are nosing around with questions about his past, Sen. Lowell P. Weicker's story has surfaced. It goes like this:
At the height of the Watergate scandal, George Bush, as Republican national chairman, was confronted with a difficult choice about copies of some undisclosed campaign records -- the list of secret donations made to Bush, Weicker and 37 other GOP candidates in 1970 from a secret campaign fund, known as the "Townhouse Fund," run by the Nixon White House.
Should Bush send the records to each of the recipients in order to alert them to possible questions by investigators?
The problem was that distributing the copies widely would have increased the possibility that the secret data would become public and damage those Republicans who had not properly reported the contributions.
Or should Bush suppress the records?
According to Weicker, then a member of the Senate Watergate committee, Bush called him to discuss the matter and suggested the latter course.
"An absolute lie," says Bush, who insists he did the right thing -- mailing the records of secret contributions to the politicians involved.
According to Weicker, the conversation in mid-July 1973 went differently. This was in the period when the Nixon scandals were still unfolding and it was not yet clear how much political damage would be done to the president or spill over to the Republican Party.
Weicker recalls a telephone call from Bush inquiring what to do with the records. Weicker says Bush remarked: "What should I do, burn them?"
This episode contains no accusations that Bush acted illegally but it raises questions about how he handles himself as a political leader when confronted with a potential public embarrassment for his party.
Weicker and Bush, both sons of wealthy Connecticut families, both alumni of Yale, are not exactly political enemies but coexist on chilly terms. Bush's family withdrew its traditional support of Weicker after his aggressive probing on the Watergate committee. Weicker, once a presidential candidate himself, has clashed with Bush over other Republican Party problems.
Bush now confirms that he spoke with Weicker about the records on July 12 1973, but he denies any suggestion that he wished to destroy or suppress them. He says he distributed the information to all of the politicians involved.
Weicker received his records the next day but it is not clear whether anyone else did.
Three former senators and one incumbent who received funds from the "Townhouse Operation" told The Washington Post that they did not recall receiving any notification, by phone or mail, from Bush.
"I would have remembered such a call, I'm sure," said former senator James Buckley (R-Con.-N.Y.), "I don't think anyone on my staff would have opened such an envelope marked confidential and mailed by George Bush. I certainly don't remember receiving it."
The others who said they received no notice from Bush were former senators J. Glenn Beall (R-Md.) and Robert Taft Jr. (R-Ohio) and incumbent Peter Domenici (R-N.M.)
When a reporter first asked Weicker about the 1973 phone call, the senator produced a document from his files containing his version -- notes he had dictated to his aide, Robert Herrema, a day after the conversation. Herrema confirmed the authenticity of the memo which says that Weicker advised Bush to "treat every envelope the same way and for God's sake send them to the addressees."
Bush denies proposing to burn the records and insists that he distributed them.
"I handled it discreetly and confidentially," Bush says. "I was not trying to set anyone up or get them in trouble. I think I tried to call all the recipients of the contributions to tell them that we're going to send over the records. If they wanted it, fine; if not, okay."
Bush told The Post: "I remember with Weicker there was some kind of flap. Weicker was a little gun-shy about why I was sending it over. He may have said he didn't want it. . . If he didn't want them, I didn't want evidence of what he received around the RNC. I may have told him, 'I'll be glad to get rid of it.'
"I would not discuss anyone else's records with Weicker. I don't recall ever saying we would burn it, but the only thing that would remotely be like that would be if Weicker didn't want his records. I would have said I'd destroy them.
"The thing that really irks me is the kind of 'burn the tapes' aspect of this. Why would I suggest to Weicker that the problem would go away if the originals [of the accounting records] were already filed with the [Watergate] committee? These were copies, not originals. I had no knowledge about whether the committee would make them public."
Weicker recalls, however, that the conversation was about the entire list, since the $71,000 contribution to him already had been leaked to reporters. "I had nothing to fear from those records," Weicker said.
He had precise notes of the conversation made, he added, because "you didn't get a call in those days and have someone say what [Bush] said without getting the words exactly right. That would have been the first time the RNC was involved in Watergate. I wouldn't have survived if I hadn't been precise. We were meticulous about meetings and phone calls."
The data on secret campaign contributions were sent to Bush, as GOP national chairman, by Jack A. Gleason, who ran the "Townhouse Operation" from a downtown Washington townhouse in 1970. The records were potentially politically embarrassing for some of the 39 Republican candidates not only because the connection to the Nixon slush fund could tarnish their public standing but because some might not have reported the money on their campaign finance reports.
Bush also had reason to be concerned about $106,000 that he had received from Gleason's accounts. Although the contributions were secret at the time, Bush now acknowledges having received them.
The original records of Gleason's fund were subpoenaed by the Senate Watergate committee and became part of its confidential records. The committee did not make them public. The identities of all the recipients did not become known until after Nixon's resignation in August 1974, 12 months after the Bush-Weicker phone conversation.
Gleason, who is to become a legislative aide to Weicker tomorrow, also says that he met with Bush and his aide, Tom Lias, in 1973 to discuss disposition of the sensitive ledger and Bush's receipt of $106,000. Bush and Lias, now working in Bush's presidential campaign, deny having met with Gleason at that time. Gleason claims that, when they met, Bush immediately mentioned a conflict between the Townhouse records and his own campaign records.
Last week, The Post reported that Gleason said he personally gave George Bush an additional $6,000 in cash for his 1970 Senate campaign in Texas. Bush also denies that. Failure to report such a contribution would have been illegal.
Weicker says he never previously revealed the phone call because he received his copy of the ledger from Bush and assumed the others had also. In releasing the documents in response to a reporter's inquiry, Weicker said he has no political motive. "I bear absolutely no malice to George Bush," Weicker insisted "I've made no announcement in favor of any candidate."