HOUSTON - President Bush often has cited his work in 1973 with a now-defunct inner-city program for troubled teens as the source for his belief in "compassionate conservatism."
"I realized then that a society can change and must change one person at a time ..." Bush said in a video shown at the 2000 Republican National Convention about his tenure at P.U.L.L., the Professional United Leadership League, whose executive director, John White, had played tight end for the Houston Oilers in the early 1960s.
But former associates of White, who died in 1988, have disputed in recent interviews much of Bush's version of his time at the program.
"I was working full time for an inner-city poverty program known as Project P.U.L.L.," Bush said in his 1999 autobiography, "A Charge to Keep." "My friend John White ... asked me to come help him run the program. ... I was intrigued by John's offer. ... Now I had a chance to help people."
But White's administrative assistant and others associated with P.U.L.L., speaking on the record for the first time, say Bush was not helping to run the program and White had not asked Bush to come aboard. Instead, the associates said, White told them he agreed to take Bush on as a favor to Bush's father, who was honorary co-chairman of the program at the time, and Bush was unpaid. They say White told them Bush had gotten into some kind of trouble but White never gave them specifics.
"We didn't know what kind of trouble he'd been in, only that he'd done something that required him to put in the time," said Althia Turner, White's administrative assistant.
"John said he was doing a favor for George's father because an arrangement had to be made for the son to be there," said Willie Frazier, also a former player for the Houston Oilers and a P.U.L.L. summer volunteer in 1973.
Fred Maura, a close friend of White, refers to Bush as "43," for 43rd president, and his father as "41," for the 41st president.
"John didn't say what kind of trouble 43 was in - just that he had done something and he (John) made a deal to take him in as a favor to 41 to get some funding," Maura said.
"He didn't help run the program. I was in charge of him and I wouldn't say I helped run the program, either," said David Anderson, a recreational director at P.U.L.L.
A White House spokesman, told about the interviews, denied Bush had been in any trouble or Bush's father, who was ambassador to the United Nations at the time, had arranged the job at P.U.L.L. He acknowledged, however, Bush was not paid for his work there. Bush's father declined a request for an interview.
"It was incorrect to say he was working there," spokesman Trent Duffy said. "He was doing volunteer service and getting paid by the Guard."
Much like Bush's disputed 1972 service in the Alabama National Guard, his tenure at P.U.L.L. has been the subject of speculation over the years. Knight Ridder began asking questions more than two months ago about Bush's service at P.U.L.L. as part of an effort to fill in the facts about his early adulthood.
In the video shown at the 2000 Republican National Convention, Bush recalled how he came to the program.
"Well, a wonderful man named John White asked me to come and work with him in a project in the Third Ward of Houston," the president said in the video. "If we don't help others, if we don't step up and lead, who will?"
Other accounts have suggested his service was involuntary. A book published in 2000, largely discredited, said Bush was there to serve out a community service sentence for a drug arrest. At the time, however, Harris County, Texas, where Houston is located, had no formal community service program. A 1999 book, by a political reporter for The Dallas Morning News, said Bush's father had insisted on the service after Bush was involved in a drunk-driving incident.
No documents from Bush's time with P.U.L.L. exist. The agency, which closed in 1989, left most of its records behind when it moved to a new location in 1984. The building's owner, Southern Leather Co., said those were discarded. No one seems to know what happened to any remaining records after 1989. White's widow declined to be interviewed.
But many people recall Bush's tenure at the agency.
Turner, who said she has avoided reporters for years, agreed to be interviewed only after phoning her pastor for advice.
When she hung up the phone, she turned to a reporter: "My pastor says if you found me, I should tell the truth."
Even then, Turner was hesitant. About 15 minutes into the interview, she asked if the reporter would accompany her to her pastor's home because she needed her support. Once there, she talked in detail for the first time while her pastor, Theresa Times, of Bless One Ministries, and five people who had been attending a prayer meeting listened.
"George had to sign in and out - I remember his signature was a hurried cursive - but he wasn't an employee. He was not a volunteer either," she said. "John said he had to keep track of George's hours because George had to put in a lot of hours because he was in trouble."
The organization, which brought in children from Houston's poverty-stricken Third Ward community for sports, table games, tutoring and counseling, was a favorite charity for many Houstonians, including professional football players, who were frequent volunteers. While it was not unusual for other Houstonians to volunteer, none apparently kept the kind of hours Bush did.
"Bush was really into it and rarely missed a day," said Ernie Ladd, a P.U.L.L. founder and former defensive tackle for the Houston Oilers and the Kansas City Chiefs who was featured in the 2000 Republican National Convention video.
"I just don't recall other volunteers doing that, the way Bush did," said Oscar McClendon, who was assistant recreational director when Bush was there.
All agree Bush, who was 26 at the time, connected well with the teens, many of whom had been expelled from school. Ladd says Bush was "an excellent bridge for the kids."
"He connected them to the white community on a level they could understand," said Ladd, who's now a minister in Louisiana.
Others said whatever the reason Bush started work at P.U.L.L., it was a long time ago.
"Let's leave it like that," Maura said, adding, "`43' did more good being in trouble than a lot of people not in trouble. The guy knew he needed to change his life, and he did."
© Copyright 2004 Knight-Ridder