(Updated from June20, 2004)
Former President Bush, who just turned 80, says: “Although I’m happily growing old I still have plenty of energy and look forward to each day. The only thing that bothers me about aging is that I want to be here on earth long enough to see my 14 grandchildren grow up in a peaceful world, be happily married and raising their children. And, as for any great grandchildren, . . . bring ’em on.”
In an exclusive interview to mark his milestone, the 41st president of the United States adds: “By being around youthful people who make my age go away, I stay young at heart. Physically, I feel great. I received a clean bill of health from Mayo Clinic, and my friend, Sonny Montgomery, calls me the proverbial ‘spring colt’.”
George H. W. Bush demonstrated his fitness and vitality with another parachute jump Ñ to celebrate his 80th birthday Ñ on the grounds of his Presidential Library and Museum at Texas A&M University. Describing the jump as “heaven and exhilarating,” he said he hopes it will inspire senior citizens to be more active.
What crossed his mind on that momentous day when he entered the Oval Office and saw his eldest son sitting at his former desk? ‘A sense of history, but mainly a sense of great pride in our new President. I also had an overwhelming feeling of love.’
His parachute jump Ñ in keeping with a personal vow to “someday do it right” Ñ in a sense, replicates the World War II jump he made 60 years ago. On September 2, 1944 he bailed out of a flaming torpedo bomber near Japanese–held Chichi Jima Island, and was rescued after 5 hours in the sea. (He was one of a 3-member crew to survive enemy fire from the island.)
It was on his 18th birthday when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a Seaman Second Class. The following year he earned his wings and was commissioned as the youngest naval aviator assigned to USS San Jacinto in the Pacific.
What is the 41st President’s secret for longevity and fitness?
“I’d say it is my love of life and the love and support of my entire family,” he tells me. “Also, fitness has always been important to me. I try to stay fit with fast walking and other gym-related activities. Oh, once in awhile I get tired and notice there are things I can’t do anymore.”
Yet, he still revels in fresh-air sports: fishing, swimming, high speed boating, hunting, golf and horseshoes. His passion for pitching horseshoes was once so intense that, after he became President, he asked the National Park Service to build a horseshoe pit on the White House grounds. It remains near the swimming pool, some 100 feet from the Oval Office.
In recognizing his father’s love of competitive sports, President George W. Bush designated him to lead the Presidential delegation representing the U.S. at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. Members of the delegation included Mrs. Barbara Bush; her twin granddaughters, Barbara and Jenna Bush; U.S. Ambassador to Greece Thomas Miller; tennis champion Chris Evert and Faye and Alex Spanos, owner/chairman of A. G. Spanos Companies and the San Diego Chargers.
You know, having one son as president and one son as governor are blessings, the joy of which I cannot describe. I’m so proud of them. At the same time, I don’t want to see them hurt in what, unfortunately, has become a mean, intrusive political climate.
As former President Bush turns 80, what stirs within him?
“Stirring within me is the fact that I’ve had a wonderful, very happy and satisfying life. I have many blessings to count — and miles yet to go,” he tells me. “In my personal life, the best decision I made was to marry Barbara Pierce. We first met after Pearl Harbor was attacked. America was at war, so ours was a wartime romance . . . .Yet, ever since, to me, it has been a classic love story.
“Other gratifying turning points in my life were when I watched our son George become the 43rd President of the U. S.; our son Jeb become the governor of Florida; and when I was sworn in as the 41st president of the U. S. . . .
“You know, having one son as president and one son as governor are blessings, the joy of which I cannot describe. I’m so proud of them. At the same time, I don’t want to see them hurt in what, unfortunately, has become a mean, intrusive political climate.Ó
Why, then, I asked, is he so pleased that two of his five children are prominent in the political arena? (His other three children are “happy, out of politics.Ó)
“Because,Ó he says, “if good and competent people are unwilling to get involved, our system of democracy is diminished.”
Before she died (at age 91), my mother was the moral leader of our family and the idol of our children and grandchildren. I often think of her advice on the fundamentals Ñ to be tolerant, to turn the other cheek, to stand against discrimination and for fair play.
When contemplating his legacy, does he think in terms of his two sons as being an extension of him?
“Regarding George and Jeb, I don’t think in terms of legacy,” he says. “I just take much pride in two extraordinarily able and strong men, who, on their own Ñ without their father’s help Ñ have already come a long way.”
Born in Milton, Massachusetts in 1924, George Herbert Walker Bush was named for his mother’s father. He credits his parents with instilling in him a respect for principles and values that motivate him to this day. “My mother was the personification of everything that is good, everything that is, for our family, the Christian ethic,” he recalls. “She set examples, she would discipline us, then put her arms around us and love us.
“Before she died (at age 91), my mother was the moral leader of our family and the idol of our children and grandchildren. I often think of her advice on the fundamentals Ñ to be tolerant, to turn the other cheek, to stand against discrimination and for fair play.”
As a boy, George H. W. Bush often went to Yankee Stadium with his father, and had hopes of one day playing first base there. Years later, when baseball great George Herman ‘Babe’ Ruth came to Yale University to present his papers at a ceremony at the stadium, George Bush, as captain of the baseball team, was chosen to receive the papers on behalf of the University. (He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in economics from Yale in 1948 Ñ the year ‘Babe’ Ruth died.) And today, he says that “meeting ‘Babe’ Ruth was one of the most memorable days of his young life.
While the former president did not pursue a career in baseball, he is, today, one senior citizen who is the personification of the premise that there is life after 40 Ñ even after 80.
Since leaving the presidency in 1993, he has been in constant demand for speaking engagements, and has visited some 56 foreign countries. He co-authored, with Gen. Brent Scowcroft (his former National Security Advisor), a book on his administration’s foreign policy. He also wrote “All the Best”, a collection of his letters written over the years. And he works for numerous charities Ñ “mostly by appearing . . . and even though I no longer make truly big decisions, I still care about the welfare of others, and I want to ‘give something back.'”
George H.W. Bush singles out two of many turning points in his life: joining the Navy in 1942 and moving from the East Coast to Texas after graduating from Yale. “Those two moves really changed my life in significant ways,” he recalls, “I mention my move to Texas because that is where I learned a lot about entrepreneurship and risk-taking.Ó
His first job was as a clerk in an oil-equipment company in Odessa, Texas, and he soon rose to become co-founder and president of an oil drilling company. In 1966, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas’ 7th district and served two terms. He also served as Ambassador to the United Nations (1971-73); Chairman of the Republican National Committee (1973-74), Chief of the U.S. Liaison office in Beijing (1974); Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (1976); Vice President and President (1981-93).
When he was head of the liaison office in China, it was a restricted period as far as contact with the Chinese leaders was concerned. Nonetheless, he set out to learn about the people and the country. He even studied Chinese. He and Mrs. Bush bicycled around Beijing, asked questions, invited people to their home and developed a real feel for them and their culture.
Ê”All my jobs, including those in the private sector, were fulfilling,” he says. “I particularly enjoyed serving in our military, being Director of the CIA, the Vice President and, of course, the President, which was my most challenging job.” (He was the first sitting vice president to ascend to the presidency since Martin van Buren, in 1837.)
It was late in the 1970s, when, he recalls, he first realized that he wanted to be president of the U.S. And he articulated his reasons for that goal on the NBC program Meet the Press. “I believe I can make a difference,” he stated, “I’d like to reawaken our sense of pride in ourselves as it applies to our relationship abroad . . . People abroad are wondering, ‘Does the U.S. want to lead the free world anymore?'”
The President has lived up to all my expectations, to all my hopes. He is a very strong leader. He faces huge problems without complaint. A major achievement is his being seen as a strong leader, and the man of character that he is.
As vice president, George Bush ate lunch with President Reagan in the Oval Office every Thursday, and they shared views on domestic issues and foreign affairs as well as personal sentiments. Despite their fierce competition in the presidential primaries in 1980, they were genuinely loyal to one another.
While preparing a profile on George Bush for his 70th birthday, I asked Ronald Reagan about those private lunches. He did not disclose much of the substance of their sessions, but did tell me that George Bush was “much more than a silent partner and that his solid advice was valued.”
In his last interview before revealing Ñ in a poignant farewell letter on November 5, 1994 Ñ that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Ronald Reagan also told me: “From our weekly luncheons and from our constant interaction, I really got to know George. He was always well informed and cooperative.
“I believe that no American vice president should sit on the sidelines, waiting; he or she should be like an executive vice president of a corporation Ñ active Ñ and George was all that. He was part of all we did ø during times of crises and times of historic triumphs and achievements.”
Ronald Reagan also recalled: “As Vice President, George led the task force to cut away excess regulation, saving Americans 600 million man-hours of paperwork a year and making possible millions of new jobs. He also worked with our allies to strengthen NATO; and he helped make possible the new INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty.”
Ronald Reagan noted that George Bush had launched a successful major offensive against drug smuggling that succeeded in blocking a record 70 tons of cocaine from reaching our communities. “In addition, he handled our Task Force on Terrorism that advised me on policy,” Mr. Reagan told me. “He was the architect of the plans we put into effect.”
In defending George H.W. Bush’s role in the Iran-Contra affair ø the crisis that engulfed and threatened his presidency ø Mr. Reagan also remembered that George Bush had been completely honest. “He was supportive of our policy to establish communication with the pragmatic leadership in Iran with the goal of eventually renewing U.S.-Iranian relations. Yes, he had some reservations, but that often happened with other issues. For example, when we discussed and debated any policy at cabinet meetings, some members still had reservations after I made a decision. But once the decision was made, they supported it. That’s what George did Ñ he supported my decisions.”
George H.W. Bush, who last visited with Ronald Reagan about seven years ago, maintains that it was President Reagan who had set the stage for the world to change in a positive way. “He contributed by building a solid foundation of principles,” he says, “and I was proud to build upon that.”
He further describes Ronald Reagan as “a true American hero and a prophet in his time; a man whose life embodied freedom and who nurtured freedom.Ó
What did George Bush learn from his boss, President Reagan?
“I learned a lot more about the value of character, about loyalty and about just plain decency and kindness,” he tells me. “I also learned about being a principled man in office.”
It was only a few days later that he expanded on these recollections at Ronald Reagan’s State funeral in Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral: “. . .As his Vice President for eight years, I learned more from President Reagan than from anyone I encountered in all my years of public life.”
And what did he learn from his own presidency?
“I learned that the power to get things done is exaggerated,” he says. “It is magnified out of proportion. You can get some things done, but you can’t wave a wand to have everything work the way you want it. The presidency is too complicated.”
He emphasizes that the most onerous decision that he had to make as President was to commit troops to battles, and his most difficult moment in the Oval Office was when he had to decide whether or not to send someone’s son or daughter to war.
“To commit one to fight, to put one in harm’s way is the toughest of all calls,Ó he asserts. “I did this in Panama, in the Gulf and Somalia, but I did it knowing we were going to give them full support Ñ to enable them to complete their mission, to win and come home.
Ê”You know, dealing with our military was important to me because I believe in ‘duty, honor, and country’. My own military experience in World War II well equipped me to wrestle with the problems of military action. That also instilled in me a respect for those who do their duty for our country. I was proud to wear our uniform in World War II, and when I was Commander in Chief I took pride in my support of the military.”
What were the saddest moments in the former president’s life?
“In my presidency, the saddest times were when I met with and tried to comfort the families of the soldiers killed while serving with honor in our military,Ó he says. “And in my personal life, the saddest moment was the death of our daughter, Robin.”
Robin died of leukemia in 1953, before her 4th birthday. Ever since, her father has been tireless in his efforts to fight the war on cancer. Besides his chairmanship of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, he recently accepted the co-chairmanship of C-Change. Previously known as the National Dialogue on Cancer, the organization’s goal is to prevent one million cases of the disease and 500,000 deaths by the year 2010.
Former President Bush ø together with cancer experts ø helped to launch C-Change during a recent press conference in Washington, D.C. He pointed out that, from his own experiences in dealing with complex issues, it is impossible to make headway without collaborative discussions. “We in the cancer-fighting community,Ó he added, “need to pull together to help accelerate the pace of progress being made by the scientific community.”
Andrew H. Card Jr., the 41st President’s Deputy Chief of Staff and his Secretary of Transportation, first met George H. W. Bush 30 years ago when Mr. Bush chaired the Republican National Committee. “It was a difficult time for the Party because it was being attacked during the ‘Watergate’ scandal,” Secretary Card recalls. “I was impressed with his leadership and his strength of character. He is a man of compassion and an excellent listener who invites people to come into his world and make significant contributions. I saw, first hand, his understanding of the presidency and its huge demands. And because I respect him and love him, I don’t want to let him down now while I serve as chief of staff for his son.”
‘I saw father and son, together, in the Oval Office,’ Chief of Staff Andrew Card says. ‘I saw tears in their eyes. Their tremendous mutual respect for each other and for the office of the presidency was evident . . . and I thought to myself, what a historic scene for me to witness.’
Mr. Card adds that former President Bush led our country during a period of dramatic world change when East and West Germany were unified. “He also guided the U.S. and international scene when perestroika and glasnost became real, and Mikhail Gorbachev was able to hand over the powers of government without disruption to Boris Yeltsin,” Mr. Card says. “He helped to liberate Panamanians from the rule of Noriega; and he also showed steadfast determination in making sure that Saddam Hussein would not get away with violating international rules by invading Kuwait. He put together an unprecedented coalition to push Saddam back into his own country so he could no longer terrorize the Kuwaitis and Saudis. That coalition, led by the United States, held together and was critical in demonstrating the resolve of the United Nations.”
Turning to the relationship between the Presidents Bush, Chief of Staff Card says: “Father and son have a good relationship and frequently speak to one another. The father offers the support of a loving dad, but doesn’t advise his son on politics, policy or philosophy. He understands the sitting President’s role. And his son reciprocates by being a good and loving son.”
Mr. Card describes a poignant scene in the Oval Office on January 20, 2001. “I was there after the inaugural parade with the new president,” he remembers. “Suddenly, his father entered and each called out to the other: ‘Mr. President.’
ÓI saw father and son, together, in the Oval Office. I saw tears in their eyes. Their tremendous mutual respect for each other and for the office of the presidency was evident . . . and I thought to myself, what a historic scene for me to witness.”
And in a recent Oval Office interview, I asked President Bush about the poignancy of that moment. “Oh, yes, I remember it well,Ó he began. “At the end of the parade, I came here to the Oval Office. I walked in here and I sat near that desk and kind of absorbed this beautiful office in which we speak right now. And it dawned on me that something was missing. And what was missing was that my dad wasn’t here to savor that moment. So I phoned him at the Residence to say I wished for his company.
“Soon after, I saw him walk in here through that Rose Garden entrance. It was a very touching moment because here was my father, who himself was once the president, greeting me as the newly sworn-in president.Ó
Earlier, during his father’s 80th birthday interview, I asked him what crossed his mind on that momentous day when he entered the Oval Office and saw his eldest son sitting at his former desk. “A sense of history crossed my mind, but mainly a sense of great pride in our new President,” he told me. “I also had an overwhelming feeling of love.”
Of course, I would have liked to have won re-election in 1992, but [he hesitates] had that happened, perhaps George and Jeb might not be in the offices they now hold.
Today, 3 1/2 years later, has George H.W. Bush’s first-born child Ñ the 43rd president Ñ lived up to his father’s expectations?
“Yes,” he was quick to reply. “The President has lived up to all my expectations, to all my hopes. He is a very strong leader. He faces huge problems without complaint. A major achievement is his being seen as a strong leader, and the man of character that he is. You can see that for yourself. You can ask him what his vision is for today’s world. He can speak well for himself on that subject.Ó
Regarding any father-son advice, he maintains: “I do not give him advice on policy, on elections, on anything . . .”
Nonetheless, he voices frustration with his son’s media coverage. “Some in the media do not like our President,” he says. “But the press does its job and he does his. I felt the same way back in 1992. The media was then exceptionally hostile to me. This can be objectively proved by several post- election surveys.Ó
He continues: “I never was able to convince the Washington Press Corps of what my real heartbeat was about. I didn’t come through as a caring person and one with a sense of humor. Some reported that I was posturing to get away from my Ivy League background when I played horseshoes or listened to country music. Others wrote that I wasn’t tough enough. I believe my record entitled me to a better assessment, but I couldn’t get around those misperceptions.”
Do those misperceptions still concern him?
“There is nothing I can tell you that will change the misperceptions of me,” he maintains. “They are locked in, but I no longer care about that. I care only in terms of how the public sees President Bush and Governor Bush. They are honest and honorable men with good families. Yet, some in the media like to go well beyond the bounds of plain, common decency. And as you well know, I have always disdained the politics of personal destruction.”
As for his regrets, he says: “I have few. Of course, I would have liked to have won re-election in 1992, but [he hesitates] had that happened, perhaps George and Jeb might not be in the offices they now hold.”
Another regret, he allows, is that he would like to have been a better communicator Ñ so as to better inform Americans of his messages. “Given the way history worked out, raising taxes was not good because it was contrary to what I had stated,” he adds. “Some people said I broke my word and that is a major regret. Raising taxes was my worst decision. I think I lost the election because of the economy. Yet, what I was saying about the economy ø at that time Ñ was true. For instance, the economy was better than it had been reported. But the media pounded me on how bad things were. When I said we were not in a recession, the press ridiculed me. It turned out that the recession had ended in the spring of 1991.
“Yet in 1992, I could not convince the American people of that. I could not convince them that we were not in a depression and that the economy had recovered. In fact, we handed the Clinton Administration a fast-growing economy.”
Gen. Brent Scowcroft also regrets that George H.W. Bush did not have four more years “to build the sense of closenessÓ with more foreign leaders. “That could have done much to promote a closer world community,Ó Gen. Scowcroft adds. “He had communicated directly with numerous foreign leaders. He listened to their problems, explained his views, discussed what U.S. policy was, or should be, thus adding a new and invaluable dimension to America’s ability to act and be received as the leader of the Free World.”
James A. Baker III , former President Bush’s Secretary of State, traveled to 90 foreign countries as the U.S. confronted the unprecedented challenges and opportunities of the post Cold War era. “I think,Ó Mr. Baker says, “history will treat him very, very well. He was president at a time of remarkable global change. The world, as he and I had known it all our adult lives, changed fundamentally with the collapse of communism, the end of the Cold War and the implosion of the Soviet Union.
“In addition, during his presidency, America successfully fought the Gulf War and in Panama. Through his leadership, Germany reunified as a member of NATO, and Israel and all of her Arab neighbors negotiated face to face for the first time at the Madrid peace conference. The former president managed all of this with skill and dexterity.”
In James Baker’s book, “The Politics of Diplomacy” (Putnam, 1995), he writes:Ê “Friendships mean a lot to George H.W. Bush. Indeed, his loyalty to friends is one of his defining personal strengths. Yet, some have suggested it became one of his greatest political weaknesses, and that, out of concern for some friendships, he stayed loyal for too long to people who hurt his presidency.”
The media was then exceptionally hostile to me. This can be objectively proved by several post-election surveys. I never was able to convince the Washington Press Corps of what my real heartbeat was about.
Gen. Scowcroft concurs: “If I observed any faults, it was perhaps that he was too loyal Ñ in that he would support colleagues and associates even after it had become apparent that they were not adequately suited to the jobs they held, or were about to hold.”
In his 12 years as vice president and president, George H.W. Bush witnessed a number of scandals, including “Watergate,Ó “Iran-gateÓ and the Savings & Loan crisis. On his last full day in the Oval Office as President, I asked him how he would advise future presidents to prevent similar scandals.
“If they asked, I would suggest that there be no loose cannons in the White House,” he told me during that January, 1993 interview. “People around a president or vice president can make or break his image. So he needs to surround himself with competent and caring individuals who do not have their own agendas.
“Also, there is a need for revival of ethical behavior, and exemplary conduct must come from officials and leaders. It cannot be legislated. In the White House, what mattered to me most were integrity and responsibility. I believe that public service has been damaged by people who do not have the judgment to place the public’s business above their own self-interest. Abuse of power and unethical conduct should not be tolerated at any level of government, and no one should use government jobs for personal gain.”
Particularly significant to George H. W. Bush is the 258-acre complex named after him in the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia Ñ the first Washington, D.C. area tribute to him. At the dedication ceremony of the George Bush Center for Intelligence, Mr. Bush, the only CIA director to have become president of the U.S., was hailed as a war hero by then-Director George Tenet.
“Every component of the Agency feels indebted to George Bush in some way because his belief in the fundamental importance of its work never faltered,Ó Mr. Tenet stated. “He was a staunch defender of the need for human intelligence Ñ for espionage Ñ at a tough time when it really counted.Ó
Accepting a model of the sign bearing the name of the compound, George H. W. Bush, in his remarks, observed: “My stay here had a major impact on me. The CIA became part of my heartbeat and it has never gone away. I hope it will be said that in my time here, and in the White House, I kept the trust and treated my office with respect.”
And to the assembled CIA employees, Mr. Bush added: “Your mission is different now from what it was in my time. The Soviet Union is no more. Some people think, “What do we need intelligence for?Ó My answer is that plenty of enemies abound . . . unpredictable leaders willing to export instability or to commit crimes against humanity. Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, narco-trafficking, people killing each other, fundamentalists killing one another in the name of God, and many more.
“To combat them, we need more intelligence, not less. We need more human intelligence and more protection for the methods we use to gather intelligence, and more protection for our sources, particularly our human sources who risk their lives for their country.”
If I could leave but one legacy, it would be for a return to the moral compass that must guide America.
Former President Bush went on to say that even though he is now a “tranquil guy” he still has “contempt and anger for those who betray the trust by exposing” the names of our intelligence sources.
“They are, in my view, the most insidious of traitors,” he asserted. “George Tenet is exactly right when it comes to the mission of the CIA and the intelligence community. Give the President and the policy-makers the best possible intelligence product and stay out of the policymaking or policy implementing Ñ except as specifically decreed in the law.”
If George H. W. Bush could relive his 80 years, what would he do differently?
“Not much,” he replies. “My life has been a good one. I just tried to do well in each job and lead a meaningful life. I also tried to make a difference in other people’s lives.”
In 1987, as vice president, his concern for human rights took him to the infamous Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz in Poland. Upon his return, he told me that visit had made him more determined Ñ not just to remember the Holocaust, but to strengthen his resolve to renew America’s commitment to human rights the world over.
He had quoted Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, who, when visiting refugees from Kosovo in Macedonia some five years ago, stated: “In extreme situations, when human lives and dignity are at stake, neutrality is a sin.”
And, at the close of a Millennium Evening at the White House on ‘The Perils of Indifference: Lessons Learned From a Violent Century,” Elie Wiesel had told me that in the years he has known George H.W. Bush, he always found him to be sensitive to issues related to human rights.
“When he was Vice President,” Elie Wiesel added, “he directed the rescue mission that brought the surviving remnant of Ethiopian Jews to Israel and he was instrumental in enabling a group of Nobel laureates to go to Poland, still under the dictatorship of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski.”
Today, if former President Bush were granted one wish for his 80th birthday, what would it be?
“My wish now is for a democratic Iraq Ñ free and democratic, followed by total elimination of international terror,” he responds. “Since September 11, 2001, the whole world has changed because it now knows that no country is totally safe from the forces of evil, and of terror.”
All in all, how does the 41st president want to be remembered?
“If I could leave but one legacy, it would be for a return to the moral compass that must guide America,’ he concludes. “. . . .Let historians be the judge of my life and what I have tried to do. I hope the verdict is that I did my best and served America with honor and with decency.Ó
Trude B. Feldman, a veteran White House and State Department correspondent, has covered George H. W. Bush since he became a congressman from Texas in 1967.Ê She interviewed him as Ambassador to the United Nations, as Vice President, and as President. Her 3-part series Ñ “George Bush at 75” Ñ was internationally syndicated and was inserted in the Congressional Record by Senators Richard Lugar and Joseph I. Lieberman.