PARADE MAGAZINE - DECEMBER 1, 1996
An interview with former President George Bush
"I've Had A Wonderful Life"
by Dotson Rader
LIFE PASSES IN FRONT of your eyes, said former President George Bush, recalling his experience as a Navy pilot shot down over the Pacific in World War II. "I was 19, and I was scared to death. It changed the way I look at life-mine having been spared, the lives of two others in the plane lost. A big burden. Why me? And out of it you emerge with a certain perspective you wouldn't have had if you hadn't been through something like that."
When George Bush left the Navy in 1945, having enlisted at 18 as its youngest pilot, he had flown 58 combat missions and won the Distinguished Flying Cross and three air medals.
"That experience helped me under- stand what it meant to fight a war," Mr. Bush continued. "As President I wasn't reckless in the use of force. But I was not afraid to commit people to battle, and that is the toughest decision a President makes."
I interviewed George Bush, now 72, at the home of a friend in Washington, D.C., and the former President looked tanned and very fit. Although he rarely gives interviews, he was relaxed and forthcoming on this occasion, and I used the opportunity to inquire about the values that had sustained him during his years in public.life. I also asked about his time in the White House, his feelings about America today and where he thought the country was headed.
We began by discussing Desert Storm, the 1991 military operation that is tie defining event of his Presidency.
"When Desert Storm came along," George Bush stated, I was determined that we were going to fight this one the right way. My view was partly based on what this young kid learned back in World War II, when the whole country was together in an all-out endeavor and everything was done to win. Later,I was offended by the way we fought the Vietnam War, although I supported the President. So with Desert Storm I was determined that we were going to do what was needed.
"I'll give you an example. We had 254000 men who went to Kuwait. The military said we needed double that. When I decided it, based on their recommendation, it never occurred to me to say, 'Hey, take a third of that,' or something like that. Did it! And Congress raised hell. Good men like Sam Nunn fought me, wanted sanctions to work. My view was, this is what they need to assure the lowest number of casualties and get the job done. They got it. And I took the heat accordingly."
When, I asked, does the nation have the right to tell a parent that his child is being ordered to war?
'You elect a President to make that decision" he answered, "and the President should be very careful about it. Faced with the decision of sending someone's son or daughter into battle, the President should have the support of the country and the world in the process and have a broad enough picture so the decision would be right.
"I was right on using force in Panama. We went down there and restored their democracy and brought an international drug dealer, [Manuel Noriega] to his just desserts. I was right on the humanitarian mission in Somalia. There was no American life lost there when I was President-- that came later. And I was right in standing against aggression in the Gulf War.
"I can justify each of these actions to my conscience", he added. "I can say with honor to the person suffering the loss of a son, "Your son didn't die in vain," because there was a moral principle at stake in each of these actions."
What about the criticism that Desert Storm was fought for economic reasons--for oil--and that no fundamental principles were involved?
'"The Gulf War was about aggression," Mr. Bush replied. "To say otherwise is totallv fallacious. I'm glad to take a shot at the leftists who made the argument to me all along that 'you're doing this for oil.' That's what those pickets were doing standing out there beating those damn drums in front of the White House when I was trying bo have dinner: 'No blood for oil'. They missed the point.
"The war was about one thing:Should a country with world's fourth-largest army--in this instance, Iraq--take over its neighbor without paying a price. Does one bully of a country move in on its neighbor, and the world sit by and say that's fine? If you want to make an economic case, we have economic interests in seeing the world's oil supply is not taken over by a madman. But what the battle was about--what the principle was about--was not oil. It was aggression" Since leaving the Oval Office almost four years ago, George Bush has traveled widely throughout the U.S., giving speeches and meeting Americans from all walks of life. I asked him about his sense of America and its future.
"I am very optimistic about the country," he replied. "Look at the world today. Look at the fact that tbere is no real danger of a nuclear exchange between superpowers. "That's gone. Now the problems are domestic: crime, violence, drugs, the economy, educational standards. But they've been with us all along.
"I sense there is a pessimism. Won't use tbe word 'malaise' like rtmmy Ca~er di& And it's too bad. Some of it is our public life, where nothing's off-bounds, even a woman's bedroom. Every rumor is printed. Too much sensationalism.
"I don't blame the media for all this," he said. "I think the Vietnam era was kind of the genesis of it-the fact that many people turned on the government and on the Vietnam policy as immoral, aod turned on public officials as liars. We Americans condoned things we should have condemned in those days. We condoned running away, calling policemen 'pigs,' condoned a lot of things in the name of anti-Vietnam sentiment.
"Then Watergate put a cloud over all public officials, fairly or unfairly, and that kind of solidified this doubt and cynicism, the determination to prove that all public servants are bad. They're not. The problems are there, the feeling is there. But I don't think it merits the kind of pessimism I detect "Today, when I give little speeches, I say, 'Hey, look at tbe big picture, Instead of bitching and griping, get in there and make things better!", he added. "Middle-American values have not been over-thrown. There's still a lot of respect for the flag and duty and honor. You saw what happened right after Desert Storm. It wiped out the divisions caused by Vietnan, at least for a while. The country came together. I know these problems are still there. All I'm saying is that I don't think we've lost our way as a nation or that people don't believe in out country or values anymore."
"When you speak of values," I queried Mr. Bush, "what values do you mean, and how did you come to them?"
"Comes from your parents," the former President replied.'l was blessed to be considered the son of privilege. People meant by that, hey, his parents had money. Well, they did. Far more importantly, we were privileged because Mother and Dad inculcated into us certain values. My folks showed us honesty, integrity, honor, duty, service by the way they lived."
George Bush's parents were Prescott and Dorothy Walker Bush. His father was a Wall Street banker and U.S. Senator from Connecticut from 1952 to 1963. George Bush was educated at Phillips Academy, an exclusive prep school in Andover, Mass., and at Yale.
"My mother was the one who bawled us out if we did things wrong," he said. "Set the example. She never spoke ill of people. You ask anyone in our family who remembers her, and they'll all say the same thing. Mother was about as close to perfection as you could be."
The former President's mother died four years ago. His father died in 1972.
"One time, when I was in the eighth grade, a friend of mine said, 'I wish my mother was like yours,"' Mr. Bush recalled. "I thought to myself, 'How could a guy say that? How could somebody not love his mother as much as I love my mother?' Funny how you remember something. I mean, good God, that was 60 years ago. I guess because she was the symbol to me of everything good and caring and wonderful.
"And my dad? He was an austere, strong person. People looked up to him. A natural-born leader. When his friends were climbing off the club car after their martini to go home, my dad would go down to the Greenwich[Conn.] Town Meeting, where he was moderator. And we kids would watch. We'd see him doing things like that. Giving back."
"My values came from loving parents," he said. "But what about these divided families? I do believe that the biggest problem facing our country is the disintegration of the family, and I don't have an easy answer for it. If more kids had loving parents, we might have fewer problems. But if that can't be, then we've got to call on some of the thousands of points of light." One of the themes of the Bush Presidency was an emphasis on nongovernmental community and personal action directed at social problems. The Bush family's public embrace of the idea is most clearly represented by Barbara Bush's crusade for literacy.
"Any definition of a successful life must include service to others," he said. "Every problem that faces this country overall is being solved somewhere. Teenage pregnancy? You can find some program teaching kids that they shouldn't get pregnant before they're out of school. Or crime or drugs? There's hundreds of these programs. It's volunteerism, and I'm proud that we took a rather significant leadership role."
George Bush first held public office when he was elected to Congress from Houston in 1966, following a highly successful career in the Texas oil business. After a failed Senate bid in 1970, Bush was named ambassador to the UN, then he became chairman of the GOP National Committee in 1973. The following year, President Ford named him to head the first diplomatic liaison office in the People's Republic of China Ford appointed him to head the CIA in 1975, a position he left after Carter's victory the next year. In 1980 he won the first of two terms as Vice President to Ronald Reagan, whom he succeed- ed to the Oval Office in 1988.
I asked Mr. Bush if, after nearly a lifetine in politics, he still had any political ambitions?
"I don't have any ambitions," he replied, laughing. "The only interest I've got in politics is in my two sons. One of them was elected, and the other lost. Both are respected."
The oldest of the Bush children, George, 50, is governor of Texas. His brother Jeb, 43, lost a close race for governor of Florida in 1994 and is expected to run again. The other chil dren--Neil, 41, Marvin, 40, and Dorothy Bush Koch, 37--are married and work in private life. George and Barbara Bush's second child, a daughter Robin, died ofleukemia in 1983. They have 14 grandchildren.
"We shy away from political engagements," Mr. Bush continued. "Barbara's the same way. I don't want to be at the head table anymore. I care about being a good citizen. I don't join boards of directors, and I don't go into business deals. I've had every opportunity to join in putting a petrochemical plant in Kuwait, a chance to make money. I haven't done it.
"The way I make a living is giving speeches. Get paid a lot of lnoaey for giving a speech." Mr. Bush reported- ly receives $70,000 to $100,000 per speech. "No conflict of interest. I de- cide who to speak to, who not to. I don't feel guilty about it at all. I'm conducting myself right.
"Spend a lot of time with the grand-kids," he went on. "Fishing with one of my grandsons in Maine yesterday. It's wonderful and some of that's very selfish of me, but it's the joy of spending time with these kids. Barbara reads to them all the time. That's good stuff, very important, and it's fun. And I'm entitled to a little fun now, not that I've had a tough life."
How did he think history would judge his Presidency?
"History will be kinder, I think, than the voters sometimes were", Mr. Bush answered. "Maybe my mother, if she were looking down, is saying,'No braggadocio, George! Let other people find your good points.' Maybe that's why I feel a little inhibited in speaking about myself. I'm proud that we upheld the honor of the White House. We did our job with integriry and honor. When I say 'we,' I'm talking about Barbara too.
"I think the START II Treaty with Yeltsin was a significant step toward world peace. [the treaty, to eliminate land-based multiple-warhead missiles and reduce long-range nuclear arsenals, was signed on Jan. 3, 1993, in Moscow.] As for the rest, I think I'd rather let history make that determination. I'd like to think that 20 years from now--if I'm still alive, and I think I will be--there will have been some revision after that Presidential defeat that hurtback some four years ago. History will point out plenty of mistakes and some successes, and people will say, 'Wait a minute. They did some good things here.' I was there. Did my best. I had a wonderful life."