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George Bush Speech to Senators

January 21, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And finally a kind of coda to what is happening in Washington these days. They are the observations of former President George Bush on how things work, or should work, in the U.S. Senate and elsewhere. He spoke to senators last night at the Capitol, as part of a senate lecture series.

FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: When I raised my right hand and took the oath of office ten years ago today, I meant it when I held out my hand and pledged to work with the leadership here on Capitol Hill. And despite some ugly happenings that erupted early on over the Tower nomination, and later over the nomination Justice Thomas, things that divided the body, I was generally pleased with much of what we accomplished during the first two years. In a spirit of compromise, the Clean Air Acts and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which Tom Harkin and others were so active in, pieces of — landmark pieces of legislation that became a reality, happened just because the White House and the senate demonstrated bipartisanship and compromise.

If I had to pick one vote, I’d say the senate vote in January of ’91 on the resolution authorizing– I think I’m paraphrasing here– to use “any means necessary in order to liberate Kuwait” was the key senate vote during my presidency. To be honest, for weeks we debated whether to try and pass such a resolution in the senate. The worst of all worlds would have been had I not brought — had I brought the question before the congress and had I failed. I’m glad we did bring it here, and pleased that it passed. There was a 52-47 margin. I think it was the slimmest senate margin ever to vote for war. And naturally I feel that I demonstrated real shortcoming in not being able to convince more that it was in the interests of our country to send a clear and united signal to Saddam and to the world.

But anyway, I think it did send a signal that we were determined to do what we had to do. Before the resolution passed, my respected friend Dan Inouye — I don’t know if you remember this, but I’ll never forget it — he came down to the White House in a spirit of total goodwill, and he warned that if things go wrong on the use of force, you could well be impeached. And I’ll never forget that. And as it was, before the House voted on the resolution, several House members filed articles of impeachment against me. But we stayed the course, and I hope history will say not only that we won, but that we won with honor. And when our troops came home, this time they were welcomed with cheers, not jeers. And I might say that there was unanimous senate support once that first shot was fired, unanimous — cheers, not jeers. It was a united country that saluted our troops, united by a new respect for our military, and I think respect for the U.S. determination to lead, respect around the world.

Now, since leaving office, I have stayed away from Washington. But that does not mean that I lack interest in events here. I’ve refrained from commenting on the serious matter now before the senate, and I’m going to continue so to do. But like Howard Baker and many others, I confess that the lack of civility in our political debate and official dealings with one another concerns me. I worry, too, about sleaze, about excessive intrusion into private lives. I worry about once great news organizations that seem to resort to tabloid journalism, giving us sensationalism at best, and smut at the worst. I’ve got to be careful here, because I used to go around in these public speaking things — I know Colin is here, and he and I are on the public speaking circuit from time to time. Out in Salt Lake City, I received a standing ovation for bashing the press. I felt good about it. (Laughter) and I went to St. Louis – I went to St. Louis and a few weeks later, and the same thing: 14,000 screaming brilliant St. Louisans stood up and cheered as I knocked the hell out of the Washington press.

And then I got a letter from a friend of mine. He said “This is beneath you. You ought not to do this.” So I joined Press Bashers Anonymous, which is a — (Laughter) and I’ve been clean for six months. And I hope my remarks here do not show that I’m off the wagon. But I think it’s fair to note with seriousness that I think the times cry out for more accountability. And I think a lot of people in the national press understand that. All in all, it seems to me that whereas the problems looming over this town dealt more with budget deficit in times past, today we’re confronted with a kind of a deficit of decency, one that deepens by the day. And Washington’s a place for big ideas and doing big things. But it’s also a small town in many respects, too small for the bitter rancor that sometimes divides us. And having said that, as a former president, I don’t believe in placing outside pressure on the United States senate. I felt it was better for the senate to chart its own course, and do its business without certainly the intervention of this, the 41st president of the United States of America.

JIM LEHRER: Former President Bush, speaking in the old senate chamber at the Capitol last night.