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How President George H.W. Bush ‘saw things differently’

As Americans pay their respects to former President George H.W. Bush, we speak with some of the political colleagues who knew him best. Andy Card, his former deputy chief of staff, and former Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, join Judy Woodruff to discuss Bush’s ‘courageous’ commitment to the Americans with Disabilities Act and his remarkable ability to build relationships across party lines.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's continue our look at the life and legacy of President George H.W. Bush with former Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Andy Card. He served as the president's deputy chief of staff at the White House.

    Andy Card, welcome.

    Senator Tom Harkin, welcome to you.

  • Andy Card:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You met President Bush when he was at what point in his career?

  • Tom Harkin:

    Well, actually, when he was vice president, but in any meaningful way when he was president. That's really when I first began to deal with him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And was it the Americans With Disabilities Act that brought you together?

  • Tom Harkin:

    Well, actually, the first time, I was in my office on a Friday afternoon, and I got a call from the White House — my assistant did — and said, the president wanted to have some people down for drinks later in the afternoon. Would you — wanted you to go down. I said, sure.

    So I went down to the White House. it was a Friday afternoon. Barbara was gone. So, we had a bunch of guys down. And he made martinis for all of us, and he took us on a personal tour of the White House. First time I had ever been in the private quarters.

    So, it was a social event. And — but he was just the nicest person in the world. That was my first social interaction with him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so we're talking about a Republican president inviting a Democratic senator to come over to the White House and have cocktails.

  • Tom Harkin:

    And he made me a martini. Pretty good, too.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Andy Card, what was it about President Bush? Why was he comfortable talking and working with people across the aisle?

  • Andy Card:

    Well, President Bush number 41, first of all, he respected the institutions of government.

    He had served as a member of Congress, and he was very proud of that service in Congress. And he made great friends on both sides of the aisle. As the vice president of the United States, he was the president of the Senate. And that meant that he had great respect for the Senate.

    He also understood the importance of building relationships that were personal, not just political, and that sometimes politics would force people to take sides that they wouldn't have taken otherwise. And he was looking for that personal relationship that could help build coalitions to get things done.

    He didn't have the privilege of serving as president with a House or a Senate controlled by the same party as he was. And so he had to work on both sides of the aisle to get things done. And he had an amazing track record. Obviously, the Americans With Disabilities Act was — that's truly historic.

    People today don't even think about it because it was so historic. It made such a difference to those people who are disabled and challenged. He also signed into legislation the civil rights acts of 1991. He passed so many pieces of legislation. He left a legacy of fiscal discipline by giving up on his promise not to raise taxes, to instead agree to a deal that brought fiscal discipline, not only to the executive branch of government, but to the legislative branch of government.

    And it lasted for 10 years and allowed for us to have surpluses for the first time in eons. And it was just a remarkable contribution.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And people talk about he paid a political price for that, because there were — there was a tax increase.

  • Tom Harkin:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Tom Harkin, I do want to come back to the Americans With Disabilities Act, because it turned out that, later on, you did get involved in that.

    Do you understand why it was important to him? He went on to be the president who signed it into law.

  • Tom Harkin:

    Yes.

    President Bush never wavered once on his support for the Americans With Disabilities Act.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why? Why was that? Why do you think it mattered to him?

  • Tom Harkin:

    Well, I don't know.

    Every time I met with him or discussed it in any way with he or with Boyden Gray, it was just something that he felt inside that needed to be done.

    I mean, when he — when he signed it in law, he said something so unique. He said, let the shameful walls of discrimination come tumbling down. Shameful walls of discrimination.

    That's what we have had in this country for so long against people with disabilities. And when he said that, it was just electrifying.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Andy Card, can you shed any light on what it was about that issue that President Bush — that rang true with him?

  • Andy Card:

    President Bush had great sympathy and empathy for people who were challenged. And he had been challenged suffering through the death of his daughter.

    And that, I think, contributed to a mindset that saw things differently than a lot of other people did. And he was always committed to helping those people who are disabled.

    And Mike Deland, who served in his administration, was in a wheelchair. And the president was always understanding and supportive of him. And he did motivate Boyden Gray, who did a remarkable job of persistently pushing to get this legislation done.

    And John Sununu played a big role in that. There were lots of — Dick Thornburgh played a big role in getting the ADA past. So it was a team effort, but it couldn't have happened without President Bush's commitment. And his commitment was sincere. It wasn't political. It was passionate, and it really did get things done.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What was it about his approach to the presidency, Andy Card? I mean, every president comes into office with a different understanding. His father had been a United States senator.

    He obviously exceeded — reached an office well beyond that, the presidency. How did he look upon the office of the presidency?

  • Andy Card:

    Well, first of all, he looked at public service as a very noble call.

    And he had been inculcated — that was a word that his mother used — he had been inculcated with the responsibility to give back and to serve. And he did it with distinction. But he was the most prepared person ever to be president. He had the very best resume.

    But he also had a great appreciation of watching how President Reagan served when President Bush was serving as vice president. And he learned a different perspective, the value of bipartisanship. And he worked hard on Capitol Hill.

    I can't overstress how significant it was that he had personal relationships with members of the House and the Senate that went beyond politics.

    And Dan Rostenkowski, Tom Foley, they all recognized that President Bush was interested in getting….

  • Judy Woodruff:

    These are Democrats, yes.

  • Andy Card:

    They were Democrats. They were very partisan Democrats.

    And they were interested in getting things done. And President Bush worked with them. It took a lot of courage to do that, a lot of political courage. But President Bush was willing to do it. And he did invite people to stand on the rug of American politics, rather than just on the fringe.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, Tom Harkin, what do you remember about him most as president?

  • Tom Harkin:

    Well, I have to remember about a president just what a decent, nice person he was.

    And — but locked in my memory forever will be, until I die, is him standing on that White House lawn on a beautiful July 26 day, 1990, to sign the Americans With Disabilities Act, when he said that — what I just mentioned, let the shameful walls of discrimination come tumbling down.

    It was the biggest gathering on the White House lawn ever for the signing of a bill. And, to me, it just showed the courage of this person. And that's what will always stick with me, how courageous he really was.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former Senator Tom Harkin, Andy Card, thank you both.

  • Andy Card:

    Thank you.

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