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President George H.W. Bush Talks About his Son’s Reelection Bid

Jim Lehrer speaks with former President George H.W. Bush about his impressions of the Republican National Convention, and about how his son's bid for reelection might parallel his own failed attempt 12 years ago.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Earlier today here in New York I spoke with the president's father, George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States, about convention speeches, among other things.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Mr. President, welcome.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    Seems like old times, Jim.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Yes, sir. Are there parallels between what your son faces now and what you faced for reelection in 1992?

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    I don't see real parallels. If there was one, it's the economy. I thought our economy was good and failed to get the truth out to the American people.

    I think the economy today is basically pretty good, but I have every confidence that the president's message about how the economy really is will more than offset the critics, so there's some parallel there, but in terms of national security there's no parallel at all, because 9/11 changed the world; it certainly changed our country.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    But in '92, you had done so well – you were doing so well in the polls as the result of the first Gulf War and all of that, and then by the time the convention came, the election came, you weren't doing so well because of the —

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    I stopped doing so well not so many months after the war, and then when you got into the campaign, the Clinton campaign was very effective in saying foreign policy – this is paraphrasing – doesn't matter — what does is the economy – it's the economy, stupid.

    And they got in the cross hairs and you know, they in turn made out like the economy was horrible and it wasn't – so they did a very good job on that, but the war was over, and I say successfully, and we did what we said we were going to do, but people have forgotten that; maybe we should have raised it more, I don't know.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    The president, of course, is going to make his speech tonight. Your speech that you made in 1992, do you have any memories of whether that – that you were effective or ineffective or anything –

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    I have no memories. My problem is, Jim, I'm getting older and I know if you asked what was your good line or what was the essence of the speech about, I could not tell you, and I am not trying to avoid the question.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Sure.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    I just don't know, I just don't remember. That's why I don't go around doing a lot of interviews.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Sure. There's a story in the New York Times this morning about re-nomination speeches, and let me read you this paragraph, because it's about you. It says, quote, well, it was a mistake to go along with the Democratic tax increase President George H.W. Bush declared in 1992, offering up a mea culpa, rare for any president, quote, and I admit it, end quote. Do you remember saying that?

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    No. But I remember saying no taxes and then having had to in my view make a compromise to control spending and taxes, and that's just – I remember that from 1988, and I do remember that.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    That was the "Read My Lips" speech.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    Yes. I wish like hell I had never said that because they could focus on the quote, rather than on how the economy was, and, you know, that hurt me, I think.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Yeah. Is the – you don't think your son is facing a similar kind of situation in what he's got to –

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    I think he's faced with attacks that are similar, a bunch of Democrats running around saying the economy is lousy, and they got to — our side has to answer them effectively, but I think they have and are and I think the economy is clearly further along now than it was in '92, even though the growth in '92 was, you know, 5 percent in the last quarter. But I think – I think they've got a more effective communications team and better to get the message out. I think our president does.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Do you agree with the pundits who say really isn't the economy; it's going to be the Iraq War that's going to decide this election?

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    Well, I've always felt that the economy is what determines elections, but that was pre-9/11, so I guess I'd have to say, I don't know, I don't know whether I agree with them or not.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Yeah.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    Because I don't know the answer; I don't know the bottom line, but I think — put it this way: if the economy, if the American people see the economy not as better, but as strong as it is, I think the president will breeze to victory.

    But I think that 9/11 made – post 9/11 makes terrorism, homeland security, and all of these issues that I didn't even have to contend with, and so I think foreign policy, war, national security are more important ingredients than they were back when I was running.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Why do you think the country is so divided over the Iraq military action?

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    I don't know. I honestly don't know. We had divisions when we had to go to war in 1992, the Congress voted to give me the right to use whatever means were necessary to get Saddam Hussein out, and that was a party line vote. We forget that.

    George Mitchell and Kerry and all these people voted against that, and they viewed – oh, let sanctions work longer, we'll delay this, and they had, you know, rationale afterwards. To their credit, when the war started, you know, we support our troops kind of thing. I remember that very distinctly, and I think that's somewhat different than then, but they made it a partisan vote. And I think a lot of the attacks on the president are partisan attacks.

    But, frankly, very few people are saying, stop, bring the troops home, very few are saying that, and I don't think it's a partisan thing.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Yeah. But the public opinion polls show the American people divided almost 50/50 on the issue –

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    On Bush/Kerry?

  • JIM LEHRER:

    No, No. No, No. On the issue of whether or not it was — we were justified in taking preemptive action in going into Iraq in the first place.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    Yeah, that's true, but we're there. You know what I'd like to do. I'd like to ask those on the other side: Do you think we're better off with the status quo?

    Do you think we were better off, or the Iraqi people were better off when Saddam Hussein was in office? Do you really think that's what we ought to have? And I went to do a show yesterday and I said you know, somebody ought to ask this awful Michael Moore, this – you know who I'm talking about — moveon.org–

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Right.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    — horrible guy – and ought to ask him – so they went and asked him and he kind of hedged around; he didn't say, no, we ought to have Saddam Hussein back. So I think if you phrased the question that way, there's plenty of support for the president, but if, you know, are you troubled by the way things are; there are these divisions.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    You know, Mr. President, conventional wisdom is that you would never have taken preemptive action in a situation that existed before Iraq if you had been president under the same situation. Is that conventional wisdom correct?

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    No, because I think I said back then – I'd have to look at it – I know I remember telling, I think it was Danny Inoue and he came to see me –

  • JIM LEHRER:

    The senator from Hawaii.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    Yes. And he told me he couldn't vote with me on this resolution and that I said was really a battle – and I said, well, Dan, I might have to do this anyway. I feel so strongly about the moral equation here that I would use force even if the Congress did not back me on this. So I think – I hope my recollection is correct – and I think it is – so I believe I would have done what you asked about.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Okay. So it's not inconsistent with the way you thought or think about things.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    No.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Or thought about things as president.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    No. We tried to put together a coalition, which we did. We tried to get the Congress' support, which eventually we did. But if we hadn't had it, I think we would have had to do it.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    You know, Mr. President, there's an awful lot of people who say it's just kind of common terminology, Bush I, Bush II. In other words, you're Bush I in terms of the Bush administration; your son is now Bush II. And some people say it's an extension of the same presidency. Should people see it that way at all?

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    As an extension?

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Kind of an extension of the same –

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    No, I don't see it any more than it is an extension of the, you know, Ronald Reagan presidency. I think each president is an individual, his own convictions, his own emphasis, his own courage or his own style of leadership. So I don't think it's an extension. I can see why people might say that, but that implies to me, Jim, an extension of the presidency – this is kind of a master plan – the old guy did this, and now the son is doing that. No such thing.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    And you don't see it that way at all?

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    No.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Here's your son in the same job, same incredible job, and extending your kind of way of doing things, you don't see that at all?

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    No. I think he'll do it his own way, and sometimes I might do it differently or sometimes I might not, but if I were going to say I might have done it differently or might do something in the future different, I wouldn't discuss it. I had my chance, and now just get out of the way and be there as a father, and sometimes, Jim, it's not easy, but I'm so much in agreement with what the president's doing and has done, it's not as difficult as you might think.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    You mean sometimes it is difficult to get out of the way and not say –

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    Well, sometimes you might – you almost feel irrelevant – you know, I was president but I don't do the op/ed pieces; I haven't been on your show I think since George was – or maybe I was but I don't think so – and it's that kind of thing. I don't seek out –

  • JIM LEHRER:

    We were talking about your book, when your book came out.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    Yes. And so I'm not a legacy kind of guy – I'm not – I'm a father and with some experience, did some things right, screwed up a couple of things, but I had my shot, and now it's to support the president, and if I had a nuance of difference, and I said it right here, every guy with a little notebook out there would – look what he said on Lehrer — and go around ask some guy in the White House, look what the nutty father said now; what do you think – and I don't want to complicate the life of the president.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    One last question, Mr. President. Vietnam has come up as an issue in this campaign.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    Yes.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Is that legitimate?

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    I tell you what's profound in my book, and I was one who when I was a congressman supported President Johnson in all of this – but I think the focus that seems to be coming up now as to whether John Kerry was right – speaking from his heart, I'm sure – in condemning the war in the way in which he did. Impugning the, I think, impugning the integrity and the honor of those who were still serving, and those with whom he did serve, I think that is a very legitimate thing that must be answered.

    I remember Jane Fonda. And I try to be a forgiving guy, and Jane Fonda I think has apologized for the abuse that she brought upon these prisoners, and I saw her once at a White House party – a British embassy deal where the queen was giving a return party for Barbara and me, and she wanted – the queen wanted Jane Fonda there with Turner.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Ted Turner, who was her husband at the time, right.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    Yeah. And I said I don't want my picture taken with Jane Fonda, and I expect she wouldn't want hers taken with me, but I don't want to make every veteran in the United States furious.

    So we had a receiving line, the press were elbowed out of the way, and in a very diplomatic way, the way the Brits would do it – and she came through the line looking great, and she said to me, Mr. President, I know this is very, very difficult for you. And I said, well, I know it's difficult for you, Jane, and I appreciate it, and on she went and that was the last word I spoke to her.

    She apologized, and I in my heart still cannot forgive her. And I'm not proud of that. So I feel very strongly about the comments of those who came back and then in brutal — and then by the strength of their words brutalized people that were still serving or who had served.

    And one of the things about Desert Storm is the way the war ended that you see the Vietnam veterans marching with the Desert Storm veterans, and I just felt a great sense of joy – emotional – I was emotional when I saw it, saying, they're getting their just due at last.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    But that's different than John Kerry's service overseas, right?

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    Well, I don't know that it's different because he came back and said people were gouging eyes out, and I don't want to misquote the man, but there's some stuff flashing on the television this morning in quotes and if they're not accurate, they ought to be – they ought to be condemned. But it looks to me like they are accurate.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Mr. President, thank you very much.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:

    You got it.