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Reflections on George H.W. Bush, a man of ‘lovely, sweet reticence’

As the nation mourns George H.W. Bush, we share some personal reflections. Amna Nawaz speaks with USA Today’s Washington bureau chief, Susan Page, who's writing a biography of Barbara Bush; Peter Roussel, now a professor at Sam Houston State University and previously a Bush press secretary; and Christopher Buckley, a novelist who served as chief speechwriter for Bush when he was vice president.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    For some personal reflections of President Bush, I'm joined by Christopher Buckley. He's a novelist who served as chief speechwriter for Vice President Bush. Peter Roussel, he served as press secretary for Bush in Congress at the United Nations and at the Republican National Committee. He now teaches at Sam Houston State University. And Susan Page, she's Washington bureau chief for USA Today. She's currently writing a biography of Barbara Bush and has spoken extensively to members of the Bush family.

    Thank you all for being here.

    Peter Roussel, I want to start with you, and take you back to the spring of 1969. You hadn't been out of college long. And, at that point, you had President George H.W. Bush come to you and say, "I want you to join my team."

    Tell me about that moment. And what was it about the man that made you say yes?

  • Peter Roussel:

    Well, it was a blessing moment for me.

    And he was just — when I first saw him here in Texas, I thought, there is somebody I would love to work for, if ever given the chance. And thanks to him, he gave me the chance.

    And I will tell you just one thing about leadership that I learned early on from him. And it kind of was an indicator of how he was going to be as a leader.

    One of the first assignments I had was to write a press release, in which I made an error. And it wasn't an insignificant error. And the next day, I thought he was going to fire me.

    So, I went into his office. I saw the press release on his desk. All he did was this. He pushed it across the desk and looked at me and he said, "Hey, pal, I know, on the next one, you're going to knock a home run."

    At that point, I would have walked through a bed of burning hot coals barefooted for that guy. Now, to me, that was — I didn't — probably didn't fully appreciate it at the time. But that was leadership. That was motivation. That was inspiration. And I think that was just a microcosm of what was to come in his career.

    Chris Buckley, I see you nodding your head. As someone else who has written words for the man, I'm curious, what was that experience like, especially for someone who was so incredibly modest and didn't want to talk about his accomplishments?

  • Christopher Buckley:

    I worked for him back in to '81 to '83, when he was vice president.

    And it drove his political advisers cuckoo that he wouldn't talk about the fact that he was a World War II hero . It was a classic case of the biblical hiding his light under a bushel. They used to tear their hair out because they were in a sense already getting ready for the election — for the election that would surely come in 1988.

    But it went back to his early days. His mother, Dorothy, was a form — a petite, but formidable person. And she had a thing about, you mustn't talk about yourself. And so this was ingrained early on. But it was ingrained up to this point.

    In 1988, he's running for president, OK? He's home for Thanksgiving, and he's telling stories about running for president, which is probably more interesting than the six-pound trout uncle Bob caught. And Mrs. Bush raps the tables and says, "George, you're talking about yourself too much. Stop it."

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Christopher Buckley:

    And he did.

    That was Mr. Bush. He was — you know, he had this lovely, sweet reticence.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Susan Page, here — Chris mentioned that run for the highest office in the land. And after, during his service there, of course, he is wildly popular, overseeing some incredible moments in American history, and yet he's unable to turn that into a second term.

    What are we to understand about why that happened?

  • Susan Page:

    I think, in some ways, he was a victim of his own success.

    He so skillfully managed the end of the Cold War without a shot being fired, and then managed to forge a coalition to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

    And in the aftermath of that, he had, I think, difficulty pivoting to focus to concerns on people's lives at home. He was — he was such a skilled, nuanced leader of international affairs. But at the point he was running for reelection, Americans were very concerned about their health care and education and their kids going to college.

    And those were issues much more in the wheelhouse of Bill Clinton, his opponent. So I think that was one problem he had. And the other way — the other problem he had, I think, was that Americans then felt more comfortable electing someone who hadn't been a war hero, like George Bush, someone who didn't have a lot of foreign policy experience, someone like Bill Clinton, because the world seemed like a safer place.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Peter Roussel, it does make you wonder. Obviously, at a time like this, it's easy to look back and focus on accomplishments.

    And there were so many in his many, many years of service. But you were with him in some of those lower points that can sometimes be more revealing, especially looking back.

    So, when you think back to those moments, where it was a tougher time for him, say, a down moment, what do you remember about him?

  • Peter Roussel:

    You know, a lot of people say, oh, George Bush had it made. That's not true at all.

    He faced some major challenges in his career, and frankly, was written off several times in his career politically, especially after he lost his 1970 Senate race in Texas. Many of the pundits at that time said, oh, that's the end of George Bush.

    Well, it didn't turn — quite turn out that way. He had an — he had an enormous propensity from for bouncing back from adversity. And I know. I was by side in some of those cases.

    I'll never forget, on election night in 1970, when everybody thought he was going to win that race, I looked over at him and I say: "Well, it's time to go down and concede." And I said: "How do you feel right now?"

    And he said: "I feel like it's 12 minutes past 84."

    And I said, "What on earth does that mean?"

    And he said, "I don't know, but that's how I feel right now."

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Peter Roussel:

    But you know something?

    The rest of us were feeling sorry for ourselves. The next morning — get this — the next morning, after he had lost that race — and it was a huge loss at the time — the rest of the staff, we were all feeling sorry for ourselves.

    You know what he was doing? He was in his office from the crack of dawn making phone calls trying to get jobs for all those who are now going to be unemployed.

    Once again, I would have walked through a bed of hot coals barefooted for that guy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You know, Chris Buckley, you used a phrase to describe them. I want to make sure I get you to talk a little bit more about this, but you described him as a Christian gentlemen.

    Why did you use that phrase? And what do you think those words meant to him?

  • Christopher Buckley:

    Well, it's a phrase that, unfortunately, is not — not much in coinage these days.

    And I think — I think we can — we could use the occasion of Mr. Bush's passing to reflect on the fact that he was the paradigm of the Christian gentleman. The accent there falls on the word gentle. He was a war hero at the age of 20.

    But his life was marked throughout by gentleness and compassion and love, the kind of thing that Pete just brilliantly illuminated. He was all about other people.

    I have been in rooms with a lot of important people in the course of my life, and they all really have one thing in common. They want to talk about them. George Bush wanted to talk about you, and that made him special, and that made you love him.

    And it was an absolute sincere love that radiated out of his heart. And it was very much based in his Episcopalian upbringing at the knee of his extraordinary mother, Dorothy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You know, Susan Page, as we look back now, in the context of our modern history, right, a man who had a reputation as kind and gentle and compassionate also went on. He had to win political elections as he went.

    And there are decisions that come with that. The phrase Willie Horton is now something that will forever live in our political lexicon.

    I'm wondering, as you look back now, what place do you think this president will hold?

  • Susan Page:

    You know, presidents, like human beings, generally are not perfect.

    And George H.W. Bush was a remarkable man of great accomplishment and high character, but that wasn't to say that he didn't make any mistakes as a person or as a president.

    And one of the things that he did in his 1988 campaign was, he pushed new boundaries of attack ads. He had an attack had that involved Willie Horton, not — it wasn't the most notorious ad. That was by an independent group. But both the campaigns had — and especially that ad by an independent group touched on racial fears, was divisive and exploitive, and provided a model for a rougher kind of politics that we have seen since then.

    And I don't think George — it seemed, in many ways, at odds with who George Bush was. But he was also an enormously competitive man about everything. He wanted to win that office. He sought that office in 1980 and again in 1988, and he won it. But he won it in a tough way.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Susan Page, Peter Roussel, Chris Buckley, thank you so much to all of you for being here with us today.

  • And a reminder:

    We will have special live coverage of the funeral services for President George H.W. Bush here in Washington on Wednesday beginning at 10:00 a.m. Eastern.

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