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Remembering George H.W. Bush, 41st president

George H.W. Bush assumed many roles during his 94 years, from Navy hero, Yale graduate and Texas oilman to congressman, CIA director, vice president and president. He also had six children with his wife of 73 years, Barbara Bush, who passed away in April. The former president was active both physically and philanthropically in his final years. Judy Woodruff remembers the 41st president.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    As President George H.W. Bush now lays in state at the U.S. Capitol, Judy Woodruff has this look back at a career that helped create a political dynasty.

  • George H.W. Bush:

    I think each president is an individual, with his own convictions, his own emphasis, his own courage, or his own style of leadership

  • Judy Woodruff:

    September 2004, the 41st president spoke as his son, the 43rd, stood ready to accept renomination to the office they'd both held, only the second father and son to do that.

  • George H.W. Bush:

    I'm not a legacy kind of guy. I'm a father, and with some experience, did some things right, screwed up a couple of things, but I had my shot.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He did, over 60 years in public life, capped by one term as president from 1989 to 1993. But it took two tries. The first came in 1980.

  • Robert MacNeil:

    Good evening. When George VI suddenly found himself king of England, he was deeply worried about his qualifications and complained, all I have ever been is a naval officer.

    That is not the problem of the latest candidate for president, George Bush. Mr. Bush has been not only a naval officer, but just about everything else.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For George Herbert Walker Bush, born to privilege June 12, 1924, in Massachusetts, that everything else included the journey from prep school to heroic World War II service in the Pacific, where he received the Distinguished Flying Cross, a postwar education at Yale, where he became an accomplished first baseman, then to Texas as an oil man, and eventually into government as a Lone Star State member of Congress, ambassador to the United Nations under Richard Nixon, envoy to China, and director of central intelligence under Gerald Ford, vice president, and ultimately president.

    He was the son of a U.S. senator, and patriarch of a family as successful in electoral politics as any in America, including the 43rd president, George W. Bush, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who unsuccessfully ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

    The senior Bush and his wife, Barbara, a force in her own right, had four other children, sons Neil and Marvin, daughters Dorothy and Robin, who died in childhood.

    Appearing on ""The MacNeil/Lehrer Report" in 1979, Mr. Bush defended his moderate credentials as a conservative wave cresting within the party was preparing to anoint his chief opponent at the time, Ronald Reagan.

  • Robert MacNeil:

    In '64, you called yourself a Goldwater Republican. Then you became a Nixon Republican. You launched your campaign by invoking the names of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower. What kind of Republican do you call yourself now?

  • George H.W. Bush:

    A national Republican.

  • Robert MacNeil:

    A national, what's that?

  • George H.W. Bush:

    That's one who can win the primaries and go on to be nominated and beat the Democrats.

  • Robert MacNeil:

    Mr. Baker, your campaign chairman, says that Ronald Reagan is the front-runner in the Republican stakes at the moment. If it's important to get a Republican elected last year, why don't you just throw your lot with him and help him get nominated?

  • George H.W. Bush:

    Because I think I would be a better president. I have had more experience in business, more experience in the federal legislature, more experience in foreign affairs. And I have a deep conviction about our country, and I want to be the president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mr. Bush lost the early lead he had in that tough nomination race after showing open and infamous disdain for what would soon be called Reaganomics.

  • George H.W. Bush:

    He's promising to cut taxes by 30 percent and balance the budget and increase defense spending and stop inflation all at the same time. It just isn't going to work, what I call a voodoo economic policy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But Reagan made George Bush his number two, outraging the party's conservative wing. Later that year, the ticket won in a historic landslide over President Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.

    Two months after they took office, Vice President Bush was nearly thrust into the presidency following the attempt on President Reagan's life.

  • George H.W. Bush:

    I can reassure this nation and a watching world that the American government is functioning fully and effectively.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But with the president's recovery, Vice President Bush settled into a somewhat traditional role and joked about his job as chief funeral-goer.

  • George H.W. Bush:

    You know Bush's motto, you die, and I will fly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Such humor did little to mask concerns about Mr. Bush among some of President Reagan's most fervent supporters.

    The vice president spoke with Jim Lehrer during the Republicans' 1984 convention in Dallas.

  • Jim Lehrer:

    What do you say to some of the conservatives around here who say George Bush is really not conservative enough; he's a liberal?

  • George H.W. Bush:

    You don't hear that as much anymore, so I don't really say anything to them.

    And I have got a voting record. I have got a record in public office in various jobs, at the United Nations, in China as an ambassador, and running the CIA, and as a congressman, and, indeed, as head of our party, and now four years as vice president. So I think the record is out there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ronald Reagan and George Bush silenced those critics with a 49-state reelection win in 1984 and a second term that set Mr. Bush up as the clear favorite for the 1988 Republican nomination.

    His foreign policy experience was soon put to the test with the two major international crises of the 1980s, the U.S. face-off with Iran, and American support of anti-communist rebels in Central America.

    The Iran-Contra scandal, which involved missiles sold to Iran for the release of U.S. hostages and the proceeds then funneled illegally to rebels from Nicaragua, exploded in late 1986.

    As vice president, Mr. Bush participated in more than a dozen meetings where the weapons sales were discussed, and he acknowledged some responsibility for the Iran arms deal.

  • George H.W. Bush:

    If we erred — and I think we did, in retrospect, looking back — a deal that wasn't supposed to be arms for hostages proved to be that. But, if we erred, we erred on the side of trying to free Americans that are held by terrorists.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But he steadfastly maintained he knew nothing of the illegal laundering of money for the Nicaraguan Contras, most famously in a combative interview with Dan Rather in early 1988.

  • Dan Rather:

    This is what leads people to say, well, either George Bush was irrelevant, or he was ineffective. He said himself he was out of the loop. Now, let me give you an example. You said to ask you a question.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • George H.W. Bush:

    May I explain out of the loop? No operational role.

    Go ahead.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    By then, he was laboring under the public impression that he was a nearly invisible presence in the Reagan White House, a charge he sought to knock down in an October 1987 "NewsHour" interview.

    There was a profile of you in The Wall Street Journal, and the headline was, here we are 20 years into George Bush's public career, and we're still asking the question, who is he? What does he — why are those questions…

  • George H.W. Bush:

    Well, who's asking the question? Have you gone to the drilling rigs and talked to the people that helped me build a business? Did you ever interview anybody in the aircraft carrier where I fought and bled for my country?

    Did you ever talk to the people at the CIA that I lifted up at a time of its morale being down? Who is it that's saying they don't know this? These people that I have served with do. I haven't been too good about talking about it, Judy, and maybe that's one of my — that's partially my fault, I think.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why not? Why haven't you?

  • George H.W. Bush:

    Oh, I don't know. It's cultural. I just was brought up that you don't brag about yourself. But I'm getting better about it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mr. Bush eventually bested Bob Dole for the GOP nod in 1988. Arriving at the New Orleans nominating convention that year trailing Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, he sought to jump-start his campaign by selecting a lightly regarded young Indiana senator, Dan Quayle, as his running mate.

  • Man:

    The vice president of the United States.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    While Mr. Bush promised a continuation of the Reagan years, his speech sought to link that prosperity with purpose.

  • George H.W. Bush:

    It means teaching troubled children through your present there's no such — that there is such a thing as reliable love. Some would say it's soft and insufficiently tough to care about these things. But where is it written that we must act if we do not care, as if we are not moved?

    Well, I am moved. I want a kinder and gentler nation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But that speech would be most remembered for another, fateful line.

  • George H.W. Bush:

    My opponent won't rule out raising taxes. But I will. And the Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I will say no, and they will push, and I will say no, and they will push again, and I will say, to them, read my lips, no new taxes.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mr. Bush went on to win easily in November.

  • Man:

    So help me God.

  • George H.W. Bush:

    So help me God.

  • Man:

    Congratulations.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But two years later, there were new taxes as part of a 1990 budget deal. In 2004, he ruefully recalled that broken promise in another interview with Jim Lehrer.

  • George H.W. Bush:

    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.

  • George H.W. Bush:

    Yes. 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.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In late 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, and the Cold War began to end. A major diplomatic initiative to reintegrate the damaged nations of the Eastern Bloc began on President Bush's watch, an endeavor, by most accounts, he handled well.

    Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait came in August 1990, and George Bush assembled a massive coalition to help repel the Iraqi leader.

  • George H.W. Bush:

    Some may ask, why act now? Why not wait? The answer is clear: The world could wait no longer.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lightning fast war in early 1991 pushed Saddam back to Baghdad, bruised, but still in power.

    The president's approval ratings skyrocketed. But, in October 1998, four-and-a-half years before his son invaded Iraq once again, the president gave an eerily prescient reason as to why he'd chosen not to press on and topple Saddam.

    He spoke to Jim Lehrer, alongside his longtime national security aide, Brent Scowcroft.

  • Jim Lehrer:

    A lot of people have suggested, wait a minute, we went to war, thousands of people died, most of them Iraqis, died in Desert Storm, because of one man. Why not take that one man out, and maybe have prevented the deaths of so many others?

  • George H.W. Bush:

    Well, one reason, you would have added a lot of deaths of innocent Americans too.

    You have got a lot of revisionists now that take a look ex post facto and say, you should have gone in and killed Saddam Hussein. Would you want your son there in an urban, a guerrilla war, where we couldn't even find a two-bit warlord in Mogadishu, dusty warehouses?

    And then they're saying to me now late, hey, you should have gone in and killed him, a lone, occupying power in an Arab land, the United States of America? No way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A flagging economy in 1992 brought President Bush's popularity back to earth, and he found himself in a tough reelection fight against two opponents, Arkansas Democratic Governor Bill Clinton and the independent Texas billionaire Ross Perot.

    President Bush was also labeled out of touch, and his patrician upbringing now seen as a hindrance. It was a characterization reinforced by lackluster debate performances. In one town hall encounter, he was captured repeatedly checking his watch.

    He reflected on that moment and on his distaste for debates in general during a 1999 interview with Jim Lehrer for a special called "Debating Our Destiny."

  • George H.W. Bush:

    Yes, oh, God, do I remember? I took a huge hit. That's another thing I don't like about debates. You look at your watch and they say that he shouldn't — has no any business running for president. He's bored and he's out of this thing, and he's not with it, and we need change.

    I mean, they took a little incident like that to show that I was, you know, out of it. They made a huge thing out of that. Now, was I glad when the damn thing was over? Yes. And maybe that's why I was looking at it, only 10 more minutes of this crap, I mean.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • George H.W. Bush:

    Go ahead and use it. I'm a free spirit now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    George Bush lost the White House to Bill Clinton that year, but the bitterness of that election would later give way to a close working friendship between the men after they'd both left office.

    Mr. Bush largely stayed out of the limelight during President Clinton's term, as scandal and eventual impeachment shook Washington. Mr. Bush refused to publicly pass judgment.

  • George H.W. Bush:

    I vowed when I left the presidency that I would try to avoid being critical of my successor, and I haven't gone to Capitol Hill and lobbied. And I would just rather not get into that.

  • Jim Lehrer:

    Mr. President, did you see yourself as the moral leader of this country, in addition to being the commander in chief, et cetera, when you were president?

  • George H.W. Bush:

    I don't think I ever put it in that lofty context, I mean: I am the moral leader of the United States of America. I don't think — I mean, my mother would have killed me.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • George H.W. Bush:

    But, no, I think there's a certain responsibility to respect the office that you're privileged to hold.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That reticence held into the presidency of his son, who won the bitterly divisive 2000 election over President Clinton's vice president, Al Gore.

    In September 2004, Mr. Bush spoke of the delicate balance between father and son on a stage like no other.

  • Jim Lehrer:

    Here is 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?

  • George H.W. Bush:

    No. I think he will 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, its not easy, but I'm so much in agreement with what the president's doing and has done, that it's not as difficult as you might think. If I had a nuance of difference, and I said it right here, every guy with a little notebook out there would…

  • Jim Lehrer:

    Yes.

  • George H.W. Bush:

    … look what he said on "Lehrer," and he would 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.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    By 2004, Mr. Bush was joining forces with Mr. Clinton to better the lives of others, like after the 2004 Asian tsunami, and raising money for survivors and reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

    The elder Bush stayed active even late in life, repeatedly going skydiving on his birthday, including at the age of 90, when he was suffering from Parkinson's disease and confined to a wheelchair.

    In November 2014, George W. Bush wrote "41: A Portrait Of My Father."

  • George W. Bush:

    I wrote it when I did because I wanted dad to be alive…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • George W. Bush:

    … to be able to see not only how much I care for him, but a lot of people care for him. People are beginning to reassess the presidency of 41. And I want to be a part of that process, and I wanted him to know the process was going to take place. This guy's a great president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In his final years, Mr. Bush also faced new controversy. In late 2017, several women charged he had groped them during photo opportunities. He apologized and said he'd never meant to offend.

    And the death of Barbara Bush left the former president a widower in his last days.

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