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Untold anecdotes of George H.W. Bush

It's difficult to sum up an entire life in a memorial service, no matter how grand. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, presidential historian Michael Beschloss, Bush family friend David Bates and Margaret Warner, who covered the president on the campaign trail and is now a senior fellow at Yale University, join Judy Woodruff to share their personal stories of President George H.W. Bush.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Joining me now in our studio to reflect a little more on the life of President George H.W. Bush are New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, presidential historian Michael Beschloss, Bush family friend David Bates, who worked in the Bush 41 White House, and until recently our former chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner. She's now a senior fellow at Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.

    Hello to all of you.

    What a day it has been.

    I have to say, it was a state funeral, but it was as personal to me as any official thing I have ever seen. There were accolades. There was humor. And there were tears. I mean, I was wiping away tears here at our at our anchor desk.

    Maureen Dowd, what did you take away today?

  • Maureen Dowd:

    Well, Judy, it was heartwarming to see W.'s incredible emotion toward his father, but it was also kind of heartbreaking, because, you know, I have spent decades covering the family.

    And the father, you know, constantly worried that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were leading W. astray on the Iraq War, and the neocons were leading him astray. And I think W. didn't want to seek his father's advice or hear what he had to say about the invasion of Iraq.

    And then it took years and years before he came around and realized his father was right, and distanced himself from Rumsfeld and Cheney. But, by that time, it was too late. It was the worst mistake in American foreign policy.

    So, you know, to see all that emotion, you just wish that, you know, they had been more mentor and protege during the time when he needed it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot of complex strands running through that relationship and his relationship with others in his family.

    Margaret Warner, you also covered him as a candidate. You have covered — you have known the Bush family. Did they capture the complexity of George Bush today?

  • Margaret Warner:

    I think it's very hard to capture the full complexity.

    I mean, the anecdotes were wonderful. I think perhaps what didn't come through is, he was also a man of great ambition. I mean, he was very humble. I reported a long cover story for "Newsweek" years ago about how that came to be, how his mother would say, I don't want to hear more about the great I am, and his father wanted — the grade he cared about was, doesn't claim more than his fair share of attention.

    So, it was on the one hand hard to put himself forward. On the other hand, he was very ambitious, and he set his sights for something. And just as on that plane, he was determined to get there, even after losing in '79-'80 as a candidate in his own right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David Bates, you know the family going back many years.

    You worked for him on several of his campaigns. You were in the White House when he was there. Did you see — did the George Bush you knew come through?

  • David Bates:

    Yes, it did.

    I thought it was a wonderful service. To me, there was a great feeling of love in the — in the cathedral. And I think that was appropriate, because he is a beloved figure. And I thought each speaker offered a unique perspective on his life and character.

    And I thought it — as difficult as it is to capture a life, as Margaret said, of someone as complex as he is, and a life so full as his, I thought — I thought each of the — each of the speakers did a very good job of kind of encapsulating his life and character.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Beschloss, you pay attention to a lot of presidents.

    How does remembering this one compare to what you remember of how we have reflected on and honored other presidents?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Well, I think, you know, every generation looks at a president in a different way.

    And one thing that I love about this is the George Bush that we have all been talking about during the last four days or so is very different from the George Bush that people were talking about in January 1993, when he was leaving office, and they were talking of him as out of touch, many people were saying inept president, shown by fact that he couldn't even manage to win a second term, mismanager of the economy, yes, he did end the Cold War, but we don't care about that anymore in 1993.

    Twenty-five years later, you look back and see, not only were these great historical achievements, but we see qualities in George Bush that were not appreciated at the time, the modesty, the ability to reach out to the other side, to try to include everyone.

    You know, every generation, as I say, looks for different things from a president. Here we are in the age of Donald Trump, a very confrontational politics, and the politics of George Bush seems like something that was light-years ago, but perhaps may one day come back.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Maureen Dowd, Michael reminds us what a painful loss of that in the '92 election, when he lost to Bill Clinton.

    You were — you wrote this week about your wonderful correspondence with him, being in touch with him over the years. How did he work his way through that?

  • Maureen Dowd:

    Oh, I think that was — you know, that was very hard for him to take, because he was at 90 percent after, you know, the Persian Gulf War.

    And then, one day in the press office, he sort of admitted that he had no interest in domestic policy. He really just loved being in that, you know, global club, mostly men's club. And he really didn't want to deal with the domestic side.

    And I think he kind of missed the moment where Americans were getting anxious about, you know, the economy and other things. And he just really gloried in the foreign affairs part of it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But then on — then, as we were saying, I mean, he lost, but he managed to live a full life after that.

    And you — again, in that piece you wrote this week, you captured a lot of that. I mean, the humor came back. The zest for life came back.

  • Maureen Dowd:

    Well, I think Michael's right.

    You know, when we look at it through the prism of Donald Trump, you know, one way to look at it is, Bush Sr. would drop the first-person pronoun, the personal pronoun, because his mother always told him not to use the big I, not to gloat.

    So he would start sentencing, like the Dana Carvey imitation, can't act, just have to be me.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Maureen Dowd:

    He would drop the I.

    And then now we're living in this world that's all about the I with Donald Trump. The whole world is having to pivot to Trump's narcissistic I.

    And, you know, one heartbreaking thing was when — in Bush's book of letters, he wrote a letter to his sons, and he said, if you ever need to distance yourself from me when you're running, don't feel bad about it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Wow.

    Margaret Warner, you were part of a story that lives in history. And you wrote — you were a reporter for "Newsweek" magazine, and you had done a lot of reporting about his campaign in the 1980s, when he was planning — running for president. And your editor at "Newsweek" gave it the title of "The Wimp Factor."

  • Margaret Warner:

    Or "Fighting the Wimp Factor," as they said.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    "Fighting the Wimp Factor."

    Tell us about that and his reaction to it.

  • Margaret Warner:

    What I had spent almost a year doing, in speaking to every member of the family, was trying to get at why this person, this man who was courageous in his day, as a young man, who achieved so much, that there was this image problem that he wasn't his own man. He didn't want to separate himself from Ronald Reagan, and so on.

    And I really got, I think, at the nub of his character, including the self-effacement and why he never uses the word I. And then, because I think "Newsweek," they just wanted to jazz it up, they wanted to make a splash, and so…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sure. We have never known the news media to do that.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Never. Never happens.

  • Margaret Warner:

    Never.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Margaret Warner:

    So, it came out the day he announced. And it was just devastating to the family. His daughter Doro burst — who had spent time with me, burst into tears.

    In any event, he then — and so I was in agony about it, because I did feel it was cruel and gratuitous. I wrote to him. And, amazingly, one day at home, he called me. And I don't actually recall every detail, but I do recall him saying, "There's one person in this household who won't forgive and forget, Bar."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    His wife, Barbara.

  • Margaret Warner:

    His wife, Barbara Bush.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David Bates, we're trying to capture in just a few minutes, again, the complexity of this man, with the humor, the tough thing, and the fact that he almost died when he went into the Pacific, what Jon Meacham was remembering today.

    And yet, in the end, he did a lot as president. I mean, he was only there — not only — he was there for four years. But there was — he was managing a foreign policy at a time when Europe was — the world was changing at the end of the Soviet Union.

    I mean, he managed to pull off a lot.

  • David Bates:

    He did. He was a very consequential president.

    And I think Secretary Jim Baker said it — said it best, and he's certainly best one-term president the country has ever had. And I agree with him. He's one of the most outstanding presidents we have ever had.

    He had a — his record on foreign policy is well-known to many, ending the Cold War without a shot being fired, which probably unique in history, reunification of Germany, which was just — which was opposed by most leaders of Western Europe. We know — we know about the first Gulf War and how successful the diplomacy was in that.

    But on the domestic side, Clean Air Act amendments, which essentially ended acid rain, which was — which was a very critical problem before that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • David Bates:

    Americans With Disabilities Act, which really put disabled people into the mainstream of society, and a very, very tough spending control piece of legislation, which also had, as Senator Simpson mentioned, some revenue increases.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you think he recognized what he was getting done?

  • David Bates:

    I believe that by the — in '92 — in '92, after he lost, he may not have — he may not have been recognized, you know, how successful his presidency was.

    But I do think that — and Senator Simpson alluded to it — that, with some years looking back on his presidency, I think he was very, very pleased with how his — and the loss was — the loss was very, very tough.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was tough.

  • David Bates:

    But, in a way, I don't think his sons would have been elected governor of Texas and Florida or his son been elected president if he had won a second term. So…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Beschloss, we're asking historians how do presidents weigh, compare to one another. It's too early, but what do you say now?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Well, during those four years, with 20/20 hindsight, the one thing I would want from a president is that he makes the right decisions about ending the Cold War.

    He built this relationship with Gorbachev, made Gorbachev feel that Bush wouldn't exploit him if Gorbachev opened the Berlin Wall, let Eastern Europe go, let Germany reunify within NATO.

    George Bush made some mistakes. He wasn't a perfect man. One thing that drives me crazy is that he didn't do what effective presidents do, which is, he couldn't explain to Americans when he was making unpopular decisions. Effective presidents can surmount that.

    But, sum it all up, the one thing I would want from him is what he did on the Cold War. No one else who could have plausibly been president would have done that, so I think that qualifies George Bush to be thought of as at least a near-great president, and certainly a very consequential one.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Maureen Dowd, quickly, I mentioned the piece you wrote this week reflecting on your long correspondence and relationship with him, reporter, politician.

    Capture for us how that went. I mean, the line, the "Con Afecto" — I can't do justice to some of the language that he used in writing you.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Maureen Dowd:

    Well, he just was trying to agonize.

    He would say, Dr. Freud, Dr. Jung, Dr. Phil, help me. You know, he didn't understand how he could still maintain this correspondence with me when I was being so hard on his son.

    But he — as Margaret has pointed out, he was capable of great decency and forgiveness. And, you know, we just had this wonderful correspondence for decades. And, you know, he was a very special guy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Margaret, just quickly, remembering him?

  • Margaret Warner:

    I agree with Maureen completely.

    There was a — this core, this decency, and warmth and graciousness about him that really comes through in the letters to Maureen and back very much.

    But I also agree with Michael that I covered that whole period at the end of the Cold War, and also the Gulf War, and that could have never been brought together, that coalition — I was with Jim Baker as he went all around to try to put that together — if it weren't for Bush's personal relationships with these world leaders, and then, of course, later his willingness to end the war when he did.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

    In just a few seconds, Michael Beschloss, we will still be talking about him years from now.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    I think we will. And the great thing about history, it's an argument without end, so if you will invite us back in 30 years, we can do this some more.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's a promise.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You will all be back.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Beschloss, Maureen Dowd, David Bates, Margaret Warner, thank you.

  • David Bates:

    You bet.

  • Margaret Warner:

    Thanks, Judy.

  • Maureen Dowd:

    Thanks, Judy.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Thanks, Judy.

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