President George W. Bush was my guest for a morning interview which will air on today’s show. Most of it concerned his father and W’s wonderful new book about him, “41: A Portrait of My Father,” but some of it touched on the change at DOD and the 2016 race that looms. All of it very interesting.
HH: Pleased to welcome now former President George W. Bush. Mr. President, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
GWB: Hugh, how are you?
HH: I’m great, and 41: A Portrait Of My Father is a terrific book. It’s genuinely riveting. I just wonder how happy your dad was when you told him you were undertaking this project.
GWB: You know, he was okay with it. He’s a pretty modest guy, not a pretty modest guy, he’s a real modest guy, and you know, he accepted it. And I said dad, I’m writing a love letter about you, and I’m going to publish it before you move on, and he said fine. Then I started asking him some questions, and he didn’t answer many of them.
HH: Well, one of them he did answer, you recall, and you know, the news of this week is going to be about the departure of Secretary Hagel, leaving the Department of Defense. And on Page 268, you talked to him when you replaced Secretary Rumsfeld with Secretary Gates. He had one secretary of Defense. You had two. This president will have four. Is that a good trend?
GWB: You know, the President has to surround himself with people he’s comfortable with. And you know, I don’t know the circumstances about Secretary Hagel’s departure. You know, the key thing is that the President find somebody he can live with. I had two. I had two very good ones – Donald Rumsfeld, of course, and then Bob Gates. And I did call dad, as you mentioned, and asked his advice. And he was very effusive in praise of a potential Gates secretariat.
HH: You also write on Page 247, history would remember George Herbert Walker Bush as the liberator of Kuwait, and the president who oversaw the peaceful end of the Cold War. Everything gets compressed by history, eventually. That’s quite a fine one-line summary.
GWB: Well, that and plus liberating the people of Panama from Noriega. Yeah, he had a very consequential presidency. And one reason I wrote the book is to remind people about how consequential he was. I mean, as you say, history compresses events. In this case, dad followed a very transformative president in President Reagan, and a lot of attention, rightly so, has been focused on President Reagan’s eight years. I just want to be a part of the spotlight on his successor’s four years.
HH: There’s also some amazing details. I thought I knew your father’s presidency pretty well, and I thought I knew his bio pretty well. But on Page 129, you talk about Don Rhodes, and you write when Don died in 2011, my father called Don the most unselfish and most caring friend. I had never heard of Don Rhodes, Mr. President.
GWB: Well, not many people had. The story of Don Rhodes speaks to 41’s character. Don Rhodes was a fellow who first started working in some of his early campaign. A lot of volunteers looked askance at Don, because it didn’t seem like he was, you know, he was, it seemed like he was very slow and very difficult to read. And part of the problem was Don had a hearing problem. George Bush saw something different in Don. He saw a compatriot and a friend, and much to the amazement of a lot of people who had gotten to know Don during the campaign. And by the way, Don would work the 7 to 11 late shift in between his volunteer stints with dad. Dad took him to Washington, and he became one of his closest confidants. And while others looked askance at Don, dad saw his soul, and saw his character, helped him get hearing aids so he could hear better, and we got to understand Don a lot better over time. But dad always saw the good in him.
HH: Now that is a very illuminating story about your father. There’s also the most touching line in the book when your sister, Robin, tells your dad shortly before she dies in October of 1953, “Dad, I love you more than tongue can tell.” That’s really very touching.
GWB: Yeah, unbelievably touching. You know, in the book, I kind of, not kind of, I do talk about how initially dad was a loving father, but he didn’t express his love much, much like a generation of men before him. Over time, he became much more expressive in his love toward his family. And here toward the end, here in his twilight years is the best way to put it, he does say I love you more than tongue can tell. And during my presidency, he wrote me a letter right after I’d committed the troops into Iraq, and he wrote, I love you, as Robin said, I love you more than tongue can tell, which is one, comforting, and two, very emotional for me.
HH: I can imagine. The book begins with your beautiful painting of your dad. Where does that hang, Mr. President?
GWB: It’s in storage at the Library right now. I have displayed my paintings of other world leaders, as well as myself and dad, and then put them up for a while. So it’s there at the, it’s in the archives of the Bush Center on SMU campus.
HH: Have you done one, yet, of your mother?
GWB: I have not, nor have I done one of my wife. Those subject matters are very difficult to please.
HH: Now there’s a Bush Conference Center at Chapman University Argyros School of Business, and I know President Doti and Ambassador Argyros would love a spare of any portrait you do of your dad again. So if you go back to the easel…
GWB: Well, thank you. Yeah, Argyros and Doty are good friends. And you know, I’ve, in the deluxe version of the book, there’s a profile portrait of my dad and myself. I think it’s pretty good. You know, we’ll see. Look, the thing about the painting is that the signature is worth a lot more than the painting.
HH: Now a couple of bio questions. Your paternal grandfather grew up in Columbus. I didn’t know that. Your maternal grandfather was also a Buckeye. I didn’t know that. So you’ve got great Buckeye blood. No wonder you carried the state twice.
GWB: No, no, no, no, no, not Buckeye. He went to Miami of Ohio.
HH: I know, that’s where my son went, and he wants to know now, my son, Will, why you didn’t pick to become a Redskin when you took Yale over Miami?
GWB: Well, I couldn’t get in. Hey, listen, the thing about, tell your son who goes there, or went there, to check the athletic records. My mother’s dad was one of the great athletes of his day.
HH: Marvin Pierce?
HH: Wow, okay, I’ll do that. Hey now, I want to go back to your dad. There’s some interesting stuff in here about when he was flying that I didn’t know as well. Your father invited the sisters of the crewmate’s radio man, John Delany and Lt. J.G. Ted White, who did not get off of his jet fighter when it went down, didn’t make it to the White House. And then he told your daughter on his 90th birthday, I think about them all the time. That’s quite an illumination of your dad.
GWB: I think it is. He feels, you know, he felt terrible that they died. I think he was 19 years old at the time, off the island of Chichi-Jima. He got out of the plane. I think one of them, you know, they haven’t really verified it, but in his mind, one jumped, but the chute didn’t open. The other was killed in the plane. At any rate, he’s always thought about them. And you’re right, years later when he was president, he invited the sisters to come to the Oval Office. And when Jenna interviewed him right before his jump out of the helicopter on his 90th birthday, he said I think about them all the time. As a matter of fact, I’m convinced he thinks about his mother all the time, those two men that he flew with all the time, and thinks about Robin, his little girl that died at age 3.
HH: You know, it’s the week of Thanksgiving, and your dad lost his roommate and his closest friend on the carrier, San Jacinto, Jim Wykes. I didn’t know that, either. He wrote Jim’s mother a letter, the sort of letters that both you and he have had to write way too often. But it does make the week of Thanksgiving incredibly poignant for people who have had to lead men who have lost their lives.
GWB: No question, and we have a lot to be thankful for in our country. One of the things I give thanks for a lot is the fact that we’ve got a nation full of patriots who volunteered in the face of danger not only in World War II, but during my presidency. And people ask me do I miss much about Washington and the presidency, and the answer is really not, Hugh. You know, I miss being pampered, but what I really miss is saluting the men and women who wear our uniform.
HH: Now Mr. President, you said when you talked to your dad, I would ask him to tell me stories about his wartime service, but he did not oblige. It took years for me to understand the impact the war had on his life. Did he ever see things like Saving Private Ryan or watch Band of Brothers, or the Thin Red Line?
GWB: Good question. I don’t know the answer to that question. I suspect he may have, but like the World War II generation, he didn’t view himself as a hero. You know, I think the word hero is overused, by the way, these days. Those men never said they were heroes. They were just doing their duty. And they didn’t talk about their exploits. You know, and there’s a lot of bad analysis as to why. I suspect that they didn’t want to think, by causing people to think they were bragging, or didn’t want to relive some of those memories. But at any rate, the World War II generation was a fine example of public service at its best.
HH: You know, there’s a movie coming out, Unbroken, about the great Louie Zamperini, who’s been in my studio before he died. Do you think you’ll find a chance to see that with your dad, he’d be interested in it?
GWB: Yeah, I’m definitely going to be interested. I loved the book. And it’s a wonderful book of forgiveness and the soul. Yeah, you know, he may want to watch it. I’m not sure. I’ll ask. I’m going to see him over Christmas.
HH: Now I want to go back to your dad’s childhood. President Grant in a book by Michael Korda wrote this, he quoted President Grant, The Unlikely Hero, wrote, “I read but few lives of great man, because biographers do not as a rule tell enough about the formative period of life. What I want to know is what a man did as a boy.”
HH: Now there’s a not much in here about 41’s eight years at Greenwich Country Day School. Just lost to history?
GWB: No, you know, it’s interesting. I’m not sure, I don’t know much about it, either, and he wasn’t in the mood to talk about it. I suspect he was a fine student. I do know that, I didn’t put this in there, but they, you know, he used to get, well, I kind of did put it in there. Yeah, he’d get dropped off at the school by the family chauffeur. The reason I put that in there is I wanted to draw a contrast with a comfortable East Coast life and the man who made a decision to move to Odessa, Texas.
GWB: And I think the readers will be fascinated to learn that when he moved mom and me out there, having graduated from college, one, he defied expectations, and two, our neighbors were a mother/daughter lady of the night combination.
HH: Right, and they’re going to be surprised to find out you lived in Compton for a while as well. There’s a lot in here, Mr. President, I didn’t know. You do write about your dad’s time at Andover. He’s captain of baseball and soccer teams, manager of the basketball team, which is a little bit odd. He headed up fundraising for the chapel. He was president of the senior class. But you, the story you tell is about Bruce Gelb.
GWB: Yeah, well, I was trying to point the character of dad. And Bruce Gelb was a Jewish student there, and was being picked on by some of the upper classmen, whether they were doing so because of his religion, I don’t know. But nevertheless, the facts are that he was being picked on, and Gelb still remembers fondly that George Bush, you know, bailed him out, so to speak, and has admired dad ever since for looking out after the little guy. Gelb was a freshman, and evidently being picked on by some upper classmen.
HH: That’s a good eye for….
GWB: And dad really liked Gelb over time, of course, because he named him ambassador.
HH: That’s a good eye for detail, Mr. President. He tells his father, Prescott Bush, “I’m going in.” He enlisted on June 12th, ’42, and you name his squadron mates – Jack Guy, Lou Grab, Stan Butchart. And he sent the elephants stampeding through town. Now you’ve got to tell that story, because that would get you busted out of the Navy today.
GWB: Well, yeah, I never heard that story either until we researched the book. He flew his plane over a circus, and elephants started stampeding. And evidently, he started making elephant calls.
HH: Was that his call sign?
GWB: It’s a hell of a fact that he did so. They called him Ellie the Elephant. I’ve never heard of that name, either. I just thought it was an interesting story about a kid, 18-19 years old, flying, you know, for the time, high-performance airplanes, going for a joy ride. And yet shortly thereafter, he and his squadron mates are in deadly combat.
HH: Did his call sign, was his call sign Ellie?
GWB: No, I think that was his nickname.
HH: Okay, moving on, two big baseball moments after the war, and there’s an amazing set of details on getting picked up by the submarine and spending 30 days under the sea, stuff people have got to read. I want to go after the war. He meets Babe Ruth on the mound at Yale. Now I honestly, I didn’t know that. I had never seen that picture before, nor did I know he got a hit off of Milt Pappas at the old-timer’s game in the ’84 campaign as a 60 year old, or that he fielded a rocket from Cippy Cepeda. Those are all pretty good details.
GWB: Well, you’re a baseball fan, obviously.
GWB: To make it even more detailed, as you know, I’m a baseball aficionado as well. He was captain of the Yale baseball team. That’s why he was tasked with receiving the Babe Ruth papers on the mound at Yale. They had a very good team. They had a lot of guys coming back from the war. And he was the first baseman, all field, no hit as I put in the book.
GWB: But they went to the NCAA finals twice, first time, or one of the times they lost to the University of California, who the star of whom, of which, was Jackie Jensen, who ended up being MVP for the Boston Red Sox, and MVP while playing for the Red Sox, and Rod Dedeaux, the legendary coach at USC was coaching in the series that beat Yale as well. The other thing that astounded me is here’s a guy in 1986, he’s vice president, he agrees to suit up at the All-Star game, and old timer’s game, and played first base, which is very risky.
HH: Oh yeah.
GWB: I mean, anyway, Cha Cha Cepeda hits a rocket, and he makes a really nice play. And I’ll never forget the look on his face when he bounded off the infield, and having made the play at first. He looked like a kid, and there was the vice president. The other thing is, you’re right, he got a base hit off of Pappas. I met Milt Pappas. Dad stayed in touch with Pappas throughout the years, and I said you didn’t serve up a fat one to him, did you? And Pappas, you know, kind of smiled. But anyway, I thought it was a neat story to put in the book.
HH: It is. There’s a lot of good stuff. I wondered, did your mom throw out your baseball cards, Mr. President?
GWB: Somebody did. And she won’t take the blame for it.
HH: It just, it happened to every kid under the age of 70 in this country, and I was certain it happened to you.
GWB: Yes, it did.
HH: I’ve got to ask you a few things. Your father went to the funerals of Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko.
HH: He forged a relationship with Gorbachev, which becomes, he ought to have received the Nobel Prize for the way he managed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in my opinion. But he also took you and Putin on a speedboat ride when he was 83. He was captaining this. I find that pretty amazing that the Secret Service let that happen. But have you and he since talked about Putin?
GWB: Yeah, some. You know, he smiled about the meeting that I asked him to host at Kennebunkport. I was talking to Vladimir Putin about missile defenses in Europe and why we were building them, and trying to reassure him that they weren’t, you know, they weren’t going to affect Russia. They were going to affect Iran and North Korea, and that it would be beneficial to Russia to be able to have these missiles in place, as well as beneficial to the United States and our allies. But we really haven’t spent that much time talking about the transformation of Vladimir. He is, I haven’t spoken to him since the Olympics in ’08, and I don’t think dad has, either. He may have seen him once. I’m not sure. But Putin’s attitude toward the United States has evolved over time during my presidency. It seemed like to me he’s very kind of zero sum these days. Either I win or you win. Neither of us can win together.
HH: He is. You wrote about your dad during that period of time, ’88-’92, “All of his life, George Bush had been a humble man. He wasn’t trying to score points for himself. He only cared about results. And he knew the best way to achieve results was to think about the situation from the other person’s perspective. Freedom had a better chance to succeed in Central and Eastern Europe if he did not provoke the Soviets to intervene in the budding revolution.” And you quote him as saying I’m not going to go dance on the wall, probably one of the most important decisions not to act the president has ever made.
GWB: I think so. In many ways, Ronald Reagan gets a lot of credit for beginning the ideological victory of freedom over communism. Dad should get a lot of credit for unwinding of the Cold War in a peaceful way, that the story of course is that as the, it was clear that the Soviets were collapsing, dad felt it was very important to not provoke people within Russia, and the old Soviets, which would, the hard-liners, provoke the hard-liners so that they would, you know, use force. They still had the military at their disposal, and it could have been unbelievably bloody. And so he tried to think about how Gorbachev, think about Gorbachev’s position, and work closely with Gorbachev to encourage him to eventually take the path he took, which was the peaceful unwinding of the Soviets.
HH: Now one of the critiques of the Bush years, and of the Clinton years, is that after the Cold War was won, President 41 and President 42 turned their attention away from Afghanistan too quickly, and that they had sided too much with Zia and the Pakistanis, and they didn’t pay attention to what grew, the cancer within. What do you make of that criticism, Mr. President?
GWB: Oh, I don’t know, it’s easy to second-guess presidential decisions. I frankly in my research didn’t spend much time on that topic, so I’m really not capable of answering it in depth. I mean, every president, you know, people look back and criticize decisions, certainly in my case, and ultimately history judges, will be, you know, will sort things out in a fair way. And I think people will analyze that and more in depth. I just don’t, you know, I don’t have a response on it. Obviously, I had to deal with Pakistan during my presidency, and people often asked me you know, did I think that Pakistan was aiding and abetting Osama bin Laden. And I don’t think so. I mean, one reason Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captures was because of close cooperation between our intelligence services and the Pak intelligence services.
HH: Now the biggest mistake, in my view, of your father’s presidency wasn’t really his fault. He selected Justice Souter over Judge Edith Jones, and I’m always wondering do you think it was wrong for Justice Souter not to put his cards on the table? I mean, he’s just a hardline liberal. And your father wasn’t looking for that, but your father was very trusting there. Ought a justice-to-be, or you know, when you interviewed Roberts or Alito, did they put their cards on the table? And should they put their cards on the table?
GWB: Well, I think the thing about it is, is that yeah, I put that in there because he made a great pick in Clarence Thomas. But Souter turned out to be something other than he thought. I don’t know how the process worked. I do know that he had strong recommendations from people from New Hampshire. And I really don’t know, Hugh, whether he sat down and interviewed him. One of the reasons I put that in there, though, is I wanted people, and throughout the book I put lessons learned. I spent quite a bit of time with Judge Roberts and Judge Alito, as well as other candidates. I didn’t ask them why they wrote such and such an opinion, because I wasn’t a lawyer. But what I was looking for was whether or not they would change their philosophy over time. In other words, everybody says they were, you know, they were strict, they believed in the strict interpretation of the Constitution. They all said that. The question is one, were they capable of making, writing those kinds of opinions that would reflect that, and two, would they do so throughout their life?
HH: Were you disappointed…
GWB: And I don’t know whether dad sat down with Souter or not. And if he did, I’m not sure what was said.
HH: Were you disappointed with the Chief Justice’s opinion on Obamacare? I was not, but a lot of people were.
GWB: What was that now? On Roberts?
HH: Were you disappointed by Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion on Obamacare? I said I wasn’t, but a lot of people have been.
GWB: Yeah, yeah, they are. Throughout his time on the Court, people will have different opinions of the opinions he writes. One thing for certain, though, John Roberts is a fine chief justice. And I’m very proud of how he’s conducted himself on the Court, as I am of Sam Alito.
HH: Now there are some interesting details about campaigning, lessons learned. And the debate with Geraldine Ferraro, first of all, I didn’t know he spent the night before looking for your daughter’s stuffed animal, Spikey, with a flashlight. That’s not good debate prep.
GWB: I know. Actually, it may be the best debate prep in the end when I think about it. I mean, the real problem in debates is that you’ve got all these advisors in there, say this, say that, don’t say this, don’t say that, and your head gets all clogged up. And looking for this stuffed animal for the distraught grandchild might have been a good diversion.
HH: Okay, well, you also write, “my impression,” — your impression– “was that many members of the press corps, particularly the women, were actively rooting for Geraldine Ferraro,” on Page 155. Do you think that’s going to be true about former Secretary of State Clinton in the upcoming race, that the women in the press corps will be actively rooting for her?
GWB: Well, that’s an interesting question. You know, I’m sure, who knows? I mean, one thing is for certain. The press corps, well, some of the press corps, whether they agree with this statement or not, tend to show who they’re for. And I remember traveling with dad, there were some in ’84, and there was a palpable kind of anger and angst toward him and his candidacy. And so I editorialized in the book that that’s what I came away thinking. By the way, I think it’s very touching how dad ended up treating Geraldine Ferraro. They became good friends. And prior to her death, he wrote her a very sweet letter, prior to her death, wrote her a very sweet letter.
HH: He’s also become, this is very interesting, the relationship between the Bushes and the Clintons. And at every level, it’s very interesting. And your father and former President Clinton, and you and former President Clinton get along well, and they call them the black sheep of the Bush family. Is that going to mean hands behind your back if Hillary’s up against Jeb in two years?
GWB: Well, if that happens, and I don’t know if it is, I of course will be all in for Jeb, and I’ll still maintain my friendship with Bill, as will dad.
HH: Okay. Now one of the key lessons here in this book is that you wrote that you took a lot of lessons from your dad regarding personal diplomacy with international leaders. Now you won’t recall this, but you used to have a bunch of talk show hosts back to the White House, and on August 1 of 2007, you had a half dozen of us come in, and we were late coming in, because you were on a telecom with the prime minister of Iraq, Maliki, that went long. And you remarked when we sat down how much time you spent trying to teach him democratic leadership one on one. Are you disappointed with how Maliki turned out?
GWB: Well, he’s got a lot of, he had a lot of pressure, and again, when I left office, I was pretty convinced that, how Maliki was growing into a leader that could help Iraq transition from Saddam to a democracy. As a matter of fact, the country looked like it was heading that way during ’09 and ’10. I don’t know all the facts there as to why he made some of the decisions he made. I do think, though, that when history looks back at a transition from a very difficult period of time to what looked like a stable democracy at the time, Maliki will get some credit for it.
HH: Interesting. Interesting. On Page 186, wrapping up here, you talk about your father’s inaugural address and how it reflected his quiet faith. You write, “He was a religious man, but he was not comfortable espousing his faith in the public square.” Did he ever talk with you about the Bible studies you attended, Mr. President, or how you were fairly free with your faith in conversation with people?
GWB: Yeah, one thing I put in, I thought it was a pretty good line that I learned from him, was preach the Gospel daily, and if necessary, use words.
GWB: I thought that summarized his view of religion. Yeah, there was a story in there about, I was asked during a debate in the primary that my most favorite philosopher. And unscripted, of course, I blurted out Christ. And they said why, and I said because he changed my heart. You know, of course, I was thinking about Billy Graham helping me understand, get back into faith and quitting drinking about the same time. And he called me on the phone. He always called me after these big debates or big moments, and said great job, son, and everything. But in this call, he called and said you know, I don’t think that answer’s going to hurt you.
GWB: And it was interesting, because what he was basically saying is that people get suspicious of politicians saying I’m more religious than you are. As a matter of fact, you get kind of suspicious of anybody saying that. And I put in the book that you know, one of my favorite Bible verses is I shouldn’t be taking a speck out of your eye when I’ve got a log in my own. And I think it’s a good lesson for anybody in the public arena, if you truly are a believer. And I shouldn’t say lesson. It’s a good guide.
HH: Our last subject…
GWB: But not really. That’s about the only time we talked about religion in politics. He knew my view, which is that you know, candidates should never say vote for me because I’m more religious than my opponent. And I mean, he knew I felt that way. Yes, but the other thing is that, or what I did that kind of highlighted my view of religion was the Faith-Based Initiative, Hugh, which was that we should not be worried about faith in the public square, and we should not be worried about money going to faith-based programs so long as they don’t proselytize, and help meet societal goals.
HH: Agreed. I want to wrap this up. I’m up against my deadline, Mr. President, but there’s one thing I didn’t want to get passed. When your dad was Republican Party chairman in Houston, he had to purge the Birchers. And later on, I didn’t know this story, 1968, he votes for the Fair Housing Act, which was not popular in Texas, one of only nine Texas Congressmen to do so. I don’t know how the Senators vote. And he came back and he defended that vote to an angry crowd, and he ended up getting a standing ovation. It’s a very telling story. Do we lack a little bit of that in today’s politics where people will stand up and speak to their base in very blunt terms about when they’re off base?
GWB: Well, sometimes people do that. You know, I’m not certainly, I mean, I thought that was an incredibly courageous decision, and I’m not suggesting that the decision I’m about to describe to you ranks in that category, but the surge, in a way, was that way. I didn’t want to lose in Iraq. I didn’t want the sacrifices to go in vain. And a lot of people were saying get out. And my administration and I decided we’re going in. And you know, I thought about dad’s defense of a tough vote. One thing is for certain, that when you make a tough decision, it’s important to travel the country making it clear why you made the decision and defending it without, once the decision is made, people want to know why you made it, and are you willing to stand by it. And when that doesn’t happen, then I think it affects people’s view of leadership.
HH: Well, it’s really a remarkable book, Mr. President, 41: A Portrait Of My Father. It left me in mind of George Marshall and other people whose whole lives are summed up by service. And so a remarkable achievement, congratulations, I’m thankful this week that you wrote it, and for the service of your father and yours.
GWB: Great talking to you again. I hope you’re well, and I wish you and your great family a Happy Thanksgiving, too.
HH: Thanks, Mr. President. Be well.
GWB: All right, sir.
End of interview.