43 On 41: A President Traces The Life Of His Father

Nov 11, 2014
Originally published on November 12, 2014 8:16 am

Only twice in American history has a son followed his father into the presidency. The first was John Quincy Adams. The second, George W. Bush, has now written a biography of his father, George H.W. Bush. It's called 41: A Portrait of My Father.

The 43rd president of the United States traces the life of the 41st from his youth in New England through his entry into the Texas oil business, combat during World War II, party politics, diplomacy, the White House, retirement — and skydiving.

In a wide-ranging interview with Morning Edition's David Greene, former President George W. Bush discusses his father's life and legacy, and their relationship. He also addresses some of the major decisions of his own time in office, and the possibility of a third President Bush, if his brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, decides to run in 2016.


Interview Highlights

DAVID GREENE: What do you think when people compare the two wars [in Iraq] and say that your father's approach was wiser?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I can understand that, and I ask them to read the book and --

You can understand that?

Yeah, I mean, I think — sure — I think people can, you know, I can understand the comparisons between he and me. I mean, it's — it's a way to do things. I don't agree necessarily that wiser or not wiser, because the situation was different and in many ways more complex.

ON JEB BUSH'S POSSIBLE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL RUN

I mean, the environment is what it is. You don't get to rewrite the environment, and so Jeb has to think about whether or not he wants to be president, just like Hillary Clinton has to think about whether she wants to be president. Some guy at one time said to me, "You know, I don't like the idea of Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Bush." I said, "Oh, OK." I said, "How do you like the idea of Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Clinton?" And the point is that these may be the two best candidates their party has to offer.

ON RELATIONS WITH RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN

I did work to get Ukraine and Georgia to have a process to get into NATO, and Putin didn't like it. The truth of the matter is, Putin doesn't like much of what the United States does these days.

But would your father have done that, or do you think he would have said, you know, 'I need to be more careful about provoking Russia'?

Yeah, I don't think — I think at some point in time he would have recognized — I don't know. You know, he wasn't there. And it's obviously a different time and a different period and a different leader. It seemed like to me, and in many ways Gorbachev recognized that the Soviet was doomed — and it seems like to me at times Vladimir Putin was to restate the Soviet, reinstate the Soviet.

ON HIS FATHER'S LIFE NOW

He's joyful. Ninety years old. He can't walk, but he sure can laugh and smile, and he is — the basic things of life make him very content: his wife, Barbara, his children and his grandchildren.

ON THE FAILINGS OF HIS FATHER'S 1992 RE-ELECTION CAMPAIGN

I was very disappointed, not in him, but in the process. And he gave, he did give a flat speech [at the 1992 Republican National Convention], and it frankly wasn't full of many interesting ideas. It was kind of defensive. And there's a couple of lessons there about this moment. One is, is that if you're gonna give a big speech, get it written early and get used to it.

Get comfortable with it?

Get comfortable with it, because it enhances the delivery. And secondly, that if you expect to win political races, you better have strong policy platform. And they were playing — they were kind of playing small ball at this point, and presidents have got to have bigger agendas.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're going to hear next from George W. Bush. The former president sat down in Dallas with our own David Greene, who covered the Bush White House for eight years.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

These days, the nation's 43rd president works in a pretty nondescript building. He's on a high floor overlooking the lush tree-lined Dallas neighborhood where he lives now; one wall of the office - all glass with a view of the gleaming skyscrapers downtown, the other walls - all pictures with his family and also him, strolling around Camp David with one foreign leader after another. Now President Bush has more free time.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: What did I - oh, I came in here and signed, you know, about a thousand bookplates. And then I went and had some meetings. And then I went and played nine holes of golf. Then I painted for three and a half hours.

GREENE: So he's been busy with his new hobby - oil painting. Those book plates he mentioned? - Those are inserts he's been signing for people to put inside his new book. It's called "41: A Portrait Of My Father." We had a pretty wide ranging conversation about the wars in Iraq both Bush presidents waged. We also talked about a man who he had a complex relationship with - Vladimir Putin. We'll hear all about that tomorrow. First, the relationship at hand.

So how's your father doing these days?

BUSH: He's joyful. Ninety years old, he can't walk, but he sure can laugh and smile. And he is - the basic things of life make him very content - his wife Barbara, his children and his grandchildren.

GREENE: It struck me because you said that his memory was starting to fade in the acknowledgements, which was...

BUSH: Yeah.

GREENE: ...Which was difficult to hear. That must be hard.

BUSH: Well, it's easier when your own memory starts to fade like mine. I mean, (laughter) you'll see. Parts of his memory are very vivid. You know, I was hoping at times to, you know, get the profound insights. As you know, our family is not all that strong in psychobabble. And so I'm sitting next to him gazing - as he's gazing out over the ocean. I had been painting and I had quite a bit of oil paint on my pants. And I'm hoping that this is the moment that he'll talk about death, meaningful moments in his life. I said dad, what do you thinking? He said, I think it's beautiful, son - pause - say, do those pants come in clean, he says to me? He's got a wonderful sense of humor.

GREENE: But the elder Bush never wrote a memoir, so his son stepped up. He says he got the idea from a family friend, the daughter of historian David McCollugh.

BUSH: She said, you know, my dad wished he could've read a book by John Q. Adams about his father John Adams.

GREENE: This is the only other presidential father-son duo?

BUSH: The only other duo. And I said that's a really interesting idea. So I decided to tell his story in a way that nobody else could tell.

GREENE: So Bush wrote this book about a president as a former president himself. Of course, early on in his life, few expected the younger Bush would follow in his father's footsteps. He was well known for his wild behavior, including a lot of drinking.

I wonder if you can remember for us a moment when you feel like you let him down.

BUSH: Well, in the book I put a tale of youthful exuberance.

GREENE: Say more (laughter).

BUSH: Yeah. I was playing tennis with our mutual friend of his and mine, Jimmy Allison. And after the match, we both drank too much. I was driving home and ran over the garbage pail - garbage can - of the guy who lived right next door to mother and dad. And pulled into the driveway and there's mother. And she says it's disgraceful, go see your father. And I went upstairs and he was reading. And down - he lowers the book, off comes the glasses, stared at me, kind of shook his head, lifted the book back up and I slunk out because it was clear that I had disappointed him. And when you have the kind of relationship that I have with him, he didn't need to have to hector, lecture, scream, scold - disappointing him was enough to chase in me.

GREENE: We also talked about a time in 1992 when it was the son who was disappointed. His father was running for reelection, behind Bill Clinton in the polls. And he had a moment of opportunity with his speech at the Republican Convention in Houston. The younger Bush remembers walking into a hotel room three days before the big speech and seeing his father's aides still scrambling to finish a first draft.

BUSH: It was a sign that the campaign wasn't running very smoothly, to say the least. And I was very disappointed, not in him, but in the process. And he did give a flat speech. Frankly, it wasn't full of many interesting ideas. It was kind of defensive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH: My job has been made easier by a leader who's taken a lot of unfair criticism with grace and humor, the vice president of the United States, Dan Quayle, and I am very grateful for him.

BUSH: There's a couple of lessons there about this moment. One is that if you're going to give a big speech, get it written early and get used to it.

GREENE: Get comfortable with it.

BUSH: Get comfortable with it because it enhances the delivery. And secondly, that if you expect to win political races, you better have a strong policy platform. And they were playing - they were kind of playing small ball at this point, and presidents have got to have bigger agendas.

GREENE: One thing that caught my eye in your acknowledgements, you said your brother Jeb has a lot on his mind these days.

BUSH: Yes, he does.

GREENE: What might that be?

BUSH: Well, I'm sure he's thinking about running for president. I hope he does it, but I have no idea if he is.

GREENE: Are you telling him he should?

BUSH: Oh, yeah, sure. As have a lot of other people, but he'll make a wise decision one way or the other.

GREENE: Some people have said they've had enough already - too many Clintons, too many Bushes, too many of the same name. What do you tell them?

BUSH: I tell them that in order to become president you have to earn it. That - many ways the name is a plus and some ways the name is a burden. And you just described one of the burdens. And that is that people assume that if your name was different you couldn't succeed. In other words, it causes people to be resentful and not listen to the platforms and or think about the strengths of the candidate. I mean, the environment is what it is. You don't get to rewrite the environment. And so Jeb has to think about whether or not he wants to be president, just like Hillary Clinton has to think about whether she wants to be president. Some guy one time said to me one, you know, I don't like the idea of Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Bush. I said OK. I said, how do you like the idea of Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Clinton? And the point is is that these may be the two best candidates their party has to offer.

GREENE: And we'll continue our conversation with former President George W. Bush on the program tomorrow. We'll talk about how he and his father handled two different Russian leaders and also one common adversary in Iraq.

What do you think when people compare the two wars and say that your father's approach was wiser?

BUSH: I can understand that. And I ask them to read the book. And...

GREENE: You can understand that?

BUSH: Yeah. I mean, I think - sure. I think people - you know, I can understand the comparisons between he and me. I mean, it's a way to do things. I don't agree necessarily that wiser or not wiser because the situation was different, and, in many ways, more complex.

INSKEEP: That's David Greene with W. - Former president George W. Bush. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.