George H.W. Bush Remembered

14 hours ago
Originally published on December 1, 2018 8:02 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President George H.W. Bush's time in office was marked by the success of the first Gulf War followed by a disappointing defeat when he ran for re-election amidst a slumping economy. Often lost in the telling, though, is handling of two other major international challenges early in his presidency. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: 1989 - the first President Bush's first year in office. Eastern Europe was roiling. The Soviet Union was struggling economically and politically when something once unimaginable happened in Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEDIA MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The government in East Berlin announces free travel directly to West Germany.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The reaction in Bonn is joyous.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This is the day which we have asked for, we have demanded...

GONYEA: That's NPR coverage of the opening of the Berlin Wall. People rushed through. Families were united. It was a breathless moment. But back in Washington, when President Bush met with reporters in the Oval Office, he was low-key, cautious, careful.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE HW BUSH: Well, I don't think any single event is the end of what you might call the Iron Curtain. But clearly this is a long way from the harsh days of the - the harshest Iron Curtain days.

GONYEA: It was unclear how events would play out at this point. Still, Bush was asked why he wasn't more ecstatic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE HW BUSH: I'm just not an emotional kind of guy. But I'm very pleased.

GONYEA: Mark Updegrove is a historian and author of the book "The Last Republicans," a dual biography of both presidents Bush, father and son. He says classic George H.W. Bush was on display that day.

MARK UPDEGROVE: And George H.W. Bush in a very muted way says, I'm pleased; I'm very pleased. It was clearly a triumph of American ideals but not something that had to be proclaimed rhetorically in a way that would be shameful to the leaders of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

GONYEA: Then, just over two years later in 1991, the end of the Soviet Union. It was Christmas week. The moment called for a nationally televised speech by the president and, again, a very low-key approach, optimistic but cautious.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE HW BUSH: During these last few months, you and I have witnessed one of the greatest dramas of the 20th century, the historic and revolutionary transformation of a totalitarian dictatorship, the Soviet Union, and the liberation of its peoples.

GONYEA: All the while, the president worked behind the scenes to maintain stability across Europe. Bush's son, George W. Bush, attributes his father's performance in this moment to humility.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GEORGE W BUSH: He understood how the other person thinks and, in this case, how Gorbachev thought.

GONYEA: This is from an interview with NPR's Morning Edition in 2014.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GEORGE W BUSH: He felt if he gloated or showed off for elements of the American political scene as the Soviet Union was unwinding, it could easily provoke hard-liners and weaken Gorbachev.

GONYEA: On that historic night when the Soviet Union was no more, President George H.W. Bush was well aware of a more pressing worry for Americans than world affairs - the economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE HW BUSH: And I want all Americans to know that I am committed to attacking our economic problems at home with the same determination we brought to winning the Cold War.

GONYEA: It didn't work out that way. Democrat Bill Clinton, who ran on the slogan it's the economy, stupid, would defeat Bush less than one year later. For voters, the economy meant more than how George H.W. Bush managed the end of the Cold War or his success in Operation Desert Storm. Historians may differ. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.