Former President George H.W. Bush Dies At 94 : The NPR Politics Podcast The patriarch of a political dynasty, George H.W. Bush was the last World War II vet to serve in the Oval Office. His son George W. called him "one of the greatest one-term presidents in the nation's history." This episode: Congressional correspondent Scott Detrow, political reporter Asma Khalid, White House correspondent Scott Horsley, and editor correspondent Ron Elving. Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org. Find and support your local public radio station at npr.org/stations.

Former President George H.W. Bush Dies At 94

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SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It is 10:30 Eastern on Saturday, December 1.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE [MARCH AND TWO-STEP]")

DETROW: Hey, there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. President George H.W. Bush has died at the age of 94. He was president from 1989 to 1993. That capped a long career in public service. Bush was vice president, an ambassador, a congressman, many other things. We'll talk about his life. We'll talk about his legacy. I'm Scott Detrow, I cover Congress.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: I'm Asma Khalid, political reporter.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: I'm Scott Horsley. I cover the White House.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: And I'm Ron Elving, editor correspondent.

DETROW: So let's start with this. When somebody as important as Bush dies, there are such long, rich obituaries that pop up everywhere. As you were reading through those - as you were thinking about his career, what was the thing you were thinking about the most? Ron, let's start with you.

ELVING: Generations - not just the difference between the generations of the Bush dynasty, but the differences between American generations. And certainly, George H.W. Bush will be remembered as one of that generation we sometimes call the greatest generation that survived the Great Depression and fought and won World War II. And certainly, George H.W. Bush did his part in winning that war.

KHALID: You know, Bush was this old-school Yankee Republican that really doesn't exist anymore. I mean, we're looking at a situation now where, maybe the exception of Senator Susan Collins, I don't think there's a single New England Republican in the Senate or the House anymore. Somebody like Bush - you know, Connecticut, Maine, prep school-educated - just doesn't even exist in New England anymore. These are a sort of dying breed of the Republican Party. And I think that that's kind of changed what our politics looks like today.

DETROW: What about you, Scott?

HORSLEY: He held just about every title one could hold in this in this country, including president of the United States. But he was also, of course, a family man - the head of a political dynasty but still a family. And he was obviously a devoted husband to his wife Barbara. They were married for almost three-quarters of a century, and he rejoins her now. She died back in April.

DETROW: And for me, what I think about is how Bush underscores the importance of relationships in politics and the declining importance of that. This is a guy who spent his entire life dashing out handwritten notes to everybody who had just had a meeting with, calling them on the phone, remembering birthdays - that type of thing. And you saw the importance of relationships for him play out in the way that he governed the country, striking a lot of bipartisan deals but also working - we're going to talk about this - in the lead-up to the Gulf War, getting on the phone with world leaders, tapping into years-long relationships with them to make that work.

And you saw it in the way that he campaigned, as well, certainly having some hard-edged campaign tactics running for the president, but also having - getting on the phone with people after the race and becoming really close friends with his opponent, Bill Clinton, among other things.

So we don't actually play the pieces we work on that much on the podcast. But Scott, you did a piece on Bush that ran this morning that really gets into his whole career, and I think it's worth taking a listen to before we have a broader conversation about President Bush.

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HORSLEY: George H.W. Bush was the definition of establishment success - Yale graduate, prosperous business career, 41st president of the United States. But one admittedly biased observer, George W. Bush, told NPR his father has always been shortchanged.

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GEORGE W BUSH: I think he's, if not the - one of the greatest one-term presidents in the nation's history. And as a result of him being a one-term president, historians haven't paid much attention to him.

HORSLEY: The elder George Bush had a lifetime of public service before he became president - as a young Navy pilot in World War II, a Texas congressman, CIA director and faithful vice president to Ronald Reagan.

TIMOTHY NAFTALI: His loyalty to Ronald Reagan was legendary.

HORSLEY: Timothy Naftali is a historian who wrote a biography of Bush.

NAFTALI: He did not always agree with Ronald Reagan. And he was so secretive about those moments where he disagreed that we don't even have good documentation - at least not available yet - on when he disagreed.

HORSLEY: Bush famously disagreed with Reagan when he ran against him in the Republican primary of 1980, especially Reagan's supply-side faith that the government can slash tax rates without losing revenue.

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GEORGE H W BUSH: What I call a voodoo economic policy.

HORSLEY: Reagan later had to reverse some of his tax cuts in the face of mounting deficits. But by the time Bush ran to succeed Reagan in 1988, he knew what it took to win the confidence of conservative Republicans.

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GEORGE H W BUSH: Read my lips...

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GEORGE H W BUSH: ...No new taxes.

HORSLEY: Bush trounced Democrat Michael Dukakis to win the White House that year. But he ultimately backtracked on his lip reading pledge. During 1990 budget negotiations with Democratic congressional leaders, Bush, like Reagan, agreed to a tax increase. Marlin Fitzwater was the president's press secretary.

MARLIN FITZWATER: I remember they called me in to the budget meeting. And President Bush gave me this statement of about three sentences that said we have agreed that we will do the following things - increase tax revenues, cut spending and so forth. And the minute I saw it, I looked up to the - looked around the table. And the Democrats looked like the cat who'd ate the canary. They knew they had negotiated a winner.

HORSLEY: The tax hike cut the deficit, but it cost Bush dearly with conservatives. Years later, Bush would receive a Profile in Courage Award from John F. Kennedy's grandson, who said America's gain was President Bush's loss. Bush's most notable accomplishments in the White House came in the area of foreign policy. While Ronald Reagan is often credited with winning the Cold War, biographer Naftali says it was Bush who successfully navigated the aftermath. His low-key approach avoided inflaming Communist hardliners and allowed for the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union.

NAFTALI: The soft landing that occurred, which was not inevitable, is in large measure due to George H.W. Bush's diplomacy.

HORSLEY: Bush, who had been U.S. envoy to China as well as a globetrotting vice president, had a thick Rolodex and plenty of experience working the phones. His lifetime of contacts came in handy in 1990 when Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait. Bush methodically assembled an international coalition to push them back.

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GEORGE H W BUSH: Just two hours ago, allied air forces began an attack on military targets in Iraq and Kuwait.

HORSLEY: A five-week bombing campaign was followed by a 100-hour ground assault that routed the Iraqis from Kuwait. Some wanted allied troops to push on to Baghdad and topple Saddam Hussein. But as the late state department official Lawrence Eagleburger recalled, Bush said no.

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LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER: The president's decision was, we are not going on to Baghdad. If we do, we will have violated the agreement we have with our allies, which was to bring Saddam out of Kuwait. It was not to bring Saddam down. And in addition, it will tie us into an area where we cannot be sure how soon it is we could withdraw.

HORSLEY: Bush's son would revisit that decision a dozen years later with costly results. But the first Gulf War was a clear victory for U.S. forces. And as commander in chief, George H.W. Bush saw his approval ratings soar to nearly 90%. His lock on a second term seemed so solid, many national Democrats opted to sit out the 1992 election, leaving it to the governor of a small Southern state to challenge Bush.

Bill Clinton had one big advantage, though - the economy, stupid. As the country sank into recession, Bush's popularity sank with it. There was no parachute or soft landing this time. Bush lost a three-way race in the '92 election with just 38% of the vote. More than two decades later, George W. Bush, who experienced his own roller coaster ride in the polls, wrote an affectionate portrait of his father titled "41."

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GEORGE W BUSH: I wanted people to better appreciate George Bush as not only a great person but a very successful president.

HORSLEY: The elder Bush was also the lynchpin of a political dynasty that now spans four generations. Whatever his political shortcomings, hindsight has cast his presidency in a kinder, gentler light.

KHALID: Scott, that was a really good piece. And I think you gave us a really comprehensive view of what the man's life was like.

HORSLEY: Well, thanks very much. And hat tip to our colleagues Marcus Rosenbaum, who did a lot of the research, and David Greene and Arnie Seipel, who interviewed George W. Bush.

DETROW: Scott, on the point that the story ended on - the fact that he's being reassessed - you know, every president likes to say, history will vindicate me. Right? But if you start at 1992, Bush gets blown out by Bill Clinton. He's a one-term president - the last one-term president we've had up to this point. But really, over the years, he's been looked at more and more favorably. Is that just nostalgia, or were his accomplishments really just not recognized at the time?

HORSLEY: I think, in the case of the tax hike that cost him so dearly with the Republicans, that set the stage for what would eventually become the balanced budget of the late '90s and, you know, a very long economic expansion. His caution in not moving on to Baghdad at the end of the first Gulf War looks prescient after the debacle of the second Gulf War and the morass in Iraq that followed that. And I think his management of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the aftermath of the Cold War, which maybe didn't seem like such an achievement at the time, looks particularly good in the wake of something like the Arab Spring, where we find that, you know, the changing of an old autocratic order doesn't necessarily have to happen peacefully.

KHALID: One of my earliest political memories - and I guess I'm dating myself very clearly here - is the first Gulf War. You know, I remember a friend's father who was a Marine who fought there. It was just a very simple, quick and clean war. And so it seemed we were in and out right away. It was a war that had a lot of international agreement; there was a lot of consensus there. And I think many folks looked to that and said, this is the way you fight a war. Right? You build on, bring up these international allies. You're in; you're out.

I think that where the questions arise is that, even though it was very swiftly fought, some of the decisions he made, ultimately, to leave the country very quickly led to a situation which really began our country's entanglements in the Middle East. I mean, I think many of us now grow up where we think of the Middle East as kind of this crisis epicenter. And I would say for much of my life, we, as a nation, have been fighting wars or involved in wars to some degree throughout the Middle East. But that really began with the first Gulf War. I mean, prior to that, the country's main foreign policy focus was the Cold War.

DETROW: But Ron, I guess there's a flipside of that too. Right? Like, you could say that this action set up 20 years of bad decision-making by the United States in that region. But you could also - the flip argument is, it was a restrained action; Bush 41 realized that going into Baghdad and occupying the country would be a disaster, and then George Bush 43 did exactly that and proved his father right. It was a foreign policy mistake.

ELVING: And obviously, that did not work out well. And everything that has happened since can, in some sense, be traced to that bad decision to go into Baghdad and take over that country. At the same time, as you just suggested, to a very large degree, some of the same people who were advising President Bush 43 were among the people who were advising President Bush 41. They were eager to finish the job on Saddam Hussein. And to some degree, you have to find the roots of the bad decisions of the second Bush presidency in some of the people who were involved in the first Bush presidency. And if there was too much restraint back in 1991 if they stayed out of Baghdad, at the same time, they did cause a lot of other physical reactions in the politics of the Middle East.

DETROW: You know, one other thing that really jumps out about Bush to me is that we are in a current political climate where it's seen as a positive if you don't have a long political track record if you're trying to run for president. But being president was just the last stop in a really long public service career. Bush was vice president. He was also, notably, one of the first envoys to China. I mean, he really made relationships around the world a key part of his career.

HORSLEY: It would be interesting to see what a President George H.W. Bush would be doing in our current time with the rise of China. But he happened to occupy the White House at a time when the U.S. was really an unchallenged superpower. With the end of the Cold War and the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was unrivaled in its leadership of the world. And Bush was in a position to steer that leadership, and he did it in a completely internationalist way, not - there was no hint of triumphalism about it.

He was not an "America First" or - he was very much an internationalist. And that was one of the reasons he was able to engineer that soft landing with the breakup of the Soviet Union, to sort of make room for the peaceful disillusion of our longtime Cold War rival - a very big change from some of the attitudes we see on the world stage today.

DETROW: All right. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we're going to talk about Bush's personal style and approach to politics and how it seems like a really extinct thing in terms of how politics operate today. We'll be right back.

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DETROW: All right. We are back. And when a president or a statesman dies, I feel like often you see themes to all the public statements that are coming out about them. And one of the things that keeps coming up with Bush - from Democrats, from Republicans, from leaders in other countries - is how much of a gentleman he was. And I think it seems to be implied that there aren't many gentlemen running the country today in American politics.

ELVING: His personal style was self-effacing. He would step back oftentimes in his early career and let other people run for office. He was not, it didn't seem, someone who was absolutely determined to be president of the United States from his earliest youth. But he was lured in. He was lured in largely by his close friend James A. Baker III. Baker wound up managing the 1980 campaign for George H.W. Bush, and that was not terribly successful. He was seen as too preppy, perhaps too much inclined to step back and let a stronger personality like Ronald Reagan take the fore.

But he was able to find a perfect position behind Ronald Reagan, more or less in his wake, to bring his particular style to power in 1988, when a lot of other more aggressive people challenged him. But he was tough enough to hang in there with them, go toe to toe and use his position as Ronald Reagan's vice president to take over the Republican Party, albeit briefly.

DETROW: Yeah.

KHALID: George Bush is really, I guess, the last of these World War II veteran politicians. And I think there's something to be said about a guy who not only came from extreme wealth - right? - went to prep school but also served. He's - he was a veteran. And you know, Scott, you know this better than anyone. But in general, in Congress, there's just been this steady decline of veterans. I mean, I know we had a bit of an uptick, I think, this cycle. But in general we don't have veteran representation in Congress that looks anything like what it did, say, in the '50s. Right? You've had this steady decline of service members.

And I think that's a really important skill set as well because, to some degree, you know - and I've heard this from some current members of Congress who are veterans - they believe that they are extremely qualified to help make those decisions because they've actually been in battle, they've been in combat, and they understand what that experience is like. And no doubt, George Bush must've felt the same as well.

DETROW: But Scott, we're talking about how Bush had this gentlemanly approach, this service-based approach. And that's all true, but he certainly could throw an elbow or two in a political setting - or three or four. Like, he ran some nasty campaigns. And that doesn't take away from this, but he seemed to be able to compartmentalize.

HORSLEY: I think that's true, although he was fairly awkward with the elbows himself, and he tended to outsource the harshest stuff. It's certainly true. You know, it was on his watch that we saw the Willie Horton ad - maybe one of the most infamous race-baiting ads on the national scene.

DETROW: Yeah.

KHALID: So for folks who aren't familiar with the ad, it's a situation in which this African-American man, who I believe had been convicted of murder, in Massachusetts was let out and then goes on to...

ELVING: He was furloughed. He was given sort of a weekend pass to leave prison, and he went on to commit violent crimes. And he was the poster child of an ad campaign directed at Michael Dukakis, then the governor of Massachusetts.

KHALID: And it really did play upon this white fear, which is something I feel like we are consistently talking about in our current politics. And so as much as you're saying that George Bush was this man of extreme sort of class, believing that certain things don't - aren't done in political campaigns, couldn't you also say that this ad, you know, that was maybe not approved by him but was done during one of his campaign cycles, ultimately sort of allowed us to enter into these identity politic conversations that we just are now having on speed?

HORSLEY: Absolutely. So I mean, I think that when you live 94 years, you tend to have some contradictions in your resume. And I think that - I think both those things are certainly true.

ELVING: One way to express it would be to say - we don't campaign like that, but we have people. We have people who will do it for us. And that certainly was done - it was certainly done by many people other than George H.W. Bush - but he always had somebody around who could be the tough guy, who could make the tough ad, who could say - oh, well, I wasn't part of the campaign, but of course, I did make an ad that was very harsh about the opponent of that particular campaign.

DETROW: But yet at the same time, he developed a real, deep and genuine friendship with Bill Clinton in the years after they both left the White House, despite their pretty heated campaign against each other. And he seemed to develop a real relationship with Barack Obama, as well. Obama often talked about - even though Obama won the White House railing against George W. Bush's foreign policy - how much he respected George H.W. Bush's foreign policy.

KHALID: You know, Bill Clinton actually has an opinion piece in The Washington Post today. And can I just read a small little nugget of that?

DETROW: Only if you do it as a Bill Clinton impersonation.

KHALID: Oh, gosh. OK. I can't do that. My Southern...

HORSLEY: (Imitating Bill Clinton) You got to do it as though you were Bill Clinton, Asma.

KHALID: ...But I just want to share it because I think it gets at the precise point that we've been talking about. So he says, (reading) given what politics looks like in America and around the world today, it's easy to sigh and say George H.W. Bush belonged to an era that is gone and never coming back, where our opponents are not our enemies, where we are open to different ideas and changing our minds, where facts matter and where our devotion to our children's future leads to honest compromise and shared progress. I know what he would say, quote, "nonsense - it's your duty to get that America back."

And I thought that was very fitting.

DETROW: It is. So let's end on this note. Obviously, when you are the son of a senator and the father of a president and a governor, your family's a big part of your story. Right? But it seemed sincere that the Bush family - that George H.W. Bush was incredibly close with all of his family, not just George and Jeb, but also a daughter who died at a young age of leukemia, his other children.

There was a nice moment on Weekend Edition this morning where Linda Wertheimer, who covered Bush and covered the 1988 presidential election, was talking to Scott Simon about a moment in the final days of that 1988 campaign where she was flying across the country with Bush and got into a reflective conversation with him.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER: This was a guy - you know, he loved speed; he loved taking chances.

SCOTT SIMON: Jumping out of airplanes.

WETHEIMER: Right, all that stuff. But what - the thing that just amazed me was I was sitting there with him, and he was very relaxed, and he sort of leaned back in the chair. And he said - I said to him, this must be the best time of your life. The path to the presidency was just straight ahead of him. He was going to beat Michael Dukakis - no question. He said, no. And I said, well, then what was it? (Laughter).

SIMON: Yeah.

WETHEIMER: And he said, well, when I came back from the war, Bar and I were married, Georgie was already born. We went to New Haven, got a little apartment, and I went back to college. And he said, I remember this day, sitting in the library, and the sun was kind of slanting in. And I was sitting there and thinking that Bar and Georgie - that's what he called his wife, Bar - that Bar and Georgie we're back in our little apartment. And he said, I was the happiest I've ever been.

SIMON: Oh, my God. That's a beautiful story.

WETHEIMER: Well, he was a beautiful man. A beautiful - you know, maybe you didn't agree with his politics all the time, but you could never, ever regret knowing him.

DETROW: That's such a striking image of this young family starting their lives, especially knowing that two of the three people are going to one day end up as presidents. I think that was a really nice story.

ELVING: We spoke earlier about his penchant for writing notes and letters and keeping people close to him that way. He left a note as he left the Oval Office in 1993, addressed to his successor, Bill Clinton. (Reading) Dear Bill, when I walked into this office just now, I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too. I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some presidents have described. There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I'm not a very good one to give advice, but just don't let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be our president when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country's success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck. George.

DETROW: George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, dead at the age of 94. Of course, all week now the country will be mourning George H.W. Bush. There will be ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol. There will be a state funeral. We will cover all of it throughout the week, so be sure to check your feed as well as our coverage on npr.org and on your local public radio station.

I'm Scott Detrow. I cover Congress.

KHALID: I'm Asma Khalid, political reporter.

HORSLEY: I'm Scott Horsley. I cover the White House.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, editor correspondent.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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