Jon Meacham, executive vice president and executive editor at Random House, and John Sununu, former White House Chief of Staff under President George H.W. Bush, discuss the legacy of the George H.W. Bush administration. The speakers assess the successes and challenges of the Bush presidency, focusing on the former president's approach to leadership. Sununu and Meacham consider Bush's foreign policy record and comment on the lasting influence of decisions taken by his administration.
The Lessons from History series uses historical analysis as a critical tool for understanding modern foreign policy challenges by hearing from practitioners who played an important role in a consequential historical event or from experts and historians. This series is made possible through the generous support of David M. Rubenstein.
WEISBERG: Good afternoon. I’d like to welcome everybody to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Governor John Sununu and Jon Meacham. Today’s event is in the David Rubenstein the Lessons from History series. We’re going to absorb some important lessons from history today. I would also like to welcome Council members participating electronically versus the live stream. I hope some of them are going to chime in with some questions later.
You have the introductions of both these gentlemen—who need very little introduction—in your packets. John Sununu was governor of New Hampshire before he was White House chief of staff. He was briefly the host of “Crossfire” after that—I remember that—and has a new book out about George H.W. Bush and his legacy. Jon Meacham, who you know very well, is the former editor from Newsweek, the author of several distinguished books of American history, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book on Andrew Jackson and the new longer book about George H.W. Bush, “Destiny and Power,” which I can heartily recommend.
MEACHAM: It may not be good but it’s long. (Laughter.)
WEISBERG: So, just to get it started, we want to talk about the legacy of George H.W. Bush today, and I’m going to ask nothing about the current presidential campaign because I suspect that members will—
SUNUNU: And I’m going to say nothing about the—(laughter).
WEISBERG: —may bring that up later. But it is the context in which we’re looking back on the presidency of a very different kind of Republican, a very different political moment. And both of you are among, shall I say, the minority who might argue that George H.W. Bush was a very important president and a very successful president, and I’d like to hear each of you make that case, if you would, briefly.
Jon, do you want to—Jon Meacham, do you want to go first?
SUNUNU: That’s no “H.” (Laughter.)
WEISBERG: That’s right. That’s right.
MEACHAM: I do think he was a transformative president. He packed eight years of action into four—any one of a crisis in the vein of a Tiananmen Square, of a Gulf War, the end of the Soviet Union, fall of the Berlin Wall, negotiation of NAFTA; on the domestic side, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Clean Air Act, the 1990 budget deal, which set up the prosperity of the 1990s, which Bill Clinton will tell you at length—which is redundant, I realize—(laughter)—but he will make that case. It was a—I think it was a consequential presidency.
And I think the Greeks understood this: character is destiny. There’s a direct line in my mind from the Greenwich Country Day School student who was known as “half-half” Bush, because if he had a dessert or a candy bar he would cut it in half and give half to the other kid. His brother Jonathan told me that the thing about “Poppy” was he was born with an innate empathy—an innate empathy. And I think there’s a direct line between that personal characteristic and his capacity diplomatically to put himself in the other guy’s shoes.
So he always saw the world as the other side saw it. He didn’t dance on the Berlin Wall. He understood the forces on Gorbachev. You know, George Bush sees life as sort of one long reunion mixer, you know, and, you know, became president—arguably his base was the Christmas card list. And I’m sure there are—most of you in this room have gotten at least one note from him. He’s the only man I know who writes thank-you notes for thank-you notes. (Laughter.)
And, you know, he never won a statewide race, and so in many ways his charisma, his personal characteristics were what propelled him. And “charisma” is not a word you often hear associated with him, but I defy anyone to spend a great deal of time around him, particularly in his prime, and not find that there was a quiet, persistent appeal that enabled him to be—to rise to the pinnacle.
WEISBERG: Just before I turn to “H,” what you described sounds a lot like a liberal legacy on domestic policy and regulation, and on foreign policy a very balanced sort of nonpartisan approach. Do you see it as a conservative legacy?
MEACHAM: I see it as a classically conservative legacy. And the governor is a sharper student of this than I am, but he’s—George H.W. Bush is actually, in classical terms, more conservative than Reagan.
Reagan is what Richard Hofstadter called a pseudo conservative. Movement conservatives are not classically Burkean or Tory conservatives. Bush believed—and as he would say to his staff and his chief of staff on occasion—and you can obviously confirm—I want to do the most good I can and cause the least harm I can. And true conservatives understand that radical social reform or radical foreign adventures have unforeseen consequences.
WEISBERG: Governor, just in answering this, do you think that people should view George H.W. Bush as a continuation of Reagan, or in some cases a reversal or repudiation of Reagan?
SUNUNU: I think the Bush presidency was a continuation of a general philosophy that was started in the Reagan administration but with a much stronger commitment to getting results in a short period of time—not that he knew it was only going to be a one-term presidency, but he was very results oriented where I thought Ronald Reagan was more thematic.
And just to follow up on a little bit of what Jon has brought forward, let me talk a little bit about the domestic side. I know everybody here has a little bit of a preference to hearing the legacies in the foreign policy area, but the domestic side is a very important one for George Herbert Walker Bush. He passed more significant domestic legislation in his four years than any president except Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt. And it was conservative legislation.
The Clean Air Act was the first time anyone brought market-based principles into the environmental world, and has now been mimicked in legislation all around the world, certainly a tremendous legacy.
On the energy side, all the deregulation that, in terms of legislation and dealing with the regs themselves, what we are enjoying today in terms of low energy prices is a legacy of George Herbert Walker Bush’s understanding of the energy business and moving towards effective deregulation.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, it was clearly a piece of legislation that was going to pass close to a hundred-to-nothing in the Senate and 435-to-nothing in the House, and yet George Bush fought to make it a piece of legislation that was not punitive to the private sector while preserving the rights of the disabilities—of those with disabilities. But we worked awfully hard to make it a piece of legislation that conservatives could be comfortable with and provided, if you will, all the benefits with a level playing ground.
The civil rights act that he signed after vetoing a civil rights act that he considered was just not a balanced piece of legislation, it is a conservative piece of legislation.
What he did with the budget. It was a five-year budget. He didn’t get the benefit of all the surpluses that everybody else wants to take credit for, but it was a budget that for the first time in many decades produced surpluses for the country, both in terms of cutting costs, cutting spending. We actually had the first package that should have gone through but the Gingrich rebellion messed it up—three-and-a-half times as much spending cuts as tax increases that he accepted. And the tax increase on the first package was a gasoline tax increase on a gasoline tax that had not been incremented for inflation in almost a decade.
So he worked hard. Even on the things that people responded negatively to, he worked hard to get good legislation to deal with important issues in a very conservative way.
WEISBERG: So let’s talk about the 1990 budget deal, which is to most people probably the highlight, the most famous fact about the Bush domestic presidency, that he reversed his pledge on not raising taxes and agreed to that bill. And it spawned a conservative rebellion, the consequences of which we are, in many ways, still living with today.
I’ve seen former President Bush say at at least one juncture that he regretted doing that. Do you think he regrets it now? And do you regret it? Do you think that’s—do you think part of his legacy is doing the right thing there, or should he have not done that?
SUNUNU: Well, I come from a state where we have no sales tax and we have no income tax and we know you can make it work. And so if I had had my preferences—and the president knows this; I’ve told him dozens of times in the process—I actually thought that we could squeeze the Democrats and eventually get what he wanted, but he got put in a box.
If you remember, this was the fall of 1990. Saddam Hussein had just invaded, two months earlier, Kuwait. And the president was now sending young men and women into harm’s way and knew that if we did not get the multiyear budget, sequester would come in and all of a sudden you would have our men and women preparing for battle with a draconian cut in the defense budget. And so there was a lot of pressure on him for that.
And I think that, in my mind, that was the trigger that really convinced him that he had to bite the bullet and accept, really, the Democrats’—Tom Foley and George Mitchell were just putting this pressure on Bush to get the political victory of forcing him to include some taxes in there. We could have had a $450 million budget package—$450 billion budget package without taxes. They insisted on a $540 billion package with taxes.
WEISBERG: And, John, in his heart of hearts, what do you think Bush now thinks? Right thing to do substantively; wrong thing to do politically?
SUNUNU: I think that’s—
WEISBERG: I’m sorry, I meant no “H,” but go ahead.
SUNUNU: No, no, I think that’s probably right, but like most of us that have to deal with that kind of a decision in our life, on Monday we go one way and on Tuesday we go another way. I mean, you—I don’t think you can lock yourself down and be firm on something that dramatic in your life to feel that you made a drastic mistake. You always understand why you made it. And when you understand why you made it, you think it’s a decision you wish you had not had to make but understand why you had to make it.
MEACHAM: When I asked him what his greatest regret in his political life was, he said: I shouldn’t have said “Read my lips,” which is an interesting way to put it. He’s not saying that he regrets doing it.
MEACHAM: He shouldn’t have said on the front end—pledged his fealty to supply side economics quite so—quite so clearly. He did, in the wake of Pat Buchanan doing so well against him in the 1992 New Hampshire primary—40 percent—he went South, and in an interview with the Atlanta Constitution he said he was sorry he had broken the pledge. In his diary he says: Now I’m getting attacked for trying to back off doing the right thing. What I meant was I went through so much political storm for it, I can’t imagine anybody sensible wouldn’t think that it was a good thing—that you wouldn’t want to do that again.
Now, he did initially break a—just one thing about the timeline. In June of 1990 you all had breakfast at—it was a 6:30 a.m., 7:00 a.m. breakfast on the—in the residence. And Bob Dole showed up and said that it was so early his dog wasn’t up yet. (Laughter.) And Bush said—you know, Mitchell and Foley said, you know, we have to have, you know, some revenue increases, and that led to the statement. And then it was—it was harder in the actual negotiations after August 2nd, 1990, but the initial breaking of the pledge was before the invasion.
SUNUNU: What he did in June was agree to discuss, in the negotiations, the possibility of taxes, but there were no specific increases agreed on at that meeting.
MEACHAM: Right. Right.
WEISBERG: Governor, Jon Meacham may know more about what you had for breakfast on certain days—(laughter)—in the 1990s than you do at this point, but just to kind of pursue that point a little bit about what he—how he thinks now about his presidency—
WEISBERG: —I mean, I thought it was very poignant. You became, in some ways, former President Bush’s psychiatrist. I mean, he really bared his soul to you.
MEACHAM: WASP-on-WASP therapy, very effective. (Laughter.)
WEISBERG: Well, that was as close as he was going to get, right? But I found it quite poignant—
MEACHAM: Gin or vodka, sir? (Laughter.)
WEISBERG: —some of his regrets about the presidency. And in particular, he seems to have not gotten over losing re-election. That loss is something he seems to put so much on himself as a failure, as opposed to a moment of an electorate that made a different choice.
MEACHAM: Oh, my lord, absolutely. I mean, 1992 was an unmitigated disaster. I mean, there was—I don’t think he had a good day the whole year. And—
SUNUNU: I was gone by then. (Laughter.)
MEACHAM: I know, that’s right. I’m sure there was a causal connection. (Laughter.) Yeah. But he was getting great memos from Governor Sununu. (Laughter.)
And he did—well, I should let the record show he did—at one point in 1992 he did say people might have thought Sununu was too tough, but as a chief of staff we got things done and I wish we had that back. So that was—that was in the president’s diary.
You know, he was one of—he is, again, one of the most competitive men who ever drew breath. You know, from Dorothy Walker Bush—Jacob has written a wonderful book about the Bush family—he got two things. One was: Be competitive—win, win, win—but don’t talk about yourself. And so these two forces were always at war in his head.
I think it was one of the reasons he sometimes had a little bit of trouble with the English language is he would begin to talk in the first person singular and then realize he was doing it and shift off. So at a certain point the speechwriters just stopped putting in “I” and would just say things like, “went to Texas,” “built a business,” “ran for Congress”—(laughter)—because they could get him to say that—
MEACHAM: —but if you said “I,” he would stumble around and change the subject.
So he had these competing imperatives of competitiveness and humility in his head and, you know, did not think that Bill Clinton should be president—thought he was a draft dodger, thought he did not have the character to do it, did not believe the American people ultimately would elect him, and he was wrong.
And I think he went into a deep despondency about that, beginning on election night, partly aggravated, I think, by his Graves’ disease, his thyroid condition, which I think was more serious than we understood in real time. And he only—you know, it’s a little bit like what Bob Dole, after he lost in ’96, called George McGovern and said: George, when does it stop hurting? And McGovern said: I’ll let you know. (Laughter.) I think that’s pretty much the same thing.
SUNUNU: But you have remember that what happened in 1992 is a megalomaniac of a billionaire with a huge ego—(laughter)—
WEISBERG: Ninety-two you’re talking about.
SUNUNU: Oh, yeah.
WEISBERG: OK, yeah, yeah. (Laughter.)
SUNUNU: With all kinds of fancy phrases that appeal to the anger in the voter, got into the race and took 19 percent of the vote, two-thirds of which, in my opinion, should have gone to Bush and he would have won, notwithstanding the fact that they also, I don’t think, ran a very good race. And I think the president is sensitive to all of those pieces when he—when he has those regrets.
But I think—my feeling in my conservations with him about what happened in ’92 is that he has come to terms with the fact that there was a positive side to it, and that positive side is that he ended up with his sons as governors of two states, two very important states, and one of his sons got elected president. And I suspect that he understands that if he had gotten elected in ’92, I don’t think any of that would have ever happened.
WEISBERG: Yeah. Let’s turn to foreign policy now. In particular, I’d like to talk to you both about the end of the Cold War and Bush’s role in it, which is clearly a key component of his legacy as it will be talked about by historians.
I’ve just finished a short book about Ronald Reagan, and one of the things that struck me was that Reagan had an idea about the collapse of the Soviet Union going way back. I found something in 1962 that he wrote predicting it.
WEISBERG: And he pursued that in various ways in policy. Bush was never identified with that idea. In fact, he was identified more with the opposite idea that you wanted to pursue stability, and we could deal with the Soviet Union as we knew them but not necessarily in a state of collapse, which would create danger. So how—going back again to this question of Bush as either a continuation of Reagan or an antithesis of Reagan, how did Bush deal with inheriting a Cold War that was ending but not in a way that he had ever expected?
SUNUNU: Well, I think by the time he got elected he clearly had in his mind that strategy, that he was an opportunity presenting itself that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with the leader that the Soviets had that he had gotten to know a little bit, not very much at that point but a little bit, and had a sense that he really had to pay attention to taking advantage of that opportunity.
And I think the most—the most important thing he did in moving this whole process forward was bringing Brent Scowcroft and Jimmy Baker into the process as aggressively, allowing them to propose a whole host of potential variations of the theme, and to hash out amongst themselves—and with others, of course, but to hash out selecting from a whole range of alternatives of how to deal with this opportunity and finally settling on an approach that turned out to be what they—what they implemented.
WEISBERG: When you say an approach—and, Jon, you can pick up on this too—do you believe at the beginning of 1989 he had a strategy, or did he have a way of improvising successfully in relation to events?
SUNUNU: He had a strategy to develop a strategy. (Laughter.) I really mean that. He knew that there was a window of about four or five months in which he could table something, put something on the table—the international table with our allies as well as with Gorbachev—that could have a huge impact on trying to resolve the conflict attitude of the Cold War.
And he didn’t know what the specifics were on January 21st, but he knew that he wanted to take it through this process very quickly. So he had a strategy for developing a strategy, and when he got to that point, which was basically—I think it was 275,000 troops and taking advantage of Gorbachev’s charm offensive to kind of jujitsu that back onto Gorbachev, that strategy I think came to fruition in mid-spring of 1989 and he put it on the table when he went—I think it was the OECD—Richard, was it the OECD meeting? No, the first—
MEACHAM: You mean the NATO?
SUNUNU: —NATO meeting?
MEACHAM: The CFE?
SUNUNU: Yeah, I know one of them, but there was one—one of the meetings in the spring where all our allies were there, he spent a great deal of time leading up to that on the telephone, preparing our allies for the details that he was going to put on the table there, and was smart enough to have spent all that time on the long-distance telephone much, much more in the first three months than I think President Reagan had spent in the four years, and prepared them by telephone for what was going to be a very significant, important presentation for how we ought to be dealing with the opportunity to have a leader in the Soviet Union that we could negotiate with.
MEACHAM: Two things come to my mind. One is just the relationship with Gorbachev, which, again, is the personal diplomacy writ large.
Early on, Dick Cheney said—just after he had become secretary of defense after the Tower nomination failed, which was the wing of a butterfly that produced a hurricane because Cheney comes out of the House leadership, Newt moves up and becomes the whip, setting up a whole series of events.
SUNUNU: I do take the blame for that. (Laughter.)
MEACHAM: Very good. You’re a big man. That’s a lot to—I mean, think that out and come back to it—(laughter)—whether you really want to—honestly, Cheney went on a Sunday morning show and said he felt that Gorbachev would fail. And in a wonderful anecdote first reported by Strobe Talbott and Michael Beschloss, Baker calls Scowcroft about 20 minutes after the show was off and said: Dump on Dick with all alacrity—(laughter)—just to shut him down.
Bush, I think, saw the world just as—in many ways the way Franklin Roosevelt did, as one in which these personal relationships and personal diplomacy mattered. And with Malta in late ’89, with Washington in May of 1990, there was a series of things where his emphasis on working with Gorbachev and supporting Gorbachev—because, to go to your point, Gorbachev signaled stability to him in many ways. And there’s obviously a critique that he stood by him too long, which emerged in the—in the August ’91 coup. But he believed that Gorbachev was the known quantity and that that would bring order to it.
The second thing, which is he says he believes that the most important thing he did was reunify Germany. Let me tell you, as a biographer that’s not what you want to hear—(laughter)—as the sexiest, great—you know, the reunification of Germany as the central thing. But he was, in many ways—the way Brent tells the story, he said Bush had a meeting—maybe with Richard, but was having a meeting, said: Well, we’re going to reunify Germany. Brent wasn’t there and someone told Brent later: Well, we now have a policy on reunifying Germany, and it was the president’s. He just decided that was what was going to happen. And I think we’ve forgotten—the historical market discounts successes like that sometimes, but he very much wanted that to happen.
SUNUNU: Yeah, but, Jon, there was actually a set of meetings ahead of time where I think Scowcroft deserves credit, because when he put—when we were talking about, you know, what could come if such a change occurred, Scowcroft was the very first one to put on the table that there could be a reunification of Germany sooner than most people think. And I think that was the seed that he put in the president’s head that at the next meeting—not the next meeting but one of the downstream meetings the president threw it out. But Scowcroft was surprisingly early with this concept.
WEISBERG: So Bush had passion with foreign policy. He was the last president, in many ways, we’ve had who was—who was principally experienced and interested in global as opposed to domestic—in domestic economic affairs. Since Bush we’ve had three two-term presidents all experienced in domestic policy who had to learn foreign policy to some extent on the job. Do you think the Bush model of the president’s relationship to foreign policy is still possible, still works? What does it—what does it say to the presidency going forward?
MEACHAM: Yeah, you know, given where we are at the moment, I think any projection is tenuous at best. I mean, we’ve gone in 25 years from a Republican president who could not talk about himself—(laughter)—
WEISBERG: We’re going to open it up to Trump questions in a few minutes.
SUNUNU: To the mouse that roared.
WEISBERG: Exactly. (Laughter.)
SUNUNU: You know, Henry Adams once said that the movement from Washington to Grant disproved Darwin. (Laughter.) I think we may be in that moment now. (Laughter.)
You know, it’s almost impossible to imagine him, for several different reasons, someone with his paper trail, which arguably Secretary Clinton is the closest thing, right, and she’s at—the current political market is not one that puts an enormous amount of value on experience. And so his—you know, his résumé is something that is—again, it’s hard to imagine someone who had been at the U.N., who had been the director of the CIA, who had run the Republican National Committee during Watergate—you know, what’s second prize?—and been to China. It’s hard to imagine that kind of person rising in this particular presidential sweepstakes.
It’s also true—I think it’s important to mention he is the last combat veteran to be president, and will be for a while.
SUNUNU: Look, before Bush, whether we all agreed with all his policies, the most successful foreign policy president we had was Franklin Roosevelt. And he came to the presidency with virtually no—he had been, I think, secretary of the Navy but that was it. His primary credentials were being governor of the state of New York. And so it is true that we probably will not often find anyone with the preparation that George Herbert Walker Bush had on the foreign policy side, but I think that the history of the country shows that it’s not that experience that is as important as having dealt in a situation where you can deal with people.
I think George Bush’s biggest asset on foreign policy was not that he had all those credentials you’ve laid on the table but that he truly understood how to deal with the competing egos of foreign leaders, trying to create a consensus for very dramatic changes that quite often were not exactly what they wanted to do.
WEISBERG: So Bush’s stock as an ex-president has risen in inverse relation to his son’s. And the more unpopular his son became, the more that people began to see the virtues of his father as someone who was restrained, who was prudent, who was not ideological, which makes sense because his son, in many ways, ran against his father. Do you think that relationship will remain historically? That is, for the father to stay up, the son has to be down—
WEISBERG: —and vice-versa?
MEACHAM: It’s very hard to imagine. President Bush 41, for a long time, believed that his historical stock was on a seesaw with Reagan’s, that Reagan was, as he put it, the great hero—the trumpets, the monuments everywhere—and that he would not be seen as an important historical figure because Reagan was seen as so overwhelming.
As 43’s presidency went on, I think you’re exactly right, I think it changed. And it’s very hard for me to imagine, given at least the thematic similarity of the issues they confronted, that—there’s a phrase I can’t—a war of choice, war of necessity, someone used about—oh, sorry—(laughter)—Dr. Haass has put it in the vernacular. It’s very hard for me to imagine that anyone writing about this period or either of these men can do so without looking at them in relation to one another.
Governor, do you want to add anything to that?
SUNUNU: Yeah. I suspect that as time goes on and the successor administration—remember, a lot of George W. Bush’s—the perception of George W. Bush is flavored by the fact that we are still within the successor administration to him. And I think as time goes beyond maybe one or two administrations beyond that, he actually may end up being the beneficiary of the same kind of a revival of reputation.
All right, at this point I’d like to invite members to ask questions. When I call on you, please, first of all, make sure you have a microphone. State your name and ask a brief question in the form of a question. (Laughter.) And we’ll also take questions, if any come through, from people watching the live stream. And this is—if anyone has forgotten, we’re on the record today.
Q: Thank you. Leslie Bains.
Could you talk about the influences that Vice President Cheney had and the comments that George made about—on his son and the presidency?
MEACHAM: Sure. Beginning in 2008, running through 2012, on a number of occasions President Bush 41 expressed concerns about Cheney’s influence particularly on the rhetoric and the public view of the administration—his son’s administration. He echoed General Scowcroft’s assessment that he made to Jeffrey Goldberg that this was a Dick Cheney he did not know.
He went one step farther and included Liz Cheney and Lynne Cheney as kind of “Manchurian Candidate” forces—my image, not his. And he believed that the president, 43, as he put it, made a mistake in allowing Cheney to, quote, “build his own State Department” within the White House and the Office of the Vice President.
I will say this—and he also—in my singular contribution to American life after writing 800 pages on President Bush is to introduce the phrase “iron ass” into popular culture, which I’m very proud of. (Laughter.) It sounds like a gym you would have a membership to.
WEISBERG: It sounds like someone who can sit through long meetings, but in fact he meant it as—
MEACHAM: He meant it in a different way, “iron ass.”
MEACHAM: And so I will say this: Vice President Cheney has been a total gentleman about this. I took him the comments beforehand and he said that, yes, he was different because the world was different, the strategic environment was different. He did say he did not think that Lynne had been responsible for this. (Laughter.) But I had noticed—I got word that at a Washington dinner recently, President Bush asked to be seated next to Cheney, so continuing his “half-half” just—
WEISBERG: Governor, do you want to add anything about Cheney?
SUNUNU: I didn’t have access to the diaries like Jon did, but I think that the missing link in all of this, though, is the relationship between Cheney and Rumsfeld in that period of time. And you have to remember that Cheney—that Rumsfeld was sort of Cheney’s mentor, and to a great extent Cheney was reflecting a Rumsfeld agenda, I believe, in the process rather than just the Cheney agenda.
WEISBERG: Yes, in the back.
Q: Thank you. Sherrie Westin.
I wanted to ask a question. I don’t know if you saw the piece in the New York Times about two weeks ago by Ross Douthat where he compared Jeb and his father on the campaign trail. And thinking back to ’92 when there was a lot of comparison—or not comparison, but there was a lot written about 41 not seeming like he had the fire in his belly and did he really want it? And when you look at Jeb today, I’m curious. I think the conclusion Douthat made is maybe those qualities that make you a great candidate aren’t necessarily the same qualities that may make you a great president. But I’d love your take, Jon, on comparisons between Jeb campaigning and his dad.
MEACHAM: Well, they’re more alike than W. and Jeb, obviously, or W. and his father. I think that, you know, they’re three very different men, different political creatures.
George H.W. Bush—and the governor may disagree with this to some extent—was much more of an Eisenhower-Ford kind of moderate conservative. He was not a moderate; he was a moderate conservative. And W. is essentially a movement conservative and very much a Texas figure.
Again, I think it’s very important that 41 never won Texas until the ’88 primary. It was the first time he carried—he carried Texas. So I think that, again, Jeb tried to be more like his father, although his father had more evident energy out there, at least prior to ’92. You and I have talked about this. I do think the Graves’ disease is a bigger deal than we knew.
I talked to the president’s doctors. The diary is very clear. They never quite got the dosage right. I now know more about thyroid than I ever thought I would, but to treat an overactive thyroid you basically knock out everything that’s there and then bring it back with artificial thyroid medicine. And the danger is if you bring it back too strong, you send the patient back into a heart condition. And he did have an episode—a second episode of atrial fibrillation in July of ’92. It happened to be the same day that he agreed that Quayle would stay on the ticket. I don’t know if there was a connection. (Laughter.) I’ll leave that to the readers, but it was that.
And so you—so the doctors would keep it lower, and that affected his acuity and his energy. He was misdating letters as late as May and June of ’92. He was writing 1982. And so the people around him day to day, there’s no one that I’ve talked to who did not acknowledge that he was a much different figure in the last 14, 15, 16 months than he was in the first three years, and I think that was unquestionably part of the ’92.
The question about whether—what makes a great candidate a great president is a really interesting one. On the surface it’s true, but I think one of the president’s failures, honestly, as a president is he saw almost no connection between what he said on the campaign trail and what he did in office. And I think that’s a mistake.
The day after the ’88 election he announced that Baker was going to be secretary of state there at the Brown Convention Center in Houston, and they asked about, you know, what would you say to liberal Americans of whom you are now the president? And if we remember, Bush had run for, you know, nine months against the “L” word. And Bush says, that’s history, and expects to move on.
A quick story—and the governor was there for this—that I think captures this really well is from Vin Weber, the former Minnesota congressman who ran Gingrich’s campaign to become the House whip. This was March of ’89. And after the election and Gingrich has become the whip, the papers are full of questions about, is Newt’s confrontational style going to win out, or is it going to be the Bush style of compromise, of having everybody down?
And in fact, Republicans were complaining—the governor had a conversation with Bush about this. You went to Charlottesville, I think, to a retreat of Republican lawmakers. And Republican lawmakers complained that Bush was having too many Democrats to the White House in the first 10 or 12 weeks of the term. But Bush calls—and he not only invites Newt down to have a beer with the governor and the president in the residence, but Weber. And Weber said only George Bush would think to invite the guy who ran the campaign. (Laughter.) No one did that.
So the two of them are sitting there—this is Weber telling the story—and they can tell there’s something that Bush wants to say but he can’t quite get it out. And so as they’re leaving Weber says: Mr. President, tell us what worries you most about us. And Bush is relieved to have the opportunity and he immediately says: I worry that sometimes your idealism may get in the way of what I think of as sound governance.
And Weber said it was a classic George Bush way to put it because he didn’t say “purity.” He didn’t say “ideology.” He didn’t say “nuttiness.” He said “idealism.” And he was giving them credit for actually believing what they believe, but he wanted reciprocal credit for having this view that, you know, in June of 1990 when there were tough calls to make, that he was going to make them in the national interest not in the partisan interest.
WEISBERG: Governor, let me just follow up with you because I’ve always bought into this idea that 41 loved governing but campaigning was something he sort of held his nose and did. But you were close to him around actual politics. Is that true? Did he dislike running?
SUNUNU: What I think he disliked the most was the fact that he did not feel he understood how to run well. And I think the big difference between ’88 and ’92 is that in ’88 I think he felt pretty comfortable with the team that he had put together. He had Roger Ailes there. He had Lee Atwater. He had Jimmy Baker. I got involved quite a bit. And he was not a difficult candidate in ’88 to give guidance to, and he would go out and deliver the hard messages.
In ’92, I think for a combination of reasons—one, the health reason, but another, he felt that the message—I got the feeling—I played Ross Perot in the debate preparations and I got a chance to talk to him occasionally about what was going on, but I was outside. I got the feeling that he wasn’t very confident with either the strategy, the approach they were taking—and that was manifested in his trying to drag Baker out of State to come in and run the campaign. And when you’re a candidate and you lose confidence in the process, you’re really in trouble.
MEACHAM: And you—I mean, the other thing that happened—and one of the things that was unfolding there which has helped shape where we are now, is this shift to confessional politics, right? A man who didn’t use the first-person pronoun was not going to say, I feel your pain, and Clinton’s ability to use popular culture in a way that he simply wasn’t comfortable with.
You know, Clinton goes on Arsenio Hall—you know, 41 thought Arsenio Hall was a building at Andover. (Laughter.) You know, he had no—what was Arsenio Hall? And so I think that it just—it was a generational shift and a cultural shift that he was not comfortable with.
SUNUNU: Let me just say something quickly about this Arsenio Hall and Clinton. I think Roosevelt discovered radio. I think Jack Kennedy discovered network TV. And I think Bill Clinton discovered cable TV. And that really was an important political discovery that I think made a huge difference in ’92 that only became apparent after the fact, not before the fact or during the fact.
WEISBERG: And unfortunately Donald Trump is discovering Twitter.
WEISBERG: Yes, in the back.
Q: Hi. Brett Dakin. I’m a term member here at the Council.
One of the crises that emerged from the end of the Cold War that faced Bill Clinton was the disintegration of Yugoslavia. And I’m just wondering if you had any thoughts on how the Bush—Bush would have dealt with the situations in Bosnia and Kosovo differently than the Clinton administration. I’m not sure if that’s a topic you ever had a chance to discuss. Thanks.
SUNUNU: I think the biggest difference would have been that George Bush would have had more influence over Europe in the early days of that crisis, where I think there was huge period of time in that crisis where the Europeans were realizing they should be doing something but not doing something. And so I think—you know, it’s always hard to do such a hypothetical, but I think the biggest difference would have been a more active involvement in conversation, discussion and guidance in that whole process.
Q: Josh Harlan.
Bush 41 successfully nominated two very different justices to the Supreme Court, David Souter and Clarence Thomas. It seems like a timely moment to ask, how did he think about the Supreme Court and what did he want in his nominees?
WEISBERG: And we’ll start with Governor Sununu, because Souter was sort of your discovery, wasn’t he?
SUNUNU: Not really. (Laughter.)
WEISBERG: Not one of your many friends from New Hampshire?
SUNUNU: There’s an excellent chapter on this in my book. (Laughter.)
WEISBERG: I speak as an admirer.
SUNUNU: The president—the president really did want conservative justices. And he had two people, Boyden Gray and Lee—senility is a horrible disease; it’ll come to me in a minute—that were really doing a wonderful job of vetting and preparing the list. From the first day, Boyden Gray had a list of about 15 potential nominees because we sensed that there would probably be at least one opportunity in the process.
I can tell you that when George Bush nominated David Souter, he thought David Souter was a conservative. And David Souter had worked awfully hard to convince me, when I was governor and named him to the state Supreme Court, that he was a conservative and presided as a conservative. And in the discussions and conversations he did his very, very best to convince us that he was a conservative on all the issues that made a difference to the president. But I think George Bush is much too much of a gentleman to suggest that he might have been disappointed after the fact.
MEACHAM: Well, he did say, in an interview for my account, that he thought it was a huge mistake to appoint Souter.
SUNUNU: Oh, OK. Well, I didn’t really—
SUNUNU: I’m happy to hear that. (Laughter.)
MEACHAM: And he’s very proud of Justice Thomas, has no second thoughts, not interested in the criticism, believed Justice Thomas not Anita Hill and was very—I think the compelling nature of Justice Thomas’ life story is something that got in his imagination and has stayed there, is my strong sense.
SUNUNU: By the way, just in the—to give you a sense of the political considerations that go into making these nominations, I was very much—at the end of the process when we were considering Souter, very much a strong supporter of Edith Jones because I thought the president would get a tremendous boost out of appointing the second woman to the Supreme Court, but I couldn’t sell that.
WEISBERG: I think—do I see any more questions? I have more if others don’t.
The next one I wanted to ask is about Bush’s ex-presidency. It’s striking to me how relatively—I’m not sure “inactive” is the right word, but he hasn’t taken on a massive post-presidential project the way Jimmy Carter did, the way Bill Clinton has taken on several. Why do you think that is? And do you think his ex-presidency has been disappointing?
MEACHAM: I don’t. I think that he—a lot of people came to him with suggestions about how he could structure this and model himself after Carter. I think the essential sort of sense that once you’re off the stage, you’re off the stage was a significant factor for him.
And I think also he realized very early on, since Jeb and George W. were running within, you know, X number of months of his leaving the White House, that anything he did even in the quasi-public square was going to have implications for them. And very much a part of his code, which was also a part of his father’s code in relation to him—Senator Bush’s to George H.W.—was not to do anything to complicate the sons’ lives.
SUNUNU: Yeah, I think that’s been the driving force for him determining what he’s going to do, and I suspect he would say that of all the ex-presidents he has the greatest success. He produced another president.
WEISBERG: Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit—well, out there there’s one. Sir? Your choice of three microphones.
Q: Paul Fribourg. Thank you.
What was the role of Barbara Bush in his presidency, and do you see her really playing a role in today’s world? And what role did she play in Bush II’s presidency?
SUNUNU: I think she was really the great comforter, so to speak. In other words, she was there for him to grouse to, for him to—I won’t say get advice because I don’t think that’s the way they function, but to talk things over with and to be the emotional stabilizer in the family. But she certainly had a sense of what was going on. She knew what was going on. She had a sense of what was happening.
She had a—I think I was—probably had the best relationship between a chief of staff and a first lady in a few presidencies, and we—I never had a difficult issue or time with her vis-à-vis specific issues that the president had to deal with or the operational side of what was there. She let you know what was acceptable and unacceptable but she didn’t drive you crazy with it. And I think that’s the way she dealt with the president as well. She let him know what she liked and didn’t like but didn’t drive him crazy with it.
MEACHAM: Yeah, he used to—he said: I used to say to her, Bar, how do have so many damn opinions about everything? I don’t have that many damn opinions. There was a joke in Washington at the time that one of the reasons he picked Dan Quayle was to have someone to look at him adoringly. (Laughter.)
You know, one of the many moments—and Paula Zahn’s here, and Paula went to Chichijima with the former president—and a very moving piece. Go online and get this. Arguably the most important day of his life was September 2nd, 1944, when he was shot down out there. And as you all may recall, Chichijima was the scene of horrific Japanese war crimes, including cannibalism. And so occasionally in domestic arguments through the years, when the president felt himself really on the losing side, he would say: Bar, you’re right. And remember, I could have been an hors d’oeuvre—(laughter)—which is a pretty tough card to play, by and large.
But one of the many moments he broke down in the course of doing a lot of interviews for this was when he talked about her. And he said: I married a debutante from Rye and took her to Odessa, Texas—where Mrs. Bush’s mother from Rye would send them boxes of soap and detergent because she didn’t think they had it in Texas. (Laughter.)
And I’ve forgotten the number. You know, it’s, what, 28 houses in 42 years, or something, and just this incredible resilience on her part. And I think that moving to Texas in 1948 and marrying Barbara Pierce in 1945 were arguably two of the most important things that happened to him. The loss of Robin in 1953 to leukemia—she was 4—was, you know, obviously a tragic crucible for them.
In one of the sweeter moments in the history of that marriage, which is now 71 years old, when I was out on book tour talking about this there was a man and his wife sitting down front, and I said, well, you know, the Bushes will have been married 71 years in January. And the man said, Jesus Christ, you’ve got a long ride home, buddy. (Laughter.)
It was that, you know, she was a rock when Robin was sick. He couldn’t stand to be in the hospital room. He would leave when the needles came out and all of that. And then after Robin died, Mrs. Bush understandably began to fall apart and he was strong in the aftermath. And so they were each strong for each other at the critical moments, and I think that dynamic replicated itself through the years.
WEISBERG: Does Bush’s approach to loss—and then we’ll go to—
MEACHAM: Mr. Chairman. Chairman Smith.
WEISBERG: Oh, sorry.
MEACHAM: All right.
WEISBERG: Where? Oh, there. I’m sorry, Rick. Please. Rick Smith.
SUNUNU: I would have gone with Paula.
WEISBERG: Everyone will get a turn.
Q: Rick Smith. I can’t believe it’s five minutes to 2:00.
You have the entire Bush family embroiled in this madness in and around the campaign and in South Carolina. We have two of the foremost experts on that family. What are they saying to each other when their microphones are not pressed? (Laughter.)
WEISBERG: Thank you. Thank you for that question.
SUNUNU: What are we saying to each other or what are the Bushes saying?
Q: The Bushes.
WEISBERG: I’m mystified.
SUNUNU: I think they have the same problem I have. They’re looking at an electorate that they cannot explain. I thought I understood New Hampshire politics pretty well. And I spoke with Jeb many times in New Hampshire and I spoke with all the candidates except Trump many times in New Hampshire, and with absolutely no exception, nobody understands what is—you know, it’s easy to say it’s the anger, but you have angry people voting against their own self-interest. That’s hard to explain. And you have conservatives voting for somebody who’s really not a conservative.
This is the conversation that they’re having amongst themselves. They’re as bewildered about the plausibility of what’s happening as anything else. And I think it’s a legitimate bewilderment. And who knows how this is going to work out, but I think that’s the kind of conversations they’re having.
I spoke to Barbara a couple of times. I’ve spoken to 41 a couple of times. I spoke to Jeb a lot. And they don’t use maybe the same words explicitly I’m using here, but the undertone is, what’s going on?
Q: I’m Paula Zahn.
While those of us covered 43’s presidency, we were always looking for daylight between father and son. And I wondered what—you wrote about this, around the edges of this, in your book, Jon. What was the impression you got when Brent Scowcroft wrote his very powerful op-ed piece suggesting that he didn’t support the direction 43 was moving in? Did that piece have the blessing of 41?
MEACHAM: Everyone involved says no, but I think it was implicit. I don’t think—I think if—I don’t think General Scowcroft would have done something that he believed was way beyond the pale of where the president was thinking—the first president. The paper trail was complicated, though, because he wrote his son supportive notes. He insisted that these were different wars for different reasons.
And so I think that one of—one of the interesting twists in all of this is the two men were probably closer together on questions of substance in the first decade of the 21st century than even they knew, because I don’t think—I think we have—sitting here now, we have had a longer conversation about the Bushes than the Bushes. (Laughter.) I really believe that. I don’t think they ever sat down and said, all right, let’s—you know, let’s talk about this.
And, you know, my strong sense also is that it’s—and Richard will probably disagree with this, but there was a Bush who was willing to go and act unilaterally against Saddam, who was willing to risk impeachment, who was insisting that from really August 5th after Richard brought the talking points out on “this will not stand” day, that Sunday, he was willing to risk everything to turn Saddam out of Kuwait, and that was George Herbert Walker Bush.
And so there’s a stubborn streak in 41 that passed to the son as well. And so I think there’s a kind of idealized, almost sepia toned view of 41 in comparison to the way 43 acted that I think can be slightly overdrawn.
SUNUNU: Paula, you asked if it has his blessing. And, really, that question has to be a little bit more precise. I think Scowcroft’s publication of it had his blessing, but I suspect the contents weren’t something that he would completely endorse. In other words, if Brent wants to go ahead and put that out, it’s OK by me. That’s not necessarily exactly what 41 had in mind.
The second point—I haven’t had too many conversations with 41 over what happened in George W.’s term, but one thing I do get a sense in the two or three times we did talk about it is that he probably felt comfortable with the decision to go in, but he did not like how it was handled after the military success had been achieved.
I don’t think he liked the idea of occupation. I don’t think he liked the idea of nation building. I don’t think he liked the idea. And I think a lot of that again goes back to the Bush-Rumsfeld feud, and I don’t think he liked the fact that Rumsfeld and his surrogate, Cheney, seemed to have had the free hand on deciding, post-military victory, how they were going to handle what was going on in Iraq.
WEISBERG: Dick Tofel gets a quick last question.
Q: Jon, you mentioned about Vice President Quayle, and that has always been a great mystery to me. How does somebody with that sense of duty, who’s been the vice president of the United States for eight years, including coming very close to becoming president two months into being vice president—
Q: —how does he put somebody like that in the vice presidency?
MEACHAM: Right. Well, he is—you know, as carefully as it can be reconstructed, it was to some extent, at least in terms of the rollout—let me answer the tactical thing first—I think he suffered—this goes to the stubbornness point a little bit—he could also be prideful. And the first truly independent political decision he was making since Detroit, eight years before, was who was going to be the running mate. And to my knowledge he never had a full-on, open-kimono session about plusses and minuses.
My own sense—Governor Sununu was on the list, Dole, Kemp. My own sense is that if Bush had totally had his way he probably would have put Alan Simpson on the ticket, but he thought Simpson was not acceptable to the right. He liked Quayle. Quayle, to him, represented a generational change. It was, as he put it, “bold and surprising.” And he, I think, also needed someone who was totally acceptable to the right wing of the party, which Quayle certainly was.
And I think Quayle ultimately, in terms of serving the president, did a very good job. I think Quayle’s staff leaked too much. It drove the old man crazy. But, you know, Quayle had a great—one of the best observations about the president I heard in the whole project was when George Bush got mad, he got quiet. And I just suspect a lot of those lunches might have been quiet because of what was in the papers.
SUNUNU: Yeah, I think we forget that in terms of credentials at the time, though, Quayle came with very good credentials. He was the Republican expert on arms control in the Senate. He had written the—been the principal author of the Job Training Act. He had been a very active senator particularly on national security issues. And the president—I wasn’t—you know, at that time I was not in the loop for deciding who was, but I think he thought very clearly that he was going into this with a generational change of somebody coming to the table with a very strong résumé for the job.
MEACHAM: I asked him once, I said, you have Jim Baker, you have Atwater, you have Ailes, you have all these people around you and you never sit down and say, hey, let’s run through the pros and cons on Quayle and Dole? And it was sort of classic.
We were sitting outside at Walker’s Point and he had binoculars trying to figure out where the fish were, so I was really getting to him. (Laughter.) I had him right where I wanted him. And I asked the question two or three times, and finally he put the binoculars down, and still looking out but he said: Sometimes you just don’t want people telling you what to do all the time. (Laughter.) And this was the—I think this was, to some extent, the voice of a man who had been serving under Ronald Reagan and in the era of Nancy Reagan and Don Regan, and he just wanted to make this call himself.
SUNUNU: And again, we’re putting it in the context of the campaign. He had, as a good candidate, allowed a lot of us to be telling him what to do in the campaign, and I think he now had—came to a point where he didn’t have to listen to—when he felt he didn’t have to listen to anybody else’s advice.
WEISBERG: We’ll be back next week to discuss the Quayle legacy. It will be—(laughter)—it will be a 90-second meeting. (Applause.)
Thank you all very much. Thank you, Governor Sununu and Jon Meacham.