Charles Gibson interviewed former President George Bush at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia before Bush was awarded the 2006 Liberty Medal for his fundraising efforts with former President Clinton. The following is a partial transcript of the interview:
Charles Gibson: Mr. President, what's your take on what's going on right now with Speaker Hastert in the House?
George H.W. Bush: Charles, you won't believe this. This will be incredible. I do not follow it nearly as closely as I did when I was in Washington. I'm out of that. However, I don't know, I mean I suppose Hastert, I think as we're talking is saying something, so, but I hope he stays there. I like him, I respect him, and he's a good man, and that's all I know.
Gibson: He's told people that you called him to express your support.
Bush: That's what I told him yester -- and it was yesterday. I just was tired of hearing all the flack about him, implying that a guy might've, not been corrupt necessarily but improper. And, uh ... I know -- [LAUGHS] I know him so well that I just wanted to express my, my strong conviction that he's a good man and hope he hangs in there.
Gibson: It's a question though, overall, of … institutions.
Bush: That's right.
Gibson: We're in an age when the approval rating of the president in the polls is in the- around 40 percent. I won't ask to -- you to comment on that because --
Bush: Except I'd like to say I think it's a hell of a lot better than 33 percent.
Gibson: It's -- it's up some. And the approval rating of the Congress is way down --
Bush: Yeah --
Gibson: -- in the 20s. Does that bespeak an American disillusionment with institutions, that we ought to worry about?
Bush: Oh, I don't think so, it seems to me we go through this from time to time, I remember the numbers of Congress being very low, in one of the years when I was there. And I, I … I just think what goes around comes around, I think it's -- I think, the American people, basically support their own representatives. They may not support the institution of the Congress, but they support their congressmen, their senators, and I think we see that because we don't see that much change, in the numbers of senators or the number of House members.
Gibson: But you worry in an instance like this whether the Congress is protecting its own, or the young kids who are there, to serve --
Bush: Well, if I thought that there -- we were -- it -- the speaker or somebody was protecting the status quo, and not protecting the kids I would be very upset about that. I'm sure there were some maybe that fit that description. But I don't think that's the speaker.
Gibson: We are in an age it seems when the leadership in Congress, is under fire all the time, you go back to Jim Wright, from Texas, Tom DeLay from Texas, Trent Lott from Mississippi, Newt Gingrich who got run out because of improprieties, Bob Livingstone who was going to speaker --
Gibson: And now, Speaker Hastert under fire. What's going on in Washington that this happens so often?
Bush: I don't know, but I don't go down there much anymore as I told you earlier, Charles, it's depressing in a sense 'cause there's, there's a climate of incivility that worries me. Hostility … makes singling out people that disagree with you because there's a difference on an issue or something, and that's not good. I'm not sure it's brand new, that kinda divisiveness. But I, I don't like it, and I think it discourages some people from getting into public life. But I hope it'll pass and I hope we come together and work together and all of that.
Gibson: In 1988 when you … or 1989 when you assumed the presidency you spoke about an outstretched hand to the other party. Other Presidents, President Clinton talked about the same thing, your son talked about the same thing and yet it does seem, that Washington is more divisive, more bitter than ever.
Bush: Well, that's true, but we got some things done, thanks to the cooperation of the Democrats who controlled both the House and the Senate. I would mention the ADA bill, or I'd mention, there was one other -- oh, the Clean -- Clean Air Act.
Gibson: Clean Air Act.
Bush: And these things could not happen without bipartisan cooperation. Actually we didn't get too much bipartisan cooperation on international affairs, but they didn't, they didn't frustrate the president. So, I think it's, I think there's always gonna be contention. What I don't like to do is see it personal and, and vindictive. Retaliatory.
Gibson: But isn't it that, right now, isn't the thrust --
Bush: I think to some degree it is. I think to some degree it is. And that doesn't help the institution of the Congress, as I think you implied. But, I also think at 82-years-old this too shall pass.
Gibson: But it does seem, at least in my time in Washington that it does see that the divisiveness and the politicalization of everything, gets more and more strident.
Bush: It's true but … go back in history to the civil rights days. And, I think you'll find that some of the debates, some of the acrimony, was pretty high. Differences on how to treat with civil rights. Particularly back in the days of segregation. And so, history has a lot of times when this gets, gets edgy like this, but, maybe this is worse, I don't know.
Gibson: Anything you can think of that would change the tone?
Bush: [PAUSE] No, no, there's really not. I think after the elections, some of this is election politics, running up to the Congressional elections in the fall. And after that I think there'll be a real opportunity to get together on things. I think the war is dividing some of the participants in the Congress, some of the Democrats versus Republicans. Judicial nominee -- nominees, the flash-point for differences. And they'll always be there. But I think after the election it'll calm down, I really do. Because I think Democrats and Republicans want it to be more civil.
Advising His Son, 'Bush Bashing'
Gibson: Tell me which is harder -- to be President and to be subjected to the criticisms that come with the job, or to watch your son be subjected to those same criticisms.
Bush:Not a close call. Far worse is watching your son come under fire. Far worse. And we had it to some degree with my second son in Florida who's finishing his second term, Jeb, the governor. And we've had it with the president when he was governor, and now as president. And it's not even a close call. It is not even a close call, when you're responsible for your own acts, when you're the President, you, you take it. Now, I'm just a -- just a sentimental … father, who doesn't like it when his kids are criticized.
And it comes with the -- I'm not saying it doesn't go with the territory. But you know there's a lotta Bush-bashing, there's a lotta people out there that have nothing good to say about it. I'd hate to single out a newspaper for example but, I can't remember the New York Times ever writing anything positive about our son. And every, we all know that it's a very liberal paper and all of that. But it's, Barbara says, "why do you read it, why do you sit in here complaining all morning?" I say I just wanna get it out of the way. And, but it hurts far worse when, when your son is criticized than when I used to be.
Gibson: What rankles you the most?
Bush: Well, there's all kinds of things that -- you mean about criticizing the son?
Bush: [PAUSE] It's hard to -- I couldn't -- I don't think I could quantify it for you. But …
Gibson: Is it the criticism on the war? Is it criticism on domestic issues?
Bush: I think it's criticizing him as a person. And it started off that he was a dumb guy, here's a guy who graduated from Harvard Business School, Yale University, did a good job in both, and for some reason the press picked up that he was dumb. And it just burned me up to a fare-thee-well. So that kinda criticism -- you don't, you don't hear that much anymore. Very little if any. That kinda personal attack. If you're gonna attack somebody on a, on a, say the differences on the war or difference on the economy or differences on some legislative bill that's one thing. But when it gets so personal, that's what I don't like.
Gibson: Is it true that you really don't advise him?
Bush:It's not true that I don't advise him but it's not true that I'm out there giving a lot of advice. We talk on issues, and we talk a lot, but not -- mostly it's about family and how he checks in for the, you know, how his brothers and sister are doing. And it's more that kind of a thing. But from time to time we'll discuss issues. But not … You know, here's my problem with that. If I told you, yeah, I give him a lot of good advice on stem-cell research, then, everybody would be trying to find a difference, a nuance of difference between father and son. And I just have not participated in that game, nor do I intend to till he has finished the Presidency.
Gibson: A very wise person once told me that you don't advise a child unless the child asks for it. That you stay outta your kid's life unless they ask for the advice. Is that true when it's father and son, both as presidents-
Bush: Well, I would think -- I-- no, I would think if I really felt strongly about something I'd feel free to speak up, I don't. But if I did I, I would, I don't think I'd have to wait for an invitation to criticize or to suggest.
Reaction to Bob Woodward's Book
Gibson: Bob Woodward has written a new book [State of Denial], which goes back to the time when the [first Iraq] war was beginning, and quotes Mrs. Bush as having said that you were losing sleep over whether that was the right thing to do, and your feeling that perhaps it was not.
Bush: I'm familiar with this, I haven't read the book, and I don't think I'm going to read the book. But in that incident, it was a conversation that Barbara allegedly had with David Borin--
Gibson: Senator Borin.
Bush: Gibson: Ah.
Bush: And yet Woodward puts it in the book. That's a Kitty Kelley journalism in my view, and he can get away with it, he's a very famous journalist. There's no accountability to name sources. And I, I'm sorry, I don't think it's first-class. And I've -- I think I passed that along to Bob Woodward long before this came out. I like the guy, have a very pleasant personal relationship when I see him but I don't like that kind of journalism. Putting quotes on a per -- you know, that's just literary license, that's just liberty. That's not what I think, if you're gonna quote somebody, you gotta name who it is and say -- and if they're in quotes, or even the main principle of the thought, you oughta be prepared to stand behind it.
Gibson: Did you think it was the right thing for the President to go in [to Iraq]? A lot of people think when Brent Scowcroft, who was very close to you as your national security adviser-
Bush: Still is very close to me.
Gibson: That when Brent who's been critical of … much of what we've done in regard to the Iraq war, a lot of people think that he might be expressing your views.
Bush: I've heard that and that's not true, and Brent would be the first to tell you that. He's a very honorable man, he gets that rap, I think he got it in the Woodward book. I haven't read that part. But he's, he wouldn't attribute things to me, I'm sure of that.
Gibson:Didn't lose sleep over going into Iraq.
Bush: I don't think I lost sleep, do I worry about when our country's at war? Sure.
Gibson: When you see the situation now, we've lost more than 20 kids just since the beginning of October.
Gibson: When you look at the escalating violence, what do you think?
Bush: I think back to when I was in World War II. And the number of dead bodies on the sands of Iwo Jima. What are we talking 10,000 people killed in that one, one landing, I think it was something like that. Think back to my own ship where we lost, four out of our-- wait, no, no, we lost nine out of our 15 pilots I think. I think back to the horrors of war through Desert Storm. Where we, I'm convinced, did the right thing but, every lost soldier hit me in the heart. And I think the same thing here.
'Toughest Decision' A President Makes
Gibson: One of the most memorable days of my life, was Thanksgiving of 1990. You were up, you were about 10 miles from where I was, you were up on the front, telling kids in the first Gulf War that they were gonna go to war. And I was 10 miles back with a bunch of kids who'd just had Thanksgiving dinner. And we piped your speech in to these kids so that they could listen, and you essentially told the kids that I was standing with, that they were gonna go to war. And it occurred to me what a godawful difficult thing that must be for a President, to tell kids, "I feel it necessary to put your lives in jeopardy." I don't know how … a President does that.
Bush: Well, it's a -- it's the toughest decision a President makes, I can tell you that, without fear of contradiction, I mean it is the toughest. And you feel a responsibility for every life. Every life keeping them safe, every life that's lost you feel that responsibility. But at that date, we were still trying diplomacy--
Bush: -- to keep the war from beginning, keep from having to go in there. But, they were motivated forces, and they were prepared to do their duty, and I as a commander in chief had to ask 'em to put their lives on the line when push came to shove, when it got to the end of the diplomatic route. But Charles, it was tough. It is very, very tough, toughest decision a President makes by far.
Gibson: And do you see that it has changed your son?
Bush: I don't know that it's changed him. He's a man of strength, of character. He's a strong person. … You look at his hair, might've changed him, he looks a lot grayer than when he came into the Presidency but, he's got his mother's DNA I think. … Of course, I think to some degree any experience like this would change a person, that had the fin -- the responsibility for it. But he's not a whiner. He doesn't go around wringing his hands saying "what do I do now?" … "What about this? what about that?" He knows what he has to do, and goes in and does it. And doesn't put his finger up in the wind, so oh-oh, ABC poll is down. I gotta turn around and do something else. You can't do that when you're president and he hasn't done it.
Friendship With Bill Clinton
Gibson: Congratulations by the way on the medal that you'll receive tonight, and on the fact that you're gonna inaugurate a ship of some significance this weekend.
Gibson: Let me talk a little bit about the work that you and President Clinton have done. But, through the prism of America's standing in the world. We get enormous credit when we go into Indonesia, and we help with the tsunami victims. But that's a Muslim nation and we're not popular there, we get a good reaction when we go in and help the victims of the earthquake in Pakistan. But Americans are not welcome there and we are not popular there. What's happened to our standing in the world.
Bush: Well I'm not sure we were ever popular in some of those Muslim areas. But I'll tell you this, that after American help went into Indonesia, they took these public opinion polls, and the view of America by the average Indonesian went up high. So I think if you can do good things like Bill Clinton and I've tried to do it inures to the benefit of the country, and it makes it … better in terms of your question, what do you do about it. But I don't know what the answer is, I mean they're, right now the world, Muslim world is suspicious, divided you might say. A lotta moderate Muslims don't like the radical Muslims. And so, I think this has to play out, but I, I think basically, of these countries, a lot of 'em are very friendly to the United States.
Gibson:Has it made a real difference, when you travel in those areas, does--do you feel pretty good about what you were able to do there?
Bush: Well, when I'm working with President Clinton on relief, and, uh, reconstruction, yes. You feel good. America's reaching out and helping. One of the joys I got was when the Marines went down into, I think it was Sri Lanka. And there was a lotta worry about American military, we don't want 'em in there. The guys left their rifles back on the ship, went in there, reconstructed the villages, and left, and that did a lot for American image in that part of the world. People are saying, "my God, these people are here to help us." And it was beautiful. And so I--I think at times, we can take a situation that's grievous, and tough, and show America's flag, and help people. And ironically, you know, all this hatred of America, I think people from those countries still wanna come here. You go down to the consulates and the lines are long. People wanted to get visas to come to the United States so if we were so detested, why do people still wanna come to the United States.
Gibson: Much has been commented on about the political odd couple of you working with President Clinton, but was there ever a time when you were in the midst of all that you've done with him that you turned and thought, what in the world am I doing, working with this guy?
Bush: [LAUGHS] Probably. But except, you know, he beat me. But before that, we were friends, he had the Democratic side of the Governors'--National Governors' Initiative that I took as President, and, he did a good job on it and I respected that. And even when we were -- the elbows got sharp and stuff, there wasn't -- I never felt a personal animosity about it. So it was very easy to come together to work for something far bigger than him and far bigger than … I. And that's helping people. And I think it sent a good sign. I think it sent a good sign across the country, that you don't -- because you run against somebody doesn't make you an enemy. And I know it sent a good sign abroad. I had more people in travels abroad tell me, "this is wonderful what you're doing with President Clinton, it couldn't happen in our country but it's wonderful that you do this in America." Gibson: Do you stay off politics?
Bush: With him?
Bush: Yeah, very much so.
Gibson: I was asking you earlier what rankles you, in terms of criticisms of your son. He's not bashful at times about criticizing the President.
Bush: No, but the way I look at it it could be worse. [LAUGHTER] And I think he likes the President, I mean I don't wanna put words in his mouth, if you talk to him later, why, I think he, he likes him. And they have differences. But, hey … he's shown great respect I think for me because of my age for one thing, and I think he knows I love my son, without any reservation and support him without any reservation. So he's not about to try to convince me or sell me something, and I'm not about to try to convince him about Hillary. So, the world goes on.
Gibson: How would you convince him about Hillary?
Bush: Well she's a candidate who has different views from the President and, and, does not hesitate to express them.
Gibson: Do you think she's gonna run?
Bush: [PAUSE] I've felt so up till now but I'm not positive, but I don't get anything from him on that … I don't know why I have this feeling maybe she won't but, if I had to bet my last buck on it I'd say she would.
Gibson: She would run.
Gibson: It's, it's gonna be a fascinating election in 2008. I was thinking just yesterday, I don't think prior probably to … since Eisenhower-Stevenson, in '52, that we've gone into an election without a sort of natural candidate in one of the two parties. Wanna handicap it?
Bush: Well, I--see, I wouldn't concede her [Hillary Clinton] the nomination. Again I--who am I to sit here talking about Democratic politics when I'm not even in Republican politics--
Gibson: Well, but you've shown a pretty good political acumen in your life.
Bush: Yeah well I have … little private opinions that are unsubstantiated by fact. But I think she's gonna have a tough fight, and I don't know from who. I don't know Mark Warner. I think Evan Baye and these are attractive younger guys, maybe not a lot younger than Hillary but young people who are ambitious, and think they'd be good Presidents. And so I think the fight's just beginning. And I don't think it's a gimme for me, nor do I think that, that, necessary that they can beat her.
Gibson: There's a lot of people who think that there's going to be a situation where one Democrat will emerge, and it would be that person versus. Hillary.
Bush: Well I -- I'm -- I'm not surprised, that in essence is, I guess, what I'm trying to say here, not particularly articulately. Because I think, as the heat gets up, you'll see that happen.
Gibson: What about the Republican side, the side I suspect you know better.
Bush: Confused, I'd say right now. And John McCain is out there, with a--waging a strong effort. Uh, Mit Romney, surprising, he's coming on pretty strong. Rudy Giuliani if he decides to run will be formidable. Not sure he will run. I'm sure I'm gonna offend some friends by leaving him out of this speculation. Bill Frist, you talk about a good man, honorable, decent man, there's one. And I think he's interested. So on our side I think, just as on the Democratic side, I think it's way too early to predict what's gonna happen. I came into that nineteen, 1988 campaign as an asterisk in the polls. Didn't show up. Just had a list of people then George Bush, little asterisk sign. And won the Iowa caucus, and went on to, to be the only candidate left standing against Ronald Reagan. And next thing you know he was-- asked me to be his VP. So politics is funny. And this early, you can't say who it's gonna be.
Gibson: Yes, at this stage we were talking about John Connelly, and whatever--
Bush: Big John, exactly--
Gibson: --and his one--his one Arkansas delegate and that, that was it.
Bush: That's right, and he, he ended up not liking me particularly but you can't win 'em all, you know.
Gibson: [LAUGHS] But your … gut sense is how about in 2006, do you think the party holds the Senate, holds the House?
Bush: I think we hold the Senate and I think we can hold the House-- You know, we're right in the middle of the, of the firestorm right now. Last week was the Woodward book. This week it's Foley, and Congress and Congressional ethics. Tomorrow it'll be something else. In even, so, three weeks, four -- a month, in politics goes like this, but, there's a lotta time to correct things, a lotta time for good stuff to happen. There may be a lotta stuff that'll, that will embarrass the Democrats. So who knows. But all I'm saying is, it's not over by a long shot, and I, I hope that we hold the House, it's gonna be closer. And I'm convinced we'll hold the Senate.
Gibson: Mr. President, it's a great pleasure to talk with you.
Bush: Nice to see you.