With his big stride, President H.W. Bush always exuded confidence and a sense of calm. Chased by aides and security, he never seemed to be the one in a hurry, but still moved with purpose. Endowed with a streak of patrician aloofness from a previous era, I also took him to be naturally shy, a trait only partly overcome by decades in the public limelight. Waiting for him to emerge from Marine One on the South Lawn, the best chance for a visitor to shake President Bush’s hand would be those rare occasions when Millie the dog made a break toward the small group of waving hands, followed by President Bush in pursuit, almost obliged to exchange pleasantries.
I was the accidental aide in George H. Bush’s White House. At least, that’s how it felt for the two years I helped prepare the daily White House News Summary. It seemed that nearly everyone else on staff was a well-connected son or daughter of a Bush family friend. As the son of a bootstrapping exterminator, my family definitely did not summer in Kennebunkport.
Fresh out of college, I snagged an internship in the Press Office under Marlin Fitzwater. Within a few months, I volunteered to temporarily fill in for a full-time staffer who had been fired. The search for a replacement by the Office of Presidential Personnel would take a few months, and my boss clearly loathed the thought of filling in himself on the 11pm to 7am “graveyard” shift to help prepare the daily summary. We agreed that once the replacement was found, I would walk away “no questions asked.”
After four weeks doing the work, they offered me the full-time job, making me part of a 5-person team responsible for keeping the President informed around the clock, and at 21 years old the youngest appointee of President Bush’s Administration.
Each morning, the News Summary would be the first thing the President read having been hand delivered by us to the residential section of the White House at 6am. When he traveled, an Air Force officer accompanied the President, responsible for the secure system that allowed us to directly transmit our reports in a pre-internet world. In addition to the morning Summary, we would provide updates every few hours throughout the day on developments and breaking news. The President would frequently walk around with our Summaries, highlighted in parts with items to be addressed.
The job was a grinder: Rotate shifts every four months to ensure around-the-clock coverage and analysis of developing events and press coverage. It involved synthesizing a dozen or more versions of the same story across media, analyzing spin and highlighting unique perspectives and insights. U.S. embassies around the world would dutifully provide our team with translations of foreign coverage. The U.S. Army recorded the three nightly network news broadcasts for us to summarize, and couriers would hand deliver The New York Times, Washington Post and other major newspapers fresh off the press.
But the work was also exhilarating, keeping watch over world developments, crafting tight summaries that, unlike almost any other document in the White House, went directly to the President and Cabinet. For two years, the excitement of walking into the White House each day never wore off, and President Bush was an inspiring leader, particularly for an idealistic young adult.
President Bush believed that we were truly public servants, and that our first loyalty was toward the country. This leadership principal flowed through the entire staff, with Marlin Fitzwater half-joking, “Cave early, cave often.” That is, come clean and admit to mistakes or contradictions, and hopefully live to fight another day.
Some of the press criticism levelled against him at the time was warranted: Bush had been cloistered for decades as a congressman, ambassador to the U.N., head of the CIA, Vice President and President before being caught confused by supermarket scanner technology. That 1992 election trail gaffe, showing he was out of touch with “regular” voters, probably cost him his reelection. While that criticism was accurate, it was also highly selective, coming from that same press corps that failed to report his opponent’s marital indiscretions and questionable financial dealings as Governor of Arkansas.
Other press criticism was outright wrong, as when the media thought President Bush’s prosecution of the first Gulf War unnecessarily prolonged and cruel. The Iraqi Army was fielding little resistance; in fact, mostly surrendering en masse. But Bush continued the campaign in an attempt to root out the dictator Saddam Hussein, who had gone deep underground. Each day, the press dutifully highlighted the columns of dead Iraqis, sitting ducks on Iraq’s Highway 80 (redubbed the “Highway of Death” by them to emphasize the point). The pressure to end the war then left Saddam Hussein, a man responsible for massacring an estimated 182,000 Kurds and invading Iran in a struggle that killed millions, in power another 12 years.
But one thing was never in question: His instinctive understanding of global issues. On April 13, 1990, President Bush traveled to Bermuda for a meeting with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The situation in the Baltics was volatile. Just three months prior, Soviet troops killed 13 and wounded more than 700 when they occupied government buildings in Vilnius, Lithuania, in an attempt to crush a growing independence movement.
On duty that day, I saw a report that Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev had issued an ultimatum to the Lithuanians, demanding that they rescind newly-passed, independence-oriented laws. I contacted the Air Force officer traveling with the President in Bermuda and asked him to immediately pass the report on to President Bush. It was too late: the meeting with Prime Minister Thatcher was already in progress, he explained.
“Interrupt the meeting,” I replied.
“Are you sure?” he asked, concerned about breaking into a private meeting between the U.S. President and British Prime Minister.
“I’m not sure, but do it,” I said, fully expecting a rebuke for the breach of protocol.
Instead, immediately upon concluding their meeting, Bush and Thatcher held a joint news conference and addressed the issue. Reported The New York Times: “Speaking with unusual force about the Lithuanian crisis, President Bush said today that he and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain found reports of a Kremlin ultimatum to the Baltic republic ‘deeply disturbing.’… The fact that the intensely cautious Mr. Bush, acting for himself and Mrs. Thatcher, chose to bring up the news report at the outset of the news conference, before they were asked about it, illuminated the alarm with which the two leaders viewed the Kremlin’s ultimatum more than their words did.”
Gorbachev did, in fact, back off his threat and Lithuania, the other Baltic states and a raft of other Soviet-dominated territories ultimately gained independence.
For the good of the country, as one of his last acts, President, Bush put aside his personal enmity toward Bill Clinton after a bitter campaign battle. He left his successor a handwritten note in the Oval Office which read, in part, “You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success is now our country’s success. I am rooting for you.”
While certainly a product of a different time, President H.W. Bush led with a grace, integrity and healthy sense of national character that we could all use today, more than ever.