He’s 86 now, his eyebrows silver and his legs weakened by Parkinson’s-like symptoms. But as George Herbert Walker Bush approaches his twilight years, the untold tales of his life of public service are beginning to spill out.
Americans grown weary of political spin and attack-dog politics are coming to embrace the 41st president in ways they didn’t when he actually occupied the Oval Office, or before that, when he served as Ronald Reagan’s loyal right-hand man.
Democrats who once mocked the Bush political dynasty are leading the charge. President Barack Obama has saluted the elder Bush several times, mostly recently bestowing on the Bush family patriarch America’s highest civilian honor last month at the White House.
And Bill Clinton, who ousted Bush from office in 1992 and later became his friend, is slated to lead a celebration Monday at Washington’s Kennedy Center to honor Bush’s volunteer efforts through the Points of Light Foundation.
Former first lady Barbara Bush “likes to refer to me as her errant son, the black sheep of the family,” Clinton told the Center for Public Integrity in emailed answers to questions on Friday. “I have always liked and admired President Bush. In the last decade, I have come to love him and the time we share.”
Clinton also sees in Bush a civility and pragmatism absent in today’s politics.
“I think people appreciate the leadership he provided in the critical years after the Berlin Wall fell, supporting democracy in Russia, the reunification of Germany, and the reaffirmation of the NATO alliance; his success in building a real coalition to win the first Gulf War.” But as much as any of that, Clinton said, people have come to value “the contrast between his kind of conservatism and that which dominates today – less extreme in substance, less harsh in rhetoric, more open to reasonable compromise.”
The questions that once dogged Bush’s political ascension — Iran-Contra, the “wimp” factor and “read my lips” to name a few — are long since faded to memory as Americans now are reminded of acts of heroism, bipartisanship, political selflessness and stubborn discipline revealed by close friends seeking to cement his place in history.
One such dramatic episode took on new significance last weekend during Obama’s first trip to Latin America, eyeing new threats to democracy born during the strife and violence of the 1970s and 1980s.
In December 1983, then-Vice President Bush slipped away from a Latin America trip on a secret mission known only to a handful of U.S. leaders — his absence hardly noticed amidst the season’s normal holiday fare.
El Salvador’s military, embroiled in civil war, was losing American confidence as reports multiplied of human rights abuses and murders of civilians carried out by death squads of soldiers. And emotions were still raw over the unsolved killings of three Roman Catholic nuns and a laywoman.
Bush and a small contingent of White House aides and Secret Service agents whirled through the Salvadoran mountains aboard two Army Black hawk helicopters.
Their task was to deliver a stern warning to the Salvadoran military commanders from Reagan: end the murders and human rights abuses and allow fully free and democratic elections or the United States would instantly cut off aid in the fight against Cuban-backed communist guerillas.
Air Force II landed at San Salvador’s airport and Bush was then escorted onto a green Army Black Hawk chopper — absent the vice presidential seal. As the chopper wound its way through the mountains, the pilots maintained an unusually high altitude — about 5,000 feet — hoping to avoid anti-aircraft and small arms fire from rebels on the ground below.
For the White House advance staff, the setting seemed more than a bit incongruous for a man just one heartbeat away from the U.S. presidency: a sultry mountainside villa with faded pink concrete walls that was part of a compound purportedly used by San Salvador’s president as a residence.
When Bush’s advance team scouted the location a few days earlier, they thought they’d stumbled onto the set of a Grade B horror movie.
The carpets were stained with a brown, bloody color, and there were similar spatter stains on the walls. “It looked like a meeting had gone terribly wrong and no one survived,” recalled Antonio Benedi, one of Bush’s most trusted advance aides, who accompanied him on the mission.
Added Hector Irastorza, a White House aide who went with the security detail to inspect the presidential meeting place: “There was blood all over, and things were turned upside down. There were bullet holes in the wall. It was pretty fresh. It was clear they had had a skirmish there.”
“My first thought,” Irastorza recalled in an interview Friday, “was, ‘Is he (Bush) really going to meet with the people who did this?’”
Benedi and his team pondered calling off the get-together, but no one wanted to tell Bush, a former World War II bomber pilot who survived being shot down in the Pacific, that they were afraid for his safety.
Bush’s stated reason for the Latin American trip was the typical pro-democracy boosterism reserved for a vice president — attending the inaugural celebration of Raúl Alfonsín, Argentina’s democratically elected president.
Only a handful of top Reagan and Bush aides were privy to the Salvadoran side-trip and the planned confrontation with military commanders who supervised the death squads.
A Marine officer assigned to the National Security Council — who a few short years later would burst into the national limelight as the unrepentant central figure of the Iran-Contra affair — was among the chosen few. Then-Major Oliver North was at Bush’s side for much of the journey.
The night before the Salvadoran mission, Bush retreated from the Argentinian festivities to the U.S. embassy. Seemingly at ease, he challenged his traveling partners to a game of low-stakes poker.
“Bush pulled a Harry Truman, and asked if anyone wanted to play poker,” North recalled in an interview last week. “I told him my personal limit is $5, and before long I’m out of the game, real quick.”
The next morning Bush’s jet departed for El Salvador, and the crew made a re-fueling stop in Panama.
There, Bush asked Panamanian strong-arm man Manuel Noriega — who years later Bush, as president, would oust from power in a military invasion — to meet him at the airport for a lecturing on the need for more democracy in the Central American nation.
“I watched George H.W. Bush confront the man directly about the drug trade, his support for bad people in Latin America and the need to bring real democracy to Panama,” North recalled.
Then it was off to El Salvador. The official report of the trip states that Bush visited with the Salvadoran president Álvaro Magaña and urged him to disband the so-called death squads, even giving a tough speech before he left the country.
But the full mission was the stuff of thrillers. The Black Hawks landed in a grassy field near the presidential villa. Surrounded by peaks, the location offered a reminder of the violent divisions inside the country at a moment when the military was locked in a stalemate with the communist rebels. The sound of fire from a Salvadoran gunship — perhaps 10 to 15 kilometers away — was faintly audible as the vice president strutted inside.
The Salvadorans had spruced the villa’s walls with a fresh coat of paint and installed a new carpet.
After some brief pleasantries, Bush retreated to a room for a private discussion with the Salvadoran president.
Outside in the hallways, a couple of Secret Service agents grew alarmed as a large number of Salvadoran military commanders — each with pistols in holsters and some with semiautomatic rifles slung across their shoulders — entered the villa, preparing to meet the vice president.
A commotion broke out as the soldiers refused the Secret Service agents’ request to leave their arms outside. Bush poked his head out to ask for quiet.
“We Americans were outgunned 5-to-1 and the prospect of having the VP deliver a message that they clearly didn’t want to hear was stark at best,” North recalled.
Aides suggested to Bush that perhaps the session be called off for security reasons. The vice president refused. “That is what we are here for. We’re here so they get the message,” North recalled Bush saying.
Soon, an entourage of military commanders filed into the room with their sun-faded camouflaged fatigues and weapons. Some stood, as there weren’t enough chairs to go around.
After brief pleasantries, an animated Bush slammed his fist on the table as he condemned the killings of the nuns and other human rights abuses. His message and tenor were unmistakable.
The vice president “told these commanders that their actions would have to stop immediately in order to restore the United States confidence in their ability to fight this war. Otherwise, the US would be forced to cut off aid,” Benedi recalled.
North said the scene was surreal. “They’re all senior guys, some of whom we had good reason to believe were involved with deaths squads. And everybody — to include the VP — knew that,” he said.
“He delivers this incredibly stark message, ‘If the killings don’t stop and you don’t hold elections, we are going to cut off our aid and it will stop you dead in your tracks and you know what that means.”
Bush dispatched the message and boarded his Black Hawk again, hoping the abrupt visit would make a lasting impression. North had handed the military leaders a list of death squad leaders the Americans wanted removed. And then they were off.
Within two weeks, the Salvadoran army reported it had begun disbanding its notorious death squads — and U.S. aid continued to flow as reports from private groups and the United Nations indicated that human rights abuses grew more infrequent. A democratic election was held the next year.
Cynthia Arnson, director of Latin American Programs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said it had long been rumored that Bush met privately with Salvadoran military leaders and the detailed account emerging today fits Bush’s mission to deliver a blunt mission.
She said human rights and UN reports at the time clearly indicated human rights abuses went down after the Bush visit and Democratic elections occurred successfully. But recently declassified document shows the CIA was less convinced of the progress.
Still, Bush’s visit with the military commanders “was a dramatic demonstration that the most senior levels of the Reagan administration saw curbing death squad violence as the key to accomplishing U.S. goals in El Salvador,” Arnson told the Center.
The civil war, however, would rage on for years and reports of deaths squads returned during Bush’s presidency, when the 1989 slayings of Jesuit priests renewed human rights concerns.
Bush ultimately brought closure to the Salvadoran conflict, traveling in person to San Salvador in 1992 shortly after the government and rebels signed a peace accord that brought democracy to the central American country — a peace that holds even today amidst continued violence and strife inside the country.
Julia Sweig, a Latin America policy expert on the Council of Foreign Relations, said Friday that Bush as president ultimately “put the full force of his office behind the peace process and disarming both the Salvadoran right wing squads and the guerillas.”
On the helicopter ride back from the 1983 sojourn, Bush kept his matter of fact tone, refusing to acknowledge even for a second the risks he had just taken.
But his team was quickly reminded. Just two weeks later the veteran Army pilot who flew Bush’s chopper was shot dead as he sat in his cockpit in San Salvador, the victim of a communist rebel gunman, Benedi recalled.
Bush prefers to keep such stories to himself, seldom venturing into public save for an occasional sporting event or social dinner. He declined an interview request from the Center.
Mostly gone from public memory is Bush’s infamous portrayal of himself as a passive bystander in the Iran-Contra scandal or the Newsweek cover questioning whether the president-to-be was a “wimp.” Faded too are the memories of a painful 1992 re-election loss or the chronic attack ads playing back Bush’s broken “read my lips” promise on taxes.
Bush wasn’t afraid to mix it up politically — as Republican Party chairman he was a fierce defender of Richard Nixon during the early Watergate scandal and he later knocked Michael Dukakis out as a presidential candidate with the Willie Horton soft-on-crime line of attack.
But he also possessed a willingness to compromise with Democrats that often alienated his conservative base, as well as an aw-shucks, aloof but humble side that at times seemed awkward for a man at the pinnacle of powers.
A fumbled phrase, an awkward joke or lines like, “Not going to do it. Wouldn’t be prudent” gave comedian Dana Carvey plenty to parody on Saturday Night Live. But today those quirks have also given the 41st president a tangible, human quality.
“At the time, they didn’t seem to be leadership qualities to the public. They didn’t seem to have impact. Some even saw it as weaknesses,” said Roman Popadiuk, who worked alongside Bush in the White House as a national security spokesman and today heads his presidential library foundation.
“But now people are looking back at how he treated people and how Washington is now. And they’re appreciating how he harkened back to an era in which people were treated with respect and in which politics had some civility,” Popadiuk said. “The mutually cooperative way he tried to address things, the calm way he handled things in crisis, people see it today as a strength.”
Former President Clinton remembers back in 1983 when he visited the Bush family at its vacation compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, and his daughter Chelsea needed a bathroom.
“The then-Vice President took her by the hand and led her straight to the bathroom. I was so impressed,” Clinton recalled.
Two decades later while returning with the elder Bush on a trip back from visiting tsunami victims in Asia, the two former presidents faced a dilemma aboard their small plane.
“We took one long flight together to Indonesia to tour the tsunami zone and the plane had one small room with a bed,” Clinton recalled. “He offered the room to me to start and said that we’d switch. But I told him to go ahead and take the room, that I’d be fine sleeping on a mat on the floor. After forty years of sleep deprivation I can sleep anywhere. He deserved the bed.”
Popadiuk and Benedi also remember how Bush’s calm, muted response to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 led some conservatives to question why he hadn’t celebrated more overtly the American victory over communism. To this day, many conservatives give Reagan the credit, though it occurred on Bush’s watch.
What the public didn’t know then — and Bush refused to discuss publicly — was that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had sent an urgent cable to Bush on Nov. 9, 1989 as the wall crumbled asking the United States not to take provocative action that might instigate a Tiananmen Square-like military crackdown in East Germany.
The letters remain classified but sources described to the Center that Gorbachev’s letter pleaded that neither side take any action that would lead to confrontation or provoke protests that might spiral.
The president acquiesced, settling for a response so muted that reporters opined during an Oval Office news conference why he didn’t seem more enthused about the historic crumbling of communism’s most famous symbol.
Bush didn’t let on. Six days later, Bush penned a three-page letter to Gorbachev assuring him the United States appreciated the Soviet leader’s careful approach to the events in East Germany and was supportive of the peaceful transition of power.
Today, the continuing attacks on the 41st president’s son, George W. Bush and his performance as the 43rd president, don’t seem to faze the patriarch of America’s modern political dynasty.
He’s known to start a tale among friend with lines like, “Back when I gave a damn.”
Friends say Bush still likes to take a personal stroll to the local grocery store in Houston or take in a ballgame or two. But he has slowed with the loss of strength in his legs, which friends describe as Parkinsonism, a vascular condition that weakens his lower extremities and manifests some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease like unstable walking.
The symptoms started a few years back as Bush recovered from back surgery and the weakness has progressed such that he struggles to walk, even with a cane these days, though his upper body remains firm, friends say.
When the elder Bush came to Washington for the Medal of Freedom ceremony with Obama, he stopped first for lunch with some of his friends like Benedi. Bush arrived in a wheelchair before getting into a chair at the table.
But when the time came for him to appear in public, Bush left the wheelchair behind, insisting to walk on his own at the White House –with the help of a military aide. The ceremony gave much of America its first glimpse in years of the 41st president.
Separated by generation and ideology from the man he was honoring, Obama rattled off a litany of accomplishments, then quipped about one of Bush’s late-in-life exploits that endeared him to many younger generations. “Just to cap it off, well into his 80s, he decides to jump out of airplanes,” the current president said adoringly as he secured the blue-and-white ribbon around Bush’s neck.
To those who honor Bush – Democrat and Republican alike — what matters now is highlighting the resume and accomplishment of a man who traded his privileged upbringing for the cockpit of a Navy torpedo bomber. Shot down into the Pacific by Japanese fire, Bush only yearned for more public service after three years of education at Yale and a chapter as a Texas oilman who earned a small fortune.
Bush held nearly every power title one could crave: congressman, Republican Party chairman, CIA director, envoy to China, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, vice president and finally president.
But lofty titles, the perks of power or even the warm embrace of political popularity seemed to matter less to Bush than the simple satisfaction of getting a job done effectively.
It’s likely what made him comfortable in the shadows of the more famous and eloquent Reagan, or made him willing to swoop into a room full of armed military officers in a Latin American mountainside villa, friends say.
These are also the qualities that have led Americans — even Democrats — to cast aside whatever doubts they held from a political era gone by and to embrace Bush Sr. as elder statesman.
During the bitter debate last year over cap-and-trade regulations opposed by Republicans, Democrats hailed the elder Bush for creating an earlier cap-and-trade permitting system in the early 1990s that helped substantially reduce the pollution that causes acid rain. Anathema to his own party today, Bush’s stance two decades ago is cherished by environmentalists.
Last summer, Obama singled out the elder Bush on the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, another law fostered during the 41st presidency.
“Equal access. Equal opportunity. The freedom to make our lives what we will. These aren’t principles that belong to any one group or any one political party. They are common principles. They are American principles,” Obama declared that day.
Bush was absent from the ceremony. But friends say he basked in being recognized for the spirit of compromise and cooperation it took to get something like the ADA made into law two decades ago.
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