National Security & Defense

A Visit with 43, Part V

George and Laura with grandchildren Mila and Poppy (Photo: Bush Center)
George W. Bush on Afghanistan, Vietnam, China, Putin, and more

Editor’s Note: In our March 14 issue, we had a piece by Jay Nordlinger: “43 and His Theme: A visit with George W. Bush.” This week, the author has expanded the piece in his Impromptus. Here are the preceding parts: I, II, III, and IV. The series concludes today.

When he was running for president in 2000, George W. Bush liked to say, “You can’t be all things to all people.” And there are a million things a president, or anybody, wants to do. The United States has great power, but even it can’t stop the fall of every sparrow.

How do you decide what to do? When? How?

“You can set priorities,” Bush says. “I tell people — they ask me about PEPFAR.” This is the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

“I said I was pro-life. When they hear that, people immediately default to abortion. That’s an important issue, but I also meant that all life is precious, and therefore if you say you’re pro-life, that ought to be a priority. When you say things, the principles that you speak of ought to be priorities. …

“When a pandemic was destroying an entire generation, it became a priority. Once it was proven to me that there was a pandemic, it became a priority. And I happened to believe that PEPFAR should be good for our soul. Because people now live who wouldn’t have. The problem in this case is, most Americans have no clue what our generosity has meant.

“I also believe there’s a national-security implication to this. Imagine if you’re an orphan and the wealthy world has turned its back on you, and you’re frustrated, because you have no parents, you’ve been out there scrambling around — refugee camps or whatever — and someone comes up and says, ‘I got a better way for you, buddy. Join our team, join our family.’”

Bush is talking about terror groups.

“But instead, PEPFAR provided funds to faith-based groups, for example, to help orphans. It was more than just anti-retro-viral drugs, it was a comprehensive effort.

“So, making the case during the presidency, I said, Not only is it in our moral interests, but it’s in our security interests, because forms of government and ways of life matter. If we can deal with hopelessness, we can secure ourselves better.”

‐“I’m all for PEPFAR,” I tell Bush. “But something ticked me off about the inaugural ceremony for the center.”

The George W. Bush Presidential Center opened in May 2013. (I wrote about it here.) President Obama and all the living former presidents were on hand. All gave remarks.

The Democrats — Obama, Clinton, and Carter — all focused on PEPFAR. It seemed the one thing they were willing to give W. credit for. It was “PEPFAR this,” and “PEPFAR that.” What about Bush’s confronting of terror, and his standing for freedom?

When I complain to him — going off on a riff — Bush laughs. Even cackles. He says, “Well, you know — look — thank you, but …”

“They rode it for all it was worth,” I say.

“Yeah, they did,” he says. “And that’s okay. You know, people were pleased that there wasn’t a full-frontal attack!”

He then reflects, “It was a lovely event, made most lovely by the fact that my dad, who was in a hospital bed like three months prior, said, ‘I’ll be there,’ and sure enough, he was.”

‐“This is going to be an issue for a long time,” says Bush. By “this,” he means freedom and dictatorship.  The struggle. He means more particularly, I think, the War on Terror.

“And the same excuses, the same reluctance to be a kind of bulwark of free societies is going to be around forever. ‘None of our business.’ ‘We’re imposing our values.’ ‘Who cares?’”

Bush says that, when he gives speeches, he sometimes asks the audience, “Does it matter whether young girls suffer again in Afghanistan?” And he sees people nodding their heads, especially women. They’re saying it does indeed matter to them.

I say, “That place is going to hell, Mr. President, is my concern.”

“Yeah,” says Bush, “because it’s not ready to be alone. Neither was Iraq.”

“It’s going to be like Vietnam,” I say. “Another Vietnam.”

#share#Bush responds to this in a surprising way (surprising to me). He says, “What’s interesting about Vietnam, which, again, reinforced my belief in the universality of freedom, is, I went there as president. And there is a flourishing entrepreneurial class. And there was an excitement to see the American president, a huge embrace, people lining the streets.

“There’s a whiff of freedom there, which ultimately says that, you know, freedom prevails, and …”

I interject, “So you mean, 1975 was not the end of the story?” No, says Bush, it wasn’t. Not at all.

He then says, “I went to China in ’75 — this made a huge impression on me — to visit Mother and Dad there.” Bush père was serving as envoy to China. “I had just gotten out of Harvard Business School, and I realized I didn’t want to go to Wall Street …”

“You’d have made a fortune, by the way,” I interject.

“Yeah, God, I’d have been miserable,” Bush says. “Anyway, what struck me instantly was the fact that everybody had the same clothes on. And I had just come from the West Point of capitalism, emerging into exactly the opposite, where there was no demand. I mean, there was demand, but it was never listened to. Production was the result of a handful of planners.

“I go back in 2001, and there’s color. It was a stark reminder of the power of the marketplace. Now it’s individuals who demand that which is produced, not the planners. And when people get a taste of economic freedom, they start demanding political freedom. And that’s what’s happening in Vietnam.”

‐The “unelected” have a natural fear of a freedom agenda, Bush says. And they have a battery of ways to maintain control. Imprisonment is one — imprisonment of opponents. A monopoly on the press is another.

Bush brings up Vladimir Putin. “People say, ‘He’s the most popular guy in Russia.’ I say, ‘Yeah, I’d be popular too if I owned NBC,’” and the other networks.

I get him to tell the story of Putin and Dan Rather. Several newsmen had been forced out at CBS News, including Rather. They were forced out because of false and malicious reporting about George W. Bush.

When Bush and Putin met, Bush pressed the Russian leader on democratic reforms — including freedom of the press. Bristling, Putin said (approximately), “Well, who are you to talk? You had Rather and those people fired at CBS!”

Bush offered a word to the wise: “Vladimir, whatever you do, don’t say that publicly. The people in America will think, ‘Man, he has no clue what’s going on.’”

Putin didn’t listen. He made sure he got his message out, about Bush and his control of CBS. What can you do?

‐In due course, my tape recorder goes off. The 43rd president and I talk on, about sundry matters. Then I see Laura Bush, who has a book for me: We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope, newly published by the Bush Center. She has written the introduction to it. And she has inscribed my copy, in a lovely hand.

She too is lovely — and far more petite, I think, than one would expect. I think of an old-fashioned expression: “a slip of a girl.” And very youthful indeed, whatever her driver’s license says.

Plus excellent manners — excellent high-Texas manners. I hope they still grow ’em this way.

‐About her husband, what can I say? We’ve all said a lot, for something like 20 years now. Let me say something about appearance: I never thought he looked much like his father. But he does now, and like his mother. He is almost a 50-50 split. It was almost disconcerting to look at him in the course of our talk. A flash of Bush 41 would come out, and I’d think, “What the …?”

And he is, of course, interesting. Unique. His own man. A guy’s guy. Smart. Inquisitive. Caring. Confident (very). Commanding. Articulate. Realistic. Idealistic. Straightforward. No-nonsense. An utterly stand-up guy.

Voted for him twice — would have voted for him four times, if I had lived in Texas — and am glad for the opportunity.

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