Bush 41 In China: Kinda Like Old Times

Former President George H. W. Bush, while visiting Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics, discusses how China has changed in the last 20 years. Video by Mike Abramowitz/The Washington Post
By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 11, 2008

BEIJING -- Former president George H.W. Bush doesn't give a lot of interviews these days, and for one simple reason: He doesn't want to have to start talking about his son, the president. "Then somebody wants to psychoanalyze you, stretch you out on the couch . . . go into the differences that might exist," he says dismissively, gesturing to the sofa in his hotel suite here, high above this bustling city.

But near the end of a 25-minute interview Saturday, largely devoted to his long association with China, the former president relents a little. The conversation is turning to the subject of personal diplomacy -- a hallmark of his career in public service and a major theme of recently published diaries from Bush's days in the 1970s as the senior U.S. diplomat in Beijing.

It's also something the father sees a bit of in his son.

"All I know is I am very proud of the relationships he has established with different leaders," the senior Bush says of "the president," as he refers to the junior Bush. It's not only the Chinese leadership, he says. "It's also [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin. He gets criticized for that, but I think it's smart and wise and right that he has pleasant relationships with people and that they trust him. I think he's developing that with [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy. I know it's there with Putin."

Perhaps mindful that Putin has been directing a new military campaign in Georgia, Bush goes on: "It doesn't mean you approve of what Putin is doing or his denial of human rights in Russia. That's the thing that gets me about some of these critics. They think if you establish a personal relationship, that you're then signing off on everything that person does. And that's not right."

Bush is here in China as the honorary captain of the U.S. Olympics team and to accompany his son on his fourth and likely final trip to China as president. He's come with a bevy of Bushes -- not just the president and first lady Laura Bush, but also daughter Doro, son Marvin, granddaughter Barbara and various friends and retainers. His wife Barbara very much wanted to come, Bush says, but is still a bit hobbled from recent surgery on both knees.

The two presidents have spent a lot of time together here: at the dedication of the new U.S. Embassy in China, dinner with the U.S. ambassador, lunch with Chinese President Hu Jintao. The two also watched swimmer Michael Phelps smash a world record and attended the big U.S.-China basketball game on Sunday night with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, a longtime Bush family friend.

Bush has been typically exuberant in carrying out his duties as honorary Olympics captain. Meeting Team USA with Bush 43 before the game, Bush 41 gave a warm hug to Lakers star Kobe Bryant and received an affectionate greeting from Cavaliers hero LeBron James: "What's up, pops?" the massive James asked.

The affection the two Bushes have for one another has been palpable on this Olympics trip. "My dad was a fabulous president," the junior Bush said after receiving an effusive introduction from his father at the embassy event. "And I tell people one reason why was, not only did he know what he was doing, he was a fabulous father."

The visit to China, his 22nd since leaving the Oval Office in 1993, has served as a kind a nostalgic homecoming for the senior Bush: As the U.S. envoy in China in the mid-'70s, Bush put in practice an approach to personal diplomacy that reached its apex nearly 20 years later, when as president, Bush called in a lifetime's worth of chits with other world leaders to marshal the grand coalition that evicted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

Bush came to China in large measure to get away from Watergate-era Washington, where he served as chairman of the Republican National Committee and fiercely defended a doomed President Richard Nixon.

Turning down President Gerald Ford's offer of ambassadorships in London or Paris, Bush headed to Beijing convinced it would one day be a major player on the world stage and eager to meet "the next generation of China's leaders," as he notes in "The China Diary of George H.W. Bush: The Making of a Global President."

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