Correction: An earlier version of this article misattributed a quotation about how the term “new world order” was coined. That statement was made by Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush. The version below has been corrected.
He was the only one-term American president in the past three decades, but plenty happened on his watch: the collapse of communism, the first Gulf War and a recession that helped usher him out of office. Now, George H.W. Bush’s presidency is revealed in greater detail, as the University of Virginia’s Miller Center opens its archive of oral history interviews about the 41st president, including conversations with Dick Cheney, James Baker, Robert Gates and Dan Quayle.
Find out why Bush stopped short of ousting Saddam Hussein, which Hollywood superstar was (briefly) considered for the vice presidency, the reason George W. Bush became so focused on staff loyalty and what kind of attire was strictly prohibited in the Oval Office.
“We looked at three options: One was destroying the Republican Guard, the second was throwing Saddam out of Kuwait, and the third was bringing about a change of regime in Baghdad. Well, we agreed to the first two in about 10 minutes, and we spent two weeks debating the third one. . . . We had all just gone through the experience on Panama of not being able to find Noriega, eight or nine months before, and we had a hell of a lot more information and a hell of a lot more presence in Panama than we were going to have in Iraq. To what degree are we likely to shatter the coalition if we try to bring about a change in regime? . . . So we ended up recommending against the inclusion of that as a war aim. And the president actually signed off on the war aims — so we knew going in what our objectives were going to be.”
— Robert M. Gates, CIA director
“Gorbachev kept meddling. Especially as we got closer and closer to [the] actual onset of the war — trying to find ways to get us to back off, accept some kind of a compromise so he could broker a deal with Saddam and so forth. It was endless. It just went on and on and on and became a source of frustration. For somebody like myself, I finally would have said: ‘To hell with it. How many divisions has he got in Saudi Arabia?’ The answer, of course, is zero. The president said: ‘No, we’re going to keep him on board. We’re going to manage the process.’ . . . So he clearly set the tone from the beginning and was consistent throughout. He wanted this to be an international effort.”
— Dick Cheney, secretary of defense
“It was coined in one of the few times that I’ve had with the president absolutely uninterrupted for about four hours. We were fishing, and the fish weren’t biting. We were sitting out in a calm ocean, and it was a marvelous opportunity for a philosophical talk at length. You know, you never have time with presidents. They’re always busy, and you have to focus on the issue. Here, it was open. So it started leading us into ‘What’s this new world going to be like?’ This was in August of ’90, a couple of weeks after the attack on Kuwait. ‘What’s it going to be like?’ ”
— Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser
“Did you know that Clint Eastwood’s name was thrown out at one point? . . . When we were way behind. Honestly, it was suggested in not an altogether unserious — well, he was a mayor. He was a Republican mayor. Anyway, it was shot down pretty quick. [Laughter.] But we were looking at an 18-point deficit.”
— James A. Baker III, campaign
manager, secretary of state
“I think in his heart of hearts [George H.W. Bush] just viewed Clinton as so inferior that somehow, by golly, he was going to pull this thing out. He didn’t really believe the polls. But he didn’t realize what was going on — which George W. saw, and which is why he is so adamant on loyalty and no leaks and things like that — which was how disloyal that campaign staff really was. I mean, they were more interested in what their jobs were going to be after the election than they were in getting him reelected. . . .
“[George W.] was in and out. He’d come in and raise Cain and then go back to Texas. He’d come through the White House, and of course, he’d stay in the residence when he was in town, but he’d come through the West Wing just a little bit. He did spend some time over at the campaign. He’d tell his dad he didn’t like what was going on, so his dad knew.”
— Dan Quayle, vice president
“It was one of the debates where President Bush was accused of looking at his watch, suggesting that he just wanted to get out of there, that he didn’t really want to participate in the debate. . . . Well, the truth of the matter is, at the very beginning of the debate, Carole Simpson [of ABC News] had said to President Bush, Bill Clinton and to Ross Perot, ‘Now, there won’t be any filibustering here.’ And she said, ‘That means you, too, Mr. Perot,’ because Ross Perot had been cited in the press many times for his tendency to go on and on; that had happened in previous debates.
“So President Bush, at one point during the debate when Ross Perot was going on at great, great length, looked at Carole — and if you watch the tape, you’ll see he looked at her — then his watch, suggesting clearly, ‘Hey, Perot’s time is up,’ meaning he’s filibustering. The media picked it up and wrote the story as another example that he didn’t get it.”
— Phillip D. Brady, staff secretary
“One time I had something I needed to know, and Tim [McBride, Bush’s personal aide] said to me, ‘Well, just go down, the president’s at the tennis court.’ So I went down and he said, ‘Oh, yes, that paper’s on my desk.’ I said, ‘Well, okay, I’ll tell Tim and we’ll get it.’ And he said: ‘No, no, you guys won’t know where it is, I’ll go get it. Come on, the game is over.’ So we started to walk back up — the tennis courts are on the South Lawn. We started walking up, I thought toward the Oval Office, in which case you’d go this way. And he said, ‘Where are you going?’ and I said, ‘I’m going to your office.’ ‘No, no,’ he said, ‘I’m in tennis shorts.’ I said, ‘So?’ He said, ‘No, just wait, I’ll be back.’
“So he went into the residence, got dressed, put on a coat and tie, walked into the Oval Office, handed me the paper and left. But he would not go into that office in tennis togs. He didn’t believe that was appropriate. He had such a sense of respect for the physical room as a symbol of the presidency.”
— Bobbie Greene Kilberg, deputy
assistant to the president for public
liaison, director of the White House
Office of Intergovernmental Affairs
Russell L. Riley and Barbara A. Perry direct the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program. Nearly 30 interviews on the 41st presidency are available at www.millercenter.org.