When he passed away, the 41st president of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, was 94. His one term in office began in 1989, and coincided with the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. You're about to hear from three former presidents, a rare occurrence in and of itself, discuss the life and legacy of George H.W. Bush.
In recent interviews, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all acknowledged number 41 was one of the best-prepared presidents in American history. Before becoming commander in chief, he was a fighter pilot, an oilman, a congressman, a diplomat, head of the CIA, and Ronald Reagan's vice president for two terms.
He was also married to Barbara Bush for 73 years, until her death this past April. Together they had six children.
We begin tonight with their eldest son, President George W. Bush, and what his father taught him about the highest office in the land.
Former President George W. Bush: The mission was not George H. W. Bush, the mission was: how do we serve the United States? How do we help the United States? How do we make the United States better? Which is very important in establishing a culture that can succeed.
Norah O'Donnell: That the office was more important than the man.
Former President George W. Bush: The office is more important than the man. It's really one of the most important things for Americans to understand. Dad taught me this. And therefore, one of the jobs is to strengthen the institution of the presidency, bring honor to the office. And that clearly George H. W. Bush did.
Norah O'Donnell: And bringing honor to the office, that institution, why is that so important?
Former President George W. Bush: The institution of the presidency is a shock absorber. Look, every president has got strengths and weaknesses, we just wanna make sure that the country, the ballast of the ship estate, you know, is strong enough to withstand either tumultuous times or, you know, the foibles of mankind.
Norah O'Donnell: You said that watching his presidency and the criticism that he got as president--
Former President George W. Bush: Yeah.
Norah O'Donnell: --helped you.
Former President George W. Bush: Yeah, it did. Because, first of all, being a child of a president is unpleasant. I mean, you watch somebody you love get lampooned, or made fun of, or harshly criticized. It hurts. And so by the time I became president, you know, I had to-- a fair amount of asbestos (LAUGHTER) on my skin. And it didn't hurt nearly as much, it turns out. You know?
Norah O'Donnell: It was like fire retardant?
Former President George W. Bush: Exactly. Fire retardant. (LAUGHTER)
Norah O'Donnell: Did it bother your father to see you criticized while you were in office--
Former President George W. Bush: Yeah. (LAUGH) It did. in the end, though, you know, we both knew that's part of the job, I mean, which is actually good, you know, for the country. I mean, you want your powerful people to be held up to scrutiny.
Norah O'Donnell: When you look back at your father's term in office as president--
Former President George W. Bush: Yeah.
Norah O'Donnell: --he starts, to many people, look better and better.
Former President George W. Bush: (LAUGH) Yeah, we all do. (LAUGHTER) That's the way time works. I think he's gonna go down as the greatest one-term president ever. Because of his foreign policy, deftly handling the end of the Cold War, for example, reunification of Germany.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, like so many times in his career, President Bush turned for help to his longtime trusted friend James Baker.
George Bush chose James Baker for his secretary of state before naming anyone else to his cabinet. The two first met three decades earlier when Baker was just a Texas lawyer and a tennis player looking for a game.
James Baker: neither one of us had a partner for the doubles matches. And so they put us together. And that's how we became friends. We first became (LAUGH) tennis doubles partners.
Together, they dealt with the fall of the United States' old Cold War rival. They also faced new turmoil in the Middle East and a war followed.
In 1990, the U.S. built a coalition of 33 nations to push Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi army out of Kuwait.
Perhaps no president and secretary of state had known each other so well since James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.
James Baker: And I was secretary of state for a president who was all-- who was like a brother. And there was never any question about wh-- if I went out and said something, no doubt about whether I was speaking for the president or not.
Twenty-five years later, James Baker told us that his friend's four-year term in office was one of the most consequential in history.
James Baker: I mean look at what happened on his watch. The world changed. And we had a peaceful resolution of the Cold War. It didn't have to end peacefully. It could have ended with a bang, and not a whimper. George Bush was the one who made sure that it ended that way, and took a lot of heat, by the way, from the press, for not dancing on the ruins of the wall when the Berlin Wall came down.
James Baker: And notwithstanding all the pressure on him to stick it in Gorbachev's eye once the wall came down. He said, "No. We got a lot of business still to do with Gorbachev. We're not going to do that." And it was the right thing to do it. And that, as much as anything else in my view, cemented the possibility of a peaceful end of the Cold War, as opposed to a cataclysmic end to the Cold War.
Former President Barack Obama: I think more than anything you learn from when you look at your predecessors is-- what are the actions they took that you admire? What are the mistakes they made that you want to avoid? They tend to be, in some ways, speaking to you through their own record continuously.
Former President Barack Obama awarded George H.W. Bush the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 and says he especially admired his foreign policy.
Former President Barack Obama: What people don't appreciate fully, even within his own party, is the degree to which he had to land the plane when the Berlin Wall comes down.
Former President Barack Obama: You have chaos potentially in the former Soviet Union and Russia. And uncertainty in Europe. All those things could have gone haywire at any point. And-- the-- the restraint, the caution, the lack of spiking the football that they showed was I think an enormous achievement.
Norah O'Donnell: The author of a new book about your father and the end of the Cold War, his name's Jeffrey Engel, wrote, "Bush, as much as anyone else, and certainly more than any other foreigner, can lay claim to being the father of modern Germany."
Former President George W. Bush: Yeah. I think the Germans would tell you that. My friend Angela Merkel certainly told me that. And-- and the reason why is because he quietly worked to unify Germany without calling attention to himself. Europeans were very nervous about a unified Germany.
Norah O'Donnell: There was a young KGB officer at the time (LAUGH) in Berlin.
Former President George W. Bush: Yes, he was.
Norah O'Donnell: You know who I'm talkin' about--
Former President George W. Bush: Yeah, I do.
Norah O'Donnell: Vladimir Putin.
Former President George W. Bush: Yeah.
Norah O'Donnell: He wasn't happy about the end of the Cold War.
Former President George W. Bush: No, he wasn't. Still isn't. And-- so--
Norah O'Donnell: Yeah.
Former President George W. Bush: Here's-- here's a George Bush story. I learned-- one of the things I learned from him was to, you know, give these world leaders kinda special treatment if possible.
Former President George W. Bush: And I said, "Dad, I need a place to bring Vladimir Putin. Would you mind if I brought him to Kennebunkport," knowing full well that Putin would say, "Wow, this is really great." And he said, "Not at all." And he-- so Putin lands.
Former President George W. Bush: And there's Dad at the foot of the stairs to greet him.
As president, the elder Bush was known as a master of "personal diplomacy" and almost 15 years out of office, at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, he still had the knack.
Former President George W. Bush: So he said, "You wanna go out on our boat?"
Former President George W. Bush: And-- Putin said, "Oh, I'd love to go." And so Putin has this interpreter (LAUGH) that's kind of-- you know-- didn't look like much of an outdoorsman. (LAUGH) And the old man opens that thing up full blast and this guy, I'm standing to this interpreter, he's like white knuckles, you know, hanging on to the boat wondering if he's going to live. And he's cutting through these waves, it's just classic George Bush.
Norah O'Donnell: What was Putin doing?
Former President George W. Bush: He loved it. You know, Putin's kind of one of these macho dudes that-- salt spray comin' across, you know, and he thought it was wonderful. It's the interpreter was (LAUGH) nerve-wracked. (LAUGHTER)
George H.W. Bush also shared light-hearted moments with two other men who came after him as president.
Former President Barack Obama: he was a good reminder that as fiercely as we may fight on policy and on issues, that ultimately we're Americans first. And that kind of attitude is something that I think a lot of people miss.
Former President Bill Clinton: I think that history will be quite kind to him in his presidency.
Former President Bill Clinton says he learned a lot about the character of the man he replaced from a letter.
He read us the note George Bush left him in the Oval Office in 1993.
Former President Bill Clinton: "Dear Bill, when I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too. I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some presidents have described. There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair.
"I'm not a very good one to give advice, but just don't let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be our president when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country's success. I'm rooting hard for you. Good luck."
Former President Bill Clinton: This letter is a statement of who he is. That's why he's a world-class human being in my book
Former President George W. Bush: Bill Clinton was smart about how he dealt with my dad. He treated him with great respect. And dad is a big enough man to, you know, want to befriend Bill. And they've become friends. And-- and-- it's-- it's neat to see.
Former President Bill Clinton: And our friendship just got better. And in a world where everybody's just guttin' each other all the time I thought it was a good thing to show.
Former President Bill Clinton: It's been one of the great joys of my life, my friendship with him. our arguments were good-natured and open, and we continue to debate things all the way up until recently.
Their later-in-life friendship was unlikely given the hard-fought presidential campaign of 1992.
President Bush's hopes of a second-term ended when Bill Clinton won the presidency with 43 percent of the vote. Texas billionaire Ross Perot, an independent, took 19 percent. Mr. Bush captured only 37 and went back home to Houston. It was a painful loss. We asked George W. Bush about what went wrong.
Former President George W. Bush: He said, "Read my lips, no new taxes," and-- which was-- a strong pledge, and then raised taxes for what he thought was good of the country. But, you know, it-- it's a clear lesson of consequences
He gave that now infamous pledge at the 1988 Republican Convention in New Orleans.
George H.W. Bush at Convention: The Congress will push me to raise taxes and I'll say no, and they'll push and I'll say no, and they'll push again and I'll say, to them, "Read my lips, no new taxes."
Norah O'Donnell: Was that one of his biggest mistakes?
Former President George W. Bush: I think it-- politically it was for sure. Policy-wise, people had argued it wasn't. But yeah, politically--
Norah O'Donnell: Because he ended up raising taxes and it led to a balanced budget over time.
Former President George W. Bush: Correct.
Norah O'Donnell: You think that played a big role in his defeat in '92?
Former President George W. Bush: I think it played a big role in-- in-- in fracturing the Republican party. I don't think it played a role in the general election so much. But in order to win you have to have a solid base. And if your base is fractured, it's gonna-- it's really hard to win in American politics. And it fractured his base in the Republican party.
Norah O'Donnell: But that was an example, too, where he chose to do the right thing over what was the politically expedient thing, or what he may have said at the time.
Former President George W. Bush: No, that's right. No, I'm-- I'm not arguing if you're right or wrong, I'm just saying politically it was-- it was harmful.
Norah O'Donnell: Yeah.
Former President George W. Bush: Policy-wise, you know, a lot of people would argue it helped the country.
Former President Barack Obama: All that talk about trying to reduce the deficit required tough choices. It wasn't as if there weren't some serious cuts made as well. He did not enjoy the-- the fruits of his labor. By the time that people saw the benefits of reducing deficits and lower interest rates he had already-- he had already lost.
Former President George W. Bush: He was able to absorb loss. Of course, the most stinging one was 1992.
Norah O'Donnell: But the point you make, he had a lot of losses.
Former President George W. Bush: Yes, he did. (LAUGH) Yeah, and bounced back which, you know-- and I think that's an important lesson in life, that you're gonna have losses in life. And the question is: how do you deal with them?
George Herbert Walker Bush's life spanned the most important geopolitical events of the 20th century.
On his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the Navy and became one of the youngest American fighter pilots in World War II. Fifty years later, as commander in chief, he helped secure a peaceful end to the Cold War.
In retirement, he decided it would be fun to jump out of airplanes and sky dive until he was 90.
But it was more than his achievements and his hobbies that made the man and the president unique. In historical terms, he was the last of his kind.
Jon Meacham: I think we have to really think about this, because George Herbert Walker Bush was the last president of the World War II generation. from Roosevelt to Truman to Eisenhower to Kennedy to Nixon to Ford to Carter to Reagan, they had all been shaped by the Depression and the war.
Historian Jon Meacham spent about a decade interviewing President Bush for his biography of the 41st president.
Jon Meacham: To me, his story begins on his 18th birthday. Three things happened. He turned 18. He graduated from Andover. And he drove to Boston and took an oath as a Naval enlistee. Went to flight school. Became what we believe to be the youngest flying officer in the Navy.
Former President George W. Bush: U.S. gets attacked and he makes up his mind that he wants to serve his country, even though his dad, who he loved dearly, suggested he go to college first.
Norah O'Donnell: Where did he get that sense of duty, honor, country?
Former President George W. Bush: I think his father. His dad was in World War I. Pretty confident that's where he got it.
Norah O'Donnell: I read the only time he saw his own father cry was when he left.
Former President George W. Bush: Yeah, at the train station. That's right. Turned 18 years old and right after his 18th birthday goes in and his dad wept.
He flew a total of 58 combat missions in the Pacific. September 2nd, 1944 was nearly his last, when Lieutenant Bush and his two crewmates were shot out of the sky by the Japanese.
Jon Meacham: The plane is hit. The wings go up in flames. The cockpit fills with smoke, but he keeps going. He takes out the tower, he goes back out. He realizes he's about to go down. He tells his two crewmates to hit the silk to get out, and then he bails out. He gashes his head on the tail of the plane, plunges into the sea. Comes up. He's retching seawater. And he realizes that his two crewmates have not made it.
Jon Meacham: And to some extent, I think that every day since that Saturday in the Pacific, he's been trying to justify that he was spared when other men were fated to die.
Four hours after his plane went down, Bush was plucked from the Pacific by the crew of the U.S.S. Finback.
An officer on board the submarine captured the rescue on 8mm film.
Former President George W. Bush: One time I said, "Dad, do you ever think about the war?" This was late, much later. He said, "I think about Delaney and White all the time."
Norah O'Donnell: His two crew members.
Former President George W. Bush: Yeah… By the way, he wasn't the only guy, of course, who went through that experience. I mean-- it kinda defined a generation, World War II did. And-- but it-- it-- I think it enabled him to be a, you know, a strong leader
After the war, Bush went to Yale University, where he was a member of the Skull and Bones secret society and played first base on the baseball team.
Former President George W. Bush: He was captain of a great baseball team. And a bunch of these World War II guys came back to Yale and they were in the NCAA finals twice.
Norah O'Donnell: Could he have played in the majors?
Former President George W. Bush: No. Good fielder, just couldn't hit. If you can't hit, you go-- don't go to the majors.
But he did graduate Phi Beta Kappa in just two and a half years. By then he had married Barbara Pierce who became his partner in life and politics.
Barbara Bush from archives: My job is to go out and talk about George Bush the man and this well-qualified person and I like doing it. Nobody asked me to do it. That's what I do. I don't give advice. I don't take it very well either I might add.
When she died this past April, Barbara Bush had been married to George Bush for 73 of her 92 years. It was the longest marriage between a president and first lady in American history.
Former President Bill Clinton: They probably both would hasten to say that the-- their lives-- they both did more than they would have, either one of them, if they hadn't been together. I mean, they're-- remarkable, amazing partnership.
Former President George W. Bush: This is a guy who ca-- by the way, who goes to Yale, is kind of the star at Yale, baseball captain, Phi Beta Kappa, and was expected to go to Wall Street and he decides to move to Odessa, Texas. And he goes out there and rents a duplex. This is an oilfield boomtown now in '48. And-- and our neighbors in this duplex were hookers.
Norah O'Donnell: Really?
Former President George W. Bush: Yeah. And we shared the bathroom with them. And--
Norah O'Donnell: What did Barbara Pierce Bush think about that?
Former President George W. Bush: Yeah, I don't know. (LAUGH) But I'm-- I thankfully was not old enough to know.
Norah O'Donnell: When I talked to your mom last time, she said that he never says, "No," to her.
Former President George W. Bush: Well that's why they stayed married for 70 years. It's a true love story. As Mother said, "It's the only man I ever kissed."
In 1953 the Bushes lost their second child, Robin, to leukemia when she was only three years old. But the family continued to grow. George W., joined by Jeb, Neil, Marvin, and finally Doro, settled in Houston in 1959.
It was there James Baker became almost like a member of the family.
After Baker lost his first wife to cancer, George Bush asked him to join his campaign for the Senate in 1964, as a way to help him cope with his grief.
George Bush's father, Prescott Bush, was a senator from Connecticut until 1963 and approved of his son's decision to join the family business.
James Baker: It was pretty much in his blood.
George H.W. Bush from archives: I had inculcated to me by a fantastic father a sense of service to my country…
James Baker: He used to go around in-- in some of those early races, and he would say, "My dad inculcated in me an appreciation of public service." I said, "George, stop talking about inculcated. You're running in Texas. Nobody understands that down here." (LAUGHTER) So I think he probably intended to-- to go into politics from the very beginning.
He lost that first race for the Senate in 1964 and another one in 1970.
But never gave up on the idea he could be president.
James Baker: I've never known a more competitive person in my life. Very competitive. Well, he ran for president of the United States when he was an asterisk in the polls.
James Baker: Nobody took it seriously. And th-- in '79, people laughed at us. I had people in Texas say, "Why are you doing this?" I said, "Because this is my friend. And I think he will make an extraordinarily good president."
James Baker is the only man in history to be the White House chief of staff, the secretary of the treasury, and the secretary of state. But the most important role in his life may have been that of "friend" to George H.W. Bush.
James Baker: He's a huge-- he's a huge part of my life. And--There were a lotta people who helped me along the way. But the guy who really got me going, got me started, turned me around at-- at a time in my life I've said if I were ever gonna become an alcoholic, it's when I lost that wife, and left me with those four small kids. And he was there for me and he's been there for me ever since.
During the disputed presidential election of 2000, James Baker led the legal effort that ultimately won the White House for his old friend's eldest son.
In the 241-year history of the republic, only two fathers and sons have become president. John Adams and John Quincy Adams and George Herbert Walker Bush and George W. Bush.
Norah O'Donnell: How proud of you was he when you became president?
Former President George W. Bush: Oh man. He was-- (LAUGH) You know, my favorite story about all that is I just gotten sworn in and Andy Card said, "Why don't you go down to the Oval and see what it feels like as president." And I said, "Okay." So I went down, sitting down there and just kind of taking it all in and in walks dad.
Former President George W. Bush: So Andy had told dad that I was down there. And he walks down and I said, "Mr. President-- welcome." He said, "Thank you, Mr. President." And that's pretty much all that was said for a while. And it was a very profound moment for me.
Norah O'Donnell: What did he say to you when you were president, what kind of--
Former President George W. Bush: I love you. And, you know, as corny as that sounds to some-- it is the most important words you can hear in life. You don't hear a lotta people say, "I love you," when you're president. (LAUGHTER)
Norah O'Donnell: Your father was never comfortable with the word legacy.
Former President George W. Bush: Yeah. Neither am I--
Norah O'Donnell: Called it the-- the L word. Right?
Former President George W. Bush: Neither am I.
Norah O'Donnell: Why?
Former President George W. Bush: Because it's-- it's kind of self-serving. You know? Look at me. And the other thing is, is that there's-- if you really think about it the notion of your contributions to the country will never be fully known until there's a passage of time.
Norah O'Donnell: But as his eldest son, what would you say his legacy is?
Former President George W. Bush: First of all, one of the things about his presidency is that he followed a big figure in presidential politics, Ronald Reagan. I mean, Ronald Reagan cast a giant shadow. And he should. I mean, he's a transformative president. And secondly, historians tends to focus on two-term presidents. And so I feel really good about people, if they analyze not only his accomplishments but his character, they'll say, "Job well done, George H. W. Bush."
Produced by Keith Sharman and Erin Horan.