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Historian Remembers George H.W. Bush's Legacy


As his body lay in state had the Capitol Rotunda, Americans from around the country came to pay their respects to the 41st president - among them, former Senator Bob Dole. The 95-year-old was helped out of his wheelchair just long enough to stand and raise his hand in a salute to his fellow World War II veteran.

Today, President Bush's casket will be moved to the Washington National Cathedral for a state funeral service. All this week, we have been examining of the first President Bush. Historian Jeffrey Engel has a special perspective on this topic. He's with the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and has had access to a personal account of President Bush's most formative moments. He joined me in the studio.

Thank you so much for being with us.

JEFFREY ENGEL: It's good to talk to you.

MARTIN: You have spent a lot of time as part of your research with letters and documents from President Bush. Is there anything in all of those works that stands out, that really illustrates his worldview?

ENGEL: Actually, there is, and, in fact, it's ironically Bush not writing and not talking, which is that we have uncovered at the archives the entire slew of transcripts of conversations that President Bush had with every foreign leader during his entire administration. It's really an incredible resource.

And from time to time, President Bush, if he had a few moments on his calendar, would call up a foreign leader, whether in Africa, whether in Asia, whether in - somewhere else, and just ask them, what's going on in your world? What do you think is important? And just listen. So the fact that we have so many transcripts of President Bush not talking, but actually listening to other people around the world, as the most powerful person in the world, is really quite telling to me.

MARTIN: He, of course, presided not over the dramatic moments of the end of the Cold War, but the tough work of managing the end of the Cold War. How much of his energy, of his intellectual bandwidth was spent on that particular geopolitical problem?

ENGEL: Well, certainly, during 1989 and early 1990, I would say that it was by far the most important priority for him and for the country. You know, we think about the end of the Cold War. We have to remember just how dangerous and volatile a moment that was. I mean, if we think about the Soviet Union as a great global empire, which I would contend it was, never in history have we seen a global empire collapse without an ensuing great power war. And we'd never run that experiment with nuclear weapons in the mix. So by all accounts, this should have been a time when the international system collapsed.

And President Bush worked - really hesitate to use this word, but it's actually the right one - tirelessly to make sure that the entire world system remain calm. That is to say, when people were marching in the streets and sometimes marching up against tanks and people with guns, he was calling global leaders, saying, take your time, don't overreact - to make sure that nobody, if you will, stepped too far into the abyss.

MARTIN: He was urging restraint across the board.

ENGEL: Across the board, across the board. It was really quite dramatic. And, in fact, one good example of that, just in terms of his own thinking, is that we have, from the archive, his handwritten notes from the night the Berlin Wall fell - really quite an astounding document.

And what's interesting about it is that he has written the word throughout, and it repeats throughout - Tiananmen, Tiananmen, Tiananmen. Because as he's watching crowds joyously celebrating in November of 1989, he's thinking back to similar crowds that had joyously celebrated in June of 1989, right up until the moment that they were mowed down by tanks. So he is concerned throughout that if he plays things wrong, that story of Tiananmen, that bloodshed could play out in Europe and perhaps even a hundredfold.

MARTIN: Did he ever have a crisis of confidence in that moment as he was managing the aftermath of the Cold War?

ENGEL: You know, of course he wondered in his diary, should we do this? Should we do that? You know, but he never wondered if I should be the one doing it. And it's important to remember that we have heard a lot of praise of President Bush over the last week, and rightly so, of his sense of nobles noblesse, his sense that he must - that those who are born well, like him, had a responsibility to give back.

The flipside of that, that I think we actually have to remember and it's a particularly pertinent in our political moment today, is that Bush is also from the social class that expects to lead. He expects to be the one who is making decisions. I like to think of it that Bush never in his entire life experienced a club that he didn't feel like he could be a member of. He would be welcome anywhere that he walked in because, frankly, that's what people of his social class and standing and wealth at that time in American history did.

I mean, we have to remember, as he's growing up, that is the America that has not yet, if you will, allowed women into power, that has not yet allowed other minorities into power. So the fact that he is, in essence, the last president of the World War II generation also tells us that he's the last president that comes from a moment when the people who could expect to be president was a much narrower group than we like to think it is today.

MARTIN: Bush 41 saw America as a moral compass in the world. He believed, I think it's fair to say, that more America in the world was better for the world. The current president, President Trump, takes the opposite view - far more isolationist, taking the U.S. out of international agreements, imposing tariffs on longtime allies. Do you know, either from from his writings recently or in what he has said in the last couple of years, how he felt about this evolution of the Republican Party?

ENGEL: I think there's a great sense in which he was saddened by the fact that the Republican Party had moved away from him and also from his son, of course. There's no way that George H.W. Bush gets elected as a Republican in 2018.

MARTIN: He was a one-term president. And by many measures, we take that to mean failure. There have been those in recent days who have said, yes, but he was the most successful one-term president. How did he look at his presidency? Did he think he was successful?

ENGEL: Yes. I have to say he and those around him thought that they were remarkably successful for similar reasons we've already discussed, that they confronted the world that was teetering on the edge and handed it to their successor really ready to ramp up and to achieve in the 1990s. I mean, yes, there was a recession going on. Recessions happen, in a sense. But they were looking more long term, that they had confronted war, peace, the international system collapsing around them, a huge difficult despot arising in the Middle East. And, by and large, they had, you know, ticked off the box every time as being successful.

This is one of the reasons, actually, interesting enough, that when you talk to people and try to research this period and talk to people from the Bush administration, they are thrilled to talk to you because they have nothing to hide. They're very proud of their record. Subsequent administrations, sometimes you can find people a little bit sketchy about either talking to historians or talking about certain subjects, at least. But the George H.W. Bush crowd basically has an open invitation to history, say, come look at us, we're going to look better and better the more you examine us.

MARTIN: Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, remembering the legacy of President George H.W. Bush. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.