By Denise Dunbar | [email protected]
I met then-Vice President George H. W. Bush in 1987 in the Rose Garden. The Indiana University men’s basketball team had just won the NCAA championship, and per tradition, was invited to the White House to meet the president. My mother’s family is from Indiana, and my cousin Julie, who was politically well-connected, snagged an invitation for my husband Will and I to attend.
What a thrill it was to be in the Rose Garden and see President Ronald Reagan in person. We were seated in white folding chairs, and after the brief ceremony – during which Reagan spoke while First Lady Nancy Reagan watched protectively from an upstairs window – we were able to mingle.
The president immediately went back inside after delivering his remarks, but Vice President Bush stayed and spoke with guests. He was gracious and cordial, tall and slim and vigorous looking. Though in honesty, my 20-something self was more excited to meet IU’s legendary coach Bobby Knight and star Hoosier guard Steve Alford, who signed an autograph for my Aunt Judy, a huge fan back in Indiana.
What an era that was. Only a couple of months later, Reagan uttered his famous phrase at the Brandenburg Gate that still gives me goosebumps: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” But it was during Bush’s presidency that the Berlin Wall actually fell, the Soviet Union collapsed and Eastern Europe and the 15 former Soviet Republics gained their independence.
At the time of the Rose Garden visit, I was in training at the Central Intelligence Agency, and when Bush became president in January 1989, I was a CIA intelligence analyst writing about leaders of Soviet republics – right as those republics began revolting. I honestly had the best account at the agency.
It began with dissidents from the Baltic Republics, who started openly agitating at home for freedom. In the past, they would have been jailed – or worse. However, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev allowed many of them to travel to Washington, and I was able to meet with a few.
I remember being frustrated with Bush’s caution in 1989 and 1990, when the political pot was roiling throughout Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union. While Poland, Hungary and Romania were freeing themselves from the Soviets’ shackles, the Berlin Wall fell and East and West Germany were reunited, Bush steered clear of publicly endorsing the Baltic dissidents’ efforts at a point when it seemed like open support from the United States could have made a difference. Bush’s caution paid off in 1991, when the Baltic States gained their independence and a coup was attempted in the Soviet Union. On Christmas Day 1991, Gorbachev resigned – and the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Oh, and we waged and won Operation Desert Storm in Iraq that year.
Bush deserves tremendous credit for his diplomatic approach and steady hand during that exhilarating but tumultuous time. In hindsight, it’s astonishing that he didn’t win re-election in 1992. I found his resume to be the most comprehensive of anyone running for president during my lifetime: decorated World War II Navy pilot, business executive, congressman, CIA director, Ambassador to China and eight years as vice president. I wonder if, after 12 years as vice president and president, he wasn’t at heart weary and ready to go home.
Here are three other Bush snippets:
• One of the highlights of my CIA tenure was a brief rotation to the State Department in early 1990 to help with preparations for a summit between Bush and Gorbachev in Washington. There were many meetings and ceremonies, and I had the thrill of hearing a few phrases I wrote actually be uttered by Bush in one speech. The best part was attending the ceremony in the White House where Bush and Gorbachev signed summit documents.
• My cousin Julie loved to tell the story of when she met Bush at an event. She had been chatting with Barbara Bush when Barbara caught sight of George and casually said, “Oh, have you met my husband George?” The then-vice president immediately came over to say hello.
• Finally, a friend from the CIA was torn about who to vote for in 1992 and ultimately cast his ballot for Bill Clinton. About six months into Clinton’s presidency, my friend had buyer’s remorse and wrote a letter to Bush apologizing for his vote. My friend soon received a hand-written note from the former president, thanking him for writing and telling him it was OK.
RIP, George Herbert Walker Bush.
The writer is publisher and editor of the Alexandria Times.