Stay Connected


Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content


Tough and Tender Talk

Posted on

George Bush was midway through his Presidency and midstream in one of its busiest days. Just 18 hours earlier, the President had won a major diplomatic victory when the United Nations Security Council approved the use of force to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait. That morning, he delivered an 11-minute speech to the nation, pledging to “go the extra mile for peace” and to send Secretary of State James Baker to Baghdad to meet Saddam Hussein.

But now, moments later, amid a quickening diplomatic whirlwind, the President and Mrs. Bush settled into an Oval Office sofa opposite PEOPLE managing editor Landon Y. Jones and Washington bureau chief Maria Wilhelm. In their first joint print interview since the Gulf crisis started, the President and Mrs. Bush were both relaxed and jovial; she nestled close to him on the sofa, occasionally picking lint off his suit. Brent Scowcroft, the President’s National Security Adviser, and John Sununu, the White House Chief of Staff, hovered nearby during the 40-minute discussion. At one point the President was summoned to his tiny study off the Oval Office to take a phone call from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia—and returned in ebullient spirits.

Later in the day, the First Couple’s relentless pace continued. The President phoned other world leaders, including President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the Emir of Kuwait and new British Prime Minister John Major, to advise them of his plans. Then came meetings with Secretary of State Baker and with Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, the first such contact since last year’s massacre in Tiananmen Square. At 4 P.M. the President sat down for almost two hours with a group of congressional leaders. Meanwhile, Mrs. Bush took two of her grandchildren, Sam, 6, and Ellie LeBlond, 4, to the Ellipse, where they placed a star of hope atop the 35-foot national Christmas tree.

Following are excerpts from PEOPLE’S interview:

You’re just back from a Thanksgiving holiday spent with our soldiers in Saudi Arabia. Could you reflect for a moment about that visit and what it meant to the two of you?

BB: First of all, that’s where we should have been. And we were happy to be there. I was amazed by how many cameras the troops had. They asked us to autograph everything: pictures of their babies, pictures of their dogs, their springer spaniels. They asked me to sign pictures of their wives, their hats, their coats, their Bibles.

GB: They asked us to telephone their parents.

Did you bring back any mementos or souvenirs?

GB: Oh, odds and ends. I got a little patch from the famous British “Desert Rats.”

BB: We were sort of tucking things in pockets. It was all very moving. I have to confess every time the helicopter took off, I felt like crying. It just…it seemed so final.

Mrs. Bush, does the bracelet you are wearing relate to the Middle East?

That’s the Desert Shield bracelet, sold by Voices for Freedom. Dorothy Bush LeBlond, my daughter, gave it to me. I bought one for my daughter-in-law Margaret and my son Marvin. Dorothy wears one. I wear it because I think its very important for me to remember always; it snags your clothes and cuts into your arm at night, so you do remember.

You don’t take it off?

Never. The money goes, it turns out, to those wonderful voice messages that families can leave for their sons or daughters in Saudi Arabia. And it also facilitates telephone calls back home.

GB: Their spirits were amazing. The terrain is not easy, it’s deep sand. We wore boots and were very glad we did. But the food wasn’t bad. They all were surprised that the Army and the Marines and others provided good Thanksgiving chow. There was a very touching church service on the deck of the USS Nassau |an amphibious assault ship].

BB: Someone on the Nassau passed me a letter saying. “Don’t forget our wives, who are so courageous at home.” He wrote. “They’re really the brave ones”—his wife and four children. And he said, “You and the President keep them in your prayers.” I thought that was so sweet. We do pray every night.

This could be the first war fought with an all-volunteer force. Few members of goverment have family members in the military. Do you reject the idea that there is something unfair about an all-volunteer military as opposed to a uniform draft?

GB: Absolutely. The problem with the draft was its inequity. It seemed to be those who were the poorest and had the least hope ended up in the draft. Others could get exemptions, but not this crowd. This isn’t some army that people will say is the dregs of society. These are some of the top of society, coming from all echelons, rich and poor. The one common ground is that they’re bright and better achievers than we give them credit for. These are quality folks.

Did the two of you get a chance to see the recent PBS series on the Civil War?

GB: We saw every single episode. We took it up to Camp David and watched it.

You may recall there was a soldier in it named Sullivan Ballou who wrote a very affecting letter to his wife.

GB: I remember it.

He wrote about his love of his wife and his love for his country, which “comes over me like a strong wind and beats me unresistably on with all these chains to the battlefield.” He died at Bull Run. I wonder if you could just speak for a moment about your thoughts as you contemplate the kind of casualties that we might face if war were ultimately to break out in Saudi Arabia.

GB: Well, in the first place, I want to see a peaceful resolution to this. But should there be hostilities. I think what a President should do is to see that these fine young people are backed up in every way possible. One Vietnam, with all that connotes in terms of divisiveness and unhappy endings, is enough for a great country like the United States.

But what would it be like to send somebody else’s kid to battle? In World War II, I was a part of a squadron. I think we even lost nine out of our 14 pilots, one way or another, not all in combat, some were killed a little bit later on. So I’ve been there, in a sense. That gives me perspective about this that perhaps others might not have. I read these letters and I identify with the plea to bring the kid home safely. And yet I know that sometimes, to get peace, you’ve got to make the tough call.

I don’t know about the rest of the American people, but I care [about Kuwait]. Kids there who were passing out leaflets in Kuwait were picked up by the Iraqis. They were 15 or 16. They were tied to a stake in a square in Kuwait, and then they were made to wait till their parents came, and then they were shot. Does the world give a damn about that anymore? I do, and I think those kids out there in the desert understand it too. It doesn’t make any decisions easier, but then, look, I vowed when I became President I wouldn’t wring my hands about the difficulty of choice. Because Truman was right. The buck stops there [points at desk], and I’ll do what I have to do.

Mrs. Bush, we heard that when you were in Saudi Arabia you had dinner with King Fahd’s wife, Princess Johara. Can you tell us your impressions of Saudi women?

I was fascinated, even in the change since we were there 10 years ago. They know it’s important to educate women; they say when you educate the woman, you educate the family. Many of the 400 or so women I talked to had not only M.A.’s but had Ph.D.’s or were pediatricians or university presidents. I was very encouraged. I saw quite a few American women there who were very much at home. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

[An aide whispers to the President.]

GB: Can you excuse me one minute? I promise to come back.

Mrs. Bush, two quick fashion questions: Miniskirts are coming back, and various people have noticed that your skirts were a little shorter on your recent visit to Paris.

Shorter, yes. But no shorter than this. I’ve gone as high as I’m going.

You mean a few alterations were made to lift them a bit?

A little bit.

Mrs. Bush, do you own a mink coat?


Are you opposed to people wearing fur?

No, I’m not. I probably wouldn’t myself, but I’m not opposed to people wearing it. I’m not going to sit in judgment of what people wear. So often people who are critical of that do wear shoes, sit on leather chairs. I’m against cruelty to animals. But it’s not an issue with me.

Mrs. Bush, something happened this year that maybe you anticipated, but Millie may not have: Her book is selling like hotcakes.

Absolutely the biggest surprise of the year. Nobody kicks Millie anymore. Do we, Mil-Mil?

How do you figure that happened?

I think it has something to do with the fact that Millie’s father is the President. Don’t you?

Millie’s mother is extremely popular too.

That might be because she’s married to the President Funny, nobody was knocking themselves down to get to her before.

Is Ranger, the President’s dog, working on a book as well?

I’m thinking about helping Ranger do Ranger’s Revenge, but we’re not there yet. He’s still a baby. He does love the President though. The President loves him.

Since you’ve been traveling, have you had any chance to read some good books?

I’ll tell you a book I’ve read that was perfect timing. George read it before I’d actually gotten it: Ken Follett’s book Pillars of the Earth. I finished it, and then we went to Germany, to the beautiful cathedral in Speyer. And for both of us it made that visit so much more exciting, having read that book.

What about movies or TV? Anything special you’ve seen?

We took tapes of Fawlty Towers up to Camp David and roared with laughter. And we loved Dances with Wolves. We’re very spoiled, because if you go to a movie theater it’s quite long. But if you watch it at home, as we did at Camp David, you can take a break. Usually we don’t see any movies here [in the White House], but we did see one in the family theater. I know we just saw The Russia House. I can’t even remember it, but I remember liking it. We also loved The Hunt for Red October, and we saw the Carrie Fisher movie Postcards from the Edge.

Because of the Gulf crisis, people have been talking about reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Are you turning down the thermostats in the White House?

We never turned them up. We keep the White House very cool. We arc recycling throughout the whole complex. We started about two or three months ago, and I think it’s going very well.

Has the President inherited any of his mother’s tendencies? She was a great one for saving rubber bands and paper clips.

He’s very neat. But he’s not, nor is his mother, cheap. They’re just not wasteful. There’s a difference. To the penny, his mother will pay you if she borrows a stamp; and she doesn’t throw away paper clips and rubber bands….

[The President returns.]

GB: I’m sorry for this interruption, but we did not foresee this complicated day. There’s a lot of diplomacy in the air.

Mr. President, in January you signed a proclamation making Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. Arizona has not endorsed the holiday, and now the NFL has canceled plans to hold the Super Bowl there. Do you support the NFL’s action?

I support the national holiday, and I think that having endorsed it nationally, it’s the proper stance to take. I think the best thing to do would be to give this proper support and not raise the ugly debate that goes with the other side of the coin.

Do you find yourself thinking of certain other occupants of this office at this time, and have you taken inspiration from their own experiences or words?

I guess the foremost inspiration to every American President has been Abraham Lincoln—his sense of fair play and determination to save the Union. Certainly I get inspiration from Teddy Roosevelt. Actually there’s a parallel, not an exact parallel obviously, between San Juan Hill and Kuwait City. I’ve just been reading an interesting treatise on Teddy Roosevelt: his conviction and his determination and his leadership inspire me. All of those things inspire Presidents, I think. And there are many other examples. Eisenhower’s an inspiration to me. Some thought he was perhaps not the most dynamic of Presidents. But when I was an 18-year-old commissioned officer in the Pacific [in World War II] and Ike was over in Europe, his sound judgment and decency and honor inspired me. And. of course, I’m not only grateful but indebted to President Reagan for all I learned from him and for being President today. Each President had some wonderful qualities.

Mr. President, this is an understandably tough period. How do you deal with the stress?

Well, I have this dog named Ranger and this wife named Barbara and a couple of grandchildren.

BB: Thought you were gonna say, “I kick the dog, kick the wife.”

GB: I’ve got very good people in all parts of our government, working on this extraordinarily difficult problem. We’ve got tremendous international support. So I don’t have the angst that one might feel. I must confess that when you talk about the potential loss of life or something of that nature, it obviously concerns me. But I’ll tell you what sustains you: You go back to the advice you got as a kid—do your best. Try your hardest. Work hard and get the best advice you can. Do your best. And that’s what I’m doing.

And I have the satisfaction of knowing I was elected to do that. So I have an inner strength that comes from that and comes from faith. And we don’t miss church, we go every Sunday. I’ve missed four times, or three, I think, since I’ve been President. Barbara maybe one.

I’m like. I guess, any other American, even though I’m President. You get strength from friendships, faith and family.

Last year we asked you for a Christmas wish for the country, and you said it would be peace. I assume that’s even more fervently felt this year.

GB: Peace squared. Yes, that’s got to be my wish this Christmas. But with world leadership, we have a disproportionate responsibility to stand against evil, to stand against aggression, to be concerned when humble Kuwaiti women are raped in their homes. It’s only the United States that can really express the concern that the rest of the world feels. So you accept your responsibilities.