George Herbert Walker Bush may have been, in his lifetime, one of the most accomplished of our presidents.
But before getting to that, let me tell you about my first experience with him. He came to us at the CIA after the agency had been through a rough patch — initiated when President Richard Nixon fired our own Richard Helms and directed his appointee, James R. Schlesinger, to emasculate us.
And that’s what happened. Pink dismissal slips rained out of Schlesinger’s suite. In one day, a third of our officers at Langley and overseas left. In the days that followed, those still standing were expected to produce the same high level of intelligence as in the past with a fraction of the personnel and a leadership that hampered us at every turn. Morale plummeted.
Time, the Watergate and Nixon’s impeachment followed. Morale remained low and wasn’t improved by news that George H.W. Bush would move onto our seventh floor. Nothing in his background promised well.
“Another politician,” we moaned.
I changed my mind one sunny winter day when I escorted a pair of visiting foreign intelligence chiefs to the Director’s Dining Room for lunch with DCI Bush. It was my first meeting with him, as well. He was tall and affable and short on time, but my visitors never knew that. Within the hour, he had turned those two men from reluctant allies into believers willing to put their support behind an operation the White House wanted.
That was George H.W. Bush.
It wasn’t alchemy. He listened. Then, he was gracious, understanding, respectful and willing to collaborate to reach mutually agreeable outcomes. My visitors responded and in this instance, American policy won two more whole-hearted allies. As for me, he’d turned me from a jaded civil servant into a hopeful officer. With George H.W. Bush as director, our mission promised to be again worth serving.
This is just one incident from the year he spent at the agency during which he restored the morale we’d lost, brought the Directorate of Operations back to something close to its former effective self, and pulled our four directorates together, setting us on track to regain our utility as the powerful instrument of national security we were intended to be.
But that was just his beginning. As president of the United States, after overseeing the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, he recognized the larger possibilities and brought a bloodless end to the Cold War and, with it, to the nuclear threat that had haunted us for so long. In the Middle East, he set the stage for what could have become peace by bringing together Israelis and Palestinians for the first time and ending Palestinian terrorism. In Africa, he presided over the end of apartheid.
There was much more. He was a builder, not a destroyer. At home, from “sea to shining sea,” he reached across the party divide to achieve an impressive list of legislative accomplishments from a Democrat-dominated Congress, which included ending acid rain, two arms reduction treaties and an opening of public spaces to the handicapped.
Then, there was Desert Storm where he understood the need to stop Iraqi expansion without turning us into an occupying power. Which was when his life touched mine again.
By the end of Desert Storm, I’d broken a few glass ceilings and had spent the war as a CIA chief of station in an Arab country. There, one day after the war’s conclusion, a communicator personally carried a priority-precedent message to my office wearing a “you’re never going to believe this” look on his face.
Along with the other COSs who’d been part of the war effort, I was to return to Washington for a meeting with President Bush. We flew in from our posts. Personally, I went almost directly from Dulles Airport to a conference room of the Executive Office Building that overlooked the West Wing. At the appointed hour, we walked across to take seats in the Roosevelt Room.
President Bush found us there, immediately moving around the table, shaking hands, remembering some of us, offering personal words to each. He knew we had been in harm’s way, some frequently risking death. As a former DCI, he understood our war, knew of our individual contributions and spoke of the high value he placed on the intelligence we’d provided.
We’d all signed on to work without public acclaim for our accomplishments. This was better. His gesture put a lift in my stride, a smile in my soul and a rededication to my profession in my mind as no public recognition could have.
How many presidents have done anything like this? Even after a war? I suspect none.
So many positives came out of the George H.W. Bush presidency. But, most essentially, he pulled us out of the mire of nuclear fear and made us great in the best sense of the word — great in trustworthiness; great in humility; great in generosity and leadership.
In so doing, he touched all of our lives. Rest in peace, George Herbert Walker Bush.