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PDAA Members Recall George H.W. Bush

Bush 41’s recent death and memorial service sparked memories by our members of their interactions with the late diplomat, intelligence chief, vice president, and president.

It was an icy cold wintry day in Washington in January 1977. The wind was blowing, the snow was piling up. Everything was closed, including all US government buildings except for those facilities that had to operate under all circumstances. The Voice of America, broadcasting to the world, was one of those institutions. And as deputy director of VOA, I had to get down to my office.

I set out in my trusted VW with two other VOA colleagues and made it to Dupont Circle, where I got stuck in a snow bank. Almost immediately, a large black limousine pulled up behind us. Three men got out and pushed us out of the snow bank into the street. One of the men said, “I am sorry I can’t help you further. I have to get to the White House for an important meeting. It was George H.W. Bush, then CIA director. I thanked him; he said farewell and off they went.

At our regular morning meeting at VOA, I recounted my “meeting” with George H.W. Bush. One of my passengers in the VW, Bernie Kaminsky, was our chief of the VOA news division, a huge—in girth and talentcolleague who was by nature and profession terminally suspicious of everything and everyone he encountered. “Tom,” he piped up, “why was the CIA Director following us?”

End of tale. –Hans Tuch

Vice President George H.W. Bush paid a short visit to Bogota in the early 80s. I was still a “green” FSiO, so I had been assigned the graveyard shift in a small op center in the hotel. At 7 am, unannounced and unexpected, the VP stopped by to thank our small crew for supporting his visit and to say good-bye. Looking and feeling like I needed sleep, a shower and make-up (!), I cowered in the back of the room, hoping he wouldn’t see me. No luck! “Why are you hiding back there? Come on up here for a picture.” The photo arrived within a fortnight, VP Bush with his arm around a young officer, beaming in disbelief and pride! Although I since have lost the photo, I’ll never forget his warmth, generosity of spirit, and his deep appreciation for the FS. Thank you, President Bush. –Kathy Brion

President Bush’s dinner with the Japanese Prime Minister in January 1992 was closed to members of the press, so they were ushered by me and Secret Service agents to an upstairs hallway off a balcony that overlooked the diners. NHK had a stationary camera there that provided a view of the proceedings. The moment came when the President, who had soldiered through a long day suffering a flu-like bug, became nauseated and threw up, partially on the Prime Minister. When members of the press got wind of what was happening, they headed down the stairs, while the President was put on a gurney. I, the press, and the secret service caused a traffic jam in the lobby. Being in the van of all this, I could hear the President from inside the room say something to the effect: “They are not going to see the President of the United States being taken out on a stretcher,” and then there he was, an upright, smiling (if somewhat rumpled) President proceeding through the lobby under his own power. There was no denying the event, and much of the history of it focuses on the comic interpretation put on the event in the world press and late-night comedy, but overlooked is the full credit for grace and fortitude under duress, gambaru, which the Japanese gave the President. –Robert Nevitt

George H.W. Bush was the only candidate for the Presidency since the era of “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do…” to run for the office with praise for the government and public service. On January 26, 1989, just a few days after taking office, he called together senior public servants for a pep rally at the DAR Constitution Hall. I attended and was pleasantly surprised at the turnout–a full house.

After years of public negativity toward government, the President charged up the audience. Among his many comments:

  • … Each of us is here because of a belief in public service as the highest and noblest calling….
  • … Our principles are clear: that government service is a noble calling and a public trust. I learned that from my mom and dad at an early age, and I expect that that’s where many of you learned it–there or in school. There is no higher honor than to serve free men and women, no greater privilege than to labor in government beneath the Great Seal of the United States and the American flag…. (https://seniorexecs.org/newsroom/press-releases/8-news/1130-sea-statement-on-passing-of-president-george-h-w-bush)

We felt honored and respected, ready to help the nation move forward. The international challenges confronting the U.S. then would certainly demand our best effort. –Mike Schneider

My brother produces industrial shows for a Fortune 500 company. Once, around 2003, President H.W. Bush was a keynote speaker and my brother was his “control officer.” While waiting for the appointed time, my brother brought out a Get Well card and asked President and Mrs. Bush whether they would sign a get well card for our father, who was in the hospital then. “Oh, sure, Brian, of course. Barbara, Brian’s dad’s unwell. Come over and sign this card with me.” –Liz Kauffman

During my tenure as the Ambassador to the Republic of Botswana, I accompanied Botswana President Masire on a state visit that included a meeting at the Oval Office with President Bush, Secretary Baker, and NSC Adviser General Scowcroft. President Bush, as usual, was extremely well-informed about the success of Botswana as a parliamentary democracy and the influential role it exercised in African affairs.

My second meeting with President Bush took place following my retirement from the Foreign Service. I had spent most of my career in Eastern Europe, including Poland. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the negotiations to unite Germany, I was asked to take part in a discussion in the Oval Office with President Bush and others concerning the 4 plus 2 negotiations, including the sensitive issue of post-war borders, the most important being the safe-guarding of the Oder-Neisse border between a reunited Germany and Poland.

MEETINGS IN HONG KONG: Several of my other encounters with President Bush took place in Hong Kong following his presidency. One may be especially interesting to our colleagues, for it illustrates the Bush family sense of humor.

It happened in Hong Kong in the mid-1990’s when I worked (following my retirement from the Foreign Service) for De Paul University as its Associate VP for Government Relations. The university was expanding its overseas programs with international banks and other foreign organizations. We initiated, among other partnerships, a major program with the International Bank of Asia (IBA), where De Paul University provided MBA and BA degree programs for the Bank’s executives and staff.

President Bush was invited by the IBA to take part in one of our joint IBA-DePaul events. As it turned out, the President participated in several IBA-DePaul events over a period of time, which gave me the opportunity of meeting President Bush on several occasions in Hong Kong.

One day (I forget the exact date), I was at the Hong Kong airport awaiting the arrival of President Bush. The HK authorities asked me to wait in the VIP room to which they would bring the president while gathering up his luggage, etc.

In the room was a Reuters wire, which I perused while waiting for the arrival of the president. I noticed an article which focused on President Bush’s recent announcement that he planned to parachute from an airplane on his next birthday; the first time he would jump out of an airplane since being shot down by the Japanese during the battle of Chichi Jima in 1944.

The Reuters story contained a quote from Barbara Bush about what she thought about her husband’s decision.

      When President Bush arrived, we greeted each other. I pointed out that Reuters was carrying an article about his parachute announcement and that his wife was being quoted.

The President had not seen the story and said: “John, what did Babs have to say about it?”

I read him the text which included the following comment by Barbara Bush: “It is difficult for me to understand how George ever worked for an organization with the word intelligence in its name.” Ambassador (Ret.) John F. Kordek


I was the “youth” delegate to the 25th UN General Assembly as junior diplomat at the UN in 1972. It is touching to think he would take time to send this note to a very junior diplomat at that time. –Amb. Harriet L. Elam-Thomas  

During President George H.W. Bush’s Visit to Istanbul in 1991, he took the time to speak with me, recalled the UN experience in 1972 (see photo, above) and made time to address my Istanbul colleagues to thank us for our efforts in preparation for this visit. I was BPAO Istanbul and Phil Breeden was the ABPAO. –Amb. Harriet L. Elam-Thomas

President Bush writes to Harriet Elam Thomas a second time, recalling the first.

I’ll never forget that visit to Istanbul, my first POTUS visit. I remember dreaming about bus routes. I remember standing on the roof of the hotel and watching the big white Turkish Presidential yacht moving up a Bosporus completely closed to traffic. What a sight! He was a good man. RIP. –Philip Breeden

In the early 1980’s, I was a first-time PAO (and only officer) in Muscat, Oman, when then-Vice President Bush visited. I vividly remember our country team briefing from that visit. Our Ambassador, DCM, and section heads ran through the normal presentation for the Vice President, before he went to meet with the Sultan of Oman. After we finished, Vice President Bush asked, “When I meet with Sultan Qaboos, is there anything you would like me to raise that would be helpful to you?” In my career, I supported many VIP visits, but this was the only time I recall that the senior official asked what he/she could do to help us! –Dan Sreebny

While I was serving as Ambassador to Syria, former President Bush came through Damascus to visit with the late President Hafiz al-Asad in, I believe, 1995. Whether at my request or by his suggestion (probably the latter), he addressed the assembled American and non-American staff of the Mission at the Residence, as memorialized in the attached photo. He was both gracious and modest, thanking Carol and me for having brought everyone together and highlighting the importance of the Mission’s work in advancing U.S. interests, developing better Syrian-American relations, and promoting an Arab-Israeli settlement.

The other memorable moment of that visit was the luncheon Asad hosted for President Bush. Foreign Minister Shara and I were the only other guests. It was the only time in my 7-plus years in Damascus that I ever saw Asad break bread in an intimate setting. The meal was simple by Damascene standards, but the conversation was rich, turning at one point to Gorbachev’s place in history. President Bush praised him warmly, emphasizing his heroic role in creating the conditions for the emergence of liberty and freedom among all the peoples of the former Soviet Union. Asad demurred, uttering a line I will never forget: “No, Mr. Gorbachev was no hero, for he destroyed the past without preparing the future.” Would that Asad himself had better prepared the future.

 As I think back on the U.S. role in the Middle East in the 1990s, a role that suffered a fatal blow as a result of the events and decisions of our leaders after 9/11, I remember that 1968 hit, “Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end.” –Ambassador (Ret.) Christopher Ross

President Bush and Barbara came to Korea in the early 80’s while I was there. The time most precious to me was seeing them interact with the children of embassy staffers. All our children were invited to meet with them, and it was a lovely time. They acted as if that were the most important thing they had to do that day! –Frances Sullinger

When President Bush was head of the U.S. liaison office in Beijing, our small mission was housed in a single building in the PRC’s diplomatic quarter. By the time I served there in the early 90s, the mission had expanded to occupy three separate compounds in the diplomatic quarter. USIS had inherited the old original office building on a compound which we shared with the Ambassador’s residence. The PAO’s suite contained a huge walk-in vault that, not having classified on site, we used for storage of office supplies. But it certainly looked secure. I had always assumed that I was sitting in what must have been the liaison mission’s “front office.”

When President Bush visited Beijing two or three years after he left office, I got the chance to find out. I was invited to a reception for him at the residence. When I got to talk to the president in the receiving line, I said: “Mr. President, may I ask where your office was located when you were head of the liaison office? Someday, I hope to be able to tell my grandchildren that I inherited President Bush’s old office.” President Bush described where his office was on the building’s second floor. To my disappointment, it turned out that I was sitting in the old political/economic section’s digs. I must have appeared really crestfallen, since the President smiled consolingly and said: “You’re probably close enough.” – Charles Silver

I came to know and appreciate George H.W. and his wife Barbara in 1972. He was then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and I, as a Voice of America correspondent in Africa, traveled with them for 10 days on Air Force 2 around the African continent. I developed a deep respect for him as a real statesman, who did his homework and had a kind word for everyone. He was also a lot of fun. I joined the two of them in a small plane for a daredevil flight over Victoria Falls, and I recall him shouting out a celebratory “Whoop!” as we pulled out of a dive through the mist rising from the torrent below.

Later that day, we boarded a ferry and crossed the Zambezi from Zambia to Botswana. It was very symbolic, as Botswana has only 150 meters of shoreline on the Zambezi, which at the time was its only common border with another black-African-ruled country. By his crossing, he was making a statement of U.S. support for majority rule in Africa. As we crossed, we were observed and photographed by white Rhodesian troops in the bushes at their edge of the border, and by white South African troops in the bushes on the Caprivi Strip side of the border. I photographed them back with my long lens. We were met by a Botswana minister and spent the night at the Chobe Safari Lodge, which then was a farmhouse and few rondavels. The lodge owner and Ambassador Bush got into a small boat and cruised deep within Namibia, which at the time was a major issue at the United Nations. Since this was a totally unauthorized violation of a contentious border, the Ambassador asked me not to mention it in my VOA reports. I respected his request. –Charles Bell

When Ingrid and I were stationed in Bonn, we met Vice President and Mrs. Bush at a community gathering in 1987 when he was on a Europe trip. He had had meetings at the embassy, but he especially wanted to meet the families living in Plittersdorf. The gathering went very well. Our two sons were there with the Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops and their leaders. The Vice President and Mrs. Bush could not have been nicer or friendlier. He gave a short address to our assembled group and pointed out that he was running for president. We liked that fact that the two of them took time in their busy schedule to meet with us and learn about our activities and express their thanks for what we were doing as a diplomatic community in Germany. –Bruce Byers

It was the day of municipal elections in Houston, Texas, and former President George H.W. Bush was waiting in line with his wife Barbara to vote for a new mayor. The only media present was a television crew from Azerbaijan. Its members were in Houston on a USG-sponsored TV co-op to film a documentary about how a mayoral election is conducted in an American city. I was their escort and executive producer. What better way to demonstrate democracy at work than to show a former President who takes the time to vote in a local election! Fortunately, President Bush and the Houston election officials agreed to this special request. After he voted, President Bush gave an interview on the important role of citizen participation in a democracy. As the President was about to depart, the team leader shyly asked for a group photo. President Bush readily agreed and insisted that each member have an individual photograph taken as well.  He then called me over. I did not know my tie was twisted because of an ID badge, but he straightened that out and Mrs. Bush joined us for a last photo.  Afterwards, I commented in a thank you letter that the Azerbaijan team was surprised and delighted by his courtesy and consideration. I said I was not surprised because I had seen those qualities displayed years before when then Vice President Bush, on an official visit to Rio where I was posted, requested he meet every Brazilian staffer who worked at the Consulate General. What did surprise me about the Houston experience is that I received a thank you note in response to my thank you letter. “Dear Lee,” the President wrote, “Thank you for your nice letter. I was glad to do the TV – as was Barbara. I am a USIA man.” It has been reported that his mother inculcated in him the admirable habit of writing such notes, but I never expected to be the beneficiary of one. Thank you, Mr. President. –Lee Lederer

Barbara Bush, former President George H.W. Bush, and retired FSO Lee Lederer.
Barbara Bush, former President George H.W. Bush, and retired FSO Lee Lederer.

Two months after the devastating Armenian earthquake in December 1988, the State Department informed me that the Supreme Patriarch of the Armenian Church, Vazken I, was coming to Washington to thank President H.W. Bush for the huge earthquake relief sent from the United States and asked whether I was willing to be his escort/translator. I was, and on February 19 I met his car and accompanying entourage at the White House. The Protocol officer asked His Holiness to sign the guest book, following which we entered the Oval Office, crammed with government officialdom.

After the preliminary exchange of greetings, the President asked for details about the earthquake and whether the American aid had been effective. His Holiness was extremely eloquent in conveying the Armenian people’s profound gratitude for the vast monetary and material support of the United States and the American people.

Some 20 minutes later, I saw the President sneak a look at his wristwatch, but knew His Holiness wanted to stay longer, so I whispered to him to thank the President for sending his son Jeb to Armenia to show the extent of American interest in the small nation’s welfare. When I had translated this too, the President beamed, and the meeting lasted another half hour.

As we arose, the President complimented me on performing–in his words–“an outstanding job.” A few moments later, as we neared the door, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turning, saw it was the President, who repeated what he had just said, adding “I really meant that, especially about Jeb.”

The next morning, a State Department official informed me that the President had called to personally express his thanks for having sent me. –Ed Alexander

Retired FSO Ed Alexander, His Holiness the Supreme Armenian Patriarch Vazken I, and President George H.W. Bush, February 1989. (White House)
Retired FSO Ed Alexander, His Holiness the Supreme Armenian Patriarch Vazken I, and President George H.W. Bush, February 1989. (White House)

I met Vice President Bush when he visited Australia where I was a JOT in 1982, I think. Memory fades, alas. Anyway, he gave a very funny talk at the Australian Press Club, where USIS offices were located. I accompanied Bush on his visit to the Parliament in Canberra. When he was leaving in his limo, he spoke over the vehicle’s loud speaker’s system to a group of Aussie high school students and mentioned their sports teams’ nickname, wishing them luck and fortune. They cheered in response, quite pleased that he knew how to barrack [“to root or cheer”] for their school. It was the kind of personal touch he was rightly known for. –John Quintus

Argentina, early July 1988, inaugural preparations for the president-elect Carlos Menem were underway. The U.S. delegation included Jonathon Bush, older brother of President George H.W. Bush. He wanted to play tennis and I invited him to a session. After two tough sets, we hoisted cold drinks, at which time I told him that Neil Bush, son of the U.S. leader, had caused an angry stir in Argentina by seeking oil rights in Menem’s province La Riorda during this period. Flouting the Bush WH connections, Neil angered many Argentines as he was taking advantage of the name and access to Menem. Jonathon agreed that Neil was out of line. Guess what? Next morning, Neil showed up at the Embassy apologizing to the ambassador for his actions and promptly left the country. Seems he received a message from the WH to apologize and scat, which he did. His dad acted promptly, as he knew right from wrong. –Fred Coffey, Jr.

During Bush’s tenure as President #41, I was one of the Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State in the East Asia/Pacific Bureau and also #2 in our Embassy in Canberra, Australia. I had a quite memorable interaction with him here in the White House in December 1989 and also encounters with him during his State Visit to Australia in January 1992.

But I would like to share the White House experience with you just now.

New Ambassadors in Washington must first present their credentials to the President before they can convey their government’s views on issues to officials of the Administration or the Congress, and the State Department Protocol office waits until it has a “bevy of new arrivals” and will then set up a few hours at the White House for each Ambassador to meet briefly with the President to present credentials from his/her government. This particular December afternoon, six Ambassadors were scheduled to meet, one after the other, with President Bush and the National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, and I, as DAS for the South Pacific, was there to accompany two of them, both the new New Zealand Ambassador and the Ambassador from the Federated States of Micronesia in their meetings with the President.

The New Zealand Ambassador sailed right through his 10-minute meeting. No problem.

Not so the Ambassador from Micronesia. I knew that Ambassador Jesse Bibiano Marehalau had been allocated five minutes on the schedule, and he had told me how thrilled he was to be meeting with President Bush in person and that he had two very important points he had been instructed to convey.

Well, the President, Ambassador Marehalau, Brent Scowcroft, and I walked into a small room just off the East Room of the White House. President Bush and the Ambassador sat down on a small sofa, and General Scowcroft and I sat opposite them, so close that our knees were almost touching theirs, but we were both out of camera range and that was the important thing.

The President launched into a tale of his days in the South Pacific as a Navy fighter-pilot and the Ambassador sat there absolutely transfixed. I could see the sands of time running through that five- minute hourglass, and I knew the Ambassador would feel awful once he got outside and realized that he had said nothing, so I leaned forward, touched his knee and said, “Mr. Ambassador, I think there were a couple of points that you wanted to raise with the President?” And the Ambassador sat back, turned to the President and delivered his messages: one, two.

Success!

But there is a bit more: As the four of us walked out together, the Ambassador’s wife and Barbara Bush joined us, and then the Ambassador, his wife, and Mrs. Bush walked on a bit ahead, and the President, alone, was walking just ahead of me. And I realized that, despite having just participated in two very significant meetings with him, we had never been introduced, and I heard a small voice say, “Mr. President, I would just like to introduce myself: My name is Marilyn Meyers.”

And he turned and took my hand and said, “It is a pleasure to meet you, Marilyn” and summoned a photographer to take a picture of the two of us standing there in the East Room…with a Christmas tree reflected in the background in one of the mirrors. Damn, those White House photographers are good!

And I still have that photo here in my guest bedroom in my apartment.

So if I have tears in my eyes Wednesday as we, as a nation, honor President #41 and I say good bye to him at the Cathedral, I think you can understand why. –Marilyn Meyers (Ms. Meyers is a volunteer at Washington National Cathedral and served as an usher for President George H.W. Bush’s memorial service at the Cathedral)

President George H.W. Bush and Marilyn Meyers, December 1989. (White House)
President George H.W. Bush and Marilyn Meyers, December 1989. (White House)