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Bush reminisces about presidency, lauds sons

March 14, 2007|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

Former President George Herbert Walker Bush spent a significant part of his speech in Los Angeles on Monday night talking of his love of family and his pride in the son who currently occupies the White House.

Yet as the 82-year-old former chief executive recounted his years as president, the tale of how he governed stood in marked contrast to what critics, a few of whom were in the audience, say are the official actions of his beleaguered son.

Enumerating the crises and triumphs of his term -- among them the successful coalition-building before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the passage of the Clean Air Act -- Bush extolled the virtues of strength moderated by bipartisanship. He spoke of the need for executive restraint and sensitivity to diplomatic nuance.

Talking to an enthusiastic audience of about 2,200 gathered at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for a lecture in the Music Center Speaker Series, he said he also took pride in having had "a very capable and competent team in my administration," which was "an honorable administration in terms of scandals."

Bush, clad in a dark suit, was erect of bearing despite a hobbling gait that required the use of a cane. He joked easily and often and seemed fully recovered from a dehydration-induced fainting spell he'd suffered the previous day while golfing in Palm Springs.

He and his wife, Barbara, he said, had come to Democratic-leaning California to spend the weekend with friends. "We really do love it here," he said. "As John Kennedy said about Ohio, 'There's no place I get a warmer welcome and fewer votes than Ohio.' "

Some of his family stories evoked laughter. Bush spoke of how, as small boys, he and his brother paid a neighbor girl 10 cents to run naked across a lawn. That caper, he said, caused his father, U.S. Sen. Prescott S. Bush, to use a squash racket to chastise his sons.

His mother, he said, instilled in him certain fundamental values to which he subscribed his entire life as a public figure:

Give others credit.

Be fair and honest.

Listen.

Serve the public.

At one point, a man in the audience, eschewing the orderly procession of questioners to a microphone, rose in his seat and yelled, "Why didn't you pass those values on to your son?"

As the man launched into an anti-Iraq war oration, security guards moved toward him and other audience members shouted him down.

Bush, clearly provoked, rose from the table where he'd been taking polite and respectful written questions from the audience, went to the lectern and sternly addressed the still-shouting man. "Can I answer your question? You ask me why I don't pass the values along to my son. I do. Contrary to what you think, he's an honest, decent man."

The man was escorted out, shouting, "End this war!" The audience hailed his removal.

Bush said, "I used to be tolerant. That guy has a right to speak up, but what about other people's right to listen? ... I'm more disinclined to put up with this nonsense. Would he get up in the theater down here during 'Borat,' and start yelling like that?"

The audience laughed and applauded wildly at his citing of the popular movie.

Bush's survey of the historical events of his presidency, like all retrospectives, gave events a sense of inevitability. But the former president was quick to point out that at the time none of them seemed like slam-dunks to him and his advisors.

For example, when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, he said, he received criticism from the media and the Democratic-controlled Congress for not reflecting the elation that millions of people in Europe and in the U.S. were feeling, for not going "to dance on the wall with the students."

"I felt a sense of apprehension about how the hard-liners in the Soviet Union, in the military particularly, would react to all this embarrassing development.... [Celebrating] would have heightened tension when this whole thing was going in the right direction. I got in touch with [former Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev, and I didn't want to overplay our hand. You've got to see the other person's point of view....

"I was also concerned about the Red Army, the legions of soldiers" in communist East Germany, Bush said. "Gorbachev later told me that our restraint on these historic events in Berlin in '89 was absolutely vital to the peaceful outcome of the situation."

Asked if an institutionalized role in government for former presidents was a good idea, Bush said he had "zero interest" in such a concept. It is time for a new generation "to get their uniforms dirty tackling the big issues of the day. And in my family that means George W., of whom I'm very, very proud, and [former governor] Jeb in Florida, who just left office, riding high."

As for himself, "I'm frankly more interested in going fishing with my grandkids than I am in the earned income tax credit, or even some of the more important issues.... What is really important to me and Barbara at this stage of our lives is family ... the love of family."

At the end, he took up his cane and walked offstage to a prolonged standing ovation.

*

james.ricci@latimes.com

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