Bush Sr.: 'A different enemy and era'

NBC's Tom Brokaw sat down with former President George H.W. Bush at the Republican National Convention in New York. What follows is a complete transcript of their conversation.

Tom Brokaw:  Mr. President, you've been here before, running for re-election after a war with a troubled economy.  What gives you some anxiety for your son as he faces the fall campaign?

President George H.W. Bush:  Gladly enough, given that background, troubled economy and a war -- I still feel very, very confident about the election.  First place, I think the economy is far stronger than the current perception.  In my case, it was stronger than the current perception.  But I wasn't able to kind of get the message out very well.

I wasn't too good a communicator.  And the economy was growing fast on election day.  The economy's growing pretty fast now.  But I think that-- I think people have more confidence in the economy than they did back then.  The other one was -- what was the other part of the equation?  War.  Our war had been over a year before.

It wasn't controversial.  It was widely supported by the American people when we went in.  Won the war.  We came home.  This is different.  This is a different enemy and a different era where our country has been attacked.  And this, in essence, is a global response to an attack on the U.S.  So it's quite different.  But why I feel confident is I do believe that the people will respect and admire the leadership of the president.

Brokaw: One of your closest friends and old associates Brent Scowcroft has been pretty critical of the decision to go to war and the conduct of the war.  How many times a day do you get asked by friends and others alike, "Well, what do you think, Mr. President?"

Bush:  Well, you know, I talk to Scowcroft a lot.  He's an admired friend, a close, close friend of mine.  Come to think of it, I haven't seen any recent comments from him -- comments of reservation.  Early on, I do think he had some reservation and with which I differed.  But I don't get asked too much about that.  I think I was in the beginning.  "You think the President's doing it right," and all of that.  And I say, look -- ten years -- Saddam Hussein sat there violating every resolution, going against what his people indicated would happen after the Gulf War.  And the president had to do something.  So I feel -- I feel reconciled on that.  And I didn't have those reservations, frankly.

Brokaw:  One of the hallmarks of your presidency is that you were a great internationalist.  You worked very hard at alliances for the war in Iraq.

Bush:  I did.

Brokaw:  At the Cold War and so on.  Those alliances have come apart in many instances...

Bush:  Not so many, Tom.  Not so many.  They've come apart with the President of France.  Let's be honest.  I think they -- I think they can be repaired, frankly...

Brokaw:  What about Germany?

Bush:  ... and will be.  And same thing with Germany.  Schroeder, himself, I gather, is in trouble.  I don't know him as well because I had a wonderful German to work with in my war, our time -- Helmut Kohl.  And so it's different again.  But look, let's face it, there's strained relations with France and with Germany, certainly with their leaders.

But as Iraq gets its freedom in shape, perfects its democracy, moves forward, I think we'll come together.  I mean, I think France has a problem today when they see the two Frenchmen held by terrorists trying to get France to change their policy about what kids can wear in school.  And I think a lot of French people are gonna say, "Hey, President Bush is right about these guys."                       

Brokaw:  Were you surprised the other day when your son said that the difficulty that we're having after so-called major combat came to an end in Iraq is a result of his miscalculations about what to expect?

Bush:  Well, I think everybody -- I mean, I don't know -- I haven't talked to George about -- the President about -- the miscalculation.  But certainly I never anticipated this kind of break out of hostilities and religious crossfire and all of this.  But, no, I think he's looked at it.

I haven't really talked to him in detail about this.  But I think everybody said, "Well, we didn't quite think it was gonna be this difficult in this city or that."  On the other hand, you hear that Iraqi woman speak yesterday about the freedoms that they have now, and so how do you measure?

I think they're better off now.  Far better off in Iraq than they were – prior – under -- Saddam Hussein.  I wish we could ask guys like Michael Moore, this horrible fella who misrepresents my family in every way, and ask him, "You wanna bring back Saddam Hussein?  Is that your position, sir?"

And he goes around trying to make insidious relations for the Bush family as something that got us into a war.  It's total lies.  And it's just outrageous.  But how do those people say (Iraq was) a lot better off before?  And the answer is no.  Hell, no, it's not.

Brokaw:  Who else has been mistreating the Bush family in your judgment?

Bush:  Well, how long you got here?  We don't have that long a time.  No, but -- look, I'm getting older.  And I'm now freer to --  I have no political ambition.  The only thing I don't wanna do is spill out what's really in my gut and hurt in some way the president.  That's why I've done very few interviews up until this convention.  And I think some of the great newspapers have been so transparently one-sided.

Brokaw:  You still read The New York Times?           

Bush:  This is no time for a confessional.  But, yes.  And I agonize about it. Barbara does not read it.

Brokaw:  She won't read it?           

Bush:  And she tells me to put it down and stop whining.  But, yes, I do.  And it's -- look, I can differentiate between editorials that are against our son and that page, the op-ed in The New York Times, the editorial.  Just pick it up and you'll -- you'll see.  Everything is the president's fault.

But that's their liberal paper as their own ombudsman said.  But what I don't like is this creeping liberal view into what I think should be news.   And I -- frankly, I have no respect for them.  They're arrogant and they can say what they want about me and my family.  But now I'm free to speak up and heck with it.

Why do I read it?  I guess it's like self-flagellation when you're in a sauna.  You know, you beat yourself with those bastas and it's supposed to make you feel good.

Brokaw:  What do you think when Maureen Dowd refers to you as the old king and the president as the boy king?           

Bush:  Oh, God.  Is this also time for a confession?  And the family knows this is true.  And God knows lightning will strike me.  But I like Maureen Dowd.  It's a terrible weakness I've got.  But I don't like what she writes.  I think for her to bring out a Bush-bashing book right before the election is so transparent.  Put it this way, I love Maureen Dowd's mother.

Brokaw:  (Laughs) And she likes the Bush Family.

Bush:  I think she does.

Brokaw:  Well, it's in the dedication of the book actually.           

Bush:  I know it.           

Brokaw:  "To my mother who thinks the Bush's are just swell."  I...

Bush:  And I say to Maureen, "Why don't you listen to your mother for God's sake?  You're still a young kid.  Don't just try to do it on your own by playing to the liberal elite in New York in salons where you're saluted by all these, you know, wine drinkers."  Why don't you get out in the country and see what the heartbeat is?  I have a good exchange with her actually.                       

Brokaw:  Your son told Matt Lauer the other day he didn't know whether we could win the war on terrorism.  That he thought we could make it harder for terrorists to operate out of certain countries.  Did that surprise you for him to say, "I don't know whether this is winnable."

Bush:  Well, I didn't actually hear the quote but I can understand it because I'm not sure any president will ever be able to say, "There will be no more terrorist incidents in this country or other countries as a result of Iraq getting -- perfecting its democracy and servicing its freedom."  I think that's what the president was saying.

But in terms of will things be better in Iraq -- he'd be the first one to say they will.  And is it worth fighting for?  He'd be the first to say yes.  Incidentally, I thought that Giuliani and McCain's speeches were powerful and very, very important-- to get that message from these two men out across this country.  I think some were probably surprised at the strength and the conviction that they both observed in support of the president.           

Brokaw:  At the end of Operation Desert Storm, as you have written with Brent Scowcroft, you didn't go into Baghdad, in part because you didn't think you'd have support in the region or even among our international allies.  Is that an enduring truth of dealing with Iraq?           

Bush:  Tom, then it was very different.  We defined the mission.  And the mission was not to kill Saddam Hussein.  Now people can argue that it might.  Some of the right-wingers have argued I did it wrong.  Not to kill Saddam Hussein.  And certainly not to occupy Iraq.  The mission was to end the aggression.  And we went to the United Nations.  We tried diplomacy.  We tried at the last minute.  I found Jimmy Baker took a message over to Tariq Aziz that he wouldn't even read -- wouldn't even pass on to Saddam.

And when all else failed, we used force.  We did what we said we'd do, what the resolutions call for, the liberation of Kuwait.  And we came home.  Fast forward.  That status quo didn't remain just as it was at the end of the war because you saw a more massive build up Iraq.  You saw time and time again violations of the no-fly zone.

And the president had to take action.  So it's a different time.  But I don't have any regrets about what we did.  I'll tell you where I miscalculated.  I thought Saddam Hussein would fall of his own weight when the war ended.  And I thought they'd throw him the hell out of there and they didn't.  Why?  Brutality.  We underestimated the lengths to which he would go.

Brokaw:  In this campaign, a big controversy has blown up about John Kerry's Vietnam service record.           

Bush:  Yeah.

Brokaw:  The group of Vietnam veterans out there dedicated to raising really profound questions about it, accusing him of lying.  But your son has said he does not believe that John Kerry has lied about his service record.  And that he believes that John Kerry performed heroically in Vietnam.  Should those anti-Kerry veterans then continue their campaign?

Bush:  What should happen is that we oughta get rid of these 527s.  You can start with my friend Michael Moore and get rid of this MoveOn.org and all these left-wing groups that have been attacking the president for months.  And, yes, get rid of these -- that would include stopping these ads.

The thing I find hard, though, is to think that every one of the 150 swift boat veterans that's opposing John Kerry is a liar.  There's some disconnect here.  Because I think the president is right.  I think Kerry did serve with heroism and honor.  But why the disconnect?  Are these people all liars?  Are they all political opportunists?  I don't think so.  I'm troubled by that.

Brokaw:  Do you think it might have had something to do with what he did once he got home from the war?

Bush:  A lot.  A lot to do with that.  And I don't know how that'll play out.  But I'll tell you it affected me.  And I think many, many people -- particularly those whose sons and daughters were still fighting over there.  Yes, I think -- and I -- I thought he said he regretted that.  I don't know. But Jane Fonda did.  God -- I despise what she was doing.  And this is strong stuff.  This is -- when you come back and condemn the people who you're fighting with side by side, accusing them blankly of atrocious acts.  And then somebody said, "Well, he didn't say -- Kerry didn't say this.  He said others said this."

That's not -- when you're testifying before a committee, you can't say, "Well, my friend Joe says this," and then sit there.  So I -- I don't know.  That's the thing that troubled me the most.  I think it's the thing that troubled Bob Dole the most.  A lot of people that, you know, fought for their country.  And I don't -- frankly, don't like this too much anyway.  All the war stuff.                       

Brokaw:  Did you ever think 30 years later we'd still be fighting Vietnam?

Bush:  No.  We're not fighting World War II.  And I think that was so clean and so big a clear cut victory that it's not to be refought.  But the purpose was much clearer.  Maybe that's the reason why.  But having been in battle and combat, the emotions are still very much for the fellow like Bob Dole and -- whom I respect.

I don't know.  I don't like it too much.  But I think that the president's right.  Get rid of them all.  But not selectively condemn one and let these others rant on about the President of the United States in a grossly unfair misrepresentation of a good man.  That's my objective opinion.

Brokaw:   Do you think we'll go through in November of 2004 what we went through in the year 2000?  Which is that we won't have a resolution of this election until the last vote is counted?                       

Bush:  Maybe that.  But I don't think you're gonna see the charges that were leveled in Florida – to decide the election.  I think the procedures have changed in every state.  And so I think it's gonna be much clearer -- that the voting process is fair and inclusive.  You saw that in the last Florida elections, for example.  But no, I don't think it's gonna be that close.  I honestly believe that because of leadership and personal qualities this president will be elected comfortably.

Brokaw:  And will you be campaigning for him in a conspicuous way?                       

Bush:  Well, if old guys can help, I guess I will.  No, they've asked me to do some stuff and I've done quite a few events.  I'm going to Colorado and I'm going out to Indiana.  And I'm going to different states already booked up.  But it's not about my generation.  And I think there's some feeling out there that, hey, let's get our people that are up for election out there.  Let's get those that are side by side in the trenches with the president up there.  So I expect to do my part.  And if he ever asks me – at the last minute to take a stop that perhaps he couldn't fulfill or something, I'd do it.  But I like my position now, Tom.  My position of sitting there watching and trying to be helpful.  Saying a prayer.  Embracing our son.  Giving him encouragement when there's bad news.  These are the things a dad can do.

Brokaw:  Give him tough love as well?  Advice?

Bush:  Not so much in the advice department because I have confidence in those people who are giving him the advice.  And I -- you know --  we talk.  And, yeah, there's some times of that.  But it's not, "What do I do now?"  I mean, it's not this --- because he knows what he wants to do.  And I'm there for him.  He gets hurt, I put my arm around him.