Accessibility links

Breaking News

What It Takes - George Bush and Bill Clinton

What It Takes - George Bush and Bill Clinton
What It Takes - George Bush and Bill Clinton
What It Takes: George Bush and Bill Clinton
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:46:36 0:00

00:00:00 ALICE WINKLER: This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement. I’m Alice Winkler.

00:00:16 We’re doing something kind of different for this episode. You won't hear the usual profile of one extraordinary person, and here's why. Well, first off, it’s August, so why not? But here's the far better reason. We are, as I record these words, still fresh on the heels of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. As we near the end of this political season, as contentious as any our country has ever experienced, speeches are flying left and right, and in other unpredictable directions too.

00:00:53 Well, it seemed like a great time to pull a couple of speeches by former presidents out of the Academy of Achievement's vault. They're somewhat off-the-cuff talks that give you a more intimate look at the people who have led this nation, talking about their service. For today's episode, we picked one by Bill Clinton, recorded in 2004, and one by George Bush; that's George H. W. Bush, the 41st U.S. president, recorded in 1995.

00:01:27 But we can't get to all that without playing the What It Takes signature opening, especially not on the first anniversary of launching this podcast.

00:01:40 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:01:46 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:01:52 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:01:57 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:02:05 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:02:12 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:02:17 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:02:30 ALICE WINKLER: What It Takes, as I tell you every episode, is a production of the Academy of Achievement, a nonprofit foundation based in Washington, D.C. For 55 years, the Academy has brought accomplished student scholars together with the preeminent leaders from the worlds of public service, science, arts, sports, and business for an open exchange of ideas and to inspire the next generation of leaders.

00:03:00 Academy events aren't open to the public, but the speeches and interviews are recorded and are available on, on iTunes University, and for the past year, on this podcast, which we hope you are loving. So, onto the former presidents of the United States.

00:03:24 When Bill Clinton spoke to the Academy in 2004, he followed many other very notable speakers, including Israel's former prime minister, Ehud Barak, and its former president, Shimon Peres, as well as retired General Wesley Clark and Joe Ralston, former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I mention those four in particular because you will hear Bill Clinton refer to them by first name in his talk.

00:03:53 BILL CLINTON: Thank you very much. Thank you. Please sit down. Thank you.

00:03:58 I would prefer today, because it's a leadership forum and a lot of young people here, to spend most of my time answering questions, but I would like to begin with a couple of thoughts. It was previously mentioned that I was with all my living counterparts at President Reagan's funeral service today. And when I got back to the house — Hillary and I got back home — we saw Prime Minister and Mrs. Blair briefly before we left, but before I went over there to the British Embassy, which is right behind our house, I turned the TV on, and the commentator for one of the networks was saying, "This is an amazing thing, to see all these American presidents here, and they actually seem to be friends, and they fought each other for decades."

00:04:46 And then they were commenting on the fact that we had just dedicated the World War II Memorial in Washington, after which there was a scene, apparently televised all over America, where I made former President Bush laugh, and he shoved me, and I shoved him back, and we were joking. And so I've had a hundred people come to me and say, "What were you and George Bush laughing about?" And we were laughing about the fact that his son had just asked me if my autobiography was really 900 pages long.

00:05:17 And I said that it was, and he said, "Did you write it all?" I said I did, and he said, "Well, you know, I'm busy. We don't do 900-page books now. I'm busy. So Dad and I are going to divide it up. He'll read the first part. I'll read the second." I said, "He'll like his part a lot better than you'll like yours."

00:05:33 So former President Bush said, "Are you mean to me?" I said, "No, I practically built a shrine to you in the book and — except I used more graphic terms than that." And I say that to make the following point. Because I heard Shimon up here talking about peace in the Middle East, and Wes and Joe and I have been involved in the Balkans, and I was thinking about the time when we bombed Osama bin Laden's training camp and tried to take him out.

00:06:14 I don't know if Joe Ralston talked about this, but he had to go to Pakistan and meet with the leading military authorities to say, "Oh, by the way, in about five minutes the missiles are going over here, and it's not the Indians. Please don't bomb them." So we've all been through a lot together. I wanted to make just a couple of points. First of all, most of us grew up in fairly ordinary circumstances, and free societies gave us a chance to develop our abilities.

00:06:44 We have the president of one of the Baltic countries here today, who was also on this program. I'll never forget when I went to Latvia in 1994, and there were 40,000 people holding candles at night to thank the United States for having stood for freedom over 50 years.

00:07:10 A free society gave Ronald Reagan, a guy from a modest background in Dixon, Illinois, and Bill Clinton, the guy from a modest background, to put it mildly, in a little town in Arkansas, the chance to serve their country and the world. The whole premise of freedom is that talent and ability are evenly distributed throughout the world, but opportunity is not.

00:07:38 And I mentioned Professor Lewis because I saw him on C-SPAN the other night. You know, if you're unemployed, you’ve got time to watch C-SPAN, and I do.

00:07:47 And you were giving a speech to one of those groups in Washington where you were giving basically the history of the Muslim world. And then I hear Shimon talking about the terror again, which we tried so hard to end. There is no shortage of ability, of intelligence, of heart, among the Palestinian people, among the Arab people generally, among the Muslims in the world.

00:08:16 As a matter of fact, I never met a poor Palestinian outside of the Holy Land. Every Palestinian I know in America's a millionaire. Ecuador had a Palestinian president when I was there. The Palestinians in Chile control the flour trade. What's the point of all this? If you put people in a free society and you give them a chance to live by certain rules — and including certain restraints — everybody will have a chance.

00:08:45 Look at all these young people here. We have different colored skins, men and women, different backgrounds, different religious faiths, different cultural traditions. I always thought the best thing about President Reagan, aside from his innate optimism — and we didn’t agree on — we agreed on almost nothing politically, domestically. We did do the 1988 Welfare Reform Bill together, and I was honored to represent the governors, and we worked hard on that. We reached agreement.

00:09:14 But we reached agreement because we did it in good faith, and we reached across the divide in a free society. But I always thought the best thing about Reagan was that you can argue what caused the fall of the Soviet Union and the communist empire, and you can argue it, fly it around — we'll be arguing that for 50 years — but the one thing that Reagan thought was that freedom was a universal value and that there were no people who would willingly choose to be denied the chance to chart their own course in life.

00:09:44 And that, I think, no matter how else history views what he did, whether 30 or 40 years from now people still feel the same way we Americans feel on this day, no one can deny that. Time will not change those words or that truth. There were two astonishing things that happened while I was president that I had nothing to do with so I can just disclaim this — you write the story of your life, and you want to rewrite history, and you realize there are just some things you simply can't find a way to take credit for.

00:10:20 One was that, in the long march of human liberty, in the 1990s, for the first time in history, more than half the people of the world lived under governments they voted in. And a lot of us who have been in politics, including my two friends from Israel and myself, we've been elected and beat. We know what that's like. That had never happened before in all human history, and that doesn't count the huge percentage of the world's population living in China, and in all the small villages in China, 900,000-plus of them, they actually have elections now, too.

00:10:56 The mayors are only appointed in the big cities. So you had more than half the people of the world living under democratic governments for the first time. The second thing that happened, interestingly enough, was the explosion of non-governmental organizations: citizens groups, from very wealthy ones like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the wealthiest non-governmental organization in the world; to poor ones like the Self Employed Women's Association, SEWA, an Indian group that I have raised money and contributed money to that gives women a chance in poor Indian villages to set up their own businesses, to support their families better, to build all kinds of better lives for themselves.

00:11:43 When I was president, we gave about two million loans a year, micro-enterprise loans, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, mostly to poor village women who used the money to prove that enterprise is not the province of any particular culture if people are given the chance. One day, I was thinking about all these things my foundation's doing: trying to cut the price of AIDS drugs and deal with religious and racial reconciliation and start the economic projects in India and Ghana and first one place and another. I was shaving one morning, I remember. I looked at my mirror and I said, "My God, I'm a non-governmental organization."

00:12:27 I say that to make this point. You do not have to be in government to make a difference. And in a global information society, you can have an enormous impact by organizing to achieve some objective. Shimon will remember this — the day after we signed the peace agreement in September of '93, I had 600 Arab and Jewish American business people in the White House to ask them to help Israel become a better partner to the Palestinians by investing money in the Palestinian territories to give people the immediate benefits of peace.

00:13:05 A few did, and we would have had many more, but the enemies of peace would always have periodic terrorist incidents, which would provoke the predictable response in Israel, which would make investors reluctant to invest, so that by the time we finished, the Palestinians were younger and poorer than they were when we began. But nobody ever said this was supposed to be easy.

00:13:31 My basic premise is this. For the first time in history, in 1945, the existence of the human community and what we have in common was recognized by an international law with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the creation of the United Nations. It was impossible for us to realize that vision because of the Cold War.

00:14:06 The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Since then, we have been preoccupied with all manner of religious, racial, tribal, and ethnic conflicts, with the rise of terror, with the terrifying prospect that terrorists could get ahold of chemical and biological and nuclear weapons. And particularly, since September 11, 2001, we in America have tended to see our modern world in dark tones through that prism.

00:14:33 I would like to ask you to view it instead through the whole sweep of human history. All of human history, since the first person came out of a cave, since people organized from families to clans, is a story of humanity's movement — from somewhere over 100,000 years ago when the first of our ancestors stood up on the African savannah — from isolation to interdependence to community.

00:15:02 At each step along the way, there was always a conflict between people who thought our differences were more important and people who thought our common humanity was more important. In the early 20th century, we nearly got it wrong in two hideous world wars and the Holocaust and the Cultural Revolution in China and the purges in the Soviet Union. But in the end, the people who favored recognizing the primacy of our common humanity prevailed.

00:15:37 We've had a couple of rough years in the world, all right, and there are a lot of troubling signs on the horizon. And as you will see, if you take a look at my book, I think that the fact that the Palestinians walked away from the peace agreement that Ehud Barak embraced — that many, many times in the 1990s Shimon and Yitzhak Rabin, and later Ehud Barak, and even B.B. Netanyahu and his previous phase at Wye River, you know, we made offers, and they were walked away from in various ways.

00:16:19 I think this was a tragedy, but on balance, I'm pretty optimistic. I mean look at what's happened since 1989. Yeah, we've had all this terrorist problem. It's terrible, but the primary adversaries of the Cold War, Russia and China, have largely been reconciled to the free world. We ended all the ethnic slaughter in the Balkans and gave Europe a chance to be united, democratic and secure for the first time in history.

00:16:49 We expanded NATO and its partnership for peace and now are taking in many other nations. The EU grew and expanded and deepened in its meaning. Turkey is on track to become part of the European Union, and if it does, at the worst, it will become a bulwark for the West against Islamic extremism; and at best, it could become a gateway to a new Middle East and a whole more positive future for people reaching across cultural and religious lines.

00:17:21 There has been a remarkable amount of international cooperation against terror to try to contain the danger of weapons of mass destruction, against poverty and AIDS and for putting children in school. Have we done anything like what I think we should do? No, we haven't even scratched the surface, but all this is unprecedented. We have, in short, been living in a completely interdependent environment in which, for good or ill, we cannot escape each other, for about 15 years, all over the world.

00:17:52 And I would argue to you that in spite of all of our troubles, more good than bad has come out of that global environment. That the kind of people you come here to celebrate and honor and listen to have done, on balance, a good job, and that it is more likely than not that, once more, human history will be marked by a movement from interdependence, which is where we are now, inherently unstable — we get all the benefits and all the burdens.

00:18:23 You get rich off global trade, and you get your buildings blown up by terrorists for the same reason — open borders, easy travel, easy immigration, easy access to information and technology. You become very vulnerable when people can reach you and they don't share your values. They don't think they get any benefits out of your system in a world where half the world is still on less than two dollars a day, and they don't recognize the responsibilities of civilized society, which you do.

00:18:51 That's where we are now, in a moment of inherent instability. I believe that, on balance, we're better off than we were in 1989. I believe, on balance, the world will continue to move toward an integrated global community of shared benefits, responsibilities, and values. That's what I think will happen. There are particular problems in some places of the world, none more than in the Middle East, where, among other things, our friends in the Arab world have to somehow — the people that sympathize with all these things that have been said before I got up here have to find a way to break the psychology of resentment.

00:19:35 A few years ago, when we were in Dublin, I think, as I remember, in addition to my buddy Bono, I think the great Irish writer Frank McCourt was there, who wrote Angela's Ashes, you know. It was a great book about the old Limerick. I like the new one better, if you've been there. But Frank McCourt has a brother, not so well known, but a delightful man, who is also an author, named Malachy McCourt.

00:19:59 And Malachy wrote a great line. He said, "Harboring resentments is like taking poison and waiting for the other guy to die."

00:20:13 You know, I had occasion to think about this a lot in my life, because if you live long enough, you're going to resent somebody or something. But it's really a very important thing to think about. The Middle East is particularly affected because of the mass psychology of shame-based politics. When the Intifada started in September 2000, Ehud remembers this, and Ariel Sharon said he was going to walk up on the Temple Mount, and no Israeli politician had done it since 1967.

00:20:46 And, you know, he tried to stop the violence and sent a bunch of police up there with him. And I did my best to persuade Mr. Arafat and the Palestinians not to launch the Intifada, and they thought I was crazy. They said, "Well, we have to do this. They are humiliating us. We have never — no Israeli figure has, you know, tainted the Temple Mount like this! How dare Sharon do this?"

00:21:11 I said, "Well, that's one possible response." I said — well, he said, "Well, what do you think?" I said, "I would have a little Palestinian girl with a bouquet of flowers meet him and offer to show him the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock and say, ‘You know, when this is ours, you can come back every day.’"

00:21:29 He thought I was, as we say at home, three bricks shy of a full load.

00:21:34 He's like, "That was an unimaginable response," and that's the last thing I want to say to the young people here. The future of the world depends upon the unimaginable response. Any time anybody does anything to you that you believe compels a response on your part, you have given up the freedom that we have spent the last 50 years trying to secure for the whole world — that in America Republicans and Democrats — and that all over the world freedom-loving people have tried to secure.

00:22:08 The Gdańsk Shipyard workers — I saw Lech Wałęsa at President Reagan's funeral today. In every, every corner of the globe, people who have labored for freedom — Martin Lee, the Hong Kong human rights activist. I could go on and on and on. Aung San Suu Kyi, suffering away under arrest in Burma. All over the world. All those people gave you a chance to be free, and then when somebody does something to you and you say, "I had no choice but to respond in this way," you just gave them your freedom.

00:22:41 You gave your life into the hands of someone else. I have seen in the Intifada for the last three years, we've had 3,000 dead Palestinians, 920-something, I think, dead Israelis. The average age of the dead Israelis is 24. The average age of the dead Palestinians is 18, all because Mr. Arafat turned down the peace agreement in 2000 because he was afraid of what someone else would say about it, in part.

00:23:12 So he wasn't free. So you think about that. Those of you who are much younger than me are going to be asked to shape a world unlike the world all of us who are particularly 50 or older grew up in. You have to create not an interdependent world because there's too much instability. You have to create an integrated world, and the definition of that is: what you have in common is more important than your interesting differences.

00:23:42 So you have to find a way to share benefits, share responsibilities, and share the simple value that your common humanity matters most. If you do that, this is going to be the most interesting time we've ever lived in. Will we have more people die from terrorism? Doubtlessly. We will. Might there even be some horrible biological or chemical incident? There might be. Has any society ever been destroyed by terrorism alone? No.

00:24:09 Will we be the first? Highly unlikely. All great contests begin in the mind and the heart, with the imagination, and with the ultimate human freedom: “I choose to see this in a different way. I choose to react in a different way. I choose to imagine a different future.”

00:24:37 That's really what we need today, almost more than anything else. Thank you very much.

00:24:44 ACADEMY DELEGATE: Could you make a case, sir, for why folks with the level of talent and the level of options in this room should consider public service and should consider themselves standing for election someday?

00:24:58 BILL CLINTON: Yeah, I'll even do better than that. Walk out of the room, and on your way out, Shimon's — I went to his 80th birthday party a few months ago. He wouldn't look nearly this good at 80 if he'd spent his time doing something else.

00:25:16 I'm just telling you. It kept him young. You ask any of these people. Ask Wes Clark or Joe Ralston, if they could live their lives again and know that they'd be worth 150 million dollars now if they would have chosen to do that. Ask Ehud Barak, after all the heartbreak we went through trying to make peace with the Palestinians, if he wishes that he'd left the Israeli military and gone and made a ton of money and ignored the opportunity for public service.

00:25:47 I got this thing in my book where I told the young people working for me over and over again, I said, "It's okay to fail. I'd rather get caught trying to do something good and noble and have them put on my tombstone, “He failed.” As long as they fill in the blanks at what I failed at doing. There is nothing more rewarding than what we do in common, which is why, you know, you've got — I see some people out here in this room who are enormously successful, wealthy people who wanted all of you to have a chance to come here, and who are now giving away large amounts of their money to do noble things because they understand, fundamentally, that when it's all said and done, none of us goes forward unless we all do.

00:26:42 You don't have to run for office. There are other options. You know, you have to be about half crazy to spend a lifetime running for office. And under these circumstances, you have to have an extraordinarily high pain threshold.

00:26:56 But any kind of public service, I think — most people who do it look back at the end of their lives and think it was the most rewarding part of their lives. I include teaching in that, by the way. You know, anything that, where you share yourself with others in order to lift everybody up. When it's all said and done, it doesn't matter if you didn't get done — well, I mean, it's nice if you got done what you were trying to do.

00:27:23 But human nature and the nature of the human condition and problems are not such that in this lifetime — or anybody's lifetime — everything that we seek to do, all the dark shadows we seek to run away, will yield to us. The most important thing is whether you tried to do the right thing.

00:27:45 So all I can tell you is, the older I get, the gladder I am that I lived the life I did before I strolled up here today. And I think all of them would feel the same way.

00:27:57 ALICE WINKLER: I'll leave it with just that one Q&A between former President Bill Clinton and a scholar in the audience that day in 2004 because we do want to leave time for the next president. Next, I should say, in this podcast episode, but actually, the prior president, historically speaking. Here's George Herbert Walker Bush giving a talk to students at the Academy of Achievement in 1995, two years after finishing his term as president.

00:28:29 GEORGE BUSH: I've always kind of regretted graduation speeches. You kind of go, “Your future lies in front of you,” one of the classic clichés of all time. But I would start by just making a few observations on what my humorous friend, the golf writer Dan Jenkins, calls “life its own self,” and then you can argue with me or make a rebuttal, and the joy of being unemployed and retired and out of politics is, I don't much give a damn about what the press thinks.

00:29:03 But I care what you all think, and I will be glad to try to respond as directly as possible to the question. Let me just make a few platitudes, and you're speaking as one who was blessed all his life by a strong family. It was written over and over again — speaking of clichés — that I came from a privileged background, and to that, I plead guilty.

00:29:31 But not because, if I got sick, my parents could take care of me, or not because they could afford to help me get through a good school right after World War II, but more because they were there to give me sound advice, and it lasted all through my mother and father's lives. They were never hesitant about giving advice. I was vice president. Ronald Reagan was giving a State of the Union message.

00:30:01 The minute it ended, I was back in the vice president's house, and the phone rang. It was my mother.

00:30:07 And she said, "George, I noticed you were talking to Tip O'Neill while the president was speaking."

00:30:13 I said, "That's Tip's fault, Mother." She said, "Don't — "

00:30:18 "Don't blame the other person."

00:30:21 And she said, "Besides that, you should have been smiling. Well, looking into the camera and smiling while the president was speaking." I said, "Mother, he was talking about nuclear destruction."

00:30:32 "This would not have been a particularly good time to be smiling when he said that." Significant point is that I was privileged, and I was blessed by loving parents, and I was blessed by sound advice. But as I give you that advice today, it's going to sound so elementary: “Do your best. Try your hardest. Be a good sport. Turn the other cheek. Be kind.”

00:31:00 These might sound platitudinous, but I've been there. With the help of many in this room, I climbed to the highest political mountain in the world. And I can tell you, having had a wonderful diversity of experience — so diverse that Barbara, in her speeches, says, "George can't hold a job," which I do not appreciate very much, but nevertheless —

00:31:22 These truisms, platitudinous though they may be, make extraordinarily good sense, have nothing to do with whether you're a liberal or a conservative, a Republican or a Democrat. Don't feel that your brilliance — and you are brilliant or you wouldn't be sitting here — entitles you to anything. Look at it as an obligation to help others.

00:31:49 I meant what I talked about in the White House when I talked about being one of a thousand points of light and that no life can be deemed successful if it doesn't include helping others. This is not a platitude. This is the truth, and I find that people say, "Well, what was it like going from being president of the United States one day to — back to a tiny house in Houston, two dogs, one wife, and nobody else, after living in the grandeur of the vice president's house for eight years and the president's for four?"

00:32:25 It wasn't hard. It wasn't that difficult because we never felt entitled to any imperial courtesies because I was privileged to be president, and I remembered something that I'd tried to practice when I was a young kid. Barbara and I were just out of college and living in Odessa, Texas in 1948. Try to give something to somebody else. Try to be a part of something — YMCA, helping a kid, hugging someone that's hurt, going to the hospital, whatever it may be.

00:32:59 And so my advice — fatherly advice: Brilliance doesn't entitle you to anything. It brings with it, in my sense of service, a certain obligation to help others. Second truism/advice: Don't be afraid to take a chance. Don't be afraid to risk. Don't end up in your life comfortable and bright and erudite but knowing that you never took a chance, that you never took a risk, that you never tried to go the extra mile.

00:33:41 Not for yourself, not to get one more medal or one more star or one more Nobel Prize because you were doing something that might help this great country or help the world we live in. I learned from every chapter of my life. I learned a lot about humility from being married to Barbara Bush.

00:34:04 You know, I've been there for 50 years, married to her, and she hasn't changed any. Sometimes I wish she had changed some, but she hasn't changed.

00:34:15 And she can be a little zinging. I played in a Bob Hope golf tournament, and an errant tee shot bounced off of a tree and hit a 71-year-old lady named Mrs. Early. By the time I got up to Mrs. Early, she was flat and bleeding over her right eye, her doctor having told her that her glasses saved her eyesight. It was a traumatic moment. I didn’t know whether to wait for medevac, call 911, or go on and play golf with President Clinton and President Ford and Bob Hope, so I took the latter course, leaving Mrs. Early...

00:34:47 ...Mrs. Early stretched out on the ground there at the Bob Hope Tournament. I get home, and Barbara gives a speech, and she says, "As if there's not enough violence on TV already, George has to play golf."

00:35:01 So you’ve got to — this is a side piece of advice. I hadn't planned to render it. But marry a woman like Barbara Bush if you can find one. Learn from every chapter in your life. Spencer, I think, mentioned my service in the world war. Fifty years ago to this very day, Barbara and I were living over in Virginia Beach. We had orders to go — I did — to go back out to the Pacific as a carrier pilot, having survived, happily, one tour of duty in the Pacific.

00:35:35 And I, of course, was very glad that the war ended. I am not a revisionist. I am not a critic of Harry Truman, whether it's regarding the atomic bomb or anything else. He saved lives with that decision that some are now looking at as an immoral decision. He saved lives, and it wasn't just mine. There were many, many others that weren't at risk because of a courageous decision. I learned and watched that, not realizing what he'd be — history — scrutiny would put him under, but he did the right thing.

00:36:10 I learned something in the Navy, and that is that a wingman doesn't pull away from the leader when the flak gets heavy. And that stood me in very good stead when John Tower, an appointee of mine, came under brutal partisan fire when I nominated him to be secretary of defense, or when I nominated a fine justice of the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, to go on that bench.

00:36:33 It would have been easy to cut and run and cut my political losses and say I made a mistake or get him to withdraw. And it doesn't matter what you think of Clarence Thomas, my point — and I'm very high on him, and I think history will show that he's a good justice — but my point is, I learned from that experience in my life that you don't pull away when the flak gets heavy or the going gets tough.

00:36:59 I learned something from my business career out in West Texas. Today, you need 25 lawyers, thousands of escrow agreements and deposit agreements and down payments if you're going to make a deal. In those days, your handshake was your bond back in the late '40s or the early '50s. That's, regrettably, changed, but I guess what I'm saying is integrity is terribly important.

00:37:30 Robert Burns, the poet, wrote, "Princes and lords are but the breath of kings. An honest man is the noblest work of God." You’ve got to keep your word, and I saw the wonder of what trust meant, and I've seen it dissolve, and I've seen it caught up now and everybody challenging each other's integrity and honor.

00:37:58 I was considered too loyal a vice president to Ronald Reagan because I supported his views and sublimated some of my own passions — and “passion” is a good word for all of you to recall — but I sublimated some of my own views to support him. I was telling some friends of mine, the Wynns and the Halls, at breakfast, I guess, about one time my mother called up. I was a little younger than you guys — and how did it go?

00:38:28 I said, "We won, and I scored three goals." And then Mother said, "Well, what'd the team do? How'd they do?" Good lesson.

00:38:40 Barbara — I learn from the Silver Fox still. She'll be 70 this week, but she's still got all of her facilities, very bright, very energetic, and very frank and straightforward. She accepted a challenge to go to Wellesley University, prestigious home of many of the nation's elite, and there was big controversy about whether she should go because some of the girls did what you do.

00:39:05 You grab a sign and protest, and some were saying, "Well, Barbara Bush is just there because she's the wife of the president of the United States." And then I said, "Barb, you’d better check about this thing, going up there. Why go up and get humiliated? Heck, you can walk right out of the White House and see some guy with a sign telling you what to do."

00:39:23 "So you don't need to go all the way to Wellesley for that." She invited Raisa Gorbachev, and up they went to Wellesley. And Barbara said this: she said, "What happens in your house is more important than what happens in the White House," and I thought about that when I was president. I think about that now, and she's right. She is absolutely right.

00:39:53 What you do with your family and towards your brothers and sisters and your parents and in your homes, and for those less fortunate that might not have this kind of family, what you do to help some other kid understand that what happens in his house is more important than what happens in the White House — there's going to be a test of all of you because I'm one who stands here thinking that Tom Clancy was right last night when he talked about, "Look at the big picture."

00:40:22 There's no threat of nuclear war. There's no superpower confrontation. You’ve got a unified Germany inside NATO. You have ancient enemies talking peace across the table from each other as a result of Desert Storm and as a result of the Madrid Conference. And you're not going to see tanks roll through the streets of Prague or Budapest anymore. You're not going to — nobody's going to wake up and have to teach you how to hide under your desk in whatever state you're from so you can learn how to avoid nuclear fallout.

00:40:59 You're living in a good time, and yeah, there's a lot of trouble. In Rwanda, there are people starving. In Bosnia, there's ethnic genocide, and all across the world, there are problems. But you’ve got to look at the big picture, and you’ve got to keep in mind that there's a chance to make things even better and that you're blessed at this juncture in history.

00:41:22 And so let me end up — and take your questions — by saying that there are some things I miss about being president, and there are some things I don't. I know we have some military officers, and I'm kind of an emotional guy. I believe in duty, honor, and country. I believe in service, not just in the military, but service to country. I believe, as one speaker last night did, in patriotism, not to put yourself over somebody else, but to recognize that you have an obligation to serve.

00:41:56 And so I miss the military. I miss the people in the White House who treated us like family. Of course, they treat it like a museum. Of course, they honor the history of our country by keeping the people's house as a symbol of our democracy and as a place where people can come. I loved taking people upstairs to the second floor in the mansion there in the residence of the White House, and showing them the handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address, or showing them, “At this table Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.”

00:42:36 I loved doing that, and they do it beautifully there in the White House, preserving all of this and paying homage to our history through the art and all that. But I also loved the family feeling. The minute my predecessor walked out of there, that staff, their butlers or housemen or whatever, who keep the place pristine and majestic, turned and made us feel as a family in that home. It was a very important thing, and the day we walked out of there, tears in our eyes and some of theirs, they turned and did the same thing for the Clinton family.

00:43:16 I miss that. They're wonderful. I said I don't miss the press, and I'll repeat it because I take great joy saying that. The press —

00:43:24 The press became unaccountable. They wanted change, and they sure got it, and I —

00:43:32 I know that sounds bitter, but what troubles me today is this adversarial relationship. It doesn't go just for Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals. You're guilty until you're proved innocent. There's this pack adversarial journalism that is deeply offensive to me, and how do I cope with it? I just don't talk to them, and it's — maybe that's a chicken way out of it, but that's the way I feel. I don't need that kind of grief anymore.

00:44:00 I was there. I felt it. You know, I don't want it. So I don't miss that part of it. I don't miss the give-and-takes of politics, though some of it I loved. I tried to reach out my hand across the aisle to work with those Democrats that would be willing to compromise or come our way, but I don't miss that part of life. What I do miss, though, is the fact that I was privileged to be the president, and I miss the dealing with foreign leaders because through their eyes you can see the sole standing of the United States of America.

00:44:38 You can feel our greatness, and if it's ever in doubt, if it's ever in doubt or in question, you ought to talk to the foreign leaders and feel this sense of admiration for our country, whether I agree with the policies of the president of the moment or not. I was privileged to be there. I am delighted — and I'll tell you this...

00:44:58 There is such a thing as an exciting private life after the presidency, and what I want to do now — what I want to do now is teach that 11-year-old that comes to spend his summer with me from Florida next week how to be a good fly fisherman. I want to watch the tide go out and understand the majesty of the nature that has surrounded me up there in Maine for 70 years and count my blessings for it.

00:45:28 I want to try to be a point of light. I'm on the MD Anderson cancer hospital — and Barbara’s on Mayo's and doing stuff with literacy — and then I want to thank God for the blessings we have. Thank you very much.

00:45:52 ALICE WINKLER: That's former President of the United States George H. W. Bush speaking at the Academy of Achievement in 1995. I'm Alice Winkler, and that concludes our special presidential speech episode of What It Takes.

00:46:12 We'll be back in two weeks with an episode about a scientist leading the next frontier in cancer research, immunotherapy. Make sure to listen. What It Takes is made possible with funding from the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation.


What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.