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George H.W. Bush’s Entitlement Cool

George H.W. Bush is sworn in as the 41st U.S. president in January 1989. (Library of Congress)

Editors’ note: The following is an excerpt from Truthdig Editor Robert Scheer’s book “Playing President,” featuring an essay about and interview with George H.W. Bush, who died Friday at the age of 94.

THERE WAS NEVER ANY LOVE LOST BETWEEN GEORGE Herbert Walker Bush and me. How’s that for presumption? As if the Skull-and-Crossbones, blueblooded captain of the Yale baseball team, who went on to become the Director of the CIA, would give much thought to the individual reporters who covered him. Trust me, I didn’t welcome the attention, certainly not after he called his good friend and my boss, Otis Chandler, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, to demand that I be fired.

Before I get too far ahead of my story here, let me explain that once again, as with Jimmy Carter four years earlier, I had managed to get myself embroiled with a leading candidate for President. This time, the controversy arose over a Republican who, like Carter, was threatening to leave the pack of his party’s presidential hopefuls behind.

By then I was no longer the gonzo journalist interviewing prominent people for the likes of Playboy; I was a national reporter for the Los Angeles Times, which at that point was still very staid; the very same paper that Richard Nixon always favored over the pinko mass media based on the East Coast. Those East Coast reporters were gutter snipes in Nixon’s mind, whereas when he called on a scribe from this West Coast publication at a press conference, he would turn to “the gentleman from the Los Angeles Times.”

George Bush was very much of that Nixonian school and shared the prejudice that while the New York Times and Washington Post were infected with a liberal New York virus, the Los Angeles Times reflected the purer Western-frontier virtues of that robber baron General Harrison Gray Otis, who had founded the paper now guided by his great-grandson, Otis Chandler. Like George, Otis was a straight-arrow, ruling class preppie who hobnobbed with all the right people, was competitive in business and sports, and could be found popping one at just the right watering hole. Little did anyone know then that Otis was to become the family’s enlightened rebel, fundamentally transforming the Times.

George was known as “Poppie” and married “Bar,” while Otis was the issue of “Buffy” Chandler, and both families mingled at the occasional African safari, tennis match at the Longwood Cricket Club outside Boston, or cocktail party at the Huntington before Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses parade. George was far more thin-skinned and exhibited a bit of the nervous twitching found often in overly inbred species, whereas Otis had a robust Western air to him but was no less primed for the power part. With his massive shoulders, thick blond hair, and chiseled features, Otis resembled a ruling-class god. At least that’s how I sometimes perceived my new boss when I went to work for the Times, hired in part due to the publicity from my 1976 Carter interview. The man had a presence even more overpowering than Nelson Rockefeller, another famous scion who shared Otis’s physical exuberance.

I mention Rockefeller because I had spent quite a few hours with him, and I thought of him often during those tempestuous spring weeks when I was trying to negotiate terrain dominated by the Bush-and-Chandler variant of the Rockefeller stock.

All three men were quite literally bred to lead, exposed to exactly the right thoughts, foods, contacts, and other stimulants of outlook and appearance geared to the carriage of ruling power. They were as painfully aware of their having been schooled for that purpose as was the mass media so studiously ignorant of the importance of elite grooming in what passed for representative democracy.

As opposed to next chapter’s “po white” President—and I offer that description affectionately—who overcame unbelievably bad odds, the blue-bloods we are focusing on here were always assured enormous success as long as they played by rules designed to favor their careers. Only when they abandoned those rules did reputations crash—as was the fate of Nelson Rockefeller, when he expired during a romantic dalliance with a woman roughly one-third his age. It was, if you will, what a future generation would come to regard as a Clintonian moment: An act that proper people knew to keep guarded was displayed for the eyes of those untutored in the legacy-lore that a sexual dalliance is one of the great perks of power, so long as it is discreet. Rockefeller did not have to fall into disgrace; this once colossal figure was rendered a nonperson to the current generation simply because his retainers weren’t on hand, and because his young lover was not well trained.

“That dumb girl called the 911 number,” Brooke Astor, one of Rocky’s buddies, told me in exasperation one evening at socialite Lally Weymouth’s Manhattan apartment. “You never call the 911 number!” she all but thundered, then added, “The Rockefellers had been chasing women around the table for a century, and they would stumble, but they had servants to clean up the mess.” A long digression, but not quite so, for Lady Astor’s point is highly relevant to my distressed encounters with George Bush. He, the candidate, thought that I, the reporter, was a house servant on the Chandler plantation, which he just happened to be visiting on his journey to the White House. He expected that he would be accorded all the privileges of his station, and that my servile status would ensure the cleanup of any rhetorical mess he made.

We first met in a small airplane carrying Bush to New Hampshire from his stunning victory over Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Iowa primary. An inevitable, if inconvenient, term or two in the White House represented Bush’s obligation, if not his favored avocation. He was basking in the glow of victory and I was a scribe handy to document his satisfaction— but that’s not what happened.

The problem with George Herbert Walker was that he had been performing splendidly for too long in high-minded activities that weren’t all that much fun. After doing all of those important adult things—from fighting a war to save his country to representing it as ambassador in Red Devil China—he was getting more than a bit weary of the endless homework. You have no idea of the number of thick, boring briefing books he had to study; unlike Reagan, Bush had actually felt compelled to read the table of contents and the summaries of those damn things.

At this point in his long successful life, while not yet having reached the peak of his father Prescott, George Herbert Walker was not so much tired—the Bushes and Rockefellers never permit themselves to tire—but damn it, couldn’t the country get along without him? How many decades of achievement must you rack up before you can get back to just having fun, like when he was a kid in Kennebunkport and Nelson was tooting around Seal Harbor?

But duty was calling, and Bush’s mission in life was obviously not yet complete. Jimmy Carter—a peanut farmer from some redneck Georgian gulch called Plains—had managed to become President and dreadfully screw things up. Chalk that up to the loss of societal standards: George would put quite a bit of the blame on the media, which made celebrities of people with no real training or accomplishment.

So Bush hadn’t had much of a choice but to enter the race, and just when things were going dashingly well, he encountered one of those media upstarts. How was he to know not to trust the fellow representing Otis Chandler’s paper? The reporter just came at him with those “nasty questions,” as he would later tell Otis during a meeting I attended with several other writers and editors from the Times. That meeting took place after candidate Bush found himself in the midst of a furor stirred up by my interview [see below], and Otis had invited Bush to the paper to give a fuller account of himself.

I was shocked and suddenly not quite sure why I was there. I knew that Bush had complained vehemently after publication of the interview, in which he had stated his conviction that “you can have a winner” in a nuclear war. It was an absurd and wildly irresponsible statement to make with U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons poised for Armageddon; the whole point of the arms control regime first introduced by Nixon was to convince the Soviets that we had a common interest in preventing our “mutually assured destruction.” Bush had obviously not bothered to read the details of his briefing books on this most important of subjects, and suddenly the best argument against Reagan—that he was too old or untutored or unstable to have his finger on the nuclear trigger—was wiped out. Reagan had been floundering as an outdated Cold War extremist, and now he was looking like the more reasonable of the two leading Republican candidates.

Bush’s campaign was in disarray and the candidate was fast losing his entitlement cool. “I want a copy of that tape!” he had ordered me weeks earlier—after his winnable-nuclear-war statement hit the media—at Chicago’s Midway Airport, where I was as one of the press covering his ailing campaign. I pointed out that he already had the tape since his press person had been sitting there during the entire interview with his very own tape recorder. His press aide nodded that it was true. Then Bush said something about his being misinterpreted and this conflict not being over.

That’s how I happened to be summoned by Otis Chandler to attend the meeting with Bush that morning in the Norman Chandler Pavilion at the Times. At first it all seemed to be going well, with Bush talking up his credentials, and then someone asked if he was planning to raise the issue of Reagan’s age in the campaign. Bush said he would not, though he expected the issue would still come up, and then he quite weirdly went off on a mini-rant against aggressive reporters that Reagan would have to contend with. Concluding his tirade, he asked, “Could Reagan deal with those nasty questions from Scheer?” There was some awkward shuffling in the room and a different line of questioning ensued. But again Bush snapped in anger and brought up my questions as a sort of unfair obstacle that might cause Reagan to stumble.

Of course, as I have confessed earlier in this book, Reagan handled me quite easily and I fell repeatedly for his Irish blarney. Bush’s problem, as would later become evident, had little to do with me and much to do with his being a thinskinned, over-protected politician who, despite his occupancy been forced to mix it up very much. Even though he was now running for President, he was neglecting his homework and winging it.

Faced with screwing up the test of an early campaign interview, he blamed the questions. But his ruse failed later, when he had an interview scheduled with television reporter Linda Douglass at the local CBS affiliate. Douglass called me to say that since Bush was still insisting that the interview had not been transcribed properly, she would like to play the relevant portion of the tape on the air and ask him about it during her interview. I successfully convinced my Times editor that the only way to defend the interview’s integrity in the face of this heavy-handed challenge was to make it available to the public.

I knew we were in good shape because I had listened to the interview very carefully after Bush first challenged it. I had been worried when the controversy initially arose since I had neither personally transcribed the tape nor edited the interview, as I was still on the road interviewing other candidates when it was going to press. Fortunately, the transcribers and editors at the Times got it perfectly right—not a word was misplaced—and when Douglass played Bush’s statement back to him after he once again denied making it, the future President, in a very dramatic moment, dissembled. However, this didn’t keep him from later resorting back to flat-out denial: In his vice-presidential debate with Geraldine Ferraro on October 11, 1984, NBC News correspondent Norma Quarles asked Bush if he still thought nuclear war was “winnable,” to which he replied, “I was quoted wrong, obviously, ’cause I never thought that.” The Los Angeles Times responded by reprinting the relevant portion of my original interview with him on its editorial page.

Not to make too much of this one event, but I do believe it highlighted the essential weakness of the first Bush presidency. Unlike his son, George W. Bush, George Herbert Walker was quite sharp and could master any skill or subject that interested him. But he seemed to be losing patience with matters of state. It was as if he had prepared his whole life for a role that he suddenly found so boring that it failed to engage him. Perhaps he no longer believed that the political game was one worth playing, yet felt obligated to go through the motions as a matter of training.

As for my job at the Times, when I walked out of the Norman Chandler Pavilion following Bush’s departure, Otis put his arm around me and said, “Look, I have known George all my life and you captured the guy I’ve known.”

___

“Bush Assails Carter Defense Strategy” was the headline above this interview with George H.W. Bush, published on the front page of the Los Angeles Times on January 24, 1980.

IN THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW WITH THE TIMES, FORMER U.N. Ambassador George Bush, the victor in Monday’s Iowa Republican caucuses, discusses the presidency and his candidacy for the GOP nomination.

SCHEER What changes could one expect in a Bush budget?

BUSH Generally speaking, President Carter was wrong to knock out of the [Gerald R.] Ford budget the main things he did, which were the MX [missile], the manned bomber, and the naval improvement—many of which he wakes up three years later and feels he now must restore.

SCHEER Don’t we reach a point with these strategic weapons where we can wipe each other out so many times and no one wants to use them or is willing to use them, that it really doesn’t matter whether we’re ten percent or two percent lower or higher?

BUSH Yes, if you believe there is no such thing as a winner in a nuclear exchange, that argument makes a little sense. I don’t believe that.

SCHEER How do you win in a nuclear exchange?

BUSH You have a survivability of command in control, survivability of industrial potential, protection of a percentage of your citizens, and you have a capability that inflicts more damage on the opposition than it can inflict upon you. That’s the way you can have a winner, and the Soviets’ planning is based on the ugly concept of a winner in a nuclear exchange.

SCHEER Do you mean like five percent would survive? Two percent?

BUSH More than that—if everybody fired everything he had, you’d have more than that survive.

SCHEER So have we made a mistake, then, in not thinking of nuclear war as a possible option that we could survive?

BUSH Our strategic forces should be considered a deterrent, and that is the way I’d do it, and I think I would be able to—if we did what we needed to do to be sure the trend that set in doesn’t continue, the trend that makes them superior—I think what I’d be able to do would be to push away, plug away, and negotiate a reduction that can be verified.

SCHEER What is the connection between the possession of an MX missile system and being able to do something about problems like Afghanistan or Iran?

BUSH The direct linkage is rather remote, but in the overall linkage, as long as the United States is perceived to not be slipping behind the Soviets in strategic forces, the Soviets will be constrained from adventure.

SCHEER They were weaker in ’68 than they are now.

BUSH Much weaker.

SCHEER In ’68 they invaded Czechoslovakia. That was adventurism.

BUSH But it doesn’t follow that therefore if we’re weaker, that will constrain adventure. They’re stronger today and they invaded Afghanistan.

SCHEER Yes, but in the late ’40s, we were the only one who had nuclear weapons. Our superiority was total and awesome. It didn’t stop the Soviets in Berlin, [or] from the Korean War. Aren’t your ideas a throwback to the old massive-retaliation position of John Foster Dulles?

BUSH I’m going back to the fact that the United States should not be inferior to the Soviet Union in strategic balance.

SCHEER Going back to the criticism of massive retaliation, perhaps a huge MX missile system costing $55 billion would have no effect whatsoever on one’s ability to intervene.

BUSH See, what the MX does is give you an ability to retaliate against hardened sites, and does not make the President have the choice of killing people. That is the key to an MX system, because without a platform of that nature you are not going to be able to retaliate against their hardened sites. And the President’s choice would be at that time, if our retaliatory capacity were knocked out, his choice would be, “Sir, our retaliatory capabilities have been knocked out, but good news for you, we still have the Polaris boats, and you can destroy a third of Leningrad and a third of Moscow. Bad news, sir, is they can wipe out, because of their SS 18s, two-thirds of Washington,” etc.  A President shouldn’t be faced with only that kind of choice.

SCHEER You were critical of the return of the canal to Panama.

BUSH Yes, I was critical of it.

SCHEER Do you still remain a critic?

BUSH Yes, I think particularly at this time. I think one of our big problems is that our foreign policy is viewed as retreating and pulling back and unwilling to keep commitments. And my concern with the Panama solution was not the desire to make a change that would take care of the so-called colonial problem—that I can understand—but rather the overall view that as we did this, as we made the deal we did, that it added to the perception that the United States was going to pull back, unwilling to keep commitments.

SCHEER But, in fact, since we’ve done this, the government of Panama has seemed to be a strong ally of ours, they’ve accepted the Shah, took him off our hands. Has it really weakened the United States?

BUSH The jury is still out.

SCHEER Right now it would be fair to say that, in fact, they’ve assisted us in a very major way by taking the Shah, haven’t they? It got the Carter government off the hook on that one.

BUSH It was a helpful step, yes.

SCHEER One of the questions that was asked at the Iowa debate was, was there anything politically that you would take back, and I thought the answers were quite weak.

BUSH You’re in a political campaign. Who wants to point out his weaknesses? I mean, I thought the question was quite dumb in terms of everybody making a confession to Mary McGrory about one’s weaknesses. What kind of idiot is going to answer the question—“Wait a minute, these five things show that I’ve been wrong.” Come on.

SCHEER Could you summarize your differences with Carter in foreign policy?

BUSH Well, I think Jimmy Carter sees the world as he wishes it were, not as it is, and thus when he came in and cut way back on many of the things that the Ford budgets had projected in terms of defense, he sent out a signal around the world that caused concern among some of our allies. I think he’s—I can say this with the advantage of hindsight—that we made a mistake when we sent out a signal that we were going to pull out our troops from Korea, and then some of our allies and others begin to worry, “What commitments will the United States keep?” I think when we normalize relations with China on their terms and their terms alone, we further enhance the image of a country that was really not prepared to keep its commitments. I think when we indicated that Cubans were in Africa as a stabilizing influence, people around the world must have looked at us like we were nuts in foreign policy. Eventually, that statement was not permitted to stand, but it stood too long in my view before it was slapped down by the President. I think if we let our human rights policy appear to override everything, including our strategic interests, that the policy is wrong. Our application has often been selective, hypocritically so, in my view: Slap around Argentina and Brazil and move closer to Castro. I remember Mrs. Carter going down and meeting with the dissidents in Brazil. What would we have thought if Brazil’s President’s wife had come up and met with the person who bombed the laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin? I don’t think we’d like that.

SCHEER Do you feel it’s comparable?

BUSH I do, I do feel it’s comparable.

SCHEER That dissidents in Brazil have the same avenues for peaceful protests as dissidents in the U.S.?

BUSH No, I don’t, I don’t think they have.

SCHEER How is it a comparable situation?

BUSH One has violated the laws of the country and so have some of the others—I don’t believe that you can go out there and take the law into your own hands as guerrillas in Brazil and Argentina . . . Do they overreact? Yes, but I just wouldn’t use that style of diplomacy.

SCHEER I don’t understand—you don’t believe it’s ever—

BUSH Print it the way I’ve said it and you’ll understand it—read it.

SCHEER Take Hungary, in 1956, the people resisted the Soviets, the freedom fighters—you would say they should not have been supported? They took the law into their own hands?

BUSH That’s not what I said—I told you what I said.

SCHEER You don’t think that’s an example of people taking the law into their own hands?

BUSH I think that was an effort to overthrow a totalitarian regime that had violated everything in human rights. Certainly the difference between me and some others is that I see areas of gray. I don’t think everything is pure and impure, and I think we have been hypocritically selective in our indignation on human rights, and have diminished our strategic interests in the process. That’s what I believe.

SCHEER Let me switch to the CIA. You said in a speech that you participated [as CIA director] in President Ford’s new regulations concerning the CIA. Not all of them, as you implied, were ones which would have been restrictive on the CIA.

BUSH The executive order I was talking about . . .

SCHEER Some of them, for instance, increase the penalty for someone who leaks secrets or reveals information.

BUSH We should protect sources and methods of intelligence, yes.

SCHEER And in one example you offered, you said that the alternative plans of the Defense Department ought not to be made public. Do you feel that that regulation should have applied to the Pentagon Papers case?

BUSH I believe that if you take an oath to protect classified information, you ought to protect it—yes. I think you’ve got remedies, you have ways to declassify—and I believe that you ought to not be the final arbiter yourself of what is properly classified.

SCHEER Do you think the New York Times was correct in publishing it?

BUSH I haven’t thought about it, frankly. If everything the New York Times can get its hands on—no, I think there are some constraints, some legitimacy to the concept of national security.

SCHEER Well, do you think that should have applied in the Pentagon Papers case?

BUSH I told you, I don’t have a judgment; I don’t have—I don’t remember all that ancient history.

SCHEER Well, it isn’t so ancient.

BUSH I’ve told you my position and you’re not going to get an answer.

SCHEER It’s important because—

BUSH Well, it’s important to you and it’s not that important . . . I’ve told you my position.

SCHEER It was important to President Nixon, who you worked with, and he argued that the leak in the Pentagon Papers case was so severe that it threatened the foundations of our government, and that was the reason for the whole “Plumbers Unit” and Watergate—right?

BUSH I don’t recall what he argued on that—couldn’t be less interested.

SCHEER In Watergate?

BUSH Yes, in that whole area.

SCHEER Do you think there are any lessons to be learned—

BUSH Yes, some of them—don’t break the law and don’t lie.

SCHEER Nixon’s argument is that he was protecting national security.

BUSH Interesting.

SCHEER You said you didn’t want to explore Watergate again, but there’s one statement I want to ask you about. You once said, “I applaud President Nixon’s comprehensive statement which clearly demonstrates again that the President himself was not involved with the Watergate matter.”

BUSH It came out to the contrary—oh, come on.

SCHEER What I want to ask you is—

BUSH Go back and read the whole goddamn thing that happened after this. What kind of reporting are you doing?

SCHEER You said that there are lessons to be learned. Here’s a case—

BUSH Have you ever been lied to?

SCHEER That’s what I’m trying to get at.

BUSH Have you ever said something and then found out the person didn’t tell the truth? I’ve already said that publicly—if you’d get the rest of your file, you’d see it. I’m not going to go back and relive this for you. And I think it’s quite . . . appropriate for you to ask that. Ask any darn thing you want. It’s a free country and I can put the answer . . .

SCHEER No, you say there’s something invalid about bringing this up. Let me ask the question I wanted to ask.

BUSH I’ve dealt with many, many reporters for a year, and you’re the first guy that’s going into every—trying to go into a whole bunch of things that, obviously, others haven’t felt were particularly relevant to what I’m doing right now—and what I see you’re trying to do is a linkage to a lot of things over which I had no control, a period where I emerged with, hopefully, my own integrity intact, the integrity of the institution I was heading—the Republican Party—intact.

SCHEER OK, but I think it’s a legitimate question to ask a Republican candidate. And I asked Connally and I’ll ask anyone else I interview: What are the lessons of Watergate and what is to be learned?

BUSH And I gave you a good answer.

SCHEER When you were heading the CIA, were you aware that the Shah was in as much trouble as he turned out tobe, his base of support was as thin as it was?

BUSH No.

SCHEER Then was the CIA malfunctioning?

BUSH It had been weakened by a lot of things, yes, and sometimes you can’t accurately project or predict revolutionary change in intelligence—the CIA or any other intelligence service.

SCHEER It’s also been said that the CIA was relying too much for its information on Iran on people close to the Shah, his ruling circle, Ambassador Zahedi, etc.

BUSH Yes, I’ve heard that said.

SCHEER But you’re disinclined to believe it?

BUSH Disinclined to believe it.

SCHEER We, the American public, were told by our Administration, which presumably had the benefit of these intelligence reports, that the Shah, for better or worse, had the support of the people and was capable of continuing in that country. That’s what Jimmy Carter told us when he went to Tehran.

BUSH I don’t have access to the reports in the last three years, but in ’76 I don’t think there was any prediction that the Shah was about to be overthrown.

SCHEER What I’m asking is, how come the CIA didn’t have a glimmer of understanding of the shallow basis of support for the Shah?

BUSH I can’t answer your question about whether it had a glimmer of it. Sure there was. There were articles in 1973 from analysts showing up about lack of support for the Shah in some way, so—but how come one didn’t read accurately revolutionary change in this country? It’s because it’s very hard to do.

SCHEER Do you feel there’s a conflict of interest if David Rockefeller—whose bank has financial dealings with the Shah—was playing the role of a go-between between our government and the Shah in exile? Do you feel there are some serious questions raised by that?

BUSH No, no serious questions.

SCHEER Why not? You don’t feel there’s any problem?

BUSH He made his decisions to do what he wants to do. A government can take advice, or somebody can try to do something for a client or a friend, and the government makes it own decisions.

SCHEER But here’s a situation in which the former Republican Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, was criticizing the Administration for not coming to the aid of an ally, the Shah. And at the same time he was acting in tandem with David Rockefeller to get the Shah into this country.

BUSH I just stand by what the President said about the decision on the Shah coming into this country. I don’t think he’s lying to the American people.

SCHEER You have promised a $20 billion tax cut, increasing military expenditures in real dollars, and curtailing inflation. Would that mean cutting back on certain social programs?

BUSH Might be.

SCHEER What programs would you cut back in terms of real dollars?

BUSH I’ll give you a list in about February.

SCHEER What about balancing the budget?

BUSH If Jimmy Carter continues on his merry way, the budget’s going to be in balance between ’82 and ’83, doing nothing different . . . The magic is not balance, it’s how you get there.

SCHEER So getting to social programs—the HEW budget, the HUD budget, the transportation budget—do you feel that there’ll be any need for a cut in those budgets?

BUSH I’d like to find ways to cut them all in real dollars, if I could. Don’t get me wrong—I think the budget is way too big, and I think there would be some ways in which you could have some real cuts. But the question is, when I say hold the growth, people think I’m saying cut—and that’s not what we’re talking about, we’re talking about something very different.

SCHEER The question is, do you cut any real programs?

BUSH . . . Revenue sharing, some of CETA . . .

SCHEER Are we talking about a decline in the delivery by the government in the area of non-military services?

BUSH I think we’ve gone way too far—when you look at the percentage of gross national product spent on social programs and the percentage spent on defense, it has almost reversed itself in terms of which one has gotten more of the spending attention . . . I want to stimulate the private sector and I want to have less emphasis on the public sector.

SCHEER A major theme in your campaign has been the issue of over-regulation. In a speech in Alabama, you said we’re over-regulated to death.

BUSH I used the example there of making everybody in the United States have an air bag, whether he wanted to or not, add $400 to the cost of the car because a handful of people in this country think that this is going to be what we need for ourselves.

SCHEER We’ve had a lot of regulation of auto safety—what about the things other than the air bag? We went through a period of trying to make cars safer, seat belts, moving the gas tanks, all this sort of thing. Do you feel in general we’ve had excessive regulation in auto safety?

BUSH Yes—the time that you couldn’t turn your car on because your seat belt wasn’t fastened, that went too far. And there was something we did something about, and the American people sighed a big, collective sigh of relief.

SCHEER But in your speech you didn’t say there’d been some excesses; you told this audience we’d been regulated to death. Now in the area of auto safety—

BUSH And did they respond, because they knew exactly what I was talking about. Nobody there felt that there was no role for this, but everyone knew what I meant when I talked about the excesses of regulation. I thought that was one of my more brilliant moments, frankly.

SCHEER You didn’t say excesses—you said regulated to death. But the problem when a politician says that, he doesn’t say exactly in which areas we’ve been over-regulated, because one person’s regulation may be another person’s emancipation. For instance, minimum wage, occupational health and safety regulations may be welcomed by workers and thought to be over-regulation by employers. Now, for example, do you think we’ve been regulated to death in the area of OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration]?

BUSH Yes.

SCHEER What, specifically, would you cut out?

BUSH It’s gone too far: The idea that you have to put an outhouse on so many acres of land in Montana, that they tried to put in there for a while—that’s too much. The idea that everybody has to have a stepladder that conforms to a design made by someone in Washington—that’s too much.

SCHEER In any program, you can find the silly examples. But I’m saying, is there room for serious improvement of occupational health and safety standards? Should we go further in that direction with federal guidelines or should we move back, or should we stand still?

BUSH Right now, in terms of protecting ourselves from ourselves, we’ve gone about as far as we need to go. Now, if there are exceptions out there that are endangering the lives of workers, of course you should have inspection, of course the laws should be followed. But we’ve gone too far is my point.

SCHEER Do you think we’ve gone too far in protecting the environment?

BUSH I don’t think you can ever go too far in the actual protection of it, but do you have some regulations that are so strong that you’re shutting down the chance for a person to get a job or have any growth and help people that need it the most? Yes.

SCHEER You have said we should help the handicapped, yet one of the regulations that has come down is that you have to have a certain number of parking spaces for the handicapped, you have to have ramps. Now, someone could say that’s excessive regulation . . . For the handicapped people, it’s been a breakthrough. Now would you cut that out?

BUSH . . . For the overall good—is it better to make every bus kneel at the curb for the handicapped when it might be cheaper and even better for them to have some kind of transit, some kind of delivery system that would not compel the public to pay for the changes in every mode of transportation to accommodate the handicapped? Maybe it would be better to have a more specific mode of transportation to serve the handicapped. You’ve got to sort it out.

SCHEER What’s your position on abortions?

BUSH I oppose abortion.

SCHEER What does it mean to oppose it—that it should be illegal?

BUSH . . . No federal funding except in case of rape, incest, and the life of the mother. I do not want to amend the Constitution to override the decision of the Supreme Court.

SCHEER When you say you’re opposed to abortion, you’re not for making it illegal?

BUSH Nope.

SCHEER So you’re just opposed to making it easier for poorer women to get abortions?

BUSH I’ve just told you—I do not favor federal funding—there are other ways that can be done, and I don’t favor federal funding for it. This is clear, concise, I can’t help you by fine-tuning it any. You can ask me more questions but I don’t have to answer—this is a free world, I’m protected under not having to exercise my First Amendment rights.

SCHEER So if I, as interviewer, would like to ask you whether this comes out of religious principles, what about the needs of the mother, what about economic implications—all of those questions that you’re not interested in answering, I should forget them?

BUSH You know, I’m one who finds these contentious single issues to be a trend in politics that I would rather not enhance by elaborating on; I know you’re fascinated by them and many of your readers are, but I’ve given you my position on it.

SCHEER The issue of homosexuality came up at the Iowa debate. You were asked about pornography and gay rights as an example of growing immorality. You said you were against the harassment of homosexuals but you are opposed to any codification of gay rights.

BUSH I think there’s protection under the law to see people aren’t abused. I don’t think we need a codification, kind of putting a stamp of approval on that lifestyle. That’s not what our society should be asked to do . . .

SCHEER But how do you prevent harassment unless people have rights codified in law?

BUSH I don’t think American society should be asked to accept that homosexuality is a standard which should be held up for acceptance. I just don’t believe that, and I’m not going to push for it.

SCHEER In the Iowa debate, you were asked about illegal immigration. You said, “I favor return to some kind of documentation.” What does that mean?

BUSH Well, you know, they used to have the green card, I don’t know if you’re familiar with that.

SCHEER Well, they still have the green card—a legal resident has the green card. Do you favor some sort of amnesty for the illegal immigrants that are here?

BUSH I’d take a look at that, but I don’t know enough about—how many years, or how much time one would have to demonstrate he or she has been here before . . .

SCHEER What about increasing the quota for people coming from Mexico?

BUSH I don’t know what the magic number is, but I certainly would be looking at relations to Mexico, and I’d know how to be sensitive to their problems if we want to get something from them, and we do.

SCHEER Connally has offered his controversial Mideast plan. What is yours?

BUSH We should improve relations with the moderate Arab countries without diminishing our commitment to Israel. My view is it should not be thrown up for negotiation—in other words, we must never have the perception as a country of being willing to trade off an ally, which is a moral and strategic alliance, for a hoped-for economic gain.

SCHEER Do you feel in your reading of the Camp David accords that there was a commitment to a Palestinian state?

BUSH Solution to the Palestinian question, yes.

SCHEER Do you have any criticisms whatsoever of either the Begin or the Sadat governments in this process?

BUSH Yeah, I’ve been critical of the settlements—you know, the advance in moving forward, for example, in settlements by Begin’s government and Sadat . . .

SCHEER Could you be more explicit?

BUSH No, I couldn’t. I’ve given you that and that’s all I’ll give you.

Robert Scheer
Editor in Chief
Robert Scheer, editor in chief of Truthdig, has built a reputation for strong social and political writing over his 30 years as a journalist. His columns appear in newspapers across the country, and his…
Robert Scheer

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