Speaking at Yale for the first time in almost 10 years, former President George H.W. Bush ’48 extolled the values of public service, urging Yale students to follow in his family’s footsteps.
The event, which marked the culmination of Yale’s second tercentennial weekend, was a homecoming of sorts for Bush, who was born in Greenwich, Conn., and attended Yale.
He has had an at times strained relationship with Yale, in part because the school did not grant him an honorary degree until commencement in 1991, when he faced a barrage of student protesters. His son, President George W. Bush ’68, has also downplayed his connection to Yale, most notably in avoiding much mention of his alma mater during his 2000 presidential campaign.
But in front of a crowd of more than 4,000 Yale students, alumni and faculty, Bush talked candidly about his presidency and modern politics, covering topics from the Cold War to Dana Carvey.
He remembered most fondly his work in with world leaders like Margaret Thatcher and “Gorby” — as he referred to Mikhail Gorbachev — in ending the Cold War, unifying Germany and fighting the Persian Gulf War.
And he urged students to find careers in which they could support their communities.
“There is no definition of a successful life that does not include service to others,” Bush said.
Bush answered questions from a panel that included Yale President Richard C. Levin; Professor Paul Kennedy; Maria Ivanova GRD ’06, a doctoral candidate in international environmental policy who was growing up in Bulgaria when the Berlin Wall came down; and football team captain and Academic All-American Peter Mazza ’01.
“I could not have been more pleased,” Levin said. “Our students obviously impressed the audience. The president was at his very best. He was humorous and warm and self-deprecating.”
Though the discussion remained mostly academic, focusing on issues of international affairs, Bush did add a bit of personality to the politics.
The discussion began with questions about the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, emphasizing the speed with which surrounding events took place. In this case, as he did throughout the hour and 15 minute talk, Bush remained confident in his presidency.
“I have no regrets that it moved as fast as it did,” he said, “even though Margaret [Thatcher] to this day thought I went along too fast.”
In fact, through a succession of Thatcher-related stories, Bush was able to lighten the otherwise strictly analytical mood propagated by the questions raised by the panel.
In one such story, Bush recalled a 10th-anniversary celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall during which Thatcher stood to give a toast and announced, “Ronald Reagan and I ended the Cold War.”
“I’d give them a lot of credit,” Bush added in retrospect, “but not all of it.”
Claiming he is “one who laments political difficulties,” Bush went on to say that the United States should not give up on Russia or China. He said while he does not advocate surrendering “one ounce of sovereignty” to the United Nations, the United States should be paying its U.N. dues.
Regarding regrets of his presidency, Bush admitted only to wishing to have communicated better about economic conditions during his campaign for reelection.
“I regret that I wasn’t as good a communicator as Ronald Reagan, that I couldn’t convince people we were not in a recession in ’92,” he said, “and because of that, wham, I was out.”
About additional shortcomings of his presidency, Bush joked, “There are probably others, but I don’t want to tell you about them.”
It was clear, throughout the discussion, that Bush felt he was among friends.
“Leadership is getting good people around you,” he said, “and Yale University, in particular, makes a huge contribution to leadership.”
As alumni shuffled out of the hall in which they were originally welcomed to Yale as freshmen, they tended to gather in idle clusters to muse about history and affirm their respect for the former president.
“My response to [Bush’s] speech is very favorable,” said Bob Amick MED ’59. “In fact, I am much more confident with his tenure in office because he is a much more knowledgeable and more thoughtful president than I had been aware of.”
Some were particularly impressed with the former president’s candor throughout the discussion.
“He was incredibly honest,” Dave Laventhol ’57 said. “He spoke as if he was obviously in friendly surroundings.”
Bush’s willingness to admit that he is not longer fully aware of the details of foreign policy issues served only to win him further respect in the eyes of some audience members.
“Though I disagree with the president politically, I was taken by his deference in response to questions on material he’s no longer up to date with and his willingness to credit the views of the younger members of the panel,” Bob Michell ’54 said.
Bush concluded the event with short remarks about George W. Bush ’68, whom he called “43,” and encouraged the audience to give him a chance.
“He’s only been there 100 days,” he said.
“What is it like having your son as president?” he asked. “It’s not a Republican or Democratic, liberal or conservative thing. It has strictly to do with family. At this stage, that’s all that matters.”
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