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CNN Special Reports
Remembering 41: President George H.W. Bush. Aired 8-9p ET
Aired December 01, 2018 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JAMIE GANGEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): He had the best resume in town ...
GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He never about put his own self-interests ahead of America.
GEORGE H. W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I, George Herbert Walker Bush...
GANGEL (voice-over): -- led the nation through tumultuous times ...
JAMES BAKER, BUSH 41'S SECRETARY OF STATE: If you want to know how to fight a war, take a look at the way George Bush fought the First Gulf War.
BUSH 41: The battle has been joined.
GANGEL (voice-over): -- driven by duty and destiny.
JON MEACHAM, AUTHOR: The Bush code was always, "Look ahead."
CLARENCE THOMAS, U.S. SUPREME COURT JUSTICE: He gave his word and he was a man of his word.
DICK CHENEY, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He was the complete package.
BUSH 41: I want a kinder and gentler nation.
GANGEL (voice-over): He was fiercely competitive ...
CONDOLEEZZA RICE, BUSH 41'S SOVIET SPECIALIST: You'd have horseshoes, then go out on the boat, then he'd play tennis.
And I thought, this is exhausting.
GANGEL (voice-over): -- and wickedly funny.
BUSH 41: Wouldn't be prudent at this juncture.
DANA CARVEY, COMEDIAN, "GEORGE H. W. BUSH": Wouldn't be prudent.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think there was any end to his self- effacing sense of humor. GANGEL (voice-over): Beloved by his family and friends.
JEB BUSH (R), FORMER GOVERNOR OF FLORIDA: He's as close to perfection as any person I've ever met.
BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it would be difficult to know him and not love him.
GANGEL (voice-over): A revealing look inside the life of an American original.
BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We honor George Herbert Walker Bush for service to America that spanned nearly 70 years.
GANGEL (voice-over): Now a CNN special report: "Remembering 41: President George H.W. Bush."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They've deployed.
GANGEL (voice-over): March 27th, 1997, near Yuma, Arizona. The nation's 41st president, 72 years old and 12,000 feet in the air, jumping out of a plane for the first time since World War II.
BUSH 41: I get an exhilarating feeling out of it and it also has some memories of a parachute jump that went very badly.
BUSH 43: He wanted to relive the moment of when he got shot down.
JEB BUSH: His crew members lost their lives. He was almost captured. That experience after an incredible life of purpose and accomplishments, starting to jump out of planes, maybe he'd get that right; made a little sense to him.
GANGEL (voice-over): When his whole family tried to talk him out of it, George Herbert Walker Bush responded with this letter.
BUSH 41: Dear Kids, OK. So you might think I've lost it. I plan to make a parachute jump. So there!
POWELL: It didn't seem like the best idea in the world to me.
GANGEL (voice-over): Even his former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff couldn't talk him down.
POWELL: I said, Mr. President, you really want to do this?
He said, "Yes, I want to do this."
And I said, "You know, we don't think it's a really great idea."
"Colin, I want to do it." It was just so typical of him.
GANGEL: Because ... ?
"I haven't done anything like this before. I want to try it. And that's what I want to do."
BUSH 41: All right!
GANGEL: Why does he jump out of perfectly good airplanes?
BUSH 43: It is the thrill of the jump. And once he did it the first time, it became a natural for the next times.
GANGEL (voice-over): And so he kept jumping over and over and over.
BUSH 43: On his 85th birthday, he said I'll be jumping when I'm 90. And George Bush is a man who keeps his word.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the 41st President of the United States.
GANGEL (voice-over): That promise from Bush put the pressure on Sergeant Mike Elliott.
SGT. MIKE ELLIOTT, PARATROOPER: I'm going to tell you, there's nothing like having a president strapped to you and his entire family is watching you.
GANGEL (voice-over): Especially his wife, Barbara.
BARBARA BUSH, WIFE OF BUSH 41: Where's my hero?
ELLIOTT: Ms. Bush, you know, she runs the family.
Brought him back to you safely, ma'am.
She was concerned on each occasion, the first time that I jumped him, she came up and said, "Well, if you hurt him, I will kill you, all of you."
And she was serious.
BUSH 41: Two of my boys on my birthday.
Just because you're an old guy, you don't have to sit around, drooling in the corner. Get out and do something. Get out and enjoy life.
NEIL BUSH, SON OF BUSH 41: For him to do it on his 90th birthday, when he's like disabled, is pretty remarkable. And he does it for his own benefit, to live life to the fullest, but it also is inspiring to everybody.
GEORGE P. BUSH, GRANDSON: He's always looking for the next big moment. And he never likes to miss out.
GANGEL (voice-over): That was just one of the traits ingrained early on. George Bush, nicknamed Poppy, was raised in a tight-knit, privileged family in Greenwich, Connecticut.
From his father, Prescott, a businessman who later became a U.S. senator ...
SEN. PRESCOTT BUSH, FATHER OF BUSH 41: I'm Prescott Bush, Republican candidate for the United States Senate.
GANGEL (voice-over): He learned the importance of public service. But his greatest lessons came from his mother, Dorothy.
BUSH 43: He loved his dad a lot. But he was very close to his mom. I think the lessons that his mom taught him early in life stayed with him his entire life.
GANGEL (voice-over): She emphasized character, conduct and competition. Win, absolutely, but above all, be humble.
BUSH 41: My mother told me, "George, nobody likes a braggadocio." You know, oh, hey. OK, Mom, we're not going to talk about ourselves. And that kind of hung over for me through my public life.
GANGEL (voice-over): Bush was ambitious and a natural leader, from senior class president at the prestigious Phillips Academy to captain of his baseball team at Yale University.
MEACHAM: He said my goal has always been to be number one, to be the captain of the team, a big left fist, punching the air. That's the character melded with this deep, ambient sense of service.
GANGEL (voice-over): Qualities that immediately caught the attention of a smart, attractive girl named Barbara Pierce. At a school dance, sparks flew. But World War II intervened.
BUSH 41: I was 17 years old. It was a Sunday. Somebody came running by and yelled that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
GANGEL (voice-over): Against his parents' wishes, Bush put aside college and enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday.
BUSH 41: That didn't matter, how old I was or what experience I had not had. I didn't know anything about flying. I was just determined to do it.
GANGEL (voice-over): Years later, with characteristic modesty, he downplayed his military service.
BUSH 41: I knew fact certain that I wanted to serve, duty, honor, country. But again, I hate telling you this because I don't want to be sounding like I'm different. I'm not.
GANGEL (voice-over): But he was different. When we return, the day that changed George Bush's life.
And later, the truth behind the special relationship with the man who would defeat him.
BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He thought I talked too much. But I never talked to much on the boat because he was going 60 miles an hour, bumping us to death.
GANGEL (voice-over): In 1943, George Bush postponed college and went to serve his country.
BUSH 41: I got my wings a few days before my 19th birthday. I think it was the youngest commissioned officer and pilot in the Navy the day I got my wings.
GANGEL (voice-over): But Bush missed Barbara Pierce, the girl he left behind.
BUSH 41: This one was December of '43.
GANGEL (voice-over): He began writing her letters, a tradition he would continue with family and friends his whole life.
BUSH 41: "My darling Bar, I love you, precious, with all my heart and to know that you love me means my life.
"Good night, my beautiful."
Had a fiancee, had a great family and I had best of all worlds. But I never had any question about that I was doing the right thing, that I was lucky to be a pilot in the U.S. Navy, on this team.
GANGEL (voice-over): Just a few months later, Bush and his crew were shot down.
BUSH 41: The anti-aircraft fire was much, much heavier this day. And we started our dive and suddenly, I saw these puffs all around me. You just felt the plane go forward like this, going down and it goes up like that. And I knew something bad had happened. The cockpit literally filled up with smoke.
GANGEL (voice-over): Bush ejected from the plane but barely survived being hunted down by the Japanese.
BUSH 41: I felt sick to my stomach and I was crying and throwing up and swimming like hell. Could have made the Olympics on that day because we had to get out of it.
GANGEL (voice-over): While Bush was rescued, his two crewmen were never found.
BUSH 41: "There was no sign of Del or Ted anywhere around. I looked as I floated down and afterwards kept my eyes open for the raft. But to no avail. I'm afraid I was pretty much of a sissy about it because I sat in my life raft and sobbed for a while.
"I feel so terribly responsible for their fate."
This is for Ted White and Delaney, John Delaney. There we go. That's beautiful.
I think about it a lot. Still do. I wonder if I could have done something different, I wonder why the chute didn't open for the other guy?
Why me? Why did God, you know, let me survive when they didn't?
That has plagued me because as each day went by and I think I realized more and more how lucky I was to be alive.
MEACHAM: What is so fascination and generational and characteristic of George H.W. Bush is he would talk himself back into the game, just push forward.
GANGEL (voice-over): When we come back, Bush pushes forward and finally gets his girl.
B. BUSH: I knew he was going to come home. I mean, that was stupid but I knew he was going to come home. He was Superman and still is.
GANGEL (voice-over): And later, 43 on 41, the endless fascination with father and son.
GANGEL: Was it hard to live up to him?
GANGEL (voice-over): After returning home a war hero, George Bush married the love of his life.
BUSH 41: "I kissed Barbara and I'm glad of it. I don't believe she will ever regret it or resent it and I certainly am not ashamed of it.
I've never kissed another girl.
B. BUSH: When we tell our children what I tell them, I never knew I was the first girl you ever kissed. But when I told them that you were the first person I ever kissed --
BUSH 41: No, I was the second, darling. Haven Abbott (ph).
B. BUSH: Oh, he was not.
BUSH 43: Mother's made it pretty clear, I think, to the kids that her first love was Dad --
BUSH 43: -- and she loved us, of course, but she adored Dad.
GANGEL (voice-over): Soon after, they started a family. Their first born, George Walker Bush. Next, the couple had a little girl, Robin; then three more sons, Jeb, Neil and Marvin.
N. BUSH: We're blessed that we've had such an amazing set of parents that have raised us and guided us and given us these values.
GANGEL (voice-over): And then, tragedy.
BUSH 41: They'd come in with these bone marrow tests.
GANGEL (voice-over): Three-year-old Robin had leukemia.
BUSH 41: And I, "I've got to go."
I had to go home and Barb stayed and hung right in there.
BUSH 43: Dad was just a whirlwind of activity and Mom was the rock of stability. You know, she was by Robin's side the whole time. When Robin finally died, Mother cratered and Dad became the rock.
GANGEL (voice-over): Robin died before her 4th birthday. And Bush once again wrote to his mother; years later, a letter still too painful for him to read.
B. BUSH: "We need a legitimate Christmas angel. We need someone who is afraid of frogs. We need someone to cry when I get mad, not argue. We need a girl."
GANGEL (voice-over): They had another girl, Dorothy, in 1959.
BUSH 43: I believe the death of my sister strengthened their marriage in ways it's hard to fathom.
GANGEL (voice-over): And family played a key role in Bush's political career. Barbara was there every step of the way.
MEACHAM: She had a foot with the family and a foot in his career, an essential political partner.
BAKER: Barbara was someone who could tell George what she thought and she would, just like she could tell everybody what she thought. And she would.
GANGEL (voice-over): And while George Bush usually led the fun, Barbara ruled the roost.
JEB BUSH: One of many nicknames she has was The Enforcer. So there were unwritten rules. And if you violated them, she would enforce the rules and do it in a way that was pretty effective.
GANGEL: Let me guess: your parents had very different parenting styles.
BUSH 43: Mother was on the front line and expressed herself frequently. And look, we were a rambunctious lot, pretty independent minded kids. And, you know, she -- she had her hands full. She was the sergeant.
GANGEL: So how did you know when he didn't like something you did?
BUSH 43: Oh, he made it clear. He didn't yell, scream. The worst words you could hear was, "You've disappointed me."
So if you love a guy and admire a guy and he says I've disappointed you, that's pretty stinging.
N. BUSH: I would avoid everything I could to get that look, the look.
And he had high expectations for how we would behave.
GANGEL (voice-over): Even when behaving was a challenge.
GANGEL: What is your earliest memory of your dad?
N. BUSH: I think it was the 1964 election. So I would have been 9 years old and all of us were dressed up for pictures for some advertisements. And I remember we had to sit on the back of an elephant. And Marvin and Doro were scrunching up against each other.
And I remember there being tears and harsh words and it turned out to be a good picture.
GANGEL (voice-over): There would be many picture-perfect moments as Bush's political career took off.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is Dorothy Bush. She's sure she wants her dad to become a United States senator.
GANGEL (voice-over): From Congress to the U.N., as envoy to China to running the CIA, Bush had the resume, the reputation and the relationships.
POWELL: And he knew that you need friends and allies. And he worked on that all the time. But it was not just he's doing it because it was smart foreign policy. It's just him. It's the way he is. GANGEL (voice-over): That's one of the reasons why, in 1980, Ronald Reagan, after a bitter primary fight, picked Bush to be his vice president. And eight years later, he became the candidate to beat.
BUSH 41: I want a kinder and gentler nation, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GANGEL (voice-over): Coming up the highs and lows of the Bush presidency.
BUSH 41: Read my lips: no new taxes.
MEACHAM: People are always amazed to hear that George Bush 41 was taller than Ronald Reagan. But there he was, 6' 2", and clearly a man of substance.
GANGEL (voice-over): A man of substance but not a showman.
GANGEL: There's the cover of "Newsweek", "The Wimp Factor."
When you saw that, how did you react?
RICE: I thought it was so stupid. I've never seen anything as far off base. He was a strong man, a fearless man, who always tries to do the right thing.
GANGEL (voice-over): His pick for a running mate surprised many.
GANGEL: Give me a few words to describe him.
DAN QUAYLE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Honorable, decent, caring.
GANGEL (voice-over): Even when Quayle was repeatedly attacked, Bush stood firm, refusing to take him off the ticket.
QUAYLE: We had talked about it. And if he had wanted to replace me, fine. I'll be a soldier, salute and move on. He knew that. But he had my back.
POWELL: He was a person of enormous consideration of others. He showed us loyalty and we gave him loyalty back.
RICE: The thing that surprised me about George H.W. Bush is he really is a people person. The fact that I was young and different and the Soviet specialist, for goodness sakes, the black female Soviet specialist never fazed President Bush. This is a man who takes every human being on their --
RICE: -- own terms.
GANGEL (voice-over): Including his controversial nominee to the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas.
THOMAS: I barely knew him when he nominated me. So I'm clueless as to why he did.
GANGEL: You get the call to come to Kennebunkport.
And what did you think?
THOMAS: It's all surreal. When I got up there, I ran and saw Ms. Bush. She had this big hat on. I greeted her and she said, "Congratulations."
And that's when I knew. And she said, "Oh, I guess I let the cat out of the bag."
So I see him on the deck. Then we go to the sitting area in their bedroom and we talked; couldn't have been any more than 5-10 minutes.
And he said, "If you become a member of the Supreme Court, can you call them as you see them?"
And I said, "Well, of course, I can do that."
And -- excuse me.
He said, "Can you and your family get through a tough confirmation?"
That was a good opportunity to say no.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How old are you, Judge 42-3?
THOMAS: Well, I've aged over the last 10 weeks but ...
GANGEL (voice-over): Tough turned out to be an understatement ...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
ANITA HILL, THOMAS' FORMER COLLEAGUE: I do.
GANGEL: -- when Thomas' former colleague, Anita Hill, accused him of sexual harassment.
HILL: After a brief discussion of work, he would turn the conversation to a discussion of sexual matters.
GANGEL (voice-over): Bush called Thomas to the White House. THOMAS: He says, "I got you in this and I will be with you to the
When things got tough, he was the same honorable person.
It says, "Dear Justice, dear Clarence, dear friend."
GANGEL (voice-over): A decade later, the president sent Justice Thomas this extraordinary personal letter, never before made public.
THOMAS: "I will never forget our chat right here in our house in Maine just before you were thrown to the lions and put through a cruel exercise that only a strong and principled person could have survived. You didn't have to say you would serve with honor and respect for the court. I knew that all along."
GANGEL: He had your back.
THOMAS: He stood shoulder to shoulder.
BAKER: When I would be attacked in Washington, he would come to my defense. He said, "Don't worry about it. We'll make it."
And we did.
POWELL: Many a time when I had done something that it got me in a little trouble with somebody or the press and I'm in my office, saying, oh, dear, I could expect a call.
"Don't worry about it. Everything is fine."
GANGEL (voice-over): Even when there were disagreements.
GANGEL: In his diaries, he called you Iron Ass.
GANGEL: Now I know that the two of you have actually joked about it.
CHENEY: He sent me a nice note.
GANGEL: And the note said?
CHENEY: "I confess," he said, "I said it, Iron Ass."
GANGEL (voice-over): Bush's empathy carried over into his domestic policies, with clean air and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
BUSH 41: Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down. God bless you all. PIERCE BUSH, BUSH 41'S GRANDSON: It's changing the culture of how people with disabilities could shine and then have jobs in places where they might not have jobs. So they have all these big, kind of liberal advocates that advocated for their movement.
But my grandfather is the guy who got it done.
GANGEL (voice-over): And in the international arena, he was the ultimate diplomat.
BAKER: And you think about what he did in -- on foreign policy in just four short years.
BRIAN MULRONEY, FORMER CANADIAN PRIME MINISTER: The unification of Germany, abolition of the Warsaw Pact and the implosion of the Soviet Union itself. If this is not historic achievement, then I don't know what the hell is.
RICE: On the day that the Berlin Wall came down we all went over to the Oval Office to tell President Bush that he had to go to Berlin.
GANGEL: You wanted him --
RICE: I wanted him to go to Berlin.
GANGEL: And he said --
RICE: And he said, "What would I do, dance on the wall?
He said, "This is a German moment."
POWELL: Everybody was glad the Cold War was over. But he didn't gloat because it would not be in his nature to gloat at someone else's misfortune.
GANGEL (voice-over): And in 1990, when --
GANGEL (voice-over): -- Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, those same relationships helped Bush put together an unprecedented coalition and war cabinet.
BAKER: I tell people, if you want to know how to fight a war, take a look at the way George Bush fought the Persian Gulf War.
CHENEY: He was intimately involved with each step of the process.
POWELL: But we would all sit there and argue about something, trying to get the right answer. But he would listen to the argument. And he was so open to us that we really could disagree with each other in public before the president.
BUSH 41: This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.
GANGEL (voice-over): Yet the decision to go to war, the burden of sending young men and women into harm's way, weighed heavily on him.
BAKER: This is the day before the deadline. This is January 15th, he picks -- he calls me over to say (INAUDIBLE).
"Come on over and have lunch with me."
And I could tell he was worried, he was anxious.
GANGEL (voice-over): So anxious that on the eve of Desert Storm, the president made this private recording of his innermost thoughts.
BUSH 41: My mind is 1,000 miles away. I simply can't sleep. I think about what other presidents went through. The agony of war.
BERNARD SHAW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated.
GANGEL (voice-over): That same night, the president watched the war start live on CNN.
BUSH 41: Well, I've done everything and now it's in the hands of these young kids in the military.
BAKER: It worked and worked beautifully. He told the world what he was going to do, went in and did exactly that and brought our troops home. That's the way to fight a war.
GANGEL: Was it a mistake not going into Baghdad, finishing off the job, taking out Saddam Hussein?
POWELL: The answer simply is it was not a mistake because we were never going to Baghdad.
GANGEL (voice-over): Bush's approval ratings skyrocketed to nearly 90 percent.
When we return, George Bush, Mr. Competitive.
JEB BUSH: He liked to win.
GANGEL (voice-over): And a cut-up.
DANA CARVEY, COMEDIAN: I don't think there was any end to his self- effacing sense of humor about himself. He would say, "It wouldn't prudent at this juncture."
GANGEL (voice-over): Walker's Point, the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport. BUSH 41: It is kind of like being in our home in Maine, seeing our sons and daughter doing -- getting along in life and sharing that experience.
GANGEL (voice-over): It's where George Bush spent almost all his summers, where he proposed to Barbara ...
CARVEY: Whenever they talk about Kennebunkport, their eyes light up.
GANGEL (voice-over): -- brought his children and grandchildren.
BUSH 43: They loved having family around. Dad would be in bed, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper, something and kids came down. There was just a fun period. I think back to it very fondly. He would tell you that faith, family and friends are what's important in life, what really made him a happy man.
GANGEL (voice-over): A happy man who never let up.
P. BUSH: Gampy -- we all called him Gampy -- when you were around and you felt this immense energy and excitement.
BUSH 43: He had this kind of itch that he needed to scratch through activities.
BAKER: He's the most competitive human being I've ever known in my life. I used to be his tennis partner.
RICE: His boys are throwing up these lobs over his head and he's running all out to go and get these lobs that I wouldn't even run after.
BAKER: Boy, oh, boy, he would never, never, never give up.
JEB BUSH: He liked to win and he played fiercely.
RICE: Just one thing after another.
JEBBIE BUSH, BUSH 41'S GRANDSON: Yes, starts at about 5:30. We would go fishing in the morning. Usually go until about 8 o'clock or 9 o'clock tee time, get 18 holes. In fact, his nickname playing horseshoes is Mr. Smooth.
RICE: I thought, this is exhausting.
BUSH 41: Hello, partner.
BUSH 43: He's a hell of an athlete. I always wondered why he played so fast and I think the answer is because he wanted to get to the next event.
GANGEL (voice-over): Including racing around on Fidelity, his beloved speedboat.
BUSH 43: I remember vividly over the years that he would come flying into the cove and do a hairpin turn as fast as he could go. THOMAS: It scared the heck out of me and the Secret Service. But it was a lot of fun.
BUSH 43: He never wasted a moment.
GANGEL (voice-over): And Bush had a great sense of humor.
CARVEY: He loved to laugh.
GANGEL (voice-over): Especially at his pal, comedian Dana Carvey from "Saturday Night Live," who did Bush almost better than the president himself.
CARVEY, "BUSH 41": They'll beat you bad, bad, they're bad, bad.
CARVEY: First, you take John Wayne, "Well, let's go over the ridge, uh-huh."
And then Mr. Rogers, "Beautiful day in the neighborhood."
I go, "That thing, going up there in that whole area."
That quadrant right there is what hooked it.
GANGEL (voice-over): Bush, always a great sport, went on "SNL," poking fun at himself.
BUSH 41: "Saturday Night Live" made fun of me on a fairly regular basis.
Do I have any hard feelings about that?
Yes, I do. And I'll have my revenge when the time is right. Not now. Wouldn't be prudent at this juncture.
CARVEY: Whatever reason, he loved it and never stopped loving it.
GANGEL (voice-over): But no amount of levity could prevent the turning tide as the president set his sights on a second term.
MEACHAM: Well, 1992 is a perfect storm. You have Ross Perot, rising up through the 24-hour cable news cycle.
ROSS PEROT (I), 1992 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If there's a fair way, I'm all ears.
MEACHAM: You have a formidable politician in Bill Clinton. You have a mild but enduring recession and you had a candidate who was not fully engaged in the minutiae of the politics.
GANGEL (voice-over): Americans began to view Bush as out of touch and blasted him for breaking this campaign promise.
BUSH 41: Read my lips: no new taxes.
QUAYLE: It was a problem. No doubt about it. Look, we had to get a budget deal. And so he sat down with the Democrats in the Congress. They said, if you want any kind of a deal, you've got to have some taxes.
And he says if that's the only I'm get the deal, country comes first. My political career comes second. That's the kind of man he was.
GANGEL: The 41st president would not serve a second term.
BUSH 41: Just called Governor Clinton over in Little Rock and offered my congratulations.
GANGEL (voice-over): Bush once again turned to his diary, late at night, exhausted and clearly devastated.
BUSH 41: That hurt, hurt, hurt. I don't like to be a failed president. I was absolutely convinced we proved them wrong. But I was wrong and --
BUSH 41: -- they were right and that hurts a lot.
GANGEL (voice-over): In public and even with his own family, Bush never let on.
BUSH 43: Self-pity is not a part of his being. And he didn't want to impose his -- how badly he hurt on anybody else.
JEB BUSH: I never saw my dad depressed. That's not my dad. Dust yourself off and get back in the game.
BUSH 41: Prepared to face tomorrow. Finish with a smile and with some gusto. Do what's right and finish strong.
GANGEL (voice-over): And he did. Worried about White House morale, he had an idea.
CARVEY: He just out of the blue called me and he's like very charming.
"How you doing?
"People think we're a little down out here. Thought you would come out here and cheer up the troops."
He was thinking of his staff more than anything else, you know, a little down; want to bring them up.
GANGEL (voice-over): So the two men plotted a surprise show.
CARVEY: I was in the Lincoln Bedroom last night and I couldn't resist getting on the phone. And I called up the Secret Service as the president.
"Feel like going jogging tonight --
CARVEY: -- "in the nude."
He got the humor in it and did not take it seriously. There was a carefulness to him, you know, a gentleness. That's why a kinder, gentler, thousand points of light, you know.
GANGEL (voice-over): Coming up, those thousand points of life define his life after the White House.
Plus the surprising letter he left for Bill Clinton.
CLINTON: "You'll be our president when you read this note."
GANGEL (voice-over): And the real relationship between father and son.
BUSH 43: You hear people say, just run on his daddy's coattails. I had to figure out ways to defuse that.
GANGEL (voice-over): January 1993, his final days in office, President Bush was thinking of someone else, his successor.
BUSH 41: I'm sitting here now alone, the desk clear, the pictures gone. I'm dreading the next few minutes walking over and saying goodbye to the staff. I leave the note on the desk for Bill Clinton. It looks a little lonely sitting there.
GANGEL (voice-over): President Clinton still has the letter.
BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: "Dear Bill, when I walked in this office just now, I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago.
"There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I'm not a very good one to give advice but just don't let the critics discourage you or push you off course. I'm rooting hard for you. Good luck, George."
GANGEL: How did you feel when you read that letter the first time?
CLINTON: I was moved by it. He revealed his true self. He made us feel at home as much as he could. Total class.
GANGEL (voice-over): At his most painful political moment, Bush was gracious and a gentleman.
RICE: He was someone for whom the office was never too big because he rose to the moments when it was most needed. But he never tried to make himself bigger than the office, either.
GANGEL (voice-over): And that sensibility carried over to his life post-presidency as he and Ms. Bush helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars for charity, sometimes by doing this and sometimes this.
And while he vowed to stay on the sidelines, he was thrilled to watch his sons pursue politics.
JEB BUSH: So help me God.
GANGEL (voice-over): From the governor's mansion ...
BUSH 43: I, George Walker Bush, do solemnly swear...
GANGEL (voice-over): -- to the White House.
BUSH 43: He's not the kind of guy that would sit down and say, let's discuss how I feel today. But you could tell that he was very proud and -- and as was I.
I decided I was going to go see what it was like to be in the Oval Office as president. And I was in there, taking in the moment.
And Dad walks in, I said, "Welcome, Mr. President."
He said, "Thank you, Mr. President."
And it was a very moving moment. It was a fitting end to a great day.
GANGEL: Did he give you any advice?
BUSH 43: No, no. And he was very guarded about giving me advice unless I asked for it.
GANGEL: Was it hard to live up to him?
BUSH 43: No.
GANGEL: Because ... ?
BUSH 43: Of unconditional love. In other words, the message from George Bush was, I love you no matter what you do. I might have tested that unconditional love on a fairly regular basis at points in my life.
GANGEL (voice-over): And he knew exactly when to provide support in the wake of 9/11.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not sorrowing as those without hope but in thankful remembrance.
BUSH 43: One of the more very dramatic moments for me came on September the 14th at the National Cathedral. I was very fearful of bursting out in tears and the country didn't need to see a weeping president. I finished the speech. And went back to the pew and sat down. And I
felt his hand reach across Laura and grab my arm. Just a small gesture but it meant a lot to me. It was a very sweet moment of fatherly love.
GANGEL (voice-over): While 41 was careful not to criticize 43 in office, years later, the elder Bush did admit to some concerns.
MEACHAM: He worried that the atmosphere around 43 created a cowboy culture.
BUSH 43: There's an old poster out West, as I recall, that said "Wanted dead or alive."
MEACHAM: He doesn't think presidents accomplish much by swaggering. They should be strong but they don't need to be needlessly provocative.
GANGEL: Even his own son.
MEACHAM: Even his own son.
GANGEL: He sometimes thought your public tone was a little too harsh.
BUSH 43: Probably. I got my daddy's eyes and my mother's mouth. I'm sure, of all the millions of words I uttered, some of them came out, you know, in a way that might have been a little overpowering.
GANGEL (voice-over): And at his son's request, President George H.W. Bush reentered the spotlight.
BUSH 43: I'm honored to be standing here with two former presidents.
GANGEL (voice-over): Joining with Bill Clinton, the man who defeated him, to raise money for victims of disasters, like the 2004 tsunami.
BUSH 41: How you doing?
GANGEL (voice-over): Here, the unlikeliest of friendships grew.
BUSH 41: I just enjoyed being with the guy, you know, old enough to be his dad and he's very considerate of me in every way.
CLINTON: I love George Bush. I do.
I think it would be difficult to know him and not love him. He's a good man. He's devoted to his family. He's devoted to his friends. He's devoted to his country.
OBAMA: Those of you who know him, this is a gentleman.
GANGEL (voice-over): In 2011, Bush came back to the White House to receive the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
OBAMA: Inspiring citizens to become points of light in service to others. His life is a testament that public service is a noble calling.
GANGEL (voice-over): And despite suffering from a form of Parkinson's, even at 90, he kept his promise and jumped again.
ELLIOTT: I remember him saying at the 90th jump, he goes, well, you know, I'm going to do it again at 95.
N. BUSH: He's been a great kind of a role model for how to live your life to the end with grace and --
N. BUSH: -- dignity and caring for others.
GANGEL (voice-over): When Barbara, his wife and companion of 73 years, passed away, he insisted on personally greeting the public who came to pay their final respects to the former first lady.
THOMAS: He was honored. So I think that that will stand the test of time.
CHENEY: He was direct, honest and open. He was the complete package.
RICE: One of the most self-effacing, understated, humble human beings I've ever known.
BAKER: We did a lot of tough things together. And how beautiful.
POWELL: There's an old military expression I think that applies to him. This is a guy I'd take on a long patrol. And that's why -- 41.
CLINTON: He was a kinder, gentler president. He kept his word.
JEB BUSH: I think my dad come closer to achieving the epitome of being a virtuous man than anybody I know. And that will be his legacy to me and our family.
BUSH 43: I think that if historians objectively analyze his presidency, they'd say he was the greatest one-term president in the nation's history.
BUSH 41: I hope that people will say he served with honor when he was president, he acted with principle. I just come back to the fundamental values. Goes on back to -- you know, I tell, Mother said, give the other guy credit. Work hard. Don't talk all the time. Don't talk about the big "I am," George.
It is about family. It is not about the big deal or the head table or all that stuff. That's what it is about. I have no regrets about the way I conducted myself, duty, country and honor.