KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine | Former President George H.W. Bush, who as CIA director helped restore morale at the spy agency after a series of scandals in the 1970s, says House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was wrong when she asserted that the CIA lies “all the time” to Congress.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Times a day after his 85th birthday - which he celebrated by skydiving from 10,000 feet to a perfect landing - the 41st president also took a mild swipe at President Obama for intervening in General Motors Corp.’s bankruptcy, ridiculed claims that the Republican Party is dead and urged patience in dealing with China, Russia and Iran.
The former president took direct aim at Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, who was briefed by the CIA director in 2002 about interrogation methods being used on terrorism suspects. She has denied that, saying last month that she was told only that waterboarding “may” be used, a claim President Obama’s own appointee to head the agency vehemently rejects.
“I think she made most unfortunate comments, and I think she’s paying a price for it,” Mr. Bush told The Times. “I think people see her as having been told - briefed on some things and then kind of acting like it didn’t happen. So I’m a little disappointed in her.”
When asked directly whether the CIA lies “all the time,” Mr. Bush said it does not.
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The former president also mused about the Republican Party.
“I am not one who considers the GOP totally on the ropes. … That’s the standard message, and I don’t believe it,” said Mr. Bush, first elected to public office 43 years ago, when he won a U.S. House seat from Texas, then a Democratic bastion.
“I remember being elected two years after the same message was sent in 1964 about the Democrats running everything, ‘Republicans are dead,’ ” he said, before going on to note his election to the House in 1966, when Republicans picked up 47 net seats.
Although Mr. Obama’s approval numbers are sky-high now, he noted, Democrats lost control of Congress in a landslide just two years after the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, took office.
“The same decrees are there, ‘The Republicans have no future.’ … I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it,” said Mr. Bush, who lost the 1992 race to Mr. Clinton.
Mr. Bush and his son, former President George W. Bush, have followed the custom adopted by other former chief executives not to criticize the day-to-day operations of the sitting president. But the elder Mr. Bush slipped across that line a bit as he talked about the current state of the economy, with the White House taking over car companies and financial institutions.
“I think people are alarmed now. There’s too much government intervention into everything - putting people on the boards of directors. Too much. And too much spending,” Mr. Bush said. “I think people are, you know, understandably concerned about some of the things that are going on now.”
His son Jeb, a former governor of Florida, embarked last month on a “listening tour” with other prominent Republican leaders as part of a new party effort dubbed a “Conversation for a New America.” Jeb Bush said in his debut town hall that the party needs to get over its “nostalgia” for the heydays of the Reagan era and craft a message that resonates in the 21st century.
“I think they need to do what my son Jeb thinks,” Mr. Bush said with a laugh. “You need people with alternative voices, you need people with good ideas, you need people willing to listen.”
But Mr. Bush bristled when asked if Republicans need to move back toward the principles of former President Ronald Reagan, with whom he served two terms as vice president.
“I think the principles are well articulated by our leaders in Congress and by some others. You mentioned my son Jeb, and I happen to think he understands what the future calls for. But I don’t think it’s reinventing anything. … I don’t know what you mean by ‘Reagan principles.’ ”
Still, Mr. Bush hearkened back to the core conservatism of the party espoused by Mr. Reagan, saying, “You don’t have to change your fundamental principles. … Clearly, Reagan touched into the heartbeat of the American people in a wonderful way.”
Asked how the Republican Party can attract blacks and Hispanics, Mr. Bush was frank and pessimistic.
“I don’t know,” he said. “They try all the time. We tried: spectacular lack of success. I think you just keep trying.”
But Mr. Bush said neither group necessarily wants big government espoused by liberal Democrats.
“The common wisdom around, just from the little I read about, in Washington, is that you’ve got to go their way in order to get them to come our way. I don’t see it that way,” he said.
Mr. Bush’s feeling about the current state of politics - “We need less name-calling and more expounding on principles” - also applies to Mr. Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, who has been called a racist by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and others for her “wise Latina” comments. Mr. Bush, who appointed Judge Sotomayor to the U.S. District Court bench in 1991 as part of a deal with a liberal New York senator, said he feels she deserves a full and fair hearing.
“I do think we go a little far when we call her a racist,” he said. “Let the woman have her day before the Senate, let her answer questions. … I’m sure she’s a decent person and a good person, and I think she’s going to be confirmed - not to say that would be my perfect choice.”
On international affairs, Mr. Bush, who received top-secret briefings as CIA director, vice president and president, said he just doesn’t have enough information to know where things really stand. Still, he is optimistic about U.S. relations with Russia, China and Iran.
“I think its going to take a little while” for change to come to Iran, he said. “At least they had some kind of contested election. That’s encouraging.”
And he said international pressure “is against them on any kind of nuclear capability. That might help - I hope it will.”
Mr. Bush, who will travel to Germany this fall to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, advocates patience with Russia.
“I say we stay engaged with them and do what we can to keep things moving forward,” he said.
The de facto U.S. ambassador to China in the 1970s, he thinks the communist nation has made “dramatic progress for human rights, individual liberties.”
“Compared to when I lived there … it’s night and day. Give them credit,” he said, adding that he would give the Obama administration high marks on dealing with China.
“I think the administration’s handling it pretty well,” he said. “I think they’re being patient - in the sense that they’re not lecturing them all the time and bawling them out all the time.”
As for life now, Mr. Bush has slowed down after two hip replacements and major back surgery, although he did announce shortly after parachuting into a churchyard near his sprawling compound on the sea that he’ll jump again “when I turn 90.” But Mr. Bush, who unlike five years ago now walks with a pronounced gait, turning his hips as he shuffles, said life at 85 is far different from life at 80.
“My body’s given out a little bit. I’m getting old, and I know it. … I don’t have any balance, I can’t even play golf because I fall over if I’m trying to swing a golf club.”
But after 65 years on the fast track, slowing down is just right, he said.
(Corrected paragraph:) “Sleep late, go to bed early. … Life is great for me; life is about family,” he said. His wife of 64 years, Barbara, and all of his children and 19 grandchildren joined him over the weekend to celebrate his birthday.
“But then it will be just Barbara and me alone, and that’s wonderful, too. … Barbara and I sit there at night and watch some silly TV program and go to bed early,” the former president said with a smile. “She’s a great mate as we’re going down the final stretches - what might be the final stretches of our lives, and we could not be happier. I can’t think of one single thing that would make me happier.
“So it’s a nice place to be. … We know we’re blessed. We say our prayers every night and we thank God for all the blessings of our life. And there are many. Many.”