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'He had no respect for our military then'

By Hugh Sidey

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The President's father on Saddam, the first Gulf War and what his son faces now

When President No. 43 tells President No. 41 not to worry, he's talking not only as one world leader to another but also as a son to a father. That simple request combines perhaps the most intimate and unusual mix of power and love that this nation has ever witnessed.

"It's my job to worry," says George Bush the elder, with a chuckle. But his concern is not about the rightness of the cause in Iraq or the ability of the President to lead the country in this dangerous time. It is that of a father who sees his son on a lonely and difficult march and knows he may be the only other person on the planet who can completely understand what the President is going through.

George H.W.'s daughter-in-law, the First Lady, has whispered to him that he might be watching too much television these days. But he is a captive of the news flow, and he knows it. He has moments, he says, when he would like to suit up, "get off the bench" and go back in the game.

But when he is invited by President No. 43 to sit in on sensitive meetings, President No. 41 puts a special clamp on mind and mouth. Not his world, not his war. Though there are so many echoes from the past.

"It is the toughest decision a President has to make, to send the sons and daughters of Americans into harm's way," George H.W. declares. He recalls that before he sent these "wonderful young" troops into battle in Panama, the anxiety was terrible. "The night before I could not move my neck or arms. The tension had taken hold, the responsibility for those lives, even though I had been in combat myself."

The father hears the protests these days, and they are uncomfortably familiar. The Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop, Ed Browning, was outside the White House in 1991 with his NO WAR placard held high, proclaiming that combat was immoral.

The church's current Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, not only denounced war but also hinted that because George W. was for it the bishop had to apologize for being an American, as this nation was so "hated and loathed" around the globe. That brought 41 off the bench, and in one of his rare public pronouncements, he said the bishop's remarks were "offensive" and had hurt him deeply. Letters between George H.W. and the bishop are passing in the mail. George W. is mildly amused.

The former President regards Saddam Hussein and his military establishment as far less powerful now than when Desert Storm was launched. But he believes Saddam is surely far wiser about the strength of the U.S. "He had no respect for our military then," says the elder Bush. "He felt that we could not fight. Now he knows."

What is worrisome to 41 is that the battle this time is murkier than in 1991. "In our case it was clearer because Saddam had invaded another country," he says. Weapons of mass destruction harbored and hidden within Iraq is a more difficult concept for the public to understand.

For all of this, the father has not heard any self-pity or talk of the "terrible burdens" of being President from his son. He has observed how 43 uses physical workouts for rejuvenation, to blunt fatigue. Yet he knows being President has its moments of great loneliness. "The decision on the war cannot finally be made by a committee or by a general. It must be made by one person--the President."

Recently George H.W. Bush was at a little family reunion in the White House. Since 9/11 the father has become convinced that confronting terrorism is "the toughest problem facing any President since Abraham Lincoln." On that day, 41 looked up at the wall in the President's study and once again saw what he calls "a glorious picture."

The painting, by George Healy, depicts a meditative Lincoln meeting in 1865 on board the River Queen, anchored in the James River near Richmond, Va., with Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman and Admiral David Dixon Porter. The picture is named The Peacemakers, and the men are planning the end of the Civil War. In the small window behind Lincoln, the viewer can see a rainbow against a threatening sky.

The elder Bush believes that out of the dark war clouds of the moment another rainbow is coming. In a year he plans to celebrate his 80th birthday with another parachute jump and a few years after that to stand on the bridge of the new aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush as it heads to sea on its maiden voyage. He's not all that worried after all.

Copyright © 2003 Time Inc.

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