United States Senate
 GO
United States Senate Senators HomeCommittees HomeLegislation & Records HomeArt & History HomeVisitor Center HomeReference Home
United States Senate
People
Origins & Development
Senate Stories
Art & History Exhibits
Decorative Art
Paintings
Sculpture
Graphic Arts
Oral History Homepage


  
 
 
Address by President George H.W. Bush, January 20, 1999

Former President George Bush speaks in the Old Senate Chamber.

View the Video

Introduction by Senator Trent Lott

If ever there were an occasion to dispense with an introduction, this would be it. For our honored guest this evening -- the fourth speaker in our Leader's Lecture Series -- has been more than just a familiar face on the political scene. He has led the American people in peace and in war. He has become, by his deeds and by his character, an icon of the presidency itself.

Although he was never a Senator, he was part of the Senate family in two respects. The first was the fact that his father served in this body for a decade, representing the State of Connecticut in an era when Yankee New England was Republican and my own State of Mississippi was part of the Democrats' Solid South.

But times change, in more ways than one, and when our speaker came to the Senate as its President, by virtue of becoming the nation's Vice President, he hailed from Texas -- a far piece away from his ancestral home.

There in Texas he had made his mark, as a businessman, a civic leader, and eventually as a Congressman. He also twice ran for the Senate, in 1964 before he came to the House of Representatives, and in 1970, when he left the House. And twice he lost. There is probably a lesson in that for all of us.

With his career in electoral politics seemingly behind him, our guest nonetheless continued his family's legacy of public service. Within the span of six years, he served as his country's Ambassador to the United Nations, his party's national chairman, his government's representative to the People's Republic of China, and his President's director of the CIA.

That would be accomplishment enough for most men and women, but in this case it was merely the warm up for the big game. That came in the presidential election of 1980, for which he announced his aspirations at an unprecedentedly early press conference in 1979. Once again, he lost -- at least in the short run -- and the Republican presidential nomination went to another.

At this point, as ever in his past, duty outweighed disappointment. As a result, he served two terms as Vice President -- which is to say, eight years as President of the Senate -- all the while as our colleague and our friend. He set an example of personal loyalty to President Reagan, and at the same time, was often a voice from, and advocate for, the Congress within the White House. When political scientists search for the archetype of the modern vice presidency -- engaged, effective, respected -- they will find it during his tenure in that office.

Those eight years were, of course, a prelude to his presidency. The decisions he made, and the policies he pursued, during those four years will long be debated. But that is a discussion for a later time. For now, I would like to step out of chronological sequence and go back several decades, before our speaker achieved prominence. For in that earlier time are the keys to what he would later become and what he would eventually accomplish.

If this was a candidate who couldn't bring himself to engage in the politics of mud and of mischief, he was also the youngster who learned at home, under the gaze of his family portraits, the politics of purpose and of patriotism.

If this was a leader who assembled the century's greatest alliance in support of the Gulf War, he was also the young Lieutenant, barely out of his teens, who flew into battle in World War II, was shot down over the Pacific, and never forgot his pals who never made it home.

If this was a man who urged his fellow Americans to turn their humanitarianism into a thousand points of light, he was also the young father who knew the pain of losing a child to illness and who saw no contradiction between caring and conservatism. Wordsworth was correct: The child is indeed father of the man. In that sense, the lifelong achievements of our guest flowed from a character that had been formed in youth. And formed, we should add, in honor and in courage, in a love of country and of family, and in a faith that strengthens and sustains.

The result was a proud American who made America proud. Join me, please, in welcoming back to the Senate President George Bush.

Address by President George Bush

What a special pleasure it is to look around this room and see so many respected former colleagues -- and friends. As a former member of the extended Senate family, tonight has a certain homecoming feel to it. It's nice to be back.

It is particularly an honor to follow in the footsteps of the distinguished leaders who preceded me as lecturers for this series. Mike Mansfield, Howard Baker, and Robert Byrd are true giants in the Senate's history -- each, in his own way, "a Senator's Senator." In this room, it doesn't get any better than that.

It being apparent that a quorum is present, I feel it only proper to establish a single ground rule. I am ill suited to "lecture" anyone here about the Senate. As the resident expert on ancient Greek history, not to mention the Senate itself, Senator Byrd can tell you what happened to Socrates. Socrates was the great philosopher who used to go around lecturing everybody . . . until they poisoned him.

So to be clear, this is not a lecture. Nor is it a filibuster.

Speaking of filibusters, Barbara is sorry she couldn't be here this evening.

Yesterday, we were in Austin to see our son, George W., sworn in for his second term as Texas Governor. And two weeks ago, we were in Tallahassee to see our other politically active son, Jeb, sworn in as Governor of Florida.

Today, the boys are sworn in . . . and their parents are worn out.

(My politics today relate to our two sons. I think this is my first visit to the Senate since leaving Washington on January 20, 1993 -- six years ago today.)

Of course, 18 years ago today, Barbara and I were participating in another inauguration -- one that brought us back to Washington, and back to Capitol Hill.

It's funny, I ran for the Senate twice -- both times with a spectacular lack of success. But for eight years, and then four more after that, all the Senators called me "Mr. President."

As President of the Senate

When I reported to the Senate in 1981, without a doubt the biggest influence made on me in terms of the Senate came from my father's 11 years of service here. My Dad loved the Senate. He had come out of a business background, and had done his civic duty serving as Town Moderator of Greenwich, Connecticut.

He respected his fellow Senators. He found the Senate a civil place to be. The term "gentleman," he felt, applied far more often than not -- just as term "gentle lady" applied to Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and other distinguished women who have called the Senate home.

My Dad and LBJ could be cross-threaded, as we say in the oil business, often disagreeing on issues. But on more than one occasion he told me he respected LBJ's leadership. I'll never forget it. He said: "Lyndon's word was good. If he said a vote would be at a certain time, you could bet your bottom dollar that that was what would happen." Dad felt that LBJ as leader was fair to the minority and ran a tight ship.

Like my Dad, my predecessor in the Vice Presidency and the White House, Harry Truman, loved the Senate. Truman called the 10 years he spent here in the Senate the "happiest of his life" -- and I have to say I enjoyed my eight years here, too.

In letters written to his beloved wife, Bess, then-Senator Truman confided it took a while to learn the ropes. Along the way, one valuable piece of advice he received came from Ham Lewis of Illinois, the second-longest serving Democratic Whip. Said Lewis to the Missouri freshman: "For the first six months you'll wonder how you got here. After that, you'll wonder how the rest of us got here."

Later, Truman would write: "I soon found that, among my 95 colleagues, the real business of the Senate was carried on by unassuming and conscientious men -- not by those who managed to get the most publicity." Clearly, this was before the days of C-SPAN.

As for me, I loved interacting with Senators from both parties. Of course, it was easier for me, better, as Vice President. For one thing, with Howard Baker at the helm, my party controlled the Senate for my first six years here -- that helped. But after I moved down the street to the White House, my dealings with the Senate seemed to involve more raw politics.

As President of the Senate, the primary constitutional role I served was breaking tie votes. I cast seven tie-breaking votes as VP -- three times alone on the esoteric matter of nerve gas. (Most unpopular, those tie-breakers were.)

A myth arose from one of those votes that my mother bawled me out. Well, she didn't quite do that. She did give advice, however. After attending my first State of the Union speech as Vice President, for example, Mother called to say she had noticed that I was talking to Tip O'Neill while President Reagan was addressing the country. "He started it," was all I could think to say.

"Another thing," she continued. "You should try smiling more."

"But Mum, the President was talking about nuclear annihilation."

Everyone belittles the job of Vice President. The saying goes that the daily duties of the Vice President include presiding over the Senate and checking the health of the President. Theodore Roosevelt derided it as a "stepping stone to oblivion." FDR's first VP, "Cactus" Jack Garner, said the vice presidency "wasn't worth a warm pitcher of spit" -- lovely thought, that.

(Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. went so far as to suggest abolishing the office altogether, but then old Sam Rayburn would be quick to note that Arthur had "never run for sheriff" himself.)

When asked his thoughts on the Vice Presidency, LBJ, who was Majority Leader at the time, said: "I wouldn't want to trade a vote for a gavel, and I certainly wouldn't want to trade the active position of leadership of the greatest deliberative body in the world for the part-time job of presiding."

In fact, LBJ wielded so much power as Majority Leader that, when John Kennedy introduced him at a 1959 Boston dinner, he observed that: "Some people say our speaker might be President in 1960, but, frankly, I don't see why he should take the demotion."

A year later, Kennedy became only the second Senator to be elected President directly from the Senate -- and as we now know, LBJ traded his vote for the gavel. Explaining his acquiescence to accepting the Number Two spot on the ticket, he said: "I felt that it offered opportunities that I had really never had before in either . . . the House or the Senate."

The truth is: Many pundits and press people ridicule the Vice Presidency to this day, but most Members of Congress would readily take the job. As Presidents delegate more responsibilities to their VPs, the job has become more productive. And, TR's critique notwithstanding, it has proven to be a fairly good stepping stone to the Presidency -- or at least the party nomination.

As President of the United States

Just as LBJ became a revered role model for students of the Senate, I also learned from his example when I became President.

In his memoirs, LBJ stated he was "determined, from the time I became President, to seek the fullest support of Congress for any major action that I took." I shared his desire to achieve consensus where possible.

When I raised my right hand and took the oath of office 10 years ago today, I meant it when I held out my hand and pledged to work with the leadership here on Capitol Hill. And despite the ugliness that erupted early on over the Tower nomination -- and later over the nomination of Justice Thomas -- I was generally pleased with much of what we accomplished during the first two years. Both the Clean Air Acts and the Americans with Disabilities Act were landmark pieces of legislation that became a reality only after the White House and the Senate demonstrated bipartisanship and compromise.

Of course, every so often, an issue would trigger the tensions built into Mr. Madison's system of checks and balance. When it did, progress necessarily became more difficult to achieve. The irony is: Many observers would look at this so-called "gridlock" and think the system was broken -- when it was actually performing its "salutary check on the government," just as the framers intended.

Then came the fall of 1990, when two major issues came to the fore: The budget, and the Gulf crisis. From the beginning, I wanted bipartisanship on both issues -- and consensus. But I soon found out that consensus, on either matter, would not be easy to achieve.

For example, there was a fundamental difference of opinion between the Senate and the White House over the Senate's role in declaring war -- one that dated back to the War Powers Act. Like all of my predecessors, I believed the War Powers Act to be unconstitutional; but as President, I still felt an obligation to consult fully with the Senate. In my mind, not agreeing with the War Powers Act did not mean "failure to consult."

And during the course of the Gulf crisis, I consulted with the Congressional leadership and bipartisan groups on more than 20 occasions -- not including individual meetings and phone calls. I always remembered how LBJ had gone the extra mile to work with Congress at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964. As he candidly confided that August 4th, during a meeting with nine Senators (led by Mike Mansfield) and seven House leaders in the Cabinet Room, he said he didn't want to "go in unless Congress goes in with me." The resolution subsequently passed the House unanimously -- 416 to none. In the Senate, the tally was 88 to 2 in favor.

(Incidentally, LBJ thought Truman had made a mistake not asking for a resolution of support from Congress when he went into Korea. It wasn't until the Formosa Straits crisis erupted early in 1955 that a President would reach out to Congress in such a fashion. On January 24, 1955, the House took but an hour to consider President Eisenhower's message requesting a resolution before it passed 410 to 3. Four days later, the Senate followed suit by an 83 to 3 margin.)

If I had to pick one vote, I'd say the Senate vote in January 1991 on the resolution authorizing me to use "any means necessary" in order to liberate Kuwait was the key Senate vote during my Presidency. To be honest, for weeks we debated whether to try and pass such a resolution in the Senate. I'm glad we did bring it here, and pleased that it passed. But the 52-47 margin was the slimmest Senate margin ever to vote for war, and naturally I regret that we couldn't convince more in the Majority to help us send a clear and united signal to Saddam, and the world, about our resolve to lead.

Before the resolution passed, my respected friend Senator Inouye came to me and warned that "if things go wrong (on the use of force), you could well be impeached." I'll never forget that. As it was, several House members had already filed papers of impeachment.

But we stayed the course, and I hope history will say not only that we won - but that we won with honor. And when our troops came home, this time they were welcomed with cheers -- not jeers. It was a united country that saluted our troops, united by a new respect for our military and for US world leadership.

Prior to the commencement of Desert Storm, we honored Congress' right to be heard, and to cast their votes, before a single shot was fired. In ending the war when we did, after Kuwait had been liberated, we also kept our word to our coalition partners -- and abided by the international authority under which we agreed to operate. Our principled leadership and restraint enhanced our credibility in the region, and earned us a windfall of political capital -- which we, in turn, used to jump-start the peace process.

As President, it fell to me to lead this effort; but let me note for the record that no President was ever more blessed by a superb team. "Excellence" best describes the people I had at my side.

Relations with the Senate

I also want to note the special role played by one of your future speakers in this outstanding series, Bob Dole. It is well-known that Bob and I went head-to-head a time or two on the campaign trail -- but when the dust of political combat settled, we were always able to put it behind us, and close ranks. It's a good thing, too, for during my four years as President, I earned the distinction as only the second Chief Executive to serve a full term without party control in either House of Congress. As a result, I came to rely heavily on Bob Dole -- and not once did he let me down.

He was the model party leader in the Senate -- never putting his agenda ahead of the President's. In my opinion, you could write a textbook based on the way he handled a tough job. Through it all, he showed great class, and courage, and leadership.

In the final analysis, I had my chance to serve, and did my best. I messed some things up, and maybe got a few things right. For four years, I was up against a Senate majority that looked very differently at some of the key issues I faced as President, but I never felt that it wasn't within their right. That's just the way it was, and I am quite content to step aside and let history judge the merits of our actions.

Now, since leaving office, I have stayed away from Washington - but that does not mean I lack interest in events here. I have refrained from commenting on the serious matter now before the Senate -- and will continue to do so. But like Howard Baker and many others, I confess that the lack of civility in our political debate and official dealings with one another concerns me.

I worry, too, about sleaze -- about excessive intrusion into private lives. I worry about once-great news organizations reduced to tabloid journalism -- giving us sensationalism at best, smut at worst. (I have to be careful: I used to go around bashing the media, to standing ovations I might add, until a friend wrote and told me to stop it. So I joined Press Bashers Anonymous . . . and I've been clean for six months now.) But I do think the press needs to be more accountable.

All in all, it seems to me that, whereas the problems looming over this town dealt more with budget deficits in times past, today we are confronted with a deficit of decency -- one that deepens by the day. Washington is a place for big ideas, and doing big things; but it's also a small town in many respects, too small for the bitter rancor that has divided us as people in recent times.

Having said that, as a former President, I don't believe in placing outside pressure on the Senate. I have felt it is better for the Senate to chart its own course and do its business without my intervention.

It is a popular notion, in some quarters, to name former Presidents as "senators-for-life." After seeing what has happened to General Pinochet, I'd rather pass on that. I am not one who feels that former residents of 1600 Pennsylvania must be consulted, or that some office must be created to use their expertise.

Writing in his book Mr. Citizen after he left Office, President Truman suggested designating former Presidents as "free" members of Congress -- with the right to sit in the Congress, take part in the debate, and sit in on any committee meetings, but with no right to vote. (This from a dangerously titled chapter, "What to do with Former Presidents?") I have great respect for President Truman, but no interest in such a concept.

Besides, should I speak up on a hot or controversial issue, some enterprising reporter would go to one of my sons and say: "Your nutty father feels this way, Governor. How do you feel?"

They don't need that grief -- nor do I.

It was Thomas Jefferson who said: "There is a fullness of time when men should go, and not occupy too long the high ground to which others have the right to advance."

So it is for the Bush family, just as it is here in the Senate family.

In his 1963 book, A Senate Diary, journalist Allen Drury published the daily diary he kept from 1943 to 1945 when he was a newly assigned reporter covering Capitol Hill. It's an extraordinary book that recorded his initial impressions, and captured the essence of the daily proceedings -- particularly in the Senate.

Of the Senators themselves, Drury summarized: "You will find them very human, and you can thank God they are. You will find that they consume a lot of time arguing, and you can thank God they do. You will find that the way they do things is occasionally brilliant but slow and uncertain, and you can thank God that it is . . . That is their greatness and their strength; that is what makes (the Senate) the most powerful guarantor of human liberties free men have devised."

One last thought about the Senate

Fifty years ago, I was starting out in the oil business - out on the dusty expanse of West Texas. In those days, in that place, a man's word was his bond. So much so, in fact, that much of our business was done on a handshake.

There aren't many places where you can still do business on a handshake. But you can still do it in the United States Senate.

Indeed, gathered as we are in this solemn setting, we not only marvel at how the universe outside these hallowed walls has changed over the last 189 years - we also take comfort at how much the world inside these walls has remained the same - how a timeless code of duty and honor has endured. And we can thank Almighty God that it has.

In this light, it is fitting to close with the words Aaron Burr used to close his career in the Senate. In his retirement address of 1805, Burr eloquently noted: "It is here, in this exalted refuge; here, if anywhere, will resistance be made to the storms of political frenzy and the silent arts of corruption . . ."

As long as there exists a Senate, there will exist a place of constancy, of Madisonian firmness -- a place unlike any other, where the sacred principles of freedom and justice are eternally safeguarded. As with this majestic chamber, may we always be humbled before it -- and cherish it ever more.

Thank you very much.

Remarks by Senator Tom Daschle

Mr. President, I think you know after that response to your speech, how well received you are tonight. We thank you for your eloquence and for your thoughtful comments, as you shared them with us tonight.

Senator Lott noted in his introduction that this President represents a public career that is vastly diverse. It is perhaps in some respects more diverse than any other speaker we have had to date. He had the responsibility as Director of the CIA. We could call him Ambassador. We could call him Congressman. We could call him Vice President. And certainly Mr. President.

I think about that and all of those titles as I think of my fondest memory of my experience with President Bush. I recall swimming in the House gym many, many years ago. And I was reminded tonight as I listened to his comments about civility and about how in some ways maybe things have changed. My family and I were swimming in the House gym on a Saturday afternoon. My son was about 10 years old. The phone rang. There were two phones right next to the water, I ran to one -- swam to one, my son swam to the other. We both picked them up simultaneously. It was the Vice President.

He said, "Who is this?"

I said, "This is Tom Daschle."

He said, "Tom, I was just swimming there a few minutes ago and I have left my glasses somewhere and I am not sure I know -- I think I know where it was. Let me explain where I think they are."

Right away my son said, "George, I'll find them."

(Laughter.)

And he described them and a few minutes later he came back and the voice said, "George, I found them right where you said they were."

The Vice President was very grateful. On Monday, the Vice President called me. He said, "Tom, I just want to thank you again for finding my glasses and putting them in my locker as I requested." I said, "Mr. Vice President, I have to apologize for my son. I told him afterwards he should never address you as George."

About 3 days later my son got a nice note. As we know, the President is famous for writing. He said:

Dear Nathan, I want to thank you for finding my glasses. I appreciate them very much. I can see much better with them.

He went on to say how grateful he would be if my son would come by his office, to receive another personal thank you. And signed the note, "George Bush, Vice President of the United States." But down on the bottom of the note was a P.S.: "But you can call me George."

(Laughter.)

I still can't call him George. But I think I can safely say tonight, we can all call you friend -- our friend, our former President, our former Ambassador, our former Vice President. We are grateful that you took time out of your schedule to share your thoughts with us tonight. On behalf of Democrats and Republicans alike, we hope you can come back often. Thank you, again.

Return to Leader's Lecture Series Table of Contents Page

 
  

E-mail a Senate historian

Information provided by the Senate Historical Office.

Questions about Senate History?
Email a Senate historian.