RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And I'm Rachel Martin in Washington, D.C., where the state funeral is about to get underway at the National Cathedral for President George H.W. Bush. At this moment, representatives from all five of the branches of the U.S. military are marching in procession outside the Capitol building. They are standing in rows along the side of the stairs. We are expecting to see the casket carrying the body of the 41st president descend those stairs. The service members will carry the casket into the vehicle. And the vehicle will make its way to the National Cathedral for the state service.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Yeah. It's like you never see the city of Washington so quiet and so still as we're watching this all take place. I mean, this has really been a moment of mourning, a moment of reflection on the legacy of the 41st president of the United States. He died Friday at the age of 94. And let's bring in one of the people who's going to talk us through the events this morning. It's NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Good morning, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, David. Good to be with you.
GREENE: Well, it's good to have you here. You know, many of George H.W. Bush's colleagues have taken time this week to talk about who he was, what he meant to American politics. Just broadly, like, what are some of the common themes that you have heard from both sides of the aisle?
HORSLEY: Well, he's being remembered fondly as the president who helped broker a peaceful end to the breakup of the Soviet Union, who helped to enforce international standards when Iraq invaded Kuwait and won the first Gulf War. His restraint at the end of that war in not proceeding onto Baghdad is a decision that looks probably more prescient with the benefit of hindsight after his son made a different calculation some years later. Domestically, he's being remembered as someone who signed the Americans With Disabilities Act but whose legacy was tarnished in the moment by a painful recession that probably cost him his chances at being elected to a second term.
MARTIN: Many people will remember that loss. It was devastating to him. And it was something that - it took him a long time to sort of come to grips with.
HORSLEY: Well, and it also illustrates the sort of curious cycles in American politics. At the end of the Gulf War, he was considered unbeatable. His approval ratings were near 90 percent. He was considered such a lock on a second term that a lot of national Democratic figures chose to sit out the 1992 election. And so it fell to the rather obscure governor of a small Southern state - guy named Bill Clinton - to challenge Bush. But between the end of the Gulf War and the - November of '92, the recession took place. And the economy, stupid, along with a third-party run by Ross Perot helped catapult Bill Clinton into the White House in George H.W. Bush's place. The two of them, of course, then would later go on to become good friends and sort of partners in their post-presidencies, traveling the world to help out in various humanitarian causes.
MARTIN: I mean, the goal force in making that decision in '91 was such a touchstone of his presidency. And as you point out, there were people who criticized him. We've got some tape of him explaining his decision to enter that first Gulf War. Let's listen to this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GEORGE BUSH: I'm convinced not only that we will prevail, but that out of the horror of combat will come the recognition that no nation can stand against a world united. No nation will be permitted to brutally assault its neighbor.
MARTIN: How has the public perception, Scott, of that decision to enter that war - how has it changed over the years?
HORSLEY: Well, it's almost sort of hard to think back to what it was like in those days. But first of all, the decision to go into Kuwait and to drive the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait was controversial at the time. We were still living in that - in those days sort of under the shadow of Vietnam and unsuccessful military encounters. And I think the first Gulf War probably exorcised the demons of Vietnam for a lot of Americans. It was a tremendously successful and short military campaign. And it was also a campaign in which then-President Bush was able to assemble an international coalition to stand up for the principle that Iraq could not simply invade its neighbor Kuwait.
As I say, there was some second guessing at the end of the war when George H.W. Bush elected not to move beyond the border and press on to Baghdad and topple Saddam Hussein. A lot of that second guessing, I think, has been stilled in the wake of George W. Bush's decision to move into Iraq and the long-lived consequences of that decision.
GREENE: Scott, I just want to - I want to play a little bit of tape as well from what a lot of people see as a defining moment for the former president and also a moment when he sort of laid out kind of his view and what he saw as his purpose. This is from his speech at his 1989 inauguration.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BUSH: America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world. My friends, we have work to do.
GREENE: I mean, a kindler (ph), gentler America - Bush lays that out. And many of his critics - I mean, they went right to this narrative that that made him weak. And, you know, I think back to the fall of the Soviet Union. And the president was criticized for not standing by some of the revolutionary movements in Eastern Europe at a time when he was viewed as being pragmatic. But a lot of people have looked back at that time now and sort of talked about whether or not pragmatism was absolutely the right move. But that really was a knock against him that it seemed like the first Gulf War - I mean, as you talked about, that was one way of him really challenging that narrative.
HORSLEY: Well, dealing with the weak factor was always a challenge for George H.W. Bush going back to his early campaigns. And it's sort of hard to imagine that when we think about his - the total arc of his life - you know, a young hero of World War II, a naval aviator, someone who held just about every position in government and who had shown a lot of spine in a lot of those positions. I mean, it took a certain amount of spine to assemble the coalition that drove Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait. It also took a certain amount of spine, and he might have said prudence, to then exercise caution and not move into Baghdad.
The same sort of prudence was very much in evidence as the Berlin Wall fell, the Cold War came to an end and the Soviet Union broke up. He navigated that in a way that, in hindsight, seems very responsible. And the fact that the Soviet Union broke up peacefully was far from inevitable. Had he engaged in a more sort of triumphalist strutting around as America emerged as the sole superpower, it might have triggered a very different sort of reaction in the former Soviet republics and caused some trouble that we, actually, sometimes see now in some of the nationalist movements that have emerged since his time.
MARTIN: Right. I spoke with a historian at a school in Texas, Southern Methodist University. And he specializes in looking back at George H.W.'s letters and reflections. And when he was talking to me about some of what the president was thinking at that time when the wall came down, he said that the president kept writing one word - Tiananmen, Tiananmen, Tiananmen. He was thinking about not just the victory and the exalted moment of the wall coming down. He was thinking about the worst-case scenario. What happens when the democratic uprising is crushed? What happens if there's violence?
HORSLEY: And Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, will be in attendance at the National Cathedral today, one of many world leaders who is joining in this state funeral. And certainly, her presence is a nod to George H.W. Bush's support for the reunification of Germany after the fall of the wall - again, not something that was preordained or obvious.
GREENE: And just watching the scenes from Washington now, I mean, the city seems to be in, I mean, an absolute standstill, almost a moment of silence. There are some motorcades on the move. And again, the casket's going to be brought from the U.S. Capitol to the National Cathedral where there will be the funeral ceremony in just a little while this morning. Among others who will be eulogizing President George H.W. Bush will be President George W. Bush, his son, which will be quite a moment. And just stepping back, Scott, the idea that you have a former president eulogizing his own father, another former president - that has not happened very often in the United States of America - one other time, I believe. Right?
HORSLEY: No, it's...
GREENE: Well, not the eulogy. I mean, one other time you had a father-son...
HORSLEY: Father-Son combination.
GREENE: ...Pair, yeah.
HORSLEY: It's a remarkable dynasty. And, of course, it goes back to George H.W. Bush's father, Prescott Bush, who was himself a U.S. senator. In fact, we're seeing right now buses carrying the Bush family pulling up to the east side of the Capitol in preparation for the transit of the casket, where it's been lying in state since Monday, down those steps on the east side of the Capitol, past a special honor guard made up of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But as I look at those buses of Bush...
MARTIN: There are many of them. Right?
HORSLEY: ...Family members.
GREENE: Yeah. It's a very big family.
HORSLEY: It's a large and distinguished family with a long track record of service. Of course, there's another - the next generation of Bushes is now serving. So it's quite a story. And you're right. It's going to be interesting to see George W. Bush deliver the eulogy today. Of course, his brother Jeb Bush delivered the eulogy at Barbara Bush's funeral back in April.
MARTIN: And what a moment. Right? Like, in all the political divisiveness, the death of a president is something that brings people together. President Trump will be in attendance. While not speaking, he will be there. He has had his own animosity with the Bush family. But, Scott, this is really a moment where people come together.
HORSLEY: Yes. And the Bushes went out of their way, I think, to make it clear that Trump would be welcome at the funeral. And he's been on his best behavior in the last few days.
MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley helping us walk through remarkable events today - the funeral - the state funeral of President George Herbert Walker Bush. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.