On the eve of launching Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein's invasion, President George H.W. Bush irritated top U.S. military officials -- including then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell -- by insisting that the head of the Central Intelligence Agency review the Pentagon's pre-selected bombing targets and report back to him.
The revelation is one of many contained in the official oral history of the first Bush presidency, the audiotapes and transcripts from which are being released to the public this afternoon by the George Bush Library Foundation and the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Fox News obtained excerpts from the tapes and transcripts in advance.
In another interesting detail, Bush's 1988 presidential campaign briefly considered signing on tough-guy actor Clint Eastwood as a running mate, the tapes show. Bush ultimately went with then-Sen. Dan Quayle.
More than a decade in the making, the project encompassed lengthy recorded interviews with more than 50 senior officials who served in the White House and key federal agencies between January 1989, when Bush was sworn in as the nation's 41st president, and January 1993, when he left office after suffering a stinging election defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton.
Notable interviewees included former Vice President Quayle; former CIA Director Robert Gates; former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft; and Cheney, among many others.
Conducted by a team of more than three dozen trained historians, the oral history focused on all the major events of the first Bush presidency, a transitional time that witnessed the effective end of the post-World War II and Cold War eras. With sometimes surprising candor, interviewees discussed such momentous historical episodes as the fall of the Soviet Union and the attempt to build a "new world order"; the Persian Gulf War; German reunification; and the controversial nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.
Gates, who later served as defense secretary under the elder Bush's son, George W. Bush, and continued in that office under President Obama, recalled how Bush 41, during the planning for Desert Storm, recruited him to oversee and approve critical war plans.
"The president sent me over to the Pentagon to review the (bombing) target list, to make sure that there were no churches, mosques, hospitals," the former CIA director said in his oral history interview, conducted in August 2000. "'Are we going to bomb something that was right next to a great historical treasure?'" he quoted the president as asking.
"(It was) the only time the president looked over Cheney and Powell's shoulder in terms of the military campaign, and particularly the bombing targets," Gates said. "This didn't sit terribly well over at the Pentagon. ... Sort of smiling through gritted teeth, Cheney and Powell and I, over lunch -- or Cheney and Powell with the gritted teeth -- over a sandwich, took me through the target list. And I was able to go back and assure the president."
"They didn't like it very much," Gates said of Cheney and Powell. "It was an awkward situation for me."
James A. Baker III, who served as the elder Bush's 1988 campaign manager and secretary of state, was interviewed twice for the project, once in January 2000 and again in March of this year. In the first session, Baker discussed the slate of Republican politicians whom then-Vice President Bush considered tapping as his running mate for the 1988 election. Besides Quayle and a few individuals whose names were widely speculated as contenders for the spot -- Robert Dole, Jack Kemp, Alan Simpson -- Baker also disclosed that a surprise choice was considered -- legendary actor Eastwood.
"When we were way behind," Baker said. "Honestly, it was suggested in not an altogether unserious (way).
"He was a Republican mayor (of Carmel, California). Anyway, it was shot down pretty quick," Baker laughed. "But we were looking at an 18-point deficit."
Bobbie Greene Kilberg, who had also served in the Nixon administration, rose under Bush 41 to the position of director of the White House office of intergovernmental relations. She recalled the reverence in which the president held the sanctity of the Oval Office. Dispatched once to speak with him while he was playing tennis on the South Lawn of the White House complex, Kilberg found Mr. Bush happy to return with her to retrieve a specific document. But she was startled when their paths diverged.
"We started walking up, I thought, toward the Oval Office," Kilberg recalled in 2009, "and he said, 'Where are you going?' and I said, 'I'm going to your office.' 'No, no,' he said, 'I'm in tennis shorts.' I said, 'So?' He said, 'No, just wait, I'll be back.' So he went into the residence, got dressed, put on a coat and tie and jacket, walked into the Oval Office, handed me the paper, and left. But he would not go into that office in tennis togs. He didn't believe that was appropriate."
Fred McClure, who served as a legislative aide to the elder Bush, lamented that his staff disserved him by not providing the president with a way to defuse the damage he did by reneging on his famous pledge: "Read my lips: No new taxes!"
"We didn't do a very good job, frankly, of positioning the president, or getting the president to say the kinds of things that he needed to say to get beyond that," McClure recalled in his oral history session, conducted on September 20, 2001. "In retrospect, it could have been, you know, sort of a (Bill) Clinton approach: 'I'm sorry. I did it. Okay. Things have changed. I didn't mean it. Now, let's go on down the road.' I mean, it, it -- we didn't do that."
Cheney was interviewed in March 2000, shortly before he became George W. Bush's vice presidential running mate. He marveled at the credentials the elder Bush presented for his job, especially in wartime. "If you were to go out and design a president to be commander in chief in a crisis like Desert Storm, you couldn't do any better than what we had with George Bush," Cheney said. "In terms of his experiences -- combat pilot in World War II, (U.S. ambassador to the) U.N., (U.S. ambassador to) China, (director of) CIA, vice president. ... Whatever successes we enjoyed ... you have to start with the man."
James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole."