OTR Interviews

'Bush 41' Reflects on Ronald Reagan's Legacy, Medal of Freedom Honor

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," February 9, 2011. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: Tonight, inside the Reagan administration. You get a firsthand account of those memorable years through his vice president and our nation's 41st president, George Herbert Walker Bush. Now, we asked him about his friend and former boss, Ronald Reagan, who would have turned 100 years old this week.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VAN SUSTEREN: Mr. President, it's always nice to see you!

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good to see you, Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, time, it certainly does fly. It's hard to believe that President Reagan would be 100 this month.

BUSH: Amazing.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did you like him immediately? I guess (INAUDIBLE) maybe not.

BUSH: Yes, liked him immediately. But he had a kind of an entourage. He's coming -- he's coming down the hall with all these people with him. But that was -- that was not Ronald Reagan. He was really down to earth. And the minute I got to know him at all, I liked him. He was really a warm human being, a kind man and a man of principle. But he was great.

VAN SUSTEREN: It's interesting. You competed first.

BUSH: That's right.

VAN SUSTEREN: And then you were a strong team. What a difference.

BUSH: Well, that's true. And the fact you run against somebody doesn't mean (INAUDIBLE) doesn't mean you hate them or dislike them. And in my case, why, I hadn't known Reagan, as I said. And when I got to know him, I saw this wonderful human being and a kind guy, a gentle fellow in a lot of ways. And he was really wonderful to work with.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you remember when he called or sent the message to you that you were the one he wanted as vice president?

BUSH: Yes, I do. I mean, it was in -- it was at the convention and - - forget where and when, but -- San Francisco, I think. And anyway, he called over and said, I want you to be on the ticket with me. And we thought it was -- you know, it went through drill where they thought it was going to be Gerald Ford, they were going to have a, like, co-presidency. And everything in the press was saying Ford is going to be the pick. Well, he called me up in the hotel room, and I about fell over, and said, George, I want you to be my vice president. And the rest is history.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did you say yes right away, or did you talk to Mrs. Bush?

BUSH: No, I didn't talk to anybody. I said yes right away.

VAN SUSTEREN: And then you told Mrs. Bush.

BUSH: Yes, well, she was down the hall, she and our friend, Jim Baker. And it was right out of a clear blue sky. There was some speculation that he might choose me, but his -- the common wisdom was it was going to be Gerald Ford, which never would have worked. You can't have a co-presidency. You can't have one going to be in charge of foreign affairs, the other in charge of domestic affairs. And I think Reagan, when he started reading it, that was the speculation, decided heck, he didn't want that.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, there were several huge events during the course of his presidency. One was the attempted assassination on him. Where were you when that happened?

BUSH: I was in Texas. And I'll never forget it. I was in Ft. Worth, I think. He was -- I was in -- in Ft. Worth. And people said, Well, did you think the mantle of the presidency was going to descend on your shoulders? And I didn't at all. I just thought a friend had been hurt. And that's the way I felt then, and thinking back about it, that's the way I feel now.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did they rush you back to Washington? I don't remember.

BUSH: Yes, well, we got on a plane and -- to go back, and nobody was quite sure how seriously hurt Reagan was. But yes, I think there was some consternation. There was some talk about, you know, (INAUDIBLE) land on the lawn of the White House. And I said no, I'm not going to do that in the helicopter. The president does that, not the vice president, not the - - especially under these conditions.

So I went to the vice president's house and then drove down to the White House. And it was dramatic, and the whole country was up on edge about it. But I didn't go to see him in the hospital. I did go out there one time, but didn't want to be just hovering around.

VAN SUSTEREN: It was a big deal -- and people probably forget it now, but it was a huge deal when he put Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court. That was the first woman. And now it's rather commonplace. But that actually was a big step forward for women.

BUSH: Yes, it was. And that was Reagan. Never thought twice about it. I mean, he -- you know, he chose a woman he thought would be a good Justice. He didn't get into every issue, where she might stand on this question or that. He just chose her, and he never regretted it, nor did the country.

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VAN SUSTEREN: Now, don't go away. There's so much more of our interview with President Bush ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: Here's more of your interview with former President Bush.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VAN SUSTEREN: Why do you think so many people underestimated President Reagan?

BUSH: Well, I think -- I think, first place, he was a movie actor and people said, Oh, what does he know about all this issue? They forget he was governor for two terms of a huge state. So I think there was some of that. And he didn't -- he didn't -- he never tried to put himself forward in terms of all these issues as the be-all, know-all kind of guy. So I think if he was underestimated in the beginning, I think it was because here's a movie actor coming in here, what does he really know? And they found out he knew a lot.

VAN SUSTEREN: Was he well studied in terms of briefing?

BUSH: I wouldn't call him a policy wonk. I really wouldn't. He had opinions. But I don't remember his dwelling on the issues. What are we going to do with this? How are we going to change this bill to make it correct? He had a good staff around him, but he wasn't a cross-every-t, dot-every-i guy in terms of policy.

VAN SUSTEREN: I know that there's one point in history where you, at least as I understand it, suggested that he get to know Gorbachev better and develop a relationship. Am I correct on that?

BUSH: When I met Gorbachev for the first time, Reagan asked me to go to the incoming of the new general secretary. And I went, one of the leaders had died. I went to the funeral representing the president. There I met Gorbachev for the first time. I sent a cable, wrote out a cable for Reagan, saying it was a different kind of leader. This man is very different than any of the soviets that I have known, and I proved to be correct.

VAN SUSTEREN: When you became president did you have much contact with him?

BUSH: With Gorbachev?

VAN SUSTEREN: No, with President Reagan.

BUSH: Not a lot, but some. He went to California and I saw him out there, one time, couple of times, and we talked. Rarely, but we did talk. But it was a pleasant relationship.

VAN SUSTEREN: The Alzheimer's, which he very heroically struggled with and Mrs. Reagan as well. Any signs at all during the presidency?

BUSH: I never saw it. I understand that his son wrote that -- Ron Reagan, Jr. Wrote his dad had this for a long time. I never saw it. I think I would have seen it.

VAN SUSTEREN: You never saw him lose his train of thought --

BUSH: Not until after he left the presidency.

VAN SUSTEREN: When was that?

BUSH: Right afterward. I remember going to see him in California, calling on him. I forget what year it was, but right after he left. He was looking out the window. He said draw a line from there to there and then you can see the sea or something. It made no sense at all to me. But I hadn't associated it with Alzheimer's. But I think that was an indication he had it then.

VAN SUSTEREN: But he recognized you?

BUSH: Oh gosh, yes. Smiling and very -- he was just an agreeable man. He really was. It is hard to describe the warm of the man.

VAN SUSTEREN: You hear so much of that. You think he must have gotten angry sometime. I don't know anyone who says that.

BUSH: I never saw it. I'm trying to think as we are talking -- I'd see him get firm, but never lost his temper.

VAN SUSTEREN: What was Mrs. Reagan's role in the White House? Obviously the first lady, how did you feel her presence?

BUSH: She was a pretty powerful role because he laid back, so she would weigh in if she didn't like the way things were going. She dealt more with the chiefs of staff. She didn't deal with me very much.

But, one time, Don Regan was her chief of staff, and they wanted to get him out of there. I talked to Don. It was an unpleasant conversation, but in a friendly way. I said I think it is time for to you step aside.

"Did she make you do this?" I said no, just feeling it would be better for you and the administration if you moved on. He was hurt a little bit by that. But then I and told him, he said I'll resign Monday.

So on the way up to tell Reagan mission accomplished. He was in the White House residence, I got up there, and as I was walking off the elevator, the secret service guy said Mrs. Reagan is in here she wants to say hello.

I stuck my head in, and she said "How did it go George?" I said we did it. Don is going to step aside Monday. She said "That's not soon enough." What do you mean not soon enough? "He won't be again by the Sunday talk shows." I said, Nancy, the main thing he is going peacefully and it is done. "That's not soon enough." So I was annoyed by that frankly.

VAN SUSTEREN: You miss those days in the White House as vice president?

BUSH: Yes, vice president and president. Yes I miss them to some degree. But that is so long ago now Greta, I don't think about that, I really don't. From this interview you can tell I forget a lot of stuff now. I'm very content to sit here with Barbara, my two dogs, and watch TV, watch "Law & Order" reruns, and enjoy life.

VAN SUSTEREN: I think vice president is a much better job.

BUSH: You don't make any decisions that mean anything. If you want to make a decision that counts and be president, if you want to be in a high level position where you are close to the presidency but not making decisions VP is great. I loved it. I loved being vice president.

VAN SUSTEREN: Now I have to ask you a question that is not what I came to talk to you about. I must ask you. You're getting the Medal of Freedom.

BUSH: I'm very excited about that. I view it as a real honor. When Obama called me about it, I was thrilled. And I consider the Medal of Freedom a special thing. I don't know whether the American people do. But, I'll be up there proudly getting my little thing for the rosette for the lapel.

But it means something to me, it really does. Not many things do these days, but that one does.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why?

BUSH: I'm emotional about service to the country. It is the highest honor that a president can bestow on anybody. And the fact that he's giving honor means a lot. And I told him so. I told Obama that.

VAN SUSTEREN: What did he say to you in the call?

BUSH: He just said we're going to do this, and I hope you'll agree. Before he could change his mind I said I'll be there. No, it is -- I don't know, I just think it is wonderful. I'm very, truly honored. It is an honor, not just another event in your life. Not another sitting at the head table. This one I view as quite important.

VAN SUSTEREN: It's always nice to see you sir.

BUSH: Thanks for coming.

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