Return to Transcripts main page


Interview with Former President George W. Bush; GW Bush: "I Hope Jeb Runs"

Aired May 1, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: We're coming to you live from Crawford, Texas, where it is a lovely day for a bike ride with the 43rd president of the United States.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.


TAPPER: I'm not going to be trying to beat you, just so you know.



TAPPER: The national lead, George W. Bush rides again, the former president leading wounded veterans on an odyssey under the hot Texas sun.

But before he pedals off, he talks with me about his legacy, about Vladimir Putin and his brother Jeb's own potential hopes for the Oval Office.


BUSH: So,, hey Jeb, if you got -- if you need some advice, give me a call.


TAPPER: The politics lead, if Jeb Bush does decide to run, how would he stack up against a Hillary Clinton candidacy? In the battle for 2016, which political dynasty would win?

And the world lead -- Malaysia finally releases its report on Flight 370's disappearance just as the prime minister vowed to see an end. So, does it end questions about the competence of the response? Well, far from it.

Welcome to THE LEAD coming to you live from the Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, Texas, better known as the home away from home for our 43rd president, George W. Bush.

I sat down with the former president here at what was once referred to as the Western White House during his time in office. We had a wide- ranging conversation about everything from wounded warriors to his brother Jeb's potential ambition to become the third President Bush, to whether Vladimir Putin has changed in the years since Bush famously saw his soul.

Mr. Bush even weighed in on the racial controversy in the NBA.

But our nation's veterans, as I said, they are the reason we are here today. It was right here at this ranch in the Texas wild that Mr. Bush grappled so often with some of the toughest decisions of his presidency, decisions that would put American service men and women in harm's way, in the name of national security.

We can debate the merits of those wars, and we have on this show. We will again, but today is not a day for that. Today is a day for honoring and understanding those whom this nation sent to fight those wars.

Reverent of his and the nation's debt to those who serve, President Bush invited to his ranch 16 veterans who suffered serious wounds while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, wars he began, wars he presided over. For the fourth year, President Bush is leading them on a 62- mile bicycle ride over the next three days.

Mr. Bush was kind enough to invite us along for the ride. So, I slipped on a helmet and some carefully chosen bike attire, and I pedaled out on what proved to be a rather rigorous course. At age 67, the former president is a tough man to keep up with out there on those trails, even after his major health scare last year.


TAPPER: First of all, thank you so much for doing this. We appreciate it.

BUSH: Well, we're honored you're here. And we thank you very much for joining us on the ride.


TAPPER: We will see how it goes.

So, this is your first time doing this since last August, when you had the stent put in.

BUSH: Correct. Yes. Yes.

TAPPER: Are you ready? Are you going to be able to do it?

BUSH: Oh, yes.

TAPPER: How is your health?

BUSH: Good, yes. Feeling great.

Fortunately, they caught the clogged artery before it became a real problem. And my health is great. TAPPER: I want you to know, I have heard that you're a demon on the bike.


BUSH: Well, I will try not to be.

TAPPER: I'm not going to be trying to beat you, just so you know.

BUSH: This is not a macho contest. This is a celebration honoring people who have sacrificed for the country.

Riding with the best.

TAPPER: Well, let's talk about -- it's an interesting event, because it's not a big, splashy, thousands-of-people event.

BUSH: Right.

TAPPER: It's you and 20 or so wounded warriors and then a few other people.

BUSH: Right.

TAPPER: Why? Why the intimate setting?

BUSH: Well, first of all, the reason I did it at all is because I want the vets to know I love them and respect them and care about them.

As you know, I'm not a very public figure these days. I have got a public name, but I don't spend a lot of time on the airwaves. And so, therefore, I was worried that the vets would say, well, Bush doesn't care about us anymore.

Social networking enables a smaller event like this to be pretty widely advertised.

TAPPER: Some of these scars are visible. Some are them are not visible. Some of them are traumatic brain injury, TBI, or post- traumatic stress.

BUSH: Yes. That's exactly right.

Many of the men who have PTS will tell you that biking has helped them recover. It -- PTS is an injury, and which means it's fixable over time.

TAPPER: And I noticed you have dropped the D. It's not PTSD anymore.

BUSH: I have dropped the D. And thank you for reminding the viewers of that.

D stands for disorder. And we don't view and a lot of the experts don't view PTS as a disorder. It's an injury. And that's really important for a lot of reasons. It's important to eliminate stigma. So, you put on your form, an employment form, I have got PTSD, an employer is going to say, I don't want to hire somebody with a disorder. But an employer will hire somebody with an injury, because injuries are fixable.

TAPPER: I have heard you talk about the chasm, the distance between the 1 percent who serve and the 99 percent of us who don't.

BUSH: Yes. That's right.

TAPPER: People who haven't.

BUSH: Yes.

TAPPER: And there is this chasm. It's difficult to bridge. I wonder how you think we can bridge it.

BUSH: I think that our society is adjusting to the reality of vets returning from overseas.

And it's important for those of us who have got a bully pulpit or a platform to help explain to our fellow citizens that it's one thing to be compassionate for our vets, but another thing to better understand them.

So, the Bush Center, our part is this. We're teaming up with Syracuse University to do an exhaustive study about vets' expectations and public's expectations of vets. And we have found, like you mentioned, there's a language barrier, for example.

And one of our missions is to help those who employ vets or intend to employ vets better understand the character that is bringing -- and to help vets understand how best to convince an employer that they're worthy of employment.

TAPPER: When you see these men and women with injuries, I know, as commander in chief -- I read "Decision Points" -- you're confident in the decisions you made. As a human being, what do you feel when you see these individuals? You sent them off to battle...

BUSH: Yes, I did.

TAPPER: ... in the same why that I'm sure Eisenhower or others who sent people off to battle must feel something emotionally.

Do you feel responsible for them? Do you feel indebted to them? Do you feel guilty? Do you protective?

BUSH: I feel honored to have served with them.

I feel that they're the best America produces, because they volunteered in the face of danger. I, of course, feel very sympathetic for them. On the other hand, most of them don't want sympathy. They want help.

I am amazed, Jake, by the number of people that walk up and say, please don't feel sorry for me. I know you did the best you could do. I would do it again, Mr. President.

But no question I feel -- for some that may not be able to recover, I feel sadness.

TAPPER: I talk to a lot of veterans, as I know you do. One frustration I hear from them all the time is how to deal with their injuries and wounds through the Veterans Administration system.

BUSH: Yes.

TAPPER: There was a story CNN did a few weeks ago, I'm not sure if you saw, about delays and treatments for 40 veterans that might have ended up -- they died before they could get the treatment.

BUSH: Yes.

TAPPER: When you were president, there was the whole incident at Walter Reed.

BUSH: Yes.

TAPPER: I know that there are a lot of successes and they don't get the attention. But how does it make you feel when you hear that, when you hear stories like that?

BUSH: Well, I think -- I think, first of all, VA is a well-intended bureaucracy. And, as you said, many cases are treated efficiently.

When you really think about the supply of vets, you have got World War II vets that are aged. You have got Vietnam vets dealing with issues, and now you have a whole slew of Iraq and Afghanistan vets. And so people are doing the best they can. Are we solving every case? Probably not.

Do we need to address backlogs? We certainly did in my administration and I presume in this administration as well. There needs to be more efficiencies. Getting a large bureaucracy to be efficient is not an easy task. But I'm confident those who are charge of the VA are trying to do the best they can.

TAPPER: You said something in February in a speech that struck me. You described veterans receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress. And you said: "They're not damaged goods. They're not mentally shattered. They are people who got hurt defending our country and are now overcoming wounds."

This -- this is an issue that seems to really get you here.

BUSH: It does, yes, because the mind is precious.

And, as a result of decisions that I made, people said, you know, I will follow you, Mr. President. And to see somebody who is struggling with, you know, getting mental balance is hard. And it should be hard for all of us.

On the other hand, it's really important to understand that an injury can be treated. I mean, there's a lot of people helping. And it's a remarkable country that, one, has millions who volunteered and, two, millions and millions who want to help those who volunteered.

TAPPER: I only have a couple minutes left. And I would be bereft in my duties if I didn't ask you about a couple other topics in the news.


BUSH: Well, let me guess.


TAPPER: Yes. And I hope you understand.

BUSH: Sure. You have got to do this. Otherwise, you will get fired.


TAPPER: But, first of all, big story in the news this week about the owner of the Clippers. You are a former professional baseball team owner.

BUSH: Yes.

TAPPER: And I'm sure you watched the story of Donald Sterling with interest.

BUSH: Yes.

TAPPER: And I wondered, if you were an owner asked to vote on a fellow owner's comments...


BUSH: Well, I never have been. Well, Marge Schott, I can't remember if I was owner of the Rangers when Marge Schott said some terrible things. And the commissioner at the time suspended her. There was punishment.

Basketball is going to have to sort through this. And the commissioner has already made his decision. And I will be interested to see how it plays out. Obviously, his comment were despicable.

TAPPER: Ukraine, a lot going on there.

BUSH: Yes, there is.

TAPPER: Do you think that when you -- and, look, President Obama tried to do the reset. You tried to give Russia a chance, too. You said some encouraging things about Putin early on in your term. I know...

BUSH: I did?


TAPPER: I know that you came to change your view a bit. Did you misjudge him early, or were you just trying to open the door?

BUSH: I think he changed.

Of course, presidents should open the door and give people a chance, except for the despicable tyrants. And he was not -- at that time, he was -- it looked like he wanted to be -- work with the West. My first conversation I had with him, we were discussing Soviet era debt that saddled the Russian Federation.

And, in other words, he was kind of opening dialogue. And then the price of oil went up, and Vladimir Putin changed. He became -- you know, he began to suspend the press -- or not suspend the press, eliminate the independent press.

TAPPER: You think it was tied to the money coming into his country?

BUSH: I think it changed his attitude. And I think it emboldened him to follow an instinct that is pretty much zero sum, I win, you lose, and vice versa.

I tried to convince him, and I'm sure the president has, that we both should win. And by both nations doing well, our people do well. And it seems like Vladimir Putin takes a different attitude about such situations.


TAPPER: There was one more question I could not help but ask the former president today. What does he think about his little brother running for president? His candid answer and some advice for Jeb coming up next.

Plus, the former governor of Florida might need that advice, after a new poll shows him trailing another possible 2016 contender, Hillary Clinton, in his own home state.


TAPPER: Meanwhile, back at the ranch, welcome back to THE LEAD, coming to you live from the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, where earlier today I sat down with former President George W. Bush as he leads a group of wounded veterans on his annual 62-mile bike ride. If you missed the first part of the interview, you can check it out at

In part two, we talk about the White House. Now, he's been there, done that. So was his dad. But does he think his brother, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, should pursue the White House in 2016? Maybe it's time Jeb Bush picked up the phone.


TAPPER: Lastly, I have a little brother. I know what it's like to be protective of a little brother. My little brother, like your little brother, is much bigger than me.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT: Yes. Probably much smarter, too --

TAPPER: He is much smarter than me as well.

What advice, sir, are you giving him?

BUSH: You know, I really have not talked to Jeb about the presidency. It's hard for people to believe.

TAPPER: I was talking about Marvin.

BUSH: Oh, Marv, Big Marv, my advice is Marv, don't run.

You know, I hope Jeb runs. I think he would be a great president. I have no clue what's on his mind. And we'll talk when he's ready. I notice he's moving around the country quite a bit. And --

TAPPER: Doing well in polls.

BUSH: Yes, that's fine. That don't mean anything. For him, I can guarantee you he's not looking at a poll whether or not he wants to run. He's checking his core.

As he said publicly, I'm thinking about my family. And, of course, he knows full well what a run for the presidency can do on his family. After all, he's seen his dad and his brother run for president.

I hope he runs. He's been an effective chief executive of a big state. He's -- I'm confident he can reach out to people that may at this point feel a Republican Party doesn't listen to them. I also am pretty confident he won't be making any definitive decision until after the 2014 elections. Probably about this time next year, I would guess.

So, hey, Jeb, if you got -- if you need some advice, give me a call.

TAPPER: And, lastly, for all the people at home who were wondering -- how is your dad? How is he doing?

BUSH: He's great. Thank you.

He's a wonderful man who is aging gracefully and joyfully. He's got a wonderful spirit to him. He's lost his capacity to walk, but that has not diminished his capacity to live.


TAPPER: So, could a phone call with his big brother be enough to lure Jeb Bush into the race?

Let's bring in CNN analyst and senior writer for "Politico", Maggie Haberman, and CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

Ladies, thanks for joining me.

Maggie, President George W. Bush was a ghost in the 2012 campaign. How much sway do you think he holds on Jeb's decision? MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN ANALYST: He endorsed Mitt Romney from an elevator if I recall, as to how present he was.

He does not hold a ton of sway on Jeb's decision as I understand it. What he says about people don't believe we don't talk that much, they -- according to everyone involved, they don't really talk that much about this. I think that his brother's experience will have some sway on what Jeb does. It's impossible to think that it doesn't. But I don't think his brother is going to be doing too many cajoling phone calls, frankly. I think he thinks yes, he should run, yes, he'd be a good president. But I don't hear a whole lot of we have imploring him, we have to get him in there the way you hear, say, George P. Bush do.


TAPPER: Gloria, in a CNN exclusive interview, brother Neil Bush told you that George H.W. Bush, the dad, wants Jeb to run. Although mom said no last year on the "Today" show, in a way.

Is it time for a family meeting here?

BORGER: Yes. It might be time for a family meeting. You know, Neil said to me, you know, flat out, I heard dad say it, he wants him -- he wants him to run.

I think lots of folks in the family would want him to run. But one thing President Bush told you is something in my reporting I hear all the time, which is that really this is a personal decision for Jeb. He's got a family he's got to think about.

And that he's not going around soliciting everybody's opinion of should I, shouldn't I.

What he's doing right now is he's going around the country as the president told you, raising money for political candidates in the midterms. That he's going to make his decision sometime after the midterm, between the midterm and the New Year. And that it's really a personal decision.

So he's not sort of going to his folks and saying should I, shouldn't I? What do you think? I think it's a decision he's going to make on his own. And he will.

TAPPER: Maggie, if Jeb does run, for 32 years, there's been either a Bush or a Clinton in the White House or the cabinet. Jeb Bush is aware of that fact. Take a listen.


JEB BUSH (R), FORMER FLORIDA GOVERNOR: I get the point. I get the point. And it's something that I'd have to, if I was to run, I'd have to overcome that. And so will Hillary, by the way.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: Sixty-nine percent of people questioned in an NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll agree with Barbara Bush's sentiment. They don't want to see another political dynasty in the White House. Would we see George W. Bush on the trail if Jeb ran, do you think?

HABERMAN: I think that we would to some extent. I certainly think more than we saw in 2012. I don't think it would be a huge amount. I think for a variety of reasons.

I don't think George W. Bush particularly misses Washington, particularly misses campaigns. It's not really his cup of tea.

You have seen Jeb do a lot of defending his brother's record, and, you know, absence makes the heart grow fonder with presidents who are out of office, for the most part, not totally. But you've certainly George W. Bush's numbers go up. However, whether they'll be recovering that by the time we get to 2016, I think is a very open question.

BORGER: You know, I think he would use his brother wherever his brother could be of some use, you know? He could use him in states to prop up turnout if he needed him. But, you know, again, I don't think that the president seems perfectly comfortable at home on the ranch in Crawford, doesn't he, Jake?

TAPPER: According to a Pew Poll, this was interesting -- 27 percent of Floridians say they'd support Bush for the GOP nomination. That's ahead of Senators Rubio and Paul. The same poll shows in a hypothetical matchup Hillary Clinton beating out Jeb in his own state by eight points if the election were held today.

Maggie, you point out, Jeb hasn't run for office since 2002.

HABERMAN: That's a very, very long time. You know, he says Hillary Clinton would have to overcome negatives as well.

She brings something to the table that he does not. She has the potential to be the first woman president. She's also not the child of a former president and the sibling of. She, obviously, is the spouse of a former president. But it's not entirely the same. But the fact that she potentially could be the first woman president really counts for a lot in terms of the future effect.

BORGER: You know, she looks like change. And Jeb Bush doesn't look like change, just by the virtue of the fact that she's a woman.

And when you're part of a political dynasty, it's -- you know, you have to make a case for change and it's just going to be easier for Hillary Clinton. By the way, I think Bill Clinton will be more valuable on the campaign trail than former President Bush.


TAPPER: Maggie Haberman, Gloria Borger, thanks so much.

BORGER: Sure. TAPPER: When we come back, Republicans take aim at the White House over newly released documents. But is this really a smoking gun? Is it as powerful as one Republican tells us?

Plus, protests turn violent in Ukraine, as riot police fire at activists. Russia is accusing one of its own diplomats of being a spy. We'll have a live report from the ground, coming up.