George H.W. Bush was a diplomat before he became the 41st president of the United States. Bush served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (1971-73) and Ambassador to China (1974-75). In a fascinating C-Span interview in 1999, Brian Lamb asked President Bush what he learned while serving as a diplomat. Among the future president’s lessons: the value of personal diplomacy, the importance of China in a changing world, and what it was like to be one of the “ten most overrated New Yorkers.”
We’ve done an informal transcript of portions of this interview. You can access President Bush’s full C-Span interview HERE
“I learned to treat other countries, large and small, with respect. Even the small ones.”
Service at the United Nations:
Q: The U.N. came after you were defeated for the Senate. How did you get that job?
BUSH: President Nixon called me down to the White House and . . . he suggested I might come to the White House as an aide. And I didn’t want to do that. So I knew that [Charles] Yost was leaving as ambassador to the U.N. and I said well, what about going there? Even though I’d had no experience, I felt like I knew how Nixon felt about the New York establishment–and at that time Mayor Lindsay criticizing him. And I think he saw, well here’s a guy that knows about politics and could learn about the intricacies of foreign affairs. So he sent me up there and I loved it.
Q: Were you thinking then about presidency?
BUSH: I don’t think so, no. I don’t think I could have been.
Q: How long were you at the U.N.?
BUSH: Two years.
Q: What’d you learn there?
BUSH: I learned that the United Nations is like a parliamentary body in a sense. You’re working for votes. I learned that you can’t always do it your way. I learned to treat other countries, large and small, with respect. Even the small ones. Once I went to call on the Burundi embassy which consisted of a secretary, the ambassador and one other guy. And word spread through the United Nations that the United States ambassador is willing to reach out. And that helped. When you get down to some close votes, and a person who didn’t have instructions could vote as he chose, we could win some votes that way.
[I] met a lot of people that my life would interact with later on and various foreign policy agenda. I loved it, I loved it.
Q: Had you started your note-writing habit by then?
BUSH: Oh, I’m sure I did. I started when I was a teenager. And I’d write notes to different ambassadors. I remember sometimes those meetings got pretty boring. And I found that most ambassadors, including Yakov Malik, the hard liner, the cold warrior from the Soviet Union, had a sense of humor. And so I’d send him a little note. Get the marvelous, beautiful woman that delivered messages. I’d write it down, looking very serious. “Take this to the Soviet ambassador.” And he’d look over and smile. It would be some humorous thing. It was fun. That part was fun. You could relax with people.
I gave a party for the ten most overrated New Yorkers. My name was on the list. I thought that was a little unfair, but the guy that wrote the story felt I was worthy of the honor. And I invited a bunch of the diplomats and I remember one of the ambassadors saying, “What is this ten most overrated New Yorkers?” I got a letter from Jake Javits saying that he thought it was a little beneath the dignity of my office to do it. But it was fun. Bring all these people in. Needle yourself and them a little bit and put a human face on diplomacy. It doesn’t hurt.
“I believe in personal diplomacy.”
A Lifetime Habit of Note-Writing: I’ll tell you what it did do. As I would write notes to world leaders, it built a kind of personal trust. They might disagree on this issue or that, but I believe in personal diplomacy. And part of personal diplomacy as I described it would be writing a little note.. Telling a guy how much you enjoyed a speech he gave. Or here’s a thank you for the marvelous time at Rambouillet. Or thank you, we loved having you come to Kennebunkport. And in it you’d work in a little substance, but the main thing was the fact of the communication. That I think did add to my ability when the going got tough or when problems got big to converse frankly with the recipients.
“You were followed if you went up a hutong, a little alley…”
Learning About China — and the Blessings of Freedom:
Q: Why’d you go to China?
BUSH: Because I thought that was the future. And I’m glad I went. President Ford was very generous saying Paris was open and London was open, which are both very import posts—Well, I also knew I wanted to do try to do a little more in the foreign affairs area… Thought about those and I said “Well how about China?” Because David Bruce, senior diplomat, was coming home. And he said well let me check. And I said well he might not like it because I defended the dual representation policy at the U.N. And China might not accept me. You better check with Henry Kissinger. Well, Kissinger said he thought it’d be alright. And the Chinese sent an agreement to President Ford right away. So it worked and I loved it.
Q: You tried to learn Chinese?
BUSH: Everyday—for five days a week.
Q: How’d you do?
BUSH: Well I gave a speech, a going away speech in Chinese and I think all of them understood I was speaking in Chinese. All the people that worked around the embassy. I’m not sure they did. And the language teacher was in the back, quiet little lady, Miss. Tong, smiling, pronouncing, making sure I got the pronunciation—the four tones right. And I loved it…
Q: What did you learn from your experience as Chinese liaison?
BUSH: I learned how to buy noodles in Chinese. No, I learned about the importance of China. I was there in China at a tough time. I saw the disadvantage of a totally closed society. But having been there, I appreciate that there are far more human liberties and human rights in China today than when we lived there. It’s not perfect by a long shot.
I learned that the family is still a strong entity in China. I went out there in 1974 thinking well the family is falling apart in China. All their kids have been sent down to the countryside to be indoctrinated. The minute I got there, I saw how wrong that was. And I saw the beginning of growth, real kind of growth in China – but it was closed, society was closed. You couldn’t go into a person’s home. People were scared to talk to you. And you were followed if you went up a hutong, a little alley. So I learned a lot. I learned a lot about the blessings of freedom—our freedom.