One Degree of Separation: Remembering George H.W. Bush
Sometime in early February 1990, on the upper floor of the United States Embassy in Bucharest, a telephone rang.
I was in that room, the office of the Deputy Chief of Mission.
AmEmbBucharest (the mission’s official State Department abbreviation) had been left with only a skeleton staff of personnel. Even the American Ambassador, a feisty George H.W. Bush appointee and political pal named Alan “Punch” Green, had been summoned back to Washington because the domestic situation was so dangerous. This was in the aftermath of the bloody-violent Romanian Revolution, which had unexpectantly exploded in central Bucharest just a month earlier and left thousands dead in the streets. All non-essential embassy personnel and their dependents had been hastily evacuated out of Romania, leaving just enough embassy staff to keep the lights on and the mission going in what were uncertain times.
Perhaps it’s impossible now to take in the state of the world circa 1990 if you didn’t live during the depths of the Cold War. Most Americans old enough to remember the fall of the former Soviet Union and the Communist East Bloc nations may not realize just how close we came to a standoff resembling the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the globe might have turned into a giant nuclear bonfire. Those of us who lived on the opposite side of the infamous Iron Curtain, trapped in dark and depressing Eastern European capitals, feared the collapse of Communist regimes — from East Berlin to Belgrade to Budapest to Bucharest — might spin out of control in utter desperation. No one could really be certain that some rogue Soviet Army general nursing a bottle of vodka stationed in a missile silo somewhere might not accept the overthrow of his beloved government, press a button, and launch the start of World War III.
Indeed, while the world was cheering revolutions taking place all over the Communist quilt, we didn’t have time for blanket celebration. We were working and living on the political front lines. This wasn’t the time nor place to piss off adversaries who were seeing their way of life come to an abrupt end. Desperate people in desperate times with nothing to lose will sometimes do desperate things.
And so, that black telephone rang. I was standing a few feet away from that ringing phone, painting a large wall. [See Footnote below]
The memories of what followed, of what was said and spoken on that telephone come back to me on this day of deep reflection, remembering the life and legacy of former President George H.W. Bush, who died a few days ago.
Allow me to share these memories with you and that they mean to me.
When a telephone rings, one doesn’t intend to eavesdrop. Thing is — when you’re an American living in what was one of the most repressive Communist regimes in the world, everybody knows everyone else’s business. It’s like living inside a small fish bowl. There are no secrets. When phones rang, you didn’t whisper when talking. You didn’t look around to see who might be listening. We knew our phones were tapped by Romania’s intelligence service, so you just lived your daily life as “normally” as possible, like you were being followed and watched — 24/7. No, that’s not an exaggeration. Up until the fall of Nicole Ceausescu, who was shot by a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989, we were under constant surveillance. Think about what that does to your psyche, knowing someone is watching and recording everything that you do.
Trust me. It changes how you live. It changes what you do and what you don’t do. It changes who you are.
The office where that black telephone rang sitting upon a giant walnut desk belonged to Larry Napper, a fellow Texan, a career State Department diplomat, who was the Deputy Chief of Mission in Bucharest. We used the acronym “DCM” when referring to Napper, which was standard State protocol. Napper would later be appointed the American Ambassador to Latvia, then later Ambassador to Kazakhstan, following his service in Communist Romania. Napper took the call because the American Ambassador, Alan Green, had been evacuated. Napper was in charge. A little-known fact: Many Ambassadorial posts, perhaps at least half, are merely for show. Sure, Ambassadors show up for meet and greets and photo ops. They get all the attention and shake hands with foreign leaders and other dignitaries. But most embassy’s day-to-day affairs are actually run by DCMs.
DCM Napper lifted the phone. I couldn’t help but listen in on the conversation.
“Hello, Mr. President.”
Upon hearing those three words, you become frozen in your tracks. Everything stops. You become suspended in time.
Thinking to myself: Holy shit! Is Napper really talking to the President of the United States? Perhaps instead, this was the President of Texas A&M, Napper’s alma mater. It can’t be President Bush, can it?
Moments later, it became clear — President George H.W. Bush was on the other end of the call.
Some personal context here, if I may be permitted. Famous people don’t necessarily impress me, at least not for being famous. I’ve met (by my count) six current and former Presidents. I’ve seen eight in person. I’ve witnessed more than two dozen presidential speeches live. I’ve shaken hands multiple times with at least three. Hell, I talked to Richard Nixon once for five minutes. So, I’m not a fanboy of fame, nor of power.
On the other hand, when working in politics and you’re stationed overseas representing your country, the President — no matter who it is — takes on a special significance in your life. This was a direct call coming from the Oval Office. It’s as close to the West Wing as I’d probably ever get, unless Martin Sheen becomes President.
Napper went back and forth in conversation with the President for at least 20 minutes. It might have been longer. I don’t know. I couldn’t grasp any concept of time. Napper went into considerable detail about our staff, including the Marine Security Guard detachment (MSG) assigned to protect the mission. I got to thinking — the DCM is talking to the President of the United States about sergeants and corporals and privates.
Why did President Bush make that phone call? Well, it was probably intended as a pep talk. American diplomats, stationed in distant lonely places, receiving a telephone call from the President really meant something special. This wasn’t a quick 3-minute call designed as a publicity stunt. There was no press around. There were no television cameras recording the President’s actions behind the scenes, out of public view. This was a good President doing his job. This was a President lifting the spirits of people thousands of miles away. This was a true leader.
I remember that call coming in at 2 pm local time, which meant it was around 6 am back in Washington. President Bush was calling a foreign mission in Eastern Europe at the start, or perhaps the end, of a long workday. I can only presume he made similar calls to every other mission at some point. We weren’t alone. There are hundreds of foreign missions scattered all over the globe. I wonder how many calls were made similar to this one by the President? It’s a part of a weighty job that isn’t seen. It didn’t matter what your politics are. The President was on the line and made a call, and he listened and he cared.
That’s what sticks with me now about the late President Bush. That simple phone call. The conversation. His humanity.
Here I was, one degree of separation from history.
Sometime later, Napper assembled the staff and made a heartfelt speech about receiving a phone call from President Bush, wishing us all well.
Perhaps some who heard Napper’s salutation to the embassy staff later on half-thought the call was some routine obligation, a commander-in-chief just going through the motions. Having heard half that conversation, it was not. It was an act of very real compassion and concern.
After his retirement from the Department of State, Napper later went on to teach at — appropriately enough — the George W. Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University, where he still frequently lectures.
The late President Bush is now being lauded for his expertise in foreign affairs, and properly so. He was the ideal person for the office at a critical junction in world history when things could have gone badly and turned out quite differently. He wasn’t concerned about personal glory or taking credit for masterful acts of diplomacy.
But as someone who was a witness to at least one slice of history, I will give credit when and where it’s due. Much of the reason for diplomatic successes during the Bush years belongs James Baker, the President’s loyal and hand-picked Secretary of State. Baker, who was Secretary of the Treasury and White House Chief of Staff before becoming the captain of America’s foreign policy ship, was the most naturally-gifted diplomat in my lifetime. He was brilliant. Having served under Sec. Baker (and later Lawrence Eagleburger and Warren Christopher), I was able to bear witness to foreign policy decisions that were entirely non-partisan, run with masterful precision and consistency. Sure, there were many things I didn’t agree that came from the 7th Floor wing at Main State. We all had our personal opinions and political views. But when Sec. Baker issued a directive, one could be certain that it was probably the correct move made in the best interests of the nation.
The same can pretty much be said for President Bush, given some historical retrospect. His decision to break his campaign pledge of “no new taxes,” in order to maintain fiscal responsibility — he was right. His “line in the sand” stratagem which guided America’s bilateral military mission during the first Gulf War — he was right. His support for the reunification of the two Germanys, which was vehemently opposed by virtually every other associated world leader — he was right. On and on.
Like all former Presidents, George H.W. Bush had his share of weaknesses and made some mistakes. Those too shall be part of his record.
But in the final analysis, we are all perhaps most affected by the little things that touch us personally, and influence our lives. By all accounts, Bush was probably the most courageous, selfless, and decent human being to serve as President in the 20th Century.
A simple telephone call I overheard was but one of his “thousand points of light.”
Photo Credit: I snapped this photo around the time of the Romanian Revolution in December 1989. It shows the top floor of the (old) American Embassy in Bucharest. This building has since been replaced by a new embassy complex. The front windows are from Ambassador’s office looking out onto Strada Tudor Arghezi. In the background is the ominous Intercontinental Hotel, which had the top floors sealed off and surveillance equipment installed to spy on foreign missions (including the American Embassy) directly below.
Footnote: Why was I painting a wall inside the DCM’s office? Prior to my assignment to AmEmbBucharest, most local employees (Romanians, who all worked for the Securitate, the Romanian intelligence service) were let go. That meant all embassies and consulates in the East Bloc and the former Soviet Union had to use our own staff to maintain the embassy — everything from general repairs, to cleaning, to electrical and plumbing repairs (I got to be particularly adept at fixing Eastern European-made toilets). This was a diplomatic reciprocity mandate taken after the U.S. retaliated against the U.S.S.R. for bugging the new AmAmbMoscow building, where the American government sent back more than 100 Soviet “diplomats” in Washington, which triggered the U.S.S.R. and East Bloc regimes doing the same thing in American Embassies based in their countries.