News Brief: Remembering George H.W. Bush, U.N. Climate Talks

Dec 3, 2018
Originally published on December 3, 2018 7:22 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many presidents gain respect after they leave office, and that is especially true for President George H.W. Bush.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Bush lost his re-election bid in a three-way race back in 1992. He got just 37 percent of the vote then. He was hammered for a slow economy, targeted by protesters over his view of AIDS, dismissed as an out-of-touch member of an older generation. But as George Herbert Walker Bush lies in state this week, people are remembering a lot that came before that defeat in '92. He survived being shot down in World War II. He served as a diplomat and the director of the CIA. And in 1988, George Bush became the 41st president of the United States. Here's a bit from his inauguration speech.

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GEORGE H.W. BUSH: The old ideas are new again because they're not old. They are timeless. Duty, sacrifice, commitment and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.

MARTIN: As President Bush managed the end of the Cold War, he signed both the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Americans With Disabilities Act. After that '92 defeat Bush and the man who defeated him, Bill Clinton, made amends.

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BUSH: President Clinton beat me like a drum back in 1992. And then we became friends.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Mara Liasson and Scott Horsley are both here. Hi, guys.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And, Mara, I'm glad you're with us because you were covering Washington as a very young reporter when George...

LIASSON: Very, very, young. (Laughter).

INSKEEP: ...H.W. Bush was around. How do you remember him?

LIASSON: My favorite memory of George H.W. Bush is sitting next to him at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association Dinner, and he showed me a press pass, a fake press pass that the White House photographers had made for him because they spent so much time with him. He had so much affection for him and them - and they for him. And they made him an honorary press pass. That's what I'll be remembering. But I do think that there'll be a lot of other memories like that also, just basically about his decency and how he represented an era where, in politics, he considered the people he ran against his opponents, not his enemies.

But we are going to have a lot of opportunities to remember him because his casket arrives at Andrews Air Force Base today, be taken to the Capitol. There'll be public viewing. Wednesday, there'll be a funeral at the National Cathedral. Then his body returns to Texas for another funeral in Houston. Then by train, George H.W. Bush will be taken to his final resting place at the Bush Library in College Station.

INSKEEP: He was a hard-edged competitor. The 1988 campaign was pretty fierce, but on a personal level, he connected with people and kept in touch with thousands of handwritten notes. And it is inevitable, fairly or not, when a president dies people compare that president to the current president. And here we are, President Trump.

LIASSON: Yes. They didn't have a very warm relationship, although Trump will be there at the funeral. It is a national event. He was asked not to appear at the funeral of Barbara Bush. He sent the first lady in his stead. But even a few months ago, Donald Trump, apropos of nothing, quite gratuitously was mocking Bush on the campaign trail. And here he is at a rally referring to a thousand points of light, which is the phrase that George H.W. Bush coined in his 1989 inaugural address to describe Americans volunteering to improve their communities.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Putting America first, we understand. Thousand points of light. I never quite got that one. What the hell is that? Has anyone ever figured that one out? And it was put out by a Republican, wasn't it?

INSKEEP: It was a Republican thing, wasn't it, Mara? The idea was.

LIASSON: It certainly was.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

LIASSON: And he - and Donald Trump did not like it. I guess he thought it was wimpy. Since George H.W. Bush died, he has issued some very kind statements about him. But he was also asked by reporters if he regretted his words about the Bushes, and he wouldn't answer.

INSKEEP: The president is now replacing one of George H.W. Bush's legacies, which is the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was signed by Bush. It was then passed through Congress while Clinton was president. What was the philosophy behind it?

LIASSON: Well, it's ironic because the philosophy behind it endures. The philosophy is that the economies of the U.S., Canada and Mexico should be integrated through trade. And despite Donald Trump's statement that he has gotten rid completely of the old, horrible NAFTA, the new NAFTA is a lot like the old NAFTA. So George H.W. Bush's vision, actually, has not been uprooted.

INSKEEP: With some updated labor provisions and a few other provisions, as well. But let's talk that through because NPR's Scott Horsley has covered the economy for many, many years in addition to the White House and, Scott, how different is the new NAFTA?

HORSLEY: Well, Mara is right. The basic outline endures with the fingerprints of the elder President Bush. There are updates. The new agreement covers, for example, digital commerce, which really wasn't a thing in the early '90s when the original NAFTA was negotiated. The biggest change is that it does set some higher standards for the automotive sector in terms of how much North American content has to be included in a vehicle to qualify for duty-free status. But even though President Trump would like you to believe he has chucked the old NAFTA and created something completely new in its place, the basic bones endure.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about another thing that is in the news now and was in the news for George H.W. Bush. It's interesting, Scott Horsley, that we're talking right now about the U.S. relationship with China in a big way because George H.W. Bush was there at the beginning. In the 1970s, President Nixon reached out to China, and then a few years later, George H.W. Bush was a U.S. diplomat assigned to China. Lived there for more than a year. And so he was there at the beginning of that opening of China, which has now led to China being this giant, growing economy.

HORSLEY: China's come a long way since those days.

INSKEEP: Come a long way. And there were the two presidents, Trump and Xi Jingping, having dinner and reaching some kind of trade agreement over the weekend. What's changing here?

HORSLEY: They have declared a cease-fire in the trade war that President Trump launched. The U.S. tariffs on some $200 billion worth of Chinese imports, which were scheduled to go from 10 percent to 25 percent the first year, will instead stay at 10 percent. And President Trump has backed away from his threat to impose additional tariffs on another couple-hundred-billion dollars' worth of Chinese imports. Basically, everything we import from China. So that's all sort of on hold. In exchange, China has agreed to make some substantial purchases of U.S. farm and energy products, although we don't really know what the details of that commitment are.

MARTIN: It's interesting to just reflect on the kind of life that this was. Right? This was someone who served in World War II, who served as vice president, who had all these Washington jobs, but he was - at the core of it, he was a family man. He had - his last words, he shared with the former president. He was the father of another president. And his last words were to George W. Bush, who talked to him on speakerphone. He said, I love you, Dad. And the first president of the United States said, I love you, too. His other son, Neil, was present and said - was present at the death and said, this is the end of an amazing life. And, indeed, it was.

INSKEEP: OK. All right. We've been talking about George H.W. Bush and also the news of now with NPR's Mara Liasson and Scott Horsley. Thanks to you both.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: All right. Some other news. Negotiators from almost 200 countries meet this week to address global warming.

MARTIN: They're at a U.N. climate conference in the heart of Poland's coal country. Here is Michal Kurtyka. He's the president of the conference.

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MICHAL KURTYKA: We are here to enable the world to act together on climate change, to reach together the goals of the convention.

MARTIN: This is the follow-up to the Paris climate agreement that was signed back in 2015. President Trump has announced the U.S. will withdraw from that agreement, but the White House also just issued a report that shows climate change is already harming Americans - causing more wildfires, more intense hurricanes and rising seas.

INSKEEP: NPR's science reporter Rebecca Hersher will be covering this conference, and she's on the line. Good morning.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What are the delegates trying to get done?

HERSHER: Well, they're trying to figure out how to stick to what they agreed to in Paris three years ago. So there are a lot of key questions. You know, Paris was all promises. This is all the reality of how you do those promises. So how will countries check on each other's progress to reduce carbon emissions, for example? You know, if a country can't pay for what it needs to bring down emissions, who will pay? How will poorer countries try to shift from things like coal and gas to things like solar and wind? That's a huge question. And it's very unclear if richer countries are willing to help, and if they are, how much?

And arguably then there's the biggest question of all, which is looming over everything, which is, can we promise to reduce emissions even more than we already have? Because we found out about a month and a half ago that everything we've pledged so far - there was a big U.N. report that showed it won't be enough. Even if nations can stick to it, we're not going to be able to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

INSKEEP: Rebecca, when you mentioned the question about whether rich nations would help, I immediately thought of the richest nation of all, which has said that it is withdrawing from the climate agreement that they're going to be discussing here. Is the United States even present for this agreement?

HERSHER: They are. The U.S. is still there. In fact, the U.S. is kind of there twice. So we'll have one message from the official U.S. delegation, a totally different message from this huge coalition of state and local leaders and businesses, actually. So the U.S. government, the Trump administration, will be hosting a panel on fossil fuels. They'll also be involved in the negotiations. And then this big coalition of local leaders and companies, they're there saying big chunks of the economy are actually trying to reduce emissions. They are, in fact, on track to reduce emissions, at least a little bit.

So that mixed message is actually setting it up such that the U.S. is going to really be hard-pressed to be a leader the way we have in the past on global climate negotiations. You know, there's a real dissonance between those two factions.

INSKEEP: Are you telling me that the state and local officials who are there are saying, never mind what the federal government says - we are making every effort we can, we're effectively in this agreement even if the president says, I plan to withdraw from it?

HERSHER: Exactly. And specifically that. They say not only are we trying to reduce emissions, but we're trying to reduce emissions the amount that the U.S. said we would under Paris.

INSKEEP: You said something about the United States being on a panel about fossil fuels. Do you feel you understand what the U.S. government, the federal government's role is on a panel like that?

HERSHER: Well, we're actually leading the panel. The panel wouldn't be happening if not for the U.S. government. So I think the U.S. government is there to say fossil fuels are still a big part of the economy, and the U.S. will be continuing to work on that as part of the global economy.

INSKEEP: OK. Rebecca, thanks so much for the update. Really appreciate it.

HERSHER: Thanks so much.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rebecca Hersher. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.