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Two decades ago, the world was in the midst of a historic transformation. The years between 1989 and 1991 saw remarkable change all over the world -- from the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in Europe, to the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union, to the rebirth of democracy all across South America, and the first test of a new determination to repel aggression in the Persian Gulf. It was a remarkable time in the history of freedom. None of us alive today is likely to see such dramatic events again, ever.
All over the world, ordinary people were caught up in extraordinary times: the welder, Lech Walesa, who led the shipyard workers of Poland to Solidarity; the playwright, Václav Havel, who was released from jail and became President of Czechoslovakia; the son of a peasant farmer, Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the peaceful dismantling of the Soviet Union. Through it all, many of the sons and daughters of the American heartland wore the uniform of the American soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine, and made their contributions as they always have throughout our nation's history. Whether they were in the sands of the Middle East, or the streets of Panama, or the Horn of Africa -- we owe a debt of gratitude to every one of them for their selfless courage.
Here at home, we were all working for the same thing: a new engagement with the world, a new vision of freedom in the world -- not so much "freedom from" as "freedom to." We sought to motivate Americans to become a part of something bigger than themselves. As I said in the 1991 State of the Union address, "If you've got a nail, find a hammer. If you know how to read, find someone who can't." From town halls and schools and churches all over the United States, citizens responded in great numbers. As a result, there wasn't a problem in our nation that wasn't being solved somewhere, by someone with the determination to solve it -- and those people became what we named the "Points of Light." They were doing "the hard work of freedom," and they began a grassroots movement toward community service that continues today.
In all truthfulness, this book began as an attempt to capture a time in history before it faded too quickly from memory. I'm not getting any younger, and neither are the very talented people who were at my side during the administration. It was time to take a moment and look back with the help of some of the folks who were with us and, together, make these memories come to life.
I wanted to pull together a collection of speeches that would not only reflect the politics of the time and the incredible world events, but also give the reader a sense of what it was like to be president during those years. And so our collection includes a few "slices of life" -- speeches which capture a moment in time, such as the dedication of the National Cathedral after eighty-three years of construction; remarks in the midst of the Los Angeles riots after the verdict in the Rodney King trial; a ceremony honoring Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, two of my baseball heroes who are now gone; a typical but not-so-typical Rose Garden ceremony; even a night of comedy at the Gridiron Club dinner.
But the vast majority of these speeches deal with the remarkable march to freedom that people all over the globe embarked upon during those years. I consider myself very fortunate to have had the privilege of serving as President of the United States during the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. And I was even luckier to have been surrounded by such a great team at the White House, the NSC, and at the State Department and other Cabinet agencies. Our speechwriters and our foreign policy experts worked very closely together -- to their great credit -- and many of these speeches are the fruits of their collaboration.
Although now in hindsight it seems that the end results were almost preordained, at the time no one knew what would happen next. Nothing was "inevitable" at all. We learned quickly that words mattered. What we said and did -- or chose not to say and do -- could have meant the difference between success and failure in the Persian Gulf, in the Soviet Union, and in Eastern Europe. For example, some in Congress and the media thought I should have gone to Berlin and "danced on the wall" after it came down. They wanted to have some sort of celebration to mark the triumph of democracy. I understood that feeling, but I had to take a longer view. We were very concerned about some of the anti-Gorbachev elements in the Soviet Union, and that they might use our gloating against him. Better to let the facts speak for themselves. If we'd gone after the quick public relations move -- if we'd played our cards differently -- there could have been a very different ending to the story that began in 1989.
I remember the first time my speechwriters and I met, early on in our administration. It was in the morning, and we all sat around the conference table in the Roosevelt Room, across the hall from the Oval Office. We talked about the speechwriting process, the way things were going to run, and the kinds of things we all wanted in the speeches. They asked me who my favorite presidents were (Ronald Reagan, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower, to name just a few); about people I like to quote (Yogi Berra and Mark Twain, for example) and don't like to quote (with a wry smile, I replied: Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler, and Dr. Jack Kevorkian).
As the years went on, we worked together very well. I remember sitting with two of the speechwriters who'd worked on the Pearl Harbor speeches, late at night after everyone else had left, feet up on the desk and eating popcorn, talking about what it was like serving in World War II. Another time, one of the writers camped outside the door of the Oval Office at a small desk while we worked on a Persian Gulf address all day long. Many times we worked on last-minute revisions together aboard Air Force One, taxiing down the tarmac to an arrival ceremony. And who can forget our practice sessions for those dreaded Washington events -- where the president was expected to perform some sort of amateur stand-up comic routine -- and where I found myself asking too many times: "Do you really think this is funny? I mean, do you personally find this stuff funny?" They did think it was funny, and they were right. Well, usually.
On that day back in 1989, the most important thing I told the speechwriters was, "Listen, I'm no Ronald Reagan." I was not the Great Communicator. Many times we had to rein in the rhetoric; often words meant to evoke emotion in the audience evoked even more emotion in me. I told them that if they wrote a speech that was a "ten," they'd better cut it back to an "eight" for me. But I'd like to think that, given the historic times and the unprecedented events that unfolded on my watch, I did all right. I tried my best under extraordinary circumstances. We all did.
We tried to set a tone that brought people out of themselves, out of their circumstances, to come together to serve others and build a better life for all -- whether in the United States or around the world. Yes, that means freedom from tyranny, oppression, and injustice. But it also means freedom to pursue a life of meaning and adventure, to find the dignity and goodness in every person, and to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. And that's true whether you live in South Central Los Angeles or work in the shipyards of Poland...or even in the White House.
That's what I mean when I am speaking of freedom.
George H. W. Bush
Fall 2008 Copyright © 2009 by the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation