A Wimp He Wasn't

Article excerpt

Byline: John Solomon; Solomon is executive editor of the Center For Public Integrity.

A daring showdown with gun-toting rebels. The truth behind the Berlin Wall's fall--and other secrets of George H.W. Bush. As the honors pile up, a new, truer view of him is emerging.

He's 86 now, his eyebrows silver and his legs weakened by Parkinsonism, a vascular disorder akin to Parkinson's disease. But as George Herbert Walker Bush approaches his twilight years, he is beginning to get his due.

President Obama last month awarded him the Medal of Freedom. On March 21, Bush will be feted--by Bill Clinton, no less--at a major Kennedy Center event in Washington honoring his contribution to volunteerism through the Points of Light Foundation. Qualities once branded as vices--his civil tone, willingness to reach across the aisle, even his sway with Mideast strongmen--suddenly seem more like virtues in a world weary of attack politics and confronting a cascading series of global crises.

Stigmas that once dogged him--Iran-contra, the "wimp factor," "read my lips," and Dana Carvey's deadpan caricature--have faded in the public memory, only to be replaced by a fresh view, aided by newly released documents and longtime aides' loosening tongues--that 41 may have been a more swashbuckling and politically selfless figure than Americans appreciated during his Washington tenure.

"At the time, [Bush's style] didn't seem to be leadership qualities to the public. Some even saw it as weakness," says Roman Popadiuk, a national-security spokesman in the Bush White House who today heads his presidential-library foundation.

"But now people are looking back at how he treated people and how Washington is now. And they're appreciating how he harkened back to an era in which people were treated with respect and in which politics had some civility," Popadiuk says. "The mutually cooperative way he tried to address things, the calm way he handled things in crisis. People see it today as a strength."

As his successor, Bill Clinton, puts it: people have come to value "the contrast between his kind of conservatism and that which dominates today--less extreme in substance, less harsh in rhetoric, more open to reasonable compromise."

State's Exhibit A in the revisionist history: a little-noticed journey in December 1983. Bush was nearly three years into his first term as Ronald Reagan's vice president. His public schedule suggested a routine visit to pay respects to Argentina's newly elected president. But according to exclusive interviews with longtime Bush aides, he slipped away on a secret mission known to only a handful of U.S. officials--for a hair-raising confrontation with El Salvadoran military commanders.

El Salvador's military was losing American confidence at the time, amid reports of human-rights abuses and murders of civilians carried out by death squads there. The unsolved killings of three Roman Catholic nuns had rubbed emotions raw.

Bush and a small contingent of White House aides and Secret Service agents flew in, bearing a stern warning from Reagan: end the killing. Stop the abuses. And allow fully free and democratic elections--or the United States would instantly cut off aid in the fight against the communist rebels.

Exiting Air Force Two in San Salvador, Bush boarded an Army Black Hawk helicopter, flying high above the treeline to avoid antiaircraft fire from below. His destination: the president's mountainside villa. When his advance men first scouted the location, the meeting room's carpets were stained with a brown, bloody color, and there were similar spatter stains on the walls. "It looked like a meeting had gone terribly wrong and no one survived," recalls Antonio Benedi, one of Bush's most trusted advance aides, who accompanied him on the mission.

Benedi's team pondered calling off the meeting, but no one wanted to tell Bush, a former World War II bomber pilot who survived being shot down in the Pacific, that they were afraid for his safety. …