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WBFO brings you NPR's live coverage of the Republican National Convention tonight and tomorrow night from 9pm-11pm.

George H.W. Bush Remembered


President George H.W. Bush's time in office was marked by the success of the first Gulf War followed by a disappointing defeat when he ran for re-election amidst a slumping economy. Often lost in the telling, though, is handling of two other major international challenges early in his presidency. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: 1989 - the first President Bush's first year in office. Eastern Europe was roiling. The Soviet Union was struggling economically and politically when something once unimaginable happened in Berlin.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The government in East Berlin announces free travel directly to West Germany.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The reaction in Bonn is joyous.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This is the day which we have asked for, we have demanded...

GONYEA: That's NPR coverage of the opening of the Berlin Wall. People rushed through. Families were united. It was a breathless moment. But back in Washington, when President Bush met with reporters in the Oval Office, he was low-key, cautious, careful.


GEORGE HW BUSH: Well, I don't think any single event is the end of what you might call the Iron Curtain. But clearly this is a long way from the harsh days of the - the harshest Iron Curtain days.

GONYEA: It was unclear how events would play out at this point. Still, Bush was asked why he wasn't more ecstatic.


GEORGE HW BUSH: I'm just not an emotional kind of guy. But I'm very pleased.

GONYEA: Mark Updegrove is a historian and author of the book "The Last Republicans," a dual biography of both presidents Bush, father and son. He says classic George H.W. Bush was on display that day.

MARK UPDEGROVE: And George H.W. Bush in a very muted way says, I'm pleased; I'm very pleased. It was clearly a triumph of American ideals but not something that had to be proclaimed rhetorically in a way that would be shameful to the leaders of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

GONYEA: Then, just over two years later in 1991, the end of the Soviet Union. It was Christmas week. The moment called for a nationally televised speech by the president and, again, a very low-key approach, optimistic but cautious.


GEORGE HW BUSH: During these last few months, you and I have witnessed one of the greatest dramas of the 20th century, the historic and revolutionary transformation of a totalitarian dictatorship, the Soviet Union, and the liberation of its peoples.

GONYEA: All the while, the president worked behind the scenes to maintain stability across Europe. Bush's son, George W. Bush, attributes his father's performance in this moment to humility.


GEORGE W BUSH: He understood how the other person thinks and, in this case, how Gorbachev thought.

GONYEA: This is from an interview with NPR's Morning Edition in 2014.


GEORGE W BUSH: He felt if he gloated or showed off for elements of the American political scene as the Soviet Union was unwinding, it could easily provoke hard-liners and weaken Gorbachev.

GONYEA: On that historic night when the Soviet Union was no more, President George H.W. Bush was well aware of a more pressing worry for Americans than world affairs - the economy.


GEORGE HW BUSH: And I want all Americans to know that I am committed to attacking our economic problems at home with the same determination we brought to winning the Cold War.

GONYEA: It didn't work out that way. Democrat Bill Clinton, who ran on the slogan it's the economy, stupid, would defeat Bush less than one year later. For voters, the economy meant more than how George H.W. Bush managed the end of the Cold War or his success in Operation Desert Storm. Historians may differ. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.