STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The many Americans who worked with George Herbert Walker Bush include our next guest. The body of the first President Bush is being brought to Washington today. He was a World War II veteran, a Texas congressman, CIA Director, U.S. diplomat, vice president and then the 41st president.
Chase Untermeyer will travel with the casket today. And he did some of those same things. He was a Navy veteran and a U.S. diplomat. And in the 1980s and '90s, he served in multiple positions under Bush as vice president and president. And he's on the line. Good morning, sir.
CHASE UNTERMEYER: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: And sorry for your loss. What is the plan for today?
UNTERMEYER: A plan is a group of us former staffers living in Texas will gather at Ellington Air Force Base outside of Houston for the placement of the casket onboard the plane used as Air Force One, and then we shall fly to Washington and go straight to the rotunda of the Capitol.
INSKEEP: Those of you who were staffers must have spent some of the weekend talking with each other about President Bush. What stories come to mind?
UNTERMEYER: Well, many stories that stretch back to the dawn of the Republican Party in Texas. I guess I have the most seniority since I first started working for him in 1966 when he was a congressional candidate. And there will be stories of course more recent than that.
INSKEEP: What made him so ambitious as to drive for office as a Republican in Texas at a time when it was a heavily Democratic state?
UNTERMEYER: He of course came from a Republican tradition back in Connecticut where his father at a later date would be elected to the U.S. Senate. But I think it's a larger issue of a general good government sense because in a one-party - and in those days, it was locked. Republicans were locked out of the governing of Texas.
He and Barbara Bush felt that a two-party system would make a lot of sense. And that was a very bold way to think in those years. The typical reaction would be, well, here in Texas, we do have two parties. We have the conservative Democrats, and we have the liberal Democrats, and Republicans need not apply. So they figured that was more worthy of change.
INSKEEP: And his early career was marked by defeat, wasn't it? He lost a race for Senate, for example.
UNTERMEYER: Yes. In fact, when you look over the whole of his career, he had more reversals - at least on paper - than successes. But it was his great skill at turning this reverses into advances. For example, when he was defeated for the U.S. Senate in Texas in 1970, Richard Nixon gave him a kind of throwaway consolation prize as ambassador to the United Nations, which didn't mean much in those years when Henry Kissinger so completely dominated foreign policy. But Bush made that, his first venture into foreign affairs, into what became a lifelong specialty.
INSKEEP: Oh, my goodness, he went on to later be the director of the CIA. He was a diplomat to China. He was a foreign policy president. He was all about foreign policy after that.
UNTERMEYER: And before that not at all other than what any member of Congress might have to deal with regard to foreign affairs.
INSKEEP: I want to note also that he was a World War II veteran and that from Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush, almost every president was a World War II veteran, Ronald Reagan the only exception, if I'm not mistaken - president after president veterans of the same war. How important was that service to President Bush's view of his job when he was in the White House?
UNTERMEYER: A couple of comments - incidentally, most all those presidents you were referring to were Navy veterans in particular from John F. Kennedy straight through to George H.W. Bush. And...
INSKEEP: Taking a little pride in your service there, sir. Go right on.
UNTERMEYER: Yes, absolutely. And let's not forget that President Reagan did help make training films...
UNTERMEYER: ...During World War II.
UNTERMEYER: So he did serve in uniform. But for George Bush, you have to go back to 1942 when he was just finishing prep school. And he could have gotten a deferment to go to university. And in fact, the U.S. Secretary of War, the great Henry L. Stimson, spoke to the graduates of Andover and said, get your education first. But he went right to the recruiter to sign up to be a Navy veteran. And that's just what he expected a young man of his generation to have to do. And it was that particular commitment to service and to those who serve which characterized his entire career.
INSKEEP: Did he talk much about his specific experience in the war? Some people will know by now or recall by now he was shot down. He ended up in the water. He could very easily have been killed.
UNTERMEYER: You know, like a lot of war veterans, he was very reluctant to talk about that. And it was only over the length of his later public life that the full story of his experience being shot down over a Japanese-held island and being rescued by a submarine was even permitted by him to be spoken.
INSKEEP: Meaning that even when he was campaigning, people might know it, but he didn't want it to be flaunted.
UNTERMEYER: He never wanted to talk about himself whether it was military, political or otherwise.
INSKEEP: Ambassador, thanks for taking the time. I really appreciate it.
UNTERMEYER: My great pleasure. Thank you.
INSKEEP: Chase Untermeyer was a longtime aide to President George H.W. Bush. And he's among the former staffers who will join the president's casket today as it is brought to Washington, D.C., to the rotunda at the U.S. Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.