Podcast: Monica Crowley on former President Nixon’s Advice to President Bush
Monica Crowley served as foreign policy assistant to former President Nixon.
What characterized the relationship between President Nixon and the late President George Herbert Walker Bush? Nixon’s former foreign policy assistant Monica Crowley wrote in a Spectator Column early this month that Nixon mentored Bush, and that Bush carefully considered the elder statesman’s advice during the period of the end of the Soviet Union, and the run-up to the Gulf War. On this edition of the Nixon Now podcast Crowley discussed her column, and working for former President Nixon.
Monica Crowley is senior fellow at the London Center For Policy Research, columnist with the Washington Times, and best selling author.
Crowley, Monica. “Richard Nixon: the president who made George H.W. Bush possible.” Spectator (US). 14 December 2018.
Movroydis, Jonathan. “Christmas Letter for President Bush: Guidance on the Gulf” NixonFoundation.org. 4 September 2018.
Movroydis, Jonathan. “Nixon on Gorbachev and Yeltsin.” NixonFoundation.org. 10 September 2018.
Movroydis, Jonathan. “Nixon Counsels Bush on New Middle East Initiative.” NixonFoundation.org. 22 October 2018.
Jonathan Movroydis: Welcome to the “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @NixonFoundation or at nixonfoundation.org. What characterized the relationship between President Nixon and the late President George Herbert Walker Bush? Nixon’s former foreign policy assistant, Monica Crowley, wrote last week in a Spectator column that Nixon mentored Bush and that Bush carefully considered the elder statesman’s advice during the period at the end of the Cold War and the run up to the first Gulf War. Monica Crowley is senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, a Washington Times columnist, political commentator, and bestselling author.
Monica Crowley: Great to be here, Jonathan. Thank you so much for having me.
Jonathan Movroydis: Monica, many people who see you on TV don’t know that in your early career you were a foreign policy assistant to President Nixon. How did you come to join his staff and what were your job duties?
Monica Crowley: Well, it’s actually quite the Cinderella story. I was a junior in college at Colgate University majoring in political science, when a new Professor arrived on the campus to teach a course called national security. So I took that course in the spring of my junior year, and immediately fell in love with the material. And it was fortuitous because that Professor happened to be the only conservative Professor on the campus and I was pretty much the only conservative kid on the campus. So he became a mentor to me. And as I was getting ready to leave campus between my junior and senior years to go home for the summer, he handed me a stack of four books to read.
And he said, “Go home this summer, read these books. And when you come back to school in the fall for your senior year, we’ll talk about what you learned from them and how you can parlay your passion for this subject matter into a career.” So I went home that summer and two of the four books were Kissinger’s memoirs, which, as we all know, are huge doorstop like phonebook size tomes. So of course, still being a college kid, I reached for the slimmest volume of those that he had lent to me to read first. And that happened to be Nixon’s most recent foreign policy book at the time, a book called, “1999: Victory Without War.”
And I sat down and I read this book. Within two to three days, I just devoured it. And it had such a profound impact on the way I thought about the world and what I thought I wanted to do that I sat down and I wrote the author a letter. It was a substantive letter. It dealt with the issues that he had raised in the book, but I just felt compelled to let that author know that he had really educated me and inspired me with this book. It only sort of half registered to me that the author was, in fact, a former president of the United States, and not just that, but Richard Nixon of all people, but it didn’t stop me.
And I wrote the letter, I mailed it, never expected a response. But about a month later, I went to my mailbox, Jonathan, and there was a handwritten note from Richard Nixon to me. And in that letter to me, he said, “Contact my office after Labor Day and we’ll arrange to meet.” So that was, let’s see, that was October of 1989. And when I graduated the following year, he offered me a position as a foreign policy assistant. And I served with him for the following four years.
Jonathan Movroydis: As foreign policy assistant, what were your job duties for the former president?
Monica Crowley: Well, it’s not like President Nixon needed much help in terms of foreign policy but he did need sounding boards. And there were a few of us who he liked to bounce ideas off of and bounce drafts off of. So I was there to talk issues through with him. I think he liked that I was incredibly young, a brand new college graduate. So I represented a different generation and a different generation thinking, he likes that, he wanted to know what younger people were thinking. He wanted fresh ideas put into his thinking and his bloodstream and his work. So I was there essentially as a sounding board for his book ideas, his speech ideas, his op-ed ideas.
And once he began drafting these things, he would then turn it over to me and a couple of other people as well for our insights, our editing, and so on. So it was the ultimate job. It was an absolute thrill and honor to be with him for the last four years of his life working in that capacity. And, of course, I was also blessed because I was able to travel around the world with him and meet with all of the heads of state with whom he met.
Jonathan Movroydis: In your column last week, the title was, “Richard Nixon, the president who made George H. W. Bush possible.” This was in the, “Spectator USA.” You write that Richard Nixon was sort of a mentor to the late President Bush. Could you describe how their careers crossed and how Nixon was so pivotal to Bush’s career?
Monica Crowley: Yes, in fact, Richard Nixon essentially invented George H. W. Bush as a national figure. And by that, I mean, George H. W. Bush had run for Congress in Texas and had won twice. So he’d served two terms, total of four years from 1966 to 1970. In 1970, he decided to run for U.S. Senate from Texas, and he lost that race. That’s when the new Republican President Richard Nixon summoned him to Washington and sat him down, and had a lengthy conversation with Bush because Nixon saw a lot of political potential in George H. W. Bush. He saw a lot of promise, and he thought extremely highly of him both politically and personally.
So he sat him down, and he offered him the job of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, which President Bush, ultimately President Bush accepted. And Nixon’s argument to Bush at the time was, “Look, I think you have a political future ahead and a bright one but you need to burnish your foreign policy credentials. So if you are amenable, I’m going to send you to New York to the United Nations,” which he did. So Bush spent two years as U.S. Ambassador there. And then following that Richard Nixon made Bush the head of the Republican National Committee, the RNC for a couple of years, at the height of Watergate, which was maybe after Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler, I think that was probably the hardest job in the country, given the Watergate scandal and everything that was happening around it.
With every Republican in the country, from governors and senators, members of Congress, right down to your local dog catcher trying to run away from President Nixon because his scandal was growing and becoming increasingly toxic. So being head of the RNC at the height of Watergate, gave Bush political steel to basically handle anything. I mean, if he could handle that he could handle whatever would come his way. So Nixon did him these two huge favors and set him on a trajectory that then got him to be the first liaison to China before we actually had an ambassador assigned there, to being CIA director, and ultimately, Vice President and President of the United States.
Jonathan Movroydis: During the post presidency, Nixon had counseled Bush but he’d counseled some other successors beginning with Ford, all the way up to Clinton, and including Bush. From your perspective between 1990 and 1994, what was Nixon’s goal in his discussions and counsel with his successors, with a particular focus on President Bush?
Monica Crowley: You know, President Nixon thought it was really important to offer whatever advice he could in order to be helpful to all of his successors. And he did it not out of a sense of self-aggrandizement, not out of a sense of self importance, but simply to help the country. President Nixon had an enormous sense of guilt and burden and shame I think about his role in the Watergate crisis and how his presidency ended, and he believed he could make it up to the country by advising his successors whenever appropriate, whenever necessary, and whatever they asked. So he did that without reservation.
You were correct to say he advised every successor from Ford through Bill Clinton until Nixon passed away in 1994, with the exception of Jimmy Carter. I don’t know of any interaction or any advice exchange between those two presidents. But every other President Nixon counseled whenever they asked and when Nixon felt compelled to offer that advice, again, on behalf of the country. Nixon would also travel the world at the invitation of every head of state and sit down and have lengthy conversations with these heads of state and then bring back those messages to the sitting president, whoever he was. So Nixon, in many ways, was like an at large diplomat, at large Secretary of State on behalf of every Republican president, and even one Democratic one, Bill Clinton, in his last years.
Jonathan Movroydis: Bush was president during the period of time of…in his foreign policy during the downfall of the Soviet Union. You know, he helped with the reunification of Germany. But could you provide some context in the sort of the world that, you know, President Bush became president and what was the world like in terms of the downfall of the Soviet Union?
Monica Crowley: It’s a great question because people now forget now that we’re a generation away from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, people forget what context we were dealing with here. 1989, 1990, 1991 were very pivotal, and frankly, vulnerable years for the West and for the United States because the world order that we had known since the end of World War II had just collapsed. So everything we once knew, for sure, Soviet Union heading up a block, a power block, a sphere of influence, including the Warsaw Pact, the United States heading up a sphere of influence, headed up by the U.S. and NATO, that was dissolving before our eyes with no ready replacement.
So Nixon thought that President Bush was dealing with the unprecedented crisis in a very methodical and responsible and thoughtful way. I think he grew a little bit frustrated with the fact that President Bush wasn’t more creative, innovative, and more proactive in dealing with the management of that transition. Also, keep in mind that we had scholars like Francis Fukuyama writing pieces called “The End of History,” which suggested that with the end of the Cold War, the world would essentially be at relative peace from now on because democracies tend not to fight one another, and so on. Nixon knew that that was not going to come to pass. Human nature being what it is, Nixon being a realist and a pragmatist, Nixon just knew that that was not going to be the reality going forward.
So he had hoped that President Bush would be a little bit more innovative and creative in his policy thinking than he was. Sort of along the lines of what Nixon and Kissinger did when Nixon designed the opening to China in the early 1970s. Nobody in the world saw that coming and yet it was an innovative approach to dealing with growing Soviet power. Opened China, used China as a counterweight against that, and also used the Chinese as a way to try to facilitate the end of the war in Vietnam as well. So I think Nixon’s creative mind was going in one direction and Bush was going more toward a cautious, wary approach. I think that’s why Nixon both publicly and privately decided to take Bush on and try to get him thinking in new directions.
Jonathan Movroydis: While you were serving the former President Nixon, he actually wrote a stinging letter, open letter memo in 1992 of that nature warning that critics could say who lost Russia just as they did four decades ago for the Truman administration, saying, who lost China? What did Nixon feel could be done?
Monica Crowley: Well, first of all, he was very suspicious of the fact that President Bush and Bush’s team seemed to be holding on too long to the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, that there was too much of the personal investment in Gorbachev, that President Bush was clinging to. Gorbachev was an adamant and vehement, staunch communist. He was trying to preserve the system when the system was falling apart beneath him. So Nixon, I think, felt great frustration that Bush and his team were clinging to Gorbachev too long. So part of his effort was to try to make it clear to President Bush and the administration that investing any longer in Gorbachev was a losing proposition. And what the United States and the West should be doing is investing in the up and coming Democrats, the reformers in what was now the former Soviet Union, and that this was going to take a lot of time and resources and effort.
So he was essentially pushing a version of The Marshall Plan, which the West put into effect after the end of World War II to rebuild Europe. Not that we were going to rebuild Russia, but the effort, the direction was…Nixon thought should be in these younger Democratic reformers, rather than trying to prop up or work with whatever remained of the old guard. That required a big financial contribution and Nixon thought you got a strike while the iron is hot before people start really talking about the peace dividend which, guess what, by the way, in 1992, a young governor out of Arkansas named Bill Clinton started to speak about exactly that.
So Nixon in 1989, 1990, 1991 began saying, “Look, before people start reinvesting that peace dividend, let’s talk about taking whatever money we might, say, from fighting the Cold War and plowing it into things like debt restructuring for Russia, a free enterprise core to get folks from the West on the ground in Russia and these other Republic’s teaching them about capitalism, the way the free market works, about small business. That level of education.” But that granular level of detail is what Nixon was pushing to President Bush, James Baker, his secretary of state and the rest of the team.
Jonathan Movroydis: And to the Bush team, he did his recommendations?
Monica Crowley: Some but not all, much to Nixon’s great frustration. Nixon wanted Bush to be far more assertive and aggressive in terms of his policy and Bush just temperamentally wasn’t that way. Bush was a very cautious guy as opposed to Nixon who was more adventurous when it came to foreign policy. And that was a source of great frustration, I think, for President Nixon.
Jonathan Movroydis: You had mentioned Mikhail Gorbachev, and Nixon was very, very fond of looking at the personalities of world leaders, looking at the culture and politics of different countries, especially Russia and China. Could you take us through this process that there’s this especially a lengthy memo that President Nixon wrote to Bush comparing Yeltsin and Gorbachev, their leadership? Could you take us a little bit through the process of how Nixon sort of studied the world, studied individual leaders, and the politics of these countries?
Monica Crowley: Yeah. Nixon saw analogy of politics as an organic whole and the way he looked at the world was organic, and all of the moving parts as separate and distinct as each one was they were all part of this moving organic whole. Nixon was also one of the few visionaries, two visionaries that we’ve actually had as President of the United States. By that I mean, Nixon could see what the world was going to look like 20, 30 years down the road and make American policy in that moment or in that time he was in office to anticipate and ultimately reflect that world that he knew was coming down the pike. That’s a real gift and Nixon had it.
When it came to world leaders, Nixon understood the benefits of having a positive, constructive, personal relationship with fellow world leaders. He thought that was all to the good. But he also understood as a realist, that those were leaders were there to represent the interests of their own countries, to protect and defend those interests. So while you may have good positive working relationship with another head of state, that doesn’t mean they’re going to give you everything they want. They’re fighting for their country as you are fighting for yours. He felt that some of his successors sometimes missed that point, conflated those two things, and put far too much stock in the close personal relationships.
I think as he watched the world develop, he tried to anticipate which country would be up on the ascent, what countries would be down on the descent, and then how to maximize America’s interests by playing on those trends. And that’s why he was advising President Bush to be more aggressive in managing the descent of the Soviet Union, the collapse, and so on, trying to back up, in his words, those Democratic reformers so that we would have more to work with in the years coming forward. But he also anticipated that China would move from less of a geopolitical player and more of a geo-economic player. And he started to anticipate that as well in the late ’80s, early ’90s, and that’s why he began writing on that.
Jonathan Movroydis: And talking about China a little bit, Nixon was an avid watcher of Russia, but he was the country’s preeminent China watcher at the time. President Bush was president at the time when the PRC was given most favored nation status by the United States. And during the time of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, did Nixon at all counsel Bush on China policy?
Monica Crowley: Yes, he did extensively. And he told him what he told Bill Clinton a couple of years later, when he was president, same thing, which is that the relationship with China is too valuable to be sacrificed on any altar. That doesn’t mean that we don’t pay close attention to the human rights issue. In fact, Nixon was extremely passionate about that. I was with him on his very last trip to China in 1993. And I can tell you, I was in on all of his meetings with the entire Chinese communist leadership, both in Beijing for five days, Shanghai, elsewhere around China.
And I can tell you in every single meeting, Nixon’s…one of his first points to the communist leadership there was about human rights. And he linked it distinctively and directly to a most favored nation trading status. I remember him so clearly telling the Chinese Premier at the time, Li Peng, that Nancy Pelosi who was in the House leadership was adamant about pulling most favored nation trading status from the Chinese unless they cleaned up their act on human rights. Nixon also felt very passionately about it, he made it clear to the Chinese that they better clean up their act, and he spoke in very undiplomatic terms to them.
Nixon and maybe there’s one other person on the planet, Henry Kissinger, who could speak to the Chinese in this kind of blunt language and tone. And they sat there and they took it. They didn’t fight back. They didn’t try to defend themselves except for saying, “Well, in a country of a billion people, you need to take certain actions.” Nixon was not having it, and he let them know in no uncertain terms that, that was the message he was going to bring back to President Bush as well, and in addition to the Democratic leadership in the Congress. So they listened to him, the Chinese listened to him, they understood what he was saying, they took it under advisement. And then when President Nixon came back to the U.S., he wrote President Bush a long letter, and then had lengthy conversations with him in person, as well, about what he found and what he conveyed to the Chinese.
Jonathan Movroydis: Following your commentary on the post-Soviet world in your Spectator column, you segue into the first Gulf War. It was considered a very successful war and a lot less controversial than the second Gulf War. Nixon was considered a realist in foreign policy. Did he feel that the first Gulf War was important?
Monica Crowley: Absolutely. In fact, I had just begun work with him in June of that year, 1990. And so we were still getting to know each other and I was still getting to know his rhythms and how he worked. And I remember being in the office, I came into my office there on August 2nd or August 3rd. And I was sitting at my desk and he came into the office carrying his briefcase, and I saw him from down the hall about to go into his office. He turned on his heel and he walked down the hall straight into my office, and he put his briefcase on my desk and he looks at me and he said, “Well, kid, looks like we’ve got another war on our hands.” And I looked at him, I said, “Sir.” And he said, “Looks like we got another war on our hands.” And he said, “Come into the office, I’ll explain.” Now that was right at the moment Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait.
And there was all of this talk of either, “Well, let him have part of Kuwait,” or, “Well, we can levy sanctions,” or, you know, “We’ll be able to use some leverage to try to remove Saddam from Kuwait.” I went into his office later that day and President Nixon said to me point blank, “The only thing that is gonna remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, which he believes is rightfully his, is gonna be the use of force. And the only country that is gonna be able to coordinate that is the United States of America. Yes, Monica, we have another war on our hands.”
So he knew that from within hours of Saddam crossing the border, and it ended up being exactly as he predicted. President Nixon spent a lot of time drafting at least one but I’m fairly certain there was more than one, very lengthy memo of advice to President Bush on how to handle the situation. It contained military advice, diplomatic advice, economic advice, and political advice for how to handle those folks at home that might oppose the military action as well as dealing with the media. And in that case, President Bush did in fact take a lot of his advice.
Jonathan Movroydis: What advice did he take in terms of policy implementation?
Monica Crowley: Specifically about putting together as broad a coalition as you could possibly put together. That aggression in President Bush’s words will not stand, and that despite not wanting to use force, force would be a last resort. The United States and a coalition of the willing, as President Bush ultimately put it, would in fact be utilized, if necessary, to make sure that borders in the Middle East and beyond were sacrosanct and enforced.
Jonathan Movroydis: Fast forwarding today, you said that Nixon could see political trends, 10, 15 years down the line. Today we have…he said in one memo in particular, “That if we don’t help manage Russia’s future, that Russia will embrace strongman politics.” We’re currently wrangling with China today over trade and a host of other issues. What kind of advice do you think President Nixon would give leaders today especially the Trump administration?
Monica Crowley: I think with particular regard to China, I think, President Nixon would be delighted with the way President Trump is handling the Chinese. Remember that when Nixon first opened the door to China, it was all geostrategic. It was about using China, and improved open relations with the Chinese as a counterweight against growing Soviet power, military expansionism, etc., and also to help end the Vietnam War. Well, now 40 years later, the script has been flipped and this is why Dr. Kissinger was advising then candidate Trump in 2016, to think about reaching out to the Russians.
Because now we were facing a mirror image of what they faced in the early ’70s, where you have growing Chinese power. And perhaps it would be useful to work productively with the Russians against growing Chinese power, where we both have an interest in encountering that. So that’s why there was talk of candidate Trump at the time not collusion or anything insane like that, but simply for to your strategic reasons to try to use Moscow as a counterweight against Beijing, which makes logical sense. I don’t know if it’s going to work. I don’t know if it’s going to materialize because the players are different and the time is different.
But that was the logic of that at the time. I think now, President Nixon would be delighted with the fact given increased Chinese power, militarily, economically, strategically, diplomatically, politically. That this President stand up to the Chinese on their currency manipulation, on their growing military assertiveness, particularly in the South China Sea, and so on. I think he would be telling President Trump to continue the aggressive actions on the Chinese so that they understood what the parameters are for their economic and strategic expansionism.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is, Monica Crowley, senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research Washington Times columnist, bestselling author, and Former Foreign Policy Assistant to President Nixon. Our topic was, “Nixon and his post presidency with a special focus on President Nixon’s counsel to the late President Bush.”
Monica, thank you so much for joining us.
Monica Crowley: A pleasure. Thank you, Jonathan.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on iTunes, Stitcher, and SoundCloud. This is Jonathan Movroydis signing off.