President George H.W. Bush was presented the 2009 Atlantic Council Distinguished International Leadership Award by Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who served as Deputy National Security Advisor and later CIA Director in his administration.

Gates was funny and provocative during his remarks, including terming his upcoming appearance before the Senate Appropriations Committee “a fate worse than death.”  Most amusing was his recounting of the time a reporter in Helena, Montana asked Bush what he thought of the idea of a unified Germany and the president replied that, “If the Germans want it, I’m all for it.”   Gates says he then phoned National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and asked if we had a policy on German reunification and was told that it was still being staffed through the interagency process.   Gates dryly remarked, “Well, you’ve got a policy now!”

He was also quite obviously moved by the opportunity to pay tribute to his former boss and friend, choking up a bit when he vowed, “I would walk through fire for him” and proclaiming Bush “one of the greatest American patriots of all time.”   He said, “One of the great privileges of my life was to be at President Bush’s side as he provided inspired leadership to a world that in a spanof less than 36 months experienced the liberation of Eastern Europe, the reunification of Germany into NATO, the victory of the West in the Cold War, the first Gulf War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.”  He observed that “the imagination reels at the thought of a less experienced and skilled president trying to exploit the liberation of Eastern Europe or dealing with the final crisis and death throes of the Russian and Soviet empire …. As the communist bloc was disintegrating, it was George H.W. Bush’s skilled, yet quiet, statecraft that made a revolutionary time seem so much less dangerous than it actually was.”

The former president devoted most of his short speech praising others and making self-deprecating jokes. He especially singled out his absent co-awardee Helmut Kohl, who he described as a man for whom “my respect knows no bounds.”  He also made sure to “salute the capable men and women I had at my side during four yours of genuine change and challenge.  Together, we not only upheld the public trust placed in us, we helped leave the world a safer place than we found it.”  He thanked them for their selfless service and friendship.

In reflecting on his relationship with Kohl, Bush noted that German unification was not “a gimme”  but rather the result of strong leadership from his former colleague.  Additionally, he noted that Mikhail Gorbachev played no small role.   Bush worked in his oft told but still amusing anecdote of a conversation with former French President Francois Mitterand, who proclaimed, “I like Germany so much, I think there should be two of them!”

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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