01/03/2013 09:54 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Conversations With Commanders: Interviewing General Schwarzkopf and President Bush

As if on command, a round of deafening gunfire silenced H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. the moment I asked the retired Army general whether he still considered himself a pacifist, as he had claimed in his 1992 autobiography.

"I'm the last person in the world who wants to go to war. War's a terrible thing -- " Schwarzkopf told me from behind dark sunglasses as the sudden racket disrupted his response, " -- that should be avoided at all costs."

On that Saturday morning in May 2006 we met inside the Lee County, Fla., gun range, a training facility for sheriff's deputies built to withstand the force of a Category 4 hurricane. The former head of Central Command had not driven the two hours from his home in Tampa to shoot targets, however. He had come to watch. The Safari Club International member and prostate cancer survivor was there to support Sportsmen Against Cancer, a group competing for Top Shot honors. Schwarzkopf stood tall and trim in a green T-shirt. His face and physique were gaunt; gone was the image of the heavyset commander draped in Desert Storm fatigues. "I'm a health nut of one sort or another," he remarked that day. "I eat healthy all the time."


Working weekends as a reporter for the Fort Myers NBC affiliate afforded these rare interview opportunities. On an unrelated assignment in Naples just two months prior, I had landed the chance to interact with President George H.W. Bush during a televised press conference. He was in town to promote family literacy at the Florida's annual Celebration of Reading. First Lady Barbara Bush stood by his side, as she has throughout their 68 years of marriage. The governor, their son Jeb, fidgeted in the background.

Though President Bush and General Schwarzkopf left the public sector for private life not long after the Persian Gulf war, both continued to pursue public service well into retirement: the general through raising awareness of cancer and what he called ethical hunting practices, the president through his literacy cause and outreach to victims of the 2004 South Asian tsunami.

Together the men, Republicans and war veterans separated in age by 10 years, masterminded the 1990-91 campaign to cripple Saddam Hussein's regime with a coalition of allies, free the people of Kuwait from Iraqi oppression, and protect fragile oil interests abroad while limiting troop deaths.

When Schwarzkopf died last Thursday at 78 from pneumonia complications, Bush, 88 and in hospital care for bronchitis and a fever, wrote that the former commander "epitomized the 'duty, service, country' creed," a benediction from the man who awarded Schwarzkopf the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991. Later that year, the general retired near MacDill Air Force Base to pen his autobiography, It Doesn't Take A Hero.

"He was a guy who would have been very, very tough to work for directly if you were one of his lieutenants in command. But I think he was a very easy, fabulous guy to work with," Peter Petre, who co-authored Schwarzkopf's book, said in a phone interview from New York. "It was like the perfect collaborator."

Petre added that he was impressed with Schwarzkopf's ability to weave vivid recollections of travel and service into a narrative that captured childhood anecdotes (he lived on Army bases all over the world and harbored a crush on Snow White) and revealing perspective from the Vietnam battlefield and Tampa war room. Yet when we spoke in 2006, three years into George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, Schwarzkopf stopped short of criticizing policy that had by then produced more than 2,000 soldier deaths.

"Every single life is important to me, every single one," Schwarzkopf told me. "I don't agree with the theory that, OK, if you're at war therefore you're gonna lose lives and that's perfectly alright. That's absolutely wrong. I think every commander worth his salt does everything he possibly can to avoid casualties."

I pressed, "Is it time to withdraw?"

He laughed from the belly: "I'm not gonna touch that with a 10-foot pole, are you kidding?"

That year would mark the most troop deaths by gunfire than any other between 2003 and 2012.

After a few minutes the general and I parted ways, but not before he agreed to autograph the issue of MAD magazine I had brought along that morning. Its cover depicted an oversized Schwarzkopf caricature embracing a rail-thin Alfred E. Neuman against an American flag backdrop. His signature stretched across his wide chest.

Two months earlier, in March 2006, I stood among reporters in a hotel conference room, waiting for Bush to emerge. The lower half of a pair of long, lanky legs eventually appeared in the visible gap separating a curtain from the floor. The president appeared, smiling, and walked with a crooked gait toward the podium where the press awaited him. Here stood a man who had parachuted from a plane shot down in World War II, and made similar jumps voluntarily later in life, most recently on his 85th birthday.

I asked Bush about Republican resistance that week to the current president's desire for a Dubai company to manage America's major ports.

"You've asked the right guy. You've asked the expert on what it feels like when your party people turn against you," he answered. The response drew laughs and encouraged a fatherly tease: "If George thinks he's got a problem he ought to try what I had on for size, and see how lucky he is."

I followed up by asking who he thought might succeed the president in 2008.

"Jeb," he answered before I got the words out, a moment that caught his son off guard.

I pushed. "Governor?"

After an awkward pause -- and with an obvious urge to dodge the subject -- he groaned "no" and shook his head as his eyes dropped to the floor. "It's too early."

This week, through a family spokesperson, Bush was said to be recovering in Houston from ailments that have demanded intensive care through the holidays. The statement asked the public to pray for the president. "The other thing you can do for President Bush is laugh," it continued, "since he is the funniest person we'll ever know."

Peter Teeley, Bush's friend of 34 years and press secretary during the 1980 and 1988 campaigns, recalled in an interview how the president had once intervened during a three-week medical ordeal. Just before Teeley's colon tumor operation in 1987, Bush dispatched the White House doctor to meet with his friend's surgeons, a gesture he insists saved his life.

"That really turned things around," Teeley said on the phone from Maryland. "There were all kinds of complications and I was very lucky to survive. But I would not have survived."