Western Association of Food Chains (WAFC) Chairman Mike Stigers of Supervalu took the stage with former U.S. President George W. Bush during the group’s 97th Annual Convention May 5-9 in San Antonio.
The convention took place just weeks after the president’s mother, Barbara Bush, passed away at the age of 92. Also the wife of former president George H.W. Bush, Mrs. Bush passed away April 17.
Stigers conveyed the group’s condolences on the family’s loss of the well-loved and -respected former First Lady. Bush thanked Stigers, and then told a story that represented the back-and-forth relationship he had with his mother after he told a reporter when he was running for governor in Texas that he got “his daddy’s eyes and his mother’s mouth.” The last time she was in the hospital in Houston, Bush went to see his mother and, out of the blue, asked a doctor who came into see her if he knew why George W. had turned out the way he had. The doctor, not knowing what to say, said no. She said, “Because I smoked and drank while I was pregnant with him.”
All kidding aside, it was comforting to the family that she was comfortable with the idea of her death. She told George that she welcomed death; “all is well with her soul, therefore it was well with me,” he said.
He also said that his father, hospitalized right after Mrs. Bush’s funeral, is doing better.
Stigers asked Bush about a number of topics, including China and Russia. Below are excerpts from three parts of their talk, covering NAFTA and immigration; North Korea; and what it was like to be president on 9/11.
Stigers: One of the things that’s important to our industry and to our country is NAFTA and the debate on immigration.
Bush: First of all, as governor of Texas, and as a guy who grew up in Texas, the Hispanic culture was ingrained in our state—it’s a very important part of Texas and our history…
Immigration has always been an important part of our state’s economy. I was thinking about this issue driving in. For those people who don’t quite understand the importance of immigration and you play golf. Who is going to mow your fairways? People willing to do work Americans won’t do. Therefore, we ought to have a rational way of understanding that. There are people whose babies are going hungry who are willing to work hard in order to feed their family—something we ought to cherish in our country.
Immigration is a very important issue, but it is a volatile issue because we also want our borders enforced. We don’t want an open border, so there’s got to be a rational way to approach the issue.
NAFTA has been unbelievably beneficial for our state and our country. I used to go down to the Rio Grande Valley when I was a kid. It was like going into the Third World on both sides of the border; the poverty was unspeakable. You go down to the border today and you’re not going to believe how vibrant the middle class is. And the reason why is commerce. Commerce helps lift people out of poverty. Look, my dad negotiated NAFTA, which means it’s kind of old…it should be renegotiated. But it should not be torn apart.
The long-term economic challenge for our country is going to be China. The best way, in my judgment, to compete with China long term is to have Canada, our peaceful neighbor to the north, Mexico, an important neighbor to the south, working in concert to be able to share our resources, share our expertise, share our capital, share our labor—in a way to be able to compete long term. I hope they don’t dismantle NAFTA; I hope they fix it.
Stigers: In your book “Decision Point,” you mention once had a conference with the president of China about North Korea and he said North Korea is your problem not mine.
Bush: That’s right…Jiang Zemin. Right up the road here in Crawford I used our ranch a lot to conduct personal diplomacy. Like in your businesses, you do well when you listen to your consumers or listen to your suppliers and get to know them. Same thing in the presidency, but it takes time, as you know. Laura and I had (Vladimir) Putin (of Russia) to the ranch, we had (Tony) Blair (of Canada), all kinds of people to come to the ranch, including Jiang Zemin. I sat down with him and said, “We’ve got a problem in North Korea.” He said, “No, it’s your problem.” We went back and forth like that, not much was resolved. So I got back to the White House and Condie Rice (Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) said something like “you need to ratchet it up, you weren’t very effective.”
So we got him on the phone and I said, “We’ve got a problem in North Korea,” and he said, “It’s your problem.” I said, “Let me tell you something, Mr. President; if we don’t solve this, the Japanese are going to end up with a nuclear weapon.” That got the Chinese to the table for the first time. It was called the six-party talks. They did not work because what ended happening was we got the North Koreans to destroy their plutonium manufacturing process, which was a great diplomatic victory; the problem was they had a highly enriched uranium program covertly developing.
You’ve got to know—these societies have no transparency. It’s really hard to gain insight as to what’s going on. In order to diplomatically solve the problem, you have to get all hands on deck. And the question is, do the Chinese now fear a nuclear arms race in the Far East? I know they fear the Japanese arming up because of their history with Japan, particularly during World War II. It’s a very complex situation.
Stigers: Mr. President, if we could move a little toward leadership…We all remember the day of 9/11 when your chief of staff came in and said, “Mr. President, we are under attack.” Could you share that with us?
The first thing I want to share with you is things happen in your life that you don’t want to have happen to you, and when they do, the question is how do you deal with it? On a personal level, in my case, I was president of the United States. So like you all, I didn’t see it coming. And all of a sudden it hit us. I was watching a child read to me when Andy Card said the second plane has hit the second tower and America is under attack. I was in a small classroom in Sarasota, Florida, and there were a lot of press. Just as he said that, the press started getting…it was like watching a silent movie of bad news being spread to our country. And I had been in crises as governor of this state, but nothing compared to this, of course.
But the first lesson for crises is if you’re the leader—family, business, country—project calm. The people react on how the leader reacts. So I waited for the appropriate moment to leave the classroom.
And then the second lesson of crisis is you must say something because there is a void, a vacuum, and into that vacuum flow all kinds of stuff. I went into a classroom with parents and kids who had not gotten the news and said, “America is under attack, and we’ll deal with it.” I had no idea what “it” meant at that time.
I did know, however, that there was a psychological tsunami beginning to sweep the country. The reason why is I saw the horror, shock, disbelief, emotions on the faces of the people I had just spoken to.
So I got hustled out of there to a limo, hurtling down the highway. Condie calls me and says a plane has hit the Pentagon. The first one I thought was an accident because Andy said the second one was an attack. Then the third was a declaration of war. And at a moment’s notice I became a wartime president. And I made a lot of tough decisions, some of which are bubbling to the surface. All of which, however, were done with one thing in mind—the Constitution of the United States and protecting that child and her family and her country who was reading to me the moment I heard we were under attack.
Like Pearl Harbor, 9/11 is a date to be remembered. Pearl Harbor for my dad was a psychological change in his life, like your relatives. He didn’t go to college; he went to fight the Japanese. 9/11 is becoming a day for many, many Americans to remember so they don’t fail the quiz. Yet the lessons of 9/11 are still real, and here’s why: the human condition elsewhere matters to our national security. How other people live matters to whether or not your kids are secure. 9/11 taught us that we are vulnerable in this new kind of war. And, therefore, your government must take the offense to prevent further attacks. Naturally, we don’t want to think about the horrors of the moment, I understand that; but we better hope people who get elected don’t forget the horrors of the moment.