Yesterday George W. Bush sat down with Bob Costas for a talk. I’ll let the transcript speak for itself …
Costas: You saw the Opening Ceremony, you’ve seen Michael Phelps and company, at the pool, you went to beach volleyball, the USA’s win over China in basketball last night, what are your impressions so far?
Bush: First of all I think the Chinese are being great hosts, the venues are fantastic, and our team’s fired up and so am I. I’m excited to be here. It’s such a thrill to watch our men and women compete.
Costas: You met with the ball players before the basketball game last night.
Bush: I did.
Costas: What was their response to you?
Bush: Their response was … well first of all… obviously these are great stars… and their response was thanks for coming, we are really really honored to represent America, and I was impressed by them. And of course they go out and put on a great performance.
Costas: And winning 101- 70. Alright, our time here is limited but we will get to as much as we can, the Opening Ceremonies were glorious there is much to admire about China’s people, China’s culture, and its present accomplishments. But this remains an authoritarian state.
Bush: That’s true.
Costas: With an abysmal human rights record. In the long run, is China’s rise irreconcilable with America’s interest?
Bush: No, in the long run America better remain engaged with China and understand that we can have a cooperative and constructive yet candid relationship. It’s really important for future presidents to understand the relationship between China and the region and its important to make sure that America is engaged with China even though we may have some disagreements.
Costas: You met with President Hu Jintao not just at the Opening Ceremony, but privately since then. Did you press him on the full array of American concerns? Human rights, press freedom, Tibet, China’s support of rogue regimes like Sudan and Myanmar?
Bush: And North Korea and Iran.
Costas: It was all on the table?
Bush: Oh absolutely every time. Every time. But you’ve got to understand something Bob. I don’t need the Olympics to advance America’s agenda. I’ve met with Hu Jintao a lot since I have been the President and listen we agree with them on a lot of things and we disagree with them on things, and that’s the way the relationship is going to be. It needs to be as I mentioned constructive and cooperative.
Costas: This past week you restated America’s fundamental differences with China but given China’s growing strength and America’s own problems, realistically, how much leverage and influence does the U.S. have here?
Bush: First of all, I don’t see America having problems. I see America as a nation that is a world leader that has got great values and leverage, I don’t think you should look at the relationship as one of leverage, I think you should look at the relationship as one of constructive engagement, where you can find common areas like North Korea and Iran. But also be in a position where they can respect you enough to listen to your views on religious freedom and political liberty.
Costas: If these Olympics are as successful as they are shaping up to be, most people believe this only further legitimizes the ruling party in the minds of most Chinese citizens. And even absent true liberty as we understand it, the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese people are much better than they once were. Therefore, what’s the party’s incentive to reform?
Bush: Well first of all, if you are a religious person you understand that once religion takes hold in a society it can’t be stopped. And secondly I think the Olympics are gonna serve as a chance for people to come and see china the way it is, and let the Chinese see the world and interface and have, you know, the opportunity to converse with people from around the world. This is very positive development in my view for peace. You know, who knows how China’s going to progress. They have been through some very difficult political times, the Cultural Revolution for one, where the leadership actually created violent anarchy as the society turned on itself. All I can tell you is it’s important for the United States to be active in this part of the world, with all countries, and to stay engaged with China.
Costas: Moving away from China for just a second, during the Opening Ceremony, we saw you conferring with Vladimir Putin. We now know that you were talking about the conflict that had erupted that day between Russia and Georgia.
Bush: That’s true.
Costas: Now Georgia is a former Soviet Republic that is sympathetic to the West and that is attempting to embody many Western values. But just as you need China, you need Russia strategically around the globe. You’ve got to walk a fine line. What did you say to Putin?
Bush: I said this violence is unacceptable. I not only said it to Vladimir Putin, I said it to the President of the country, Dmitry Medvedev. And my administration has been engaged with both sides in this, trying to get a cease-fire, and saying the status quo for all troops should be August 6th. Look, I expressed my grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia. And we strongly condemn bombing outside of South Ossetia. It was just interesting to me that here we are, you know trying to promote peace and harmony, and we’re witnessing a conflict take place.
Costas: No Olympic truce in this case.
Bush: There wasn’t. And I was very firm with Vladimir Putin. And he and I have a good relationship. Just like I was firm with the Russian President. And hopefully this will get resolved peacefully. There needs to be international mediation for the South Ossetia issue.
Costas: Couple more quick things.
Costas: China is a nation that warmly received Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, who has since been indicted by the International Court on charges of genocide. Then, this past week they revoke the visa of Joey Cheek, an exemplary Olympian who had planned to come here not to directly protest China’s government, but to call attention to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. What’s your reaction?
Bush: My reaction is I’m sorry Joey Cheek didn’t come. He’s a good man. Joey Cheek’s just got to know I took the Sudanese message for him. My attitude is if you’ve got relations with Mr. Bashir, think about helping us solve the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. That was my message to the Chinese government.
Costas: As you attempt to press these points with them, do you find Hu Jintao not just warm to you personally, but is he receptive? Do you sense any movement?
Bush: Yeah, it’s hard to tell. I mean, all I can tell you is that it is best to be in a position where a leader will listen to you. I went to church here. And I’m sure the cynics say ‘Well, you know, it was just a state sponsored church.’ On the other hand, and that’s true, it gave me a chance to say to the Chinese people, religion won’t hurt you, you ought to welcome religious people. And it gave me a chance to say to the Chinese government, ‘Why don’t you register the underground churches and give them a chance to flourish?’ And he listened politely. I can’t read his mind, but I do know that every time I met with him, I pressed the point.
Costas: Your father has long standing connections to China. He was an envoy here even before we established an official ambassador’s position during the 1970s. And he is here with you on this trip, so there’s a family connection.
Bush: Absolutely. Yeah, it was a great connection. I can remember riding my bike around Beijing in 1975.
Costas: Only bikes then, just about.
Bush: Unbelievable how far this has changed. And he feels the same way. We were honored yesterday, when the President, Hu Jintao, invited my dad, and me, and Laura, and my sister, and my daughter, my brother, for dinner or lunch. It was a great gesture of kindness. Bob, it’s very important for the American people to know, coming here gave me a chance obviously to root for our team, and you’ve captured that but also, coming here is a sign of respect for the Chinese people. And this is a big, important nation. We’ll have our differences, we’ll have our agreements. But in order to find common ground and move the world toward peace, it is important for this country to show respect for the people of the country.
Costas: Briefly, one more sports question.
Costas: You have been outspoken. Your past connections to baseball, you used the State of the Union speech to do it, to talk about performance enhancing drugs in sports. Marion Jones recently petitioned you for clemency. She’s serving time because of her involvement in the BALCO case, one time Olympic hero. We know many Olympians, and in your favorite sport and mine, baseball, big time names, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, what’s your feeling about this, and how much do you, as an American, trust the integrity of the sports you watch?
Bush: Let’s just talk about baseball. Obviously, one of the great things about baseball is that we can compare the records of the players of the 50s to the 60s and the 70s and obviously the 1990s. And it is very important for there to be, for the sport to be clean. The great continuity, the history of baseball is real. And secondly, we don’t want adults sending mixed message to children, that it’s ok to shoot up drugs in order to become a star, cause it’s not okay.
Costas: You gonna go to a couple more events before you leave?
Bush: I’m going to swimming, if you’d ever let me off this set.
Costas: (Laughter) Okay, you are dismissed
Bush: Thank you sir.
Costas: Thank you, Mr. President.