Before He Was President, George HW Bush Was The Man Who Fixed The CIA

Former President George H.W. Bush speaking on stage during the Billy Graham Crusade.
Ronald Martinez / Getty Images

Before George H.W. Bush found himself seated in the Oval Office, he was appointed by former President Gerald Ford to be director of the then scandal-ridden CIA.

As reported by the Daily Beast, it wasn’t exactly Bush’s first choice, given that he had been on the shortlist to be Ford’s vice-president. The climate at the agency at the time didn’t appeal to Bush either, and he felt that Ford was trying to kill his political career with the unexpected appointment.

At the time, the CIA was caught up in a major scandal after an expose was posted in the New York Times by Seymour Hersch, in which it was shared that the agency had been spying on anti-war groups within its own borders. That expose was written just 13 months before Bush took the reigns. The internal surveillance hit the agency hard when it became public knowledge, and their popularity was in the gutter.

But when Bush took over, the entire attitude inside the agency changed. John McLaughlin, who regularly briefed the director on communist groups forming in Europe, remembers that Bush was “extremely gracious” every time they spoke.

“Every time you briefed him, you got a personal note thanking you.”

During his tenure there, Bush came to love working as the CIA Director. For his 52nd birthday, the “masters of disguise” at the agency’s Office of Science and Technology dressed him up in disguise for a meeting. He was transformed into a man with red hair, thick glasses, and a big nose — and only blew his cover when he muttered “I’m sweating under this thing,” in the meeting.

Duane Clarridge, who served as the chief of Arab operations for the agency’s directorate of operations under Bush, expressed — before Bush’s passing — how much respect Bush had from the spies who worked within the agency.

“He was very much of the view, ‘let the troops do their jobs.’ He was there to support them. He was very people-oriented.”

Clarridge in particular remembered the incident in which the U.S. Embassy in Beirut had to be evacuated under dangerous circumstances. Instead of heading to the White House to brief Ford on the unfolding situation, Bush stayed at the CIA’s Headquarters — where he could monitor the extraction from start to finish.

Bush also ruffled feathers among senior leaders in the CIA, eventually firing some of them. And as is customary for people in high ranking government agencies, he was also forced to make some controversial decisions during his time as director, one of which would have been his decision to approve an in-depth analysis of the Soviet Union’s military capabilities during the Cold War.

Ironically, his own son, George W. Bush — who would later serve two terms in the White House — was inherently suspicious of the CIA throughout his eight years as president.