Bush to visit Vietnam on corporate-funded trip

July 22, 1995|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- George Bush, who entered public life as a supporter of the U.S. war against the Vietnamese Communists, is joining in the rush to build ties and do business with the former enemy.

The former president is being paid a six-figure fee by Citibank, the giant New York-based international bank, to give speeches and meet with the bank's multinational and local commercial customers in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in early September, according to a person familiar with the arrangements.

"A prime purpose for us is for him to meet with customers of ours, both local and multinational," said Kenneth Campbell, a spokesman for Citibank, which sees Vietnam as an important emerging market.

Neither Mr. Bush's spokesman nor the bank would reveal the precise sum. A person familiar with the transaction said he would be paid in the low six figures.

This is far below the $2 million that Ronald Reagan was reported to receive on a corporate-funded trip to Japan that heightened debate over former presidents' cashing in on their celebrity.

Mr. Bush is tentatively scheduled to give speeches in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. Customers will get to "hear his views on U.S.-Vietnamese relations, Asia generally and international matters," Mr. Campbell said.

Mr. Bush has previously traveled to Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Australia for Citibank.

President Clinton moved early this month to consign the bloody, decade-long conflict to history by opening full diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Secretary of State Warren Christopher will visit Hanoi on Aug. 5 and 6.

The Bush trip has drawn criticism from the Vietnamese-American community and others who fear that his visit will give the %J repressive Vietnamese regime a propaganda wind fall. And his plans have revived debate over what former presidents should and shouldn't do for money, particularly overseas.

"He would not be going if he didn't think it was appropriate," said Bush spokesman Jim McGrath.

But Tran Dieu Chan, spokeswoman for the San Jose, Calif.-based National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, said: "He's putting economic or business interests above all other principles of democracy or human rights."

"Any foreign trip by a former president unavoidably has diplomatic overtones," said James H. Webb Jr., Navy secretary under Mr. Reagan and a decorated Vietnam War veteran. "The American taxpayers pay former presidents a very nice retainer in the form of a pension to continue to be somewhat of an icon. I think it's wrong for any former president to receive a fee to make a series of presentations that the world will see as quasi-official."

Others see the visit as part of a trend toward closer U.S. economic ties with Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations.

"We're going to have a whole flock of people going out there. It's good," said Stanley Karnow, a journalist and historian of the Vietnam War.

The trip will be the first by a former or current president since Richard Nixon visited Vietnam in 1969, at the peak of the war, which cost 58,000 American lives and bitterly divided this country.

Mr. Bush recently promised POW-MIA families and Vietnamese-Americans that in any meetings with officials of the Hanoi government, he will press the case for further accounting on the missing servicemen and for Vietnam to improve its human rights record.

Ann Mills Griffiths, a longtime lobbyist for the National League of POW-MIA Families, counts Mr. Bush as a knowledgeable supporter of her organization's cause.

"I'm confident he will raise" the POW-MIA issue, she said. His trip could be a net plus, she noted. "You could argue it both ways."

But Delores Alfond, a leader of another POW-MIA group, the National Alliance of Families, said, "Bush is going to support big business and that's what it's all about -- big business -- period."

Several Congress members who have been involved on one side or the other of recognizing Vietnam declined to comment, as did the State Department. A spokeswoman for Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who spent 5 1/2 years as a POW but has strongly pushed for reconciliation with Vietnam, said the senator had talked to Mr. Bush about the trip and was pleased he was going.

But Rep. Robert K. Dornan, a GOP conservative and presidential candidate from California, condemned Mr. Bush.

"It takes my breath away," he said. "The only possible, honorable thing for him is to slip his fee to some slimy Communist and say, 'I'm buying the bones of an American hero.' "

Quan Nguyen, an Annandale, Va., physician whose brother, Nguyen Dan Que, is a political prisoner in Vietnam, said he hopes that Mr. Bush will press the Vietnamese government to free prisoners of conscience and set a timetable for free elections.

Mr. McGrath, the Bush spokesman, said that the former president has also given speeches for the Big Three carmakers, At&T, and the investment brokerages Dean Witter and Merrill Lynch. More than half of Mr. Bush's public appearances since leaving office have been for charities, Mr. McGrath said. The former president draws federal pensions totaling $196,000.

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