George HW Bush, 41st US president, dies at home aged 94
The former US president steered his country safely through a turbulent era in world affairs, but paid an electoral price for failure with the domestic economy
GEORGE HW Bush, the 41st president of the United States, who died last Friday aged 94, appeared a statesman of global stature after leading an international coalition to eject Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in 1991; yet only a year later his bid for re-election was humiliatingly scotched by Bill Clinton.
Victory in the Gulf War was secured with a skill and decisiveness which silenced suggestions of wimpishness that had haunted his political past. His resolve stiffened by Margaret Thatcher (“Remember George, this is no time to go wobbly”), he responded to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990 by speedily obtaining a vote for sanctions in the United Nations. With two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves threatened by Iraqi expansionism, Russia and China were persuaded to offer their support.
Meanwhile Bush convinced Saudi Arabia to accept the vanguard of American forces. He could not have foreseen that the move would foment hatred for America within al-Qaeda, which passionately opposed the presence of American troops on Muslim holy lands, and thus contribute to wars that his son — George W Bush — would lead as America’s 43rd president.
Beyond Saudi Arabia, George HW Bush also kept in constant telephone contact with every Arabian leader opposed to Iraq.
Israel, where gas masks were being handed out in preparation for the possibility of an Iraqi chemical attack, needed constant reassurance too, as well as a hand restraining it from launching retaliation that might have shattered the Arab alliance within the American-led coalition.
In November 1990, even as Bush doubled the number of American troops in the Gulf (without seeking the approval of Congress), the United Nations set January 15, 1991 as the date after which “all necessary means” might be used to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait. When the deadline passed without any concession from Saddam, Bush immediately ordered Operation Desert Storm, under which the 34 allies began, on January 17, to bomb targets in Iraq.
On February 15, Saddam announced his willingness to withdraw from Kuwait, but as it became clear that the offer was linked with the Arab-Israeli conflict, Bush rejected it as a “cruel hoax”. Brushing aside a peace plan concocted in Moscow on February 21, he ordered his ground forces to attack two days later.
The “100-hour war” proved to be a virtual walkover: on February 26 Saddam confirmed what was already apparent on the ground — the withdrawal of his forces from Kuwait. The next day Bush called off the offensive. Though the oilfields of Kuwait were set ablaze by retreating Iraqi forces, American euphoria knew no bounds. “Those who doubted George Bush’s nerve and geopolitical acumen owe him something of an apology,” wrote the New Republic. The President’s popularity ratings soared.
Though it was by far his biggest success, victory in the Arabian desert was just one triumph on the foreign stage during a term in office that coincided with the end of the Cold War. And Bush, a former head of the CIA, had the experience and temperament to respond to the collapse of the Soviet Union and other potential entanglements abroad, such as the removal from power of the Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega.
But if ever proof were needed that foreign policy victories, even on the battlefield, count for nothing when set against domestic economic woes, Bush’s failure to secure a second term provided the perfect example.
Having wooed the Republican faithful in 1988 with the words “Read my lips: No new taxes”, he was forced to sign off on tax-raising measures as Reagan-era budget problems spiralled.
He never fully reconnected with his core supporters: approval ratings that had stood at 90 per cent at the end of the Gulf War were in freefall as the election year got under way. The remarkable transformation from hero to zero was memorably summed up when, on January 8, 1992, Bush vomited and fainted at a state banquet in Japan in full view of the cameras.
Endlessly replayed on television, images of the world’s most powerful man brought low had a similar effect on his ratings, which soon fell to under 30 per cent.
Aiming to hit back, he launched a spirited campaign in which he portrayed his rival for the White House as a draft-dodging, marijuana-smoking sleazeball, badgered by a bossy, radical-feminist wife. However, at Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Democratic strategist James Carville hung up a sign inscribed with three rules to keep his own party election workers on message.
The first tip was to emphasise change over continuity, the third an instruction to focus on health care. But it was the second rule that has become an indelible mantra of politics since: “The economy, stupid.”
And it was that failure to steady wobbling American finances that ensured that, despite all his triumphs abroad, George Bush was fated to become one of only three post-war presidents, along with Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, to be denied four more years by the voters.
George Herbert Walker Bush was born at Milton, Massachusetts, on June 12, 1924 into a long established Wasp family regarded by the American East Coast establishment as “the Achievers”. His father was Prescott Bush, a businessman and investment banker, who served from 1962 to 1972 as a Republican senator from Connecticut. George was brought up with three brothers and a sister in the conservative atmosphere of the East Coast “Ivy League”.
The family lived in the prosperous Greenwich suburb of New York and Bush was educated at Phillips Academy in Andover, north of Boston, where he captained the basketball and football teams .
He graduated in 1942 but instead of going immediately to Yale, he volunteered for the US Navy, enlisting on his 18th birthday and becoming its youngest pilot. Next year he joined the aircraft carrier San Jacinto as a member of its torpedo bomber squadron, and sailed into the Pacific.
During a raid against a Japanese communications station the following year, Bush’s Avenger bomber was badly shot up and his two crew members killed. As his aircraft broke apart, Bush parachuted into the sea to be picked up by a US submarine just as Japanese patrol boats bore down on him.
Returning home a war hero, he married his childhood sweetheart, Barbara Pierce, daughter of the chairman of McCall’s publishing group. The couple spent the rest of the war in Virginia Beach, where Bush trained pilots. He was released from the Navy in September 1945, and resumed his studies at Yale where he took a degree in Economics and played in the baseball and soccer teams with such skill that for a time he considered becoming a professional baseball player.
The young couple’s first baby, a son, also George, was born during Bush’s university career. They had five other children, but a girl, Robin, died of leukaemia in 1953 at the age of four.
When he left university in 1948, Bush started working for International Derrick Equipment, a Texan subsidiary of Dresser Industries, an oilfield supply firm, of which his father was a director. In 1950 he teamed up with an independent oil operator, John Overby, and formed a development company which bought and sold oil and gas properties.
After three years, the business was merged with Zapata Petroleum, which Bush had helped to found with two other businessmen. Then he created a Zapata subsidiary, which developed offshore drilling equipment, and became its president. The company grew into a multi-million dollar enterprise with operations worldwide. Bush made a fortune.
His first foray into politics came in 1956 when he helped local Republicans in West Texas during the successful Eisenhower re-election campaign. In 1964 he ran for the Senate under the banner of Barry Goldwater, the hard-Right Republican presidential candidate.
He campaigned against civil rights legislation, called for arms to be given to anti-Castro exiles living in the US so they could make forays into Cuba, and insisted on US withdrawal from the UN should China become a member. Although Bush became a casualty of the LBJ landslide that followed the assassination of President Kennedy, he achieved the highest share of the vote ever chalked up by a Republican candidate in Texas.
Bush tried again in 1966 with his sights fixed on the House of Representatives seat for Texas’s Seventh Congressional District, which covered one of Houston’s richest suburbs. He duly defeated his conservative Democrat opponent, Frank Briscoe, to become the first Republican to represent Houston in Congress. By this time, his views seemed to have moved in a more liberal direction.
He supported the 1968 Gun Control Act, backed legislation to give votes to 18-year-olds, to abolish conscription, to adopt an ethics code for Congress and to institute a housing scheme that upset many of his own constituents. He also co-sponsored parliamentary acts to expand domestic birth control programmes and supported water pollution control measures.
In 1970 Bush tried again to win a seat in the Senate but, again, failed. By then, however, he had been noticed by President Nixon, who in March 1971 appointed him America’s ambassador to the UN. Although he had little knowledge of diplomacy or foreign affairs at that time, Bush made a favourable impression on his fellow UN envoys, although he was compelled to preside over one of America’s biggest diplomatic defeats: the admission to the UN of Communist China and the expulsion of Taiwan in October 1971. Bush described the vote as “a moment of infamy”.
When he resigned from the UN in 1973, Bush was asked by Nixon to take over the chairmanship of the Republican Party’s National Committee. He accepted the task, but it became a bed of nails as the Watergate scandal began to unfold. Bush had no involvement in Watergate, which led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974, and his work in keeping the party united during difficult times won him a huge following among Republicans in the field.
Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor, rewarded Bush for his loyalty by asking him to name his next assignment. Bush said he wanted to head the US Liaison Office in Peking, a diplomatic mission of 226 Americans. He plunged into his new job with enthusiasm, taking Chinese lessons with his wife, bicycling all over the Chinese capital and getting to know as many Chinese government officials as possible.
He stayed in the country until December 1975, when Ford offered him the job of heading the CIA — “a real shocker” as Bush put it. The Senate confirmed his appointment in January 1976 after securing a promise from Ford that he would not select Bush to be his running mate in the rapidly approaching presidential election.
Bush took over the CIA at the worst moment in its history. Revelations of “dirty tricks” designed to topple foreign leaders, and allegations of spying on American citizens aroused criticism from all quarters.
Yet the challenge excited Bush, who was soon drafting an executive order aimed at preventing further abuses of power and keeping the agency’s activities within the bounds of its mandate. He made a solid impression at the CIA, winning a reputation as a hard-working boss who would stand by his people. There was deep disappointment at the agency when Jimmy Carter won the 1976 elections and decided on a change at the top .
Bush returned to Texas intent on running for the presidency in the 1980 election. He announced his candidacy in May 1979 and launched a barnstorming election campaign that kept him on the road for 326 days of the following year. The momentum was difficult to maintain, however, and Ronald Reagan’s bandwagon caught up in the primaries. Reagan’s victory in Texas left Bush “stunned” and led him to withdraw from the nomination race.
He brushed aside suggestions that he should make himself “available” as a vice-presidential candidate. Yet he remained the second most popular Republican in the country, and when Reagan’s first choice as running mate, Gerald Ford, withdrew, Reagan turned to his erstwhile rival.
Bush accepted with alacrity, and proved the ideal partner for Reagan, his relative youth balancing Reagan’s age and his foreign policy experience making up to some degree for Reagan’s skimpy knowledge of world affairs. In the November election the Reagan-Bush ticket swept Carter and Mondale aside.
Reagan assured Bush and the American public that the vice-president would not “just go to funerals”, and was as good as his word. The two men established a friendly and efficient working relationship. Bush operated from a permanent office in the West Wing of the White House, attended the daily national security briefings presided over by the President, met him for lunch once a week, and enjoyed access to all intelligence.
He welcomed Reagan’s decision to appoint as his chief of staff James Baker, a long-time Bush family friend, since it ensured that his line of communication with the Oval office would always be kept open. The Bush-Baker friendship endured into Bush’s own presidential term of office when the White House chief became secretary of state.
In early March 1981 Bush was offered the post of “crisis manager”, coordinating policy whenever domestic and foreign emergencies arose, a task sought by Gen Alexander
‘Bush, a former head of the CIA, had the experience and temperament to respond to the collapse of the USSR’ ‘It was the easy-going, modest side of his character that appealed to Americans’
Haig, the secretary of state, who was clearly irritated at being overlooked. Bush’s aptitude was put to the test almost immediately when, on March 30, 1981, Reagan was shot and wounded by a gunman.
Bush was flying to Texas at the time. He returned immediately to Washington and took charge with quiet efficiency, chairing cabinet meetings and fulfilling other presidential duties without any fuss or pomposity.
Refusing to move into the Oval Office, he handled day-to-day business from his own quarters and presided at cabinet meetings from his own chair, leaving Reagan’s respectfully vacant.
By the time Reagan returned to the White House, Bush’s status had grown perceptibly. He became the president’s most trusted emissary, criss-crossing the world to explain American defence strategy; by 1984 he had travelled 454,022 miles, visiting 48 US states, three American possessions and 52 foreign countries.
Among those trips was a visit to Beirut, where he saw the ruins of the US Marine camp in which 241 servicemen had died after a suicide attacker drove a truck-bomb into their midst. “We’re not going to let a bunch of insidious terrorist cowards shape the foreign policy of the US,” he declared, somewhat prematurely.
Bush remained staunchly loyal to Reagan even over economic policy, in spite of his earlier opposition to the president’s belief that the growing deficit could be checked by cutting taxes.
He escaped more or less unscathed from the Iran-Contra affair, when money was funnelled to rebels in Nicaragua, claiming to have been “out of the loop”, and watched Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev reach solid agreements on disarmament. Bush hoped to inherit the fruits of the good working relationship with Moscow at the end of Reagan’s second term of office in 1988, when he aimed to follow his leader into the White House.
The succession, however, was by no means assured. Though considered a front-runner for the Republican nomination, Bush came third in the crucial Iowa caucus, beaten by Senator Bob Dole and the runner-up Pat Robertson. But defeat seemed to stir a killer instinct in Bush and, after a bruising campaign in which he unleashed television commercials that portrayed Dole as a tax raiser, he rebounded to win the nomination.
Then, as the presidential election loomed, he kept his head when, on the eve of the 1988 Republican National Convention, he was found to be trailing the Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis by 17 points.
A brilliant acceptance speech-cum-call-to-arms, in which he made his ill-fated tax pledge, and a well-managed convention, catapulted him ahead of Dukakis. He went on to demolish his opponent with a ferocious campaign of hardball attacks and television advertisements which depicted him as a liberal extremist “soft on crime”.
Having concentrated on domestic issues to win the White House, however, Bush chose to concentrate on foreign policy once inside.
He admitted feeling most comfortable dealing with diplomatic issues and, as the Iron Curtain fell and former communist states began to embrace democracy, he evoked an optimistic “New World Order” of democratic states, an idea which received a further boost with the successful invasion of Panama that deposed General Noriega, America’s one-time ally, in December 1989.
His strategising reached its zenith with the liberation of Kuwait, but not even the success of the Gulf War was free from tarnish. As the smoke cleared, it became clear that Saddam Hussein was still in power and capable, moreover, of turning his forces on minorities within his own country.
For after the victory of the international alliance, Bush had appeared to encourage Iraqis to rise up in revolt and topple Hussein, a Sunni Muslim. But when they did so he made it clear that he would not risk the life of a single American soldier in support of the aim.
So the West looked on as the Kurds of North Iraq fled from the wrath of Saddam, a man whom Bush had compared to Hitler, while many from the Shia populations of Iraq’s south were herded up and killed.
It was only later, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq under Bush’s son, George W Bush, that such caution was seen to have been well-founded. He had not given the order to invade Iraq, he explained in 1998, because it would have “incurred incalculable human and political costs… We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq”.
Those words did not lessen the impact of the mass graves, found by American soldiers in 2003, where the rebels of the 1991 uprising had been taken into the desert and shot.
Doubts about his failure to oust Saddam Hussein were compounded by recession. Having broken his election pledge by signing a bill to raise an extra $140bn just before voters went to the polls in the midterm elections in 1990, he cast about with increasing desperation for tax cuts that might save his credit with middle-class families, but a hostile Congress limited his options.
After leaving office, Bush mostly retired from public life, spending much of his time participating in business ventures and enjoying his hobbies of fishing, golf and tennis.
After his son George W Bush was elected president in 2001, he kept a low profile, refusing to comment on the Gulf war and other contentious issues.
On a personal level, it was the easy-going, modest side of Bush’s character that appealed to Americans. A devout Episcopalian, he worshipped regularly and performed official duties in churches in Houston and Kennebunkport, Maine, where he always took his summer holidays, playing golf or fishing from a rowing boat.
Americans rather liked the nickname he had given himself whenever he holed a long putt on the golf course — “Mr Smooth” — and they forgave him his inhibitions (“I am not a very articulate emotionalist,” he once confessed).
However, the popular image belied the intense drive and vigour that he brought to every task and the ruthlessness with which he saw off political opponents. Recently he had been relying a wheelchair, but his considerable reserves of energy were underlined when he marked his 90th birthday in June by making a tandem parachute jump.
He embraced the role of elder statesman with aplomb, serving with Bill Clinton as an honorary member of the board rebuilding the World Trade Centre after the 2001 attacks. In 2005 the two men teamed up again to lead a nationwide campaign to help victims of the Asian tsunami and, later that year, to coordinate private relief donations for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
The two became friends. In April 2007 they travelled together to represent their country at the funeral of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, and during the sensational White House race of 2016 a solid rumour emerged that Bush’s preference was for Hillary Clinton over the flamboyantly populist Republican candidate Donald Trump.
George HW Bush’s wife Barbara died in April 2018; he is survived by four sons and a daughter.
POLITICAL DYNASTY: Above, Lt Junior Grade George HW Bush is rescued from the sea by the USS Finback after his plane was shot down over the Pacific Ocean in September 1944. Right, George and his wife Barbara in 2012. She passed away in April this year. She first met George when she was 16 and the couple married three years later in 1945
VETERAN: Far left, with his son, George W, in 2001; left, with Garret FitzGerald in Dublin in 1983; right, on the Bush-Reagan campaign trail in 1980 with the original ‘Make America Great Again’ poster; and below, with Barbara and Ronald and Nancy Reagan in 1988