For­eign pol­icy suc­cesses un­done by weak record on do­mes­tic af­fairs

The Irish Times - - Obituaries - Ge­orge HW Bush

I am lost be­tween the glory of Rea­gan – mon­u­ments ev­ery­where, trum­pets, the great hero – and the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of my sons

Ge­orge HW Bush, the 41st pres­i­dent of the United States and the fa­ther of the 43rd, who steered the na­tion through a tu­mul­tuous pe­riod in world af­fairs but was de­nied a sec­ond term af­ter sup­port for his pres­i­dency col­lapsed un­der the weight of an eco­nomic down­turn and his seem­ing inat­ten­tion to do­mes­tic af­fairs, has died at his home in Hous­ton. He was 94.

His death, which was an­nounced by his of­fice, came less than eight months af­ter that of his wife of 73 years, Bar­bara Bush.

Bush en­tered the White House with one of the most im­pres­sive CVs of any pres­i­dent. He had been a two-term con­gress­man from Texas, am­bas­sador to the United Nations, chair­man of the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee dur­ing Water­gate, United States en­voy to China, di­rec­tor of the CIA and vice-pres­i­dent un­der Ronald Rea­gan.

And he achieved what no one had since Martin Van Buren in 1836: win­ning elec­tion to the pres­i­dency while serv­ing as vice-pres­i­dent. (Van Buren did so in the foot­steps of An­drew Jack­son.)

A son of wealth and a grad­u­ate of Phillips Acad­emy in An­dover, Mas­sachusetts, and of Yale, Bush was schooled in the good man­ners and gra­cious­ness of New Eng­land priv­i­lege and civic re­spon­si­bil­ity. He liked to frame his pub­lic ser­vice as an an­swer to the call to duty, like the one that had sent him over the Pa­cific and into en­emy fire as a 20-year-old.

Bush’s post-pres­i­dency brought talk of a po­lit­i­cal dy­nasty. The son of a US sen­a­tor, Bush saw two of his own sons forge po­lit­i­cal ca­reers that brought him a mea­sure of re­demp­tion af­ter he was ousted as com­man­der-in-chief. Ge­orge W Bush be­came the first son of a pres­i­dent since John Quincy Adams to fol­low his fa­ther to the White House, but un­like his fa­ther, he won re-elec­tion. An­other son, Jeb Bush, was twice elected gover­nor of Florida and ran un­suc­cess­fully for the pres­i­dency in 2016.

In 2016 Bush and his sons did not at­tend the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion that nom­i­nated Don­ald Trump, and he point­edly did not en­dorse Trump in his race against Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Af­ter his loss in 1992 to Bill Clin­ton in an elec­tion in which the In­de­pen­dent can­di­date Ross Perot won al­most a fifth of the vote – a loss that left him dispir­ited and hu­mil­i­ated, by his own ac­count – the el­der Bush and his wife, Bar­bara, re­paired to their home in Hous­ton and to their ocean-front com­pound in Ken­neb­unkport, Maine. But he did not quite re­tire.

In his first year at the White House, Bush sent troops into Panama to oust its strong­man, Gen Manuel Antonio Nor­iega. The rapid, rel­a­tively blood­less con­clu­sion of the Per­sian Gulf War of 1991 earned him a three-minute stand­ing ova­tion. For­eign pol­icy suc­cesses were the hall­mark of his pres­i­dency. Not so his do­mes­tic record.

By the mid­point of his term, lead­ers of both the Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic par­ties com­plained that in the midst of the worst econ­omy any US pres­i­dent had faced since the end of the sec­ond World War, Bush had no do­mes­tic agenda. Many ques­tioned his sen­si­tiv­ity to the wor­ries of or­di­nary Amer­i­cans.

Rarely did Bush dis­play the kind of emo­tional acu­ity that could move an au­di­ence. Yet for all these mo­ments, Bush could ex­hibit a gra­cious charm and au­then­tic­ity. He was that rare fig­ure in Wash­ing­ton: a man with­out en­e­mies – or with very few, at any rate.

Ge­orge Her­bert Walker Bush – he was named af­ter his mother’s fa­ther, Ge­orge Her­bert Walker – was born on June 12th, 1924, the sec­ond of five chil­dren, in Mil­ton, Mas­sachusetts, out­side Bos­ton. His fam­ily moved soon af­ter to Green­wich. His fa­ther, be­sides his two terms in the Se­nate, was a banker who com­muted to Wall Street as a man­ag­ing partner at Brown Broth­ers Har­ri­man, a white-shoe in­vest­ment firm. His mother, the for­mer Dorothy Walker, was a na­tive of Maine. It was she who gave Ge­orge his nick­name, Poppy, when he was a tod­dler.

The chil­dren grew up shel­tered from the De­pres­sion, tended to by maids and a driver. Ge­orge en­rolled at Green­wich Coun­try Day School and Phillips Acad­emy in An­dover, Mas­sachusetts.

Pearl Har­bor

Six months be­fore he grad­u­ated from Phillips Acad­emy, the Ja­panese bombed Pearl Har­bor. “I could hardly wait to get out of school and en­list,” he wrote years later.

In Septem­ber 1944, on a bomb­ing run from the air­craft car­rier USS San Jac­into, his plane was hit near the is­land of Chichi­jima by anti-air­craft guns. Two men on the plane died in the at­tack. Bush hit his head bail­ing out, he said, but landed safely in the ocean. He floated on a raft for hours, “vi­o­lently sick to my stom­ach”, un­til a sub­ma­rine res­cued him. He was awarded a Dis­tin­guished Fly­ing Cross.

He re­turned home on Christ­mas Eve 1944. Days later he mar­ried a young woman he had met at a dance three years ear­lier: Bar­bara Pierce, the daugh­ter of Marvin Pierce, the pub­lisher of Red­book and McCall’s mag­a­zines.

Po­lit­i­cal iden­tity

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Yale in 1948 with a de­gree in eco­nomics, Bush drove to Odessa, Texas. A wealthy fam­ily friend, Henry Neil Mal­lon, gave him an en­try-level job at his Texas oil com­pany, land­ing him in a state that he barely knew but that would be­come a part of his po­lit­i­cal iden­tity.

In Fe­bru­ary 1966 Bush ran for Congress in a wealthy Hous­ton dis­trict. Bush won hand­ily, with 67 per cent of the vote.

Twice de­feated as a Se­nate can­di­date, and with his term in the House about to ex­pire, Bush was look­ing for work. He was soon sum­moned to the White House, where HR Halde­man, Nixon’s chief of staff, talked to him about a White House staff job. Bush, how­ever, wanted to be the US am­bas­sador to the United Nations. Nixon agreed.

In 1972, af­ter the break-ins at the Demo­cratic Party of­fices at the Water­gate Ho­tel, Nixon had a more ur­gent need for Bush: to lead the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee. He took the job, he wrote, cer­tain of Nixon’s in­no­cence in the scan­dal, and he de­fended Nixon, though it was not easy.

Af­ter Nixon re­signed, ced­ing the pres­i­dency to vice-pres­i­dent Ger­ald R Ford, Bush hoped to fill the vice-pres­i­dent’s of­fice. Ford called him in Ken­neb­unkport two weeks later to tell him that he had cho­sen for­mer gover­nor Nel­son A Rock­e­feller of New York for the job.

Ford lost the sub­se­quent elec­tion to Jimmy Carter, and Bush re­turned to Texas. He turned his sights to run­ning for pres­i­dent in 1980 but set­tled for the vice-pres­i­dency un­der Ronald Rea­gan.

He ran in 1988 and won 40 states with 54 per cent of the pop­u­lar vote.

In his in­au­gu­ral ad­dress, Bush pledged “to make kinder the face of the na­tion and gen­tler the face of the world”. He talked about a “thou­sand points of light”, a ref­er­ence to com­mu­nity and char­i­ta­ble groups, “spread like stars through­out the na­tion”. But he soon met ob­sta­cles to that lofty am­bi­tion – some po­lit­i­cal, some eco­nomic, some of his own do­ing and some be­yond his control.

In the early hours of Au­gust 2nd, 1990, Iraqi forces un­der Sad­dam Hus­sein rum­bled into Kuwait and seized its oil­fields. In an ad­dress to the na­tion a few days later, Bush sig­nalled that the United States was pre­pared to re­spond with force. “This will not stand,” he said.

When it came, the ground war lasted al­most ex­actly 100 hours, with min­i­mal Amer­i­can ca­su­al­ties. En­cir­cled, the Iraqi army sur­ren­dered. Bush called a cease­fire, even though it al­lowed mem­bers of the Repub­li­can Guard, an elite Iraqi unit, to es­cape and even though it left Sad­dam in power.

Bush would be called to de­fend that de­ci­sion time and again, say­ing that he had been con­vinced that Sad­dam would be over­thrown once the war ended. “We un­der­es­ti­mated his bru­tal­ity and cru­elty to his own peo­ple and the stran­gle­hold he has on his coun­try,” Bush wrote in Fe­bru­ary 1991, years be­fore Sad­dam was ac­tu­ally ousted. “We were dis­ap­pointed, but I still do not re­gret my de­ci­sion to end the war when we did.”

Low pro­file

Af­ter his loss in 1992 Bush be­came more of a an observer than a player. His pub­lic pro­file dropped as crit­i­cism of his son’s pres­i­dency mounted, and there were re­ports that for­eign pol­icy ad­vis­ers to the el­der Bush had coun­selled against the war in Iraq that so trou­bled Ge­orge W Bush’s pres­i­dency.

Bush was never a man com­fort­able with self-ex­am­i­na­tion, but in an in­ter­view with Meacham, his bi­og­ra­pher, he evinced some in­se­cu­rity about how his­tory might judge him. “I am lost be­tween the glory of Rea­gan – mon­u­ments ev­ery­where, trum­pets, the great hero – and the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of my sons,” Bush said.

But the 41st pres­i­dent may have best summed up his tal­ents and am­bi­tions in a di­ary en­try on the last day of 1989, as the first year of his pres­i­dency drew to a close. “I’m cer­tainly not seen as vi­sion­ary,” Bush wrote. “But I hope I’m seen as steady and pru­dent and able.”

Be­sides his sons Ge­orge and Jeb, Bush is sur­vived by two other sons, Neil and Marvin; his daugh­ter, Dorothy Bush Koch; a brother, Jonathan; a sis­ter, Nancy Walker Bush El­lis; 17 grand­chil­dren; and eight great-grand­chil­dren. An­other daugh­ter, Robin, died of leukaemia at age three in 1953. His older brother, Prescott S Bush jnr, died in 2010 at 87, and his younger brother, Wil­liam, died in March at 79.


Ge­orge HW Bush en­tered the White House with one of the most im­pres­sive CVs of any pres­i­dent.

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