A LIFE OF SERVICE
Tributes pour in for former president
Tributes from around the world poured in Saturday following the death of George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States who died in Houston late Friday after decades as a public servant that set in motion an enduring family legacy. He was 94.
“The legacy of George H.W. Bush will be forever etched in the history of America and the world. It is a lifelong record of selfless patriotic service to our nation,” former Secretary of State James Baker said in a statement.
“He was the youngest Navy pilot in World War II, a Texas congressman, UN ambassador, America’s first envoy to China, CIA director, vice president and president,” he said. “In each and every one of these positions, he led with strength, integrity, compassion and humility — characteristics that define a truly great
man and effective leader.”
Bush died peacefully at his Houston home with Baker and several members of his extended family at his side. Other family members were on a speakerphone, talking to Bush in his final moments.
His last words, Baker said, were “I love you, too,” spoken to his son, former President George W. Bush.
Baker and other world leaders past and present on Saturday saluted Bush, the last president to have served in the military during World War II and the last whose worldview had been shaped by the imperative to contain Communist expansionism. His experience in international diplomacy served him well as he dealt with the unraveling of the Soviet Union as an oppressive superpower, and later the rise of China as a commercial behemoth and potential partner.
As cautious and restrained as he was in foreign matters, Bush had an inclination for personal risktaking that showed up early in his life, when he became a carrier pilot in the war — one of the most dangerous jobs in the military — and then struck out on his own at war’s end, eschewing a comfortable job in New York to become an oilman in Texas.
Likewise, when his interest turned to politics a decade or so later, he was more than willing to give up his executive suite for a chance at public office.
Steeped in noblesse oblige and the importance of public service, Bush always felt the lure of political life. It finally snared him in 1962 when he was chosen to head Houston’s fledgling GOP. He spent the next three decades in the political limelight, enjoying a roller-coaster career that saw more defeats than victories yet improbably landed him in the White House.
Bush was elected president in 1988 as the successor to Ronald Reagan, a conservative icon whom he ran against and then served as vice president. Unlike Reagan, he was a pragmatic leader guided by moderation, consensus building, and a sense for problemsolving shorn of partisan rhetoric. Like his father, who served in the U.S. Senate, he swore no allegiance to orthodox tenets. That put him at odds with a take-noprisoners attitude of a new breed of Republicans and helped do in his reelection bid, sending him home to Houston in forced retirement.
Bush was put to the test shortly after taking office. Surging movements in Eastern Europe saw opportunity to free themselves from the Soviet yoke, thanks in part to the liberalizing influence of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Bush’s measured response allowed events to unfold, including the destruction of the Berlin Wall, without triggering potentially catastrophic responses from Soviet hardliners.
Bush again displayed his diplomatic skills in the summer of 1990 when he coordinated a multinational response to the military invasion of tiny Middle East nation Kuwait by neighboring Iraq and its dictator, Saddam Hussein. The victorious Operation Desert Storm brought high approval ratings that appeared to guarantee a second term.
Domestic matters proved a different sort of challenge. Plagued by inherited budget deficits and a Congress under the control of Democrats, Bush was pushed into a tax increase that belied his explicit promise to allow none. He agreed to it because he recognized it was in the country’s best interest, but the political damage was severe. His reelection bid fell short, a failing that haunted him for years. Uncharacteristically, it even caused him to wonder whether history would regard him as a failed president.
It has not.
“I think over the years he fares well,” said presidential historian Henry Brands, the author of seven presidential biographies and a professor at the University of Texas. “If voters have a referendum and they vote you down, that automatically puts you down a rung. It’s unfair. Bush always was rated very highly by historians more than he was by the public. I think that is changing.”
Bush was born into privilege and reared in the cradle of America’s economic aristocracy, yet from an early age, he refused to ride the coattails of entitlement. Approaching his graduation from Yale University in 1948, he was offered a job at his family’s Wall Street investment firm, close to his native Connecticut. He turned it down. Whatever his destiny, he vowed that it would be fully earned.
So began a remarkable journey that would lead him from the elegant estates of New England to the dusty plains of West Texas, to the leafy precincts of Houston’s nicest neighborhoods, to foreign capitals and back to America’s own, into political campaigns at the humblest level and one that ultimately netted him the White House.
Bush’s long life encompassed the full arc of the 20th century, beginning in an era of steamships and a new ideology called communism, and ending as American spaceships explored distant planets and the hammer-and-sickle was mostly a fading emblem on old flags. He was to be the last president of his generation, which came of age during the Great Depression, participated in a cataclysmic world war, and ushered in unprecedented American power and prosperity.
Turning away from the preordained comfortable life, Bush struck out for Texas and found success, first as an independent oilman and later as a young congressman from Houston. The misfortune of bad timing hurt him at times in his pursuit of higher office, yet a string of high-profile appointed positions reflected the faith others had in his ability and kept alive his dream of fulfilling his father’s prediction that someday he would become president.
“The world was fortunate to have his background and instincts at a turning point,” said Robert Gates, who served as Bush’s CIA director and deputy national security adviser. “The collapse and end of the Cold War look sort of pre-ordained in hindsight, but for those who were there, it was not clear how it would happen.”
Though Bush came to be widely respected by foreign leaders and diplomats, his political profile at home was different. He had long been dogged by assertions that he was a bland and hazy character, aloof and dilettantish. The image baffled him and many who knew him. He was chided for a lack of apparent vision, yet it was not his nature to view himself as a visionary.
“What’s wrong with trying to help people,” he once asked. “What’s wrong with trying to bring peace? What’s wrong with trying to make the world a little better?”
Former President George H.W. Bush is interviewed for The Presidents’ Gatekeepers project, about the White House chiefs of staff, at the Bush Library in 2011, in College Station, Texas.