HE EARNED HIS PLACE IN HISTORY
The concept of public service was ingrained in the former president
George Herbert Walker Bush was reared in the cradle of America’s economic aristocracy. Yet he refused to ride the coattails of entitlement.
As he prepared to graduate from Yale in 1948, he was offered a job at his family’s Wall Street investment firm. He turned it down. Whatever his destiny, he vowed it would be fully earned.
So began a remarkable journey from the estates of New England to the dusty plains of West Texas, from the leafy precincts of Houston’s nicest neighborhoods to foreign capitals and ultimately to the White House.
Bush, the 41st president of the United States, died late Friday at his home in Houston. He was 94.
His life was one of public service, in- cluding a single term as president in which he dealt with the collapse of the Soviet Union, war in the Middle East and economic difficulties at home.
“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,” said James Baker, a close friend of Bush’s who served as his secretary of state and White House chief of staff.
“He was the youngest Navy pilot in World War II, a Texas congressman, U.N. ambassador, America’s first envoy to China, CIA director, vice president and president,” Baker 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
Baker and several members of Bush’s extended family were at his side when he died. Other family members were on 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.
Bush was the last president to have served in World War II and the last whose worldview had been shaped by the imperative to contain Communism.
His experience in international diplomacy served him well as he dealt with the unraveling of the Soviet Union and the rise of China.
As restrained as he was in foreign affairs, Bush had an inclination for personal risktaking that showed up early in his life, when he became a carrier pilot — one of the most dangerous jobs in the military — and then struck out on his own at war’s end, eschewing a comfortable New York job to become a Texas oilman. .
Likewise, when his interest turned to politics, he was more than willing to give up the executive suite for a chance at public office.
Steeped in 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. His roller-coaster career 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, consensusbuilding and a sense for problem-solving 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-no-prisoners attitude of a new breed of Republicans and helped do in his re-election bid.
Most of Bush’s political career was spent in appointed jobs, where he demonstrated loyalty and a quickstudy competence, rarely making headlines.
When he became president, many in his party hoped he simply would follow in Reagan’s footsteps.
Instead, he quickly distinguished himself as the postwar order began to undergo dramatic changes.
Bush was put to the test shortly after taking office. Surging movements in East- ern Europe saw opportunity to free themselves from the Soviet yoke, thanks in part to the liberalizing influence of Soviet leader Mi- khail Gorbachev.
Bush’s measured response allowed events to unfold without triggering catastrophic responses from Soviet hard-liners.
Bush again displayed his diplomatic skills in summer 1990 when he coordinated a multinational response to the invasion of tiny 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 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.
The political damage was severe. His re-election bid fell short, causing him to wonder whether history would regard him as a failed president.
“I think over the years he fares well,” said historian Henry Brands, 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’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 spaceships explored distant planets and the hammerand-sickle was 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 congressman from Houston.
The misfortune of bad timing hurt him at times in his pursuit of higher office, yet a string of highprofile 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 preordained in hindsight, but for those who were there, it was not clear how it would happen.”
Gates, who served in eight presidential administrations, suggested Bush never received the credit he deserved for quietly “greasing the skids” that saw communists slide from power in the Soviet Union.
“There is no precedent in all of history for the collapse of a heavily armed empire without a major war,” Gates said. “He was a figure of enormous historical importance.”
Though Bush came to be widely respected by foreign leaders and diplomats, his political profile at home was different.
He’d 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?”
To some, Bush paled in comparison to his White House predecessor, but he was a different breed of politician: a traditional Republican whose belief in limited government was in no way at odds with his view that public service was a calling.
Reagan’s maxim that government was not the solution to a problem but the problem itself wasn’t Bush’s view, which might explain why his single term arguably resulted in more significant legislative achievements than Reagan’s two, among them the Americans with Disabilities Act, a bolstered Clean Air Act and an increased minimum wage.
Bush’s career from start to finish, especially as president, largely was free of scandal or great controversy, with one exception — his role as vice president in the IranContra scandal.
His ethical standards rarely were questioned. His judgment was the product of studied deliberation and ample give-and-take with advisers. He regularly entertained Democratic leaders at the White House and made a great effort to develop personal relationships over drinks and a game of horseshoes, just as he had in the diplomatic world
“President Bush was inclined to forgive and forget past slights, defeats, and even outrages,” longtime aide Chase Untermeyer said. “Thus did he offer rides to Maine for Sen. George Mitchell, make the daughter of Sen. Sam Nunn the head of the Points of Light Foundation, and — to clinch the case — become buddies with Bill Clinton.”
Bush was a practical manager. He believed his job was to get something done, taking incremental steps when big ones were unobtainable.
He had no use for those who’d sacrifice progress on the altar of philosophical purity, nor did he regard opponents as enemies.
He was defeated in a three-way contest with Democrat Clinton and Texas billionaire Ross Perot — a sour coda to a stellar career.
Though he had been ambivalent about even running for reelection, the loss would gnaw on him. He believed he left the job he signed up for unfinished.
Even years later, Bush recalled the sick feeling he carried inside for having let down the people who believed in him.
“That was the sad part for me,” said, “and I felt very strongly about that. I still do.”
Bush was born June 12, 1924, in Milton, Mass., to Prescott and Dorothy Bush, the second of five children, four of them boys. His childhood was spent among the nation’s economically privileged, with numerous trips to family estates in Maine and South Carolina.
Although the Depression did not severely affect the Bushes, his parents tried to stress that good fortune should not be taken for granted, insisting on modesty at all times, along with concern for those going through hard times. Work mattered. Life, they insisted, was no country club affair.
Bush attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., where he excelled academically and athletically. He was a favorite of his classmates, often chosen to captain the teams he was on and known to call out bullies who bedeviled the less popular students.
As he grew to adulthood, he soaked up the history of the Walkers and the Bushes and began to understand the expectations for those of his class — a demand for service to the public good largely divorced from personal gain.
George H.W. Bush’s life journey went from New England to West Texas to foreign capitals and ultimately to the White House in Washington, D.C.
With wife Barbara holding the Bible at his side, George H.W. Bush is sworn in as the nation’s 41st president by Chief Justice William Rehnquist on Jan. 20, 1989.
Bush was the captain of the Yale baseball team in 1947.
George and Barbara Bush are surrounded by members of their family in this photo from August 1986. George W. Bush, who also served as president, is the third adult from the left.
Presidential father and son attend a ceremony aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in 2012.