George H.W. Bush made his greatest mark in the Gulf War
He was the man who sought a “kinder, and gentler nation,” and the one who sternly invited Americans to read his lips – he would not raise taxes. He was the popular leader of a mighty coalition that dislodged Iraq from Kuwait, but was turned out of the presidency after a single term. Blue-blooded and genteel, he was elected in one of the nastiest campaigns in recent history.
George Herbert Walker Bush was many things, including only the second American to see his son follow him into the nation’s highest office. But more than anything else, he was a believer in government service. Few men or women have served America in more capacities than the man known as “Poppy.”
“There is no higher honor than to serve free men and women, no greater privilege than to labor in government beneath the Great Seal of the United States and the American flag,” he told senior staffers in 1989, days after he took office.
Bush, who died late Friday at age 94 – nearly eight months after his wife of 73 years died at their Houston home – was a congressman, an ambassador to the United Nations and envoy to China, chairman of the Republican National Committee, director of the CIA, two-term vice president and, finally, president.
The Persian Gulf War – dubbed “Operation Desert Storm” – was his greatest mark on history. In a January 2011
interview marking the war’s 20th anniversary, he said the mission sent a message that “the United States was willing to use force way across the world, even in that part of the world where those countries over there thought we never would intervene.”
“I think it was a signature historical event,” he said. “And I think it will always be.”
After Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Bush quickly began building an international military coalition that included other Arab states. After freeing Kuwait, he rejected suggestions that the U.S. carry the offensive to Baghdad, choosing to end the hostilities a mere 100 hours after the start of the ground offensive.
But the decisive military defeat did not lead to the regime’s downfall, as many in the administration had hoped.
“I miscalculated,” Bush acknowledged. The Iraqi leader was eventually ousted in 2003, in the war led by Bush’s son that was followed by a long, bloody insurgency.
Unlike his son, who joined the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam era but served only in the U.S., the elder Bush was a war hero. He joined the Navy on his 18th birthday in 1942 over the objections of his father, Prescott, who wanted him to stay in school. At one point the youngest pilot in the Navy, he flew 58 missions off the carrier USS San Jacinto.
His wartime exploits won him the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery. He was shot down on Sept. 2, 1944, while completing a bombing run against a Japanese radio tower. Eight others who were shot down in that mission were captured and executed, and several were eaten by their captors. But an American submarine rescued Bush. Even then, he was an inveterate collector of friends: Aboard the sub Finback, “I made friendships that have lasted a lifetime,” he would write.
This was a man who hand-wrote thousands of thank you notes – each one personalized, each one quickly dispatched. Even his political adversaries would acknowledge his exquisite manners. Admonished by his mother to put others first, he rarely used the personal pronoun “I,” a quirk exploited by comedian Dana Carvey in his “Saturday Night Live” impressions of the president.
Bush was born June 12, 1924, in Milton, Massachusetts. His father, the son of an Ohio steel magnate, had moved east to make his fortune as an investment banker with Brown Brothers, Harriman, and later served 10 years as a senator from Connecticut. His mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, was the daughter of a sportsman who gave golf its Walker Cup.
Competitive athletics were a passion for the Bushes, whether at home in Greenwich, Connecticut, or during long summers at Walker’s Point, the family’s oceanfront retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine. Bush, along with his three brothers and one sister, had lives of privilege seemingly untouched by the Great Depression.
Young Bush attended Greenwich Country Day School and later Phillips Academy at Andover, Massachusetts, where he was senior class president and captain of the baseball and soccer teams. There, at a dance, he met Barbara Pierce, daughter of the publisher of McCall’s magazine. George and Bar would marry when he left the Navy in January 1945. They were together for more than seven decades, becoming the longest-married presidential couple in U.S. history. She died April 17.
Out of the service, Bush resumed his education at Yale. Lean and 6-foot-2, he distinguished himself as first baseman and captain of the baseball team, which went to the College World Series twice. He took just 21⁄ years to grad
2 uate Phi Beta Kappa.
But rather than joining his father on Wall Street, in 1948 he loaded his wife and young son George W. into a Studebaker and drove to the hot, dusty Texas oil patch.
By 1955, Bush would be co-owner of the Zapata Petroleum Corp. By the turn of the decade, the family – and Bush’s business – had moved to Houston. There, he got his start in politics.
Bush lost his first race, a 1964 challenge to Sen. Ralph Yarborough, but won a seat in the House in 1966. In 1970, he tried for the Senate again. Democrat Lloyd Bentsen defeated Bush in the general election.
President Richard Nixon appointed Bush ambassador to the United Nations and, after the 1972 election, named him chairman of the Republican National Committee. Bush struggled to hold the party together as Watergate destroyed the Nixon presidency. He urged Nixon to quit one day before the president resigned in August 1974.