Bush’s note to Clinton an artifact of civility.
Former President George H.W. Bush – who buried his wife, Barbara, earlier this year – died Friday at 94.
Serving for a single term, Bush occupied the Oval Office from 1989 to 1993. During that time, Bush led the United States to victory in a 1991 effort to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.
Bush lost his bid for re-election to President Bill Clinton, but saw his son, George W. Bush, elected president eight years later. That established his family as a political dynasty alongside the Adams and Kennedy families.
Before becoming president, Bush was elected to Congress and served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, director of the Central Intelligence Agency and vice president under Ronald Reagan.
Bush had suffered from respiratory problems in recent years, and about a year ago he was hospitalized for two weeks to treat pneumonia and chronic bronchitis. Earlier in 2017 Bush spent 16 days in the hospital for a separate case of pneumonia.
Bush also suffered from vascular parkinsonism, a rare condition whose symptoms are similar to Parkinson’s Disease. For the last several years, he had relied on a wheelchair.
The elder Bush was the last president from the generation that endured the Great Depression of the 1930s, won World War II, built a prosperous and powerful postwar America and won the Cold War against Soviet communism.
Born June 12, 1924, to wealth and privilege, Bush chose a life of duty and service that spanned five decades, from his service as the Navy’s youngest pilot in World War II to stints in Congress, as ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican Party, liaison to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, vice president and finally to his election as the country’s 41st president.
“It has been a wonderful journey,” he wrote as he looked forward to his 80th birthday on June 12, 2004.
In the first rush of history, analysts rate Bush an average president, triumphant in war and foreign policy but saddled at home with a recession.
“He’s probably ranked in the middle of the presidents,” said Bill Levantrosser, a political scientist at Hofstra University in New York. “As time goes on, though, I think he’s going to rise in people’s estimates.”
Herbert Parmet, author of the first definitive biography, “George Bush: The Life of a Lone Star Yankee,” said Bush would be remembered for his leadership in foreign affairs but also for running an administration comparatively free of scandal.
With a uniquely personal style of leadership and diplomacy, Bush will be remembered as the president who assembled an international coalition against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein after Saddam’s army invaded neighboring Kuwait and threatened oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
Bush resolutely drew what he called a “line in the sand” and declared that the invasion would not stand.
Facing reluctance at home and abroad, Bush first convinced the American people that it was in their interest to push Iraq back. Then, in a stream of personal phone calls to world leaders, he marshaled an international coalition the likes of which had not been seen since World War II.
On the eve of war, Bush wrote to his own five children about the choices he faced.
“When the question is asked, ‘How many lives are you willing to sacrifice?’ it tears at my heart,” he wrote. “The answer, of course, is none, none at all.”
He shared a concern that he might face impeachment if a war proved long and unsuccessful, but added that he viewed the confrontation with Iraq and Saddam as one of good vs. evil, akin to the war against Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
“Sometimes in life, you have to act as you think best. You can’t compromise, you can’t give in, even if your critics are loud and numerous.”
Just weeks later, in January 1991, a U.S.-led juggernaut slaughtered Iraq’s forces and liberated Kuwait. Agreeing with his military advisers, Bush ordered an end to the assault with Iraq’s forces in retreat, a move that left Saddam in power.
Bush later said he had thought the Iraqi people would overthrow Saddam themselves. Yet he did nothing to aid Iraqi Kurds and Shiite Muslims when they challenged Saddam, only to see their rebellions crushed.
A vengeful Saddam later plotted to have Bush assassinated after he’d left office. In retaliation, President Bill Clinton bombed the Iraqi national intelligence headquarters.
Saddam remained in power until he was toppled in 2003 by an invasion led by Bush’s son.
Bush, a patrician and wealthy man who spent his summers at a sprawling oceanfront retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine, was often accused of failing to empathize with his less privileged countrymen. In one of the most amazing falls from grace in modern political history, he was turned out of office just 18 months after the war, defeated by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
Bush spent the first of his retirement years actively, golfing, fishing, playing horseshoes, parachuting with members of the military Golden Knights parachute team. He raised money for charities and fellow Republicans, foremost his two political sons. Nearing 80, he had to give up some of the more strenuous activities such as tennis and confessed that he sometimes found his mind growing “a little lazy” as he struggled to remember some things.
“I still feel like charging ahead and living life to the hilt,” he wrote in Forbes FYI magazine. “But my body lags behind. My mind is out there on the playing field or on the campaign trail or circling the globe but my skeletal structure cries out suggesting I give it a break.”
George Herbert Walker Bush was born on June 12, 1924, to Dorothy and Prescott Bush. His mother came from wealth – her family owned the now-famous Walker’s Point land on the Maine coast – and his father was a banker who later served as a Republican senator from Connecticut.
His parents instilled in him two values he carried throughout his life: selflessness and service.
As a prep school student in 1942, Bush heard a visiting Secretary of War Henry Stimson urge America’s young men facing war to “be brave without being brutal, self-confident without boasting, part of an irresistible might but without losing faith in individual liberty.”
Soon after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Bush volunteered for the Navy, becoming an 18year-old torpedo bomber pilot, the youngest in that branch of the service.
Heading into a bombing run during an attack on the Japanese island of Chichi Jima on Sept. 2, 1944, Bush ran into Japanese anti-aircraft fire.
“The flak was the heaviest I’d ever flown into,” he wrote in his 1987 campaign biography, “Looking Forward.” “The Japanese were ready and waiting.”
“Suddenly there was a jolt, as if a massive fist had crunched into the belly of the plane. Smoke poured into the cockpit, and I could see flames rippling across the crease of the wing, edging toward the fuel tanks. I stayed with the dive, homed in (on) the target, unloaded our four 500-pound bombs, and pulled away heading for the sea.”
His two crewmates were killed, but Bush was rescued by the U.S. submarine Finback. Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, he returned home and went to Yale, where he captained the baseball team.
For the son of a prosperous banker, “a normal progression would have been Yale, then Wall Street,” said Levantrosser, the political scientist at Hofstra University in New York. “But he had a more adventurous streak, and he went to Texas to go into the oil business.”
With wife Barbara and son George in tow, Bush moved to West Texas.
“There wasn’t anything subtle or complicated about it,” Bush wrote. “We all just wanted to make a lot of money quick.”
Bush failed to communicate that he felt compassion for people suffering from the recession or that he had plans to alleviate it. Though it was inaccurately reported at the time, Bush at one point was portrayed as marveling at a grocery store price scanner, leaving the impression that he was out of touch with average Americans’ lives. And he fumbled about when asked during a presidential debate how the national debt personally affected him.
“He did not demonstrate sufficiently that he cared,” said Parmet. “His least effective area was communication, especially following Reagan.”
The economy started to rebound in 1992, but people did not yet feel it. And while Clinton effectively hammered away with his promise to improve the economy, Bush failed to convince people that things were already getting better.
“I deserve blame for not making clear to the American people that the economy had recovered,” Bush said later. “It was growing at a robust rate when I left the presidency. The economy had recovered . … I couldn’t get through to the people, and that was my own fault.”
To Bush, the idea of promoting himself seemed like a lesser part of the job, something he brushed off as “the cosmetics of the job.” But to analysts and historians, communication skills are an integral part of the presidency in the modern age, and the lack of that skill hurt Bush.
Characteristically, he refused to write his memoirs, saying he would leave it to others to interpret his life and assure his legacy.
Attending the dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington in June 2004, he said he was no different from any other member of his generation.
“I don’t think anyone in the country now or in the future will be thinking George Bush was the last World War II veteran to serve as president of the United States. It would be fine with me if they did. But it’s time to move forward,” he said.
“We did our duty, saluted the flag and said the Pledge of Allegiance. None of us thought of ourselves as super patriots or anything. But in a time of trouble, my generation, you might say, stepped up and honored the United States by our service. And that’s what it was all about. And it’s still about that.”
Former President George H.W. Bush arrives at the 2007 Ronald Reagan Freedom Award gala dinner held in his honor in Beverly Hills, California. Bush died shortly after 10 p.m. Friday about eight months after the death of his wife, Barbara Bush.