Public servant and statesman
41st president’s broad experience and earnest character shaped achievements of his one term
George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States and the father of the 43rd, was a steadfast force on the international stage for decades, from his stint as an envoy to Beijing to his eight years as vice president and his one term as commander in chief from 1989 to 1993.
The last veteran of World War II to serve as president, he was a consummate public servant and a statesman who helped guide the nation and the world out of a four-decade Cold War that had carried the threat of nuclear annihilation.
His death, at 94 on Nov. 30, also marked the passing of an era.
Although Mr. Bush served as president nearly three decades ago, his values and ethics seem centuries removed from today’s acrid political culture. His currency of personal connection was the handwritten letter — not the social media blast.
He had a competitive nature and considerable ambition that were not easy to discern under the sheen of his New England politesse and his earnest generosity. He was capable of running hard-edge political campaigns, and he took the nation to war. But his principal achievements were produced at negotiating tables.
“When the word moderation becomes a dirty word, we have some soul searching to do,” he wrote a friend in 1964, after losing his first bid for elective office.
Despite his grace, Mr. Bush was an easy subject for caricature. He was an honors graduate of Yale University who was often at a loss for words in public, especially when it came to talking about himself. Though he was tested in combat when he was barely out of adolescence, he was branded “a
wimp” by those who doubted that he had essential convictions.
This paradox in the public image of Mr. Bush dogged him, as did domestic events. His lack of sure-footedness in the face of a faltering economy produced a nose-dive in the soaring popularity he enjoyed after the triumph of the Persian Gulf War. In 1992, he lost his bid for a second term as president.
“It’s a mixed achievement,” said presidential historian Robert Dallek. “Circumstances and his ability to manage them did not stand up to what the electorate wanted.”
His death was announced in a tweet by Jim McGrath, his spokesman. The cause of his death was not immediately available. In 2012, he announced that he had vascular parkinsonism, a condition that limited his mobility. His wife of 73 years, Barbara Bush, died on April 17.
The afternoon before his wife’s service, the frail former president summoned the strength to sit for 20 minutes in his wheelchair before her flower-laden coffin and accept condolences from some of the 6,000 people who lined up to pay their respects at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston.
Mr. Bush reached the Oval Office under the towering, sharply defined shadow of Ronald Reagan, a onetime rival whom he had served as vice president.
No president before had arrived with his breadth of experience: decorated Navy pilot, successful oil executive, congressman, United Nations delegate, Republican Party chairman, envoy to Beijing, director of central intelligence.
Over the course of a single term that began Jan. 20, 1989, Mr. Bush found himself at the helm of the world’s only remaining superpower. The Berlin Wall fell; the Soviet Union ceased to exist; the communist bloc in Eastern Europe broke up; the Cold War ended.
His firm, restrained diplomatic sense helped assure the harmony and peace with which these world-shaking events played out, one after the other.
In 1990, Mr. Bush went so far as to proclaim a “new world order” that would be “free from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice and more secure in the quest for peace — a world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak.”
Mr. Bush’s presidency was not all swords-to-plowshares. He ordered an attack on Panama in 1989 to overthrow strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega. After Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, Mr. Bush put together a 30-nation coalition — backed by a U.N. mandate and including the Soviet Union and several Arab countries — that routed the Iraqi forces with unexpected ease in a ground war that lasted only 100 hours.
However, Mr. Bush decided to leave Hussein in power, setting up what is widely regarded as the worst and most fateful decision of his son’s presidency a dozen years later.
In the wake of that 1991 victory, Mr. Bush’s approval at home approached 90 percent. It seemed the country had finally achieved the catharsis it needed after Vietnam. A year and a half later, only 29 percent of those polled gave Mr. Bush a favorable rating, and just 16 percent thought the country was headed in the right direction.
The conservative wing of his party would not forgive him for breaking an ill-advised and cocky pledge: “Read my lips: No new taxes.” What cost him among voters at large, however, was his inability to express a connection to and engagement with the struggles of ordinary Americans or a strategy for turning the economy around.
That he was perceived as lacking in grit was another irony in the life of Mr. Bush. His was a character that had been forged by trial. His was an exemplary story of a generation whose youth was cut short by the Great Depression and World War II.
The early years
George Herbert Walker Bush was born in Milton, Mass., on June 12, 1924. He grew up in tony Greenwich, Conn., the second of five children of Prescott Bush and the former Dorothy Walker.
His father, an Ohio native and business executive, became a Wall Street banker and a senator from Connecticut, setting a course for the next two generations of Bush men to follow. His mother, a Maine native, was the daughter of a wealthy investment banker.
Mr. Bush’s early years were hard ones for the country, although not for his family, which had a cook, a maid and a chauffeur. He attended the private Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. The close-knit Bushes spent summers at the family house at Walker’s Point, Maine, and Christmases at his grandfather’s shooting lodge in South Carolina.
At a prep school party during the 1941 Christmas season, he spotted a girl in a red-and-green dress. He asked another boy to introduce him to Barbara Pierce, whose father was head of the McCall’s publishing empire.
“I thought he was the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on. I couldn’t even breathe when he was in the room,” Barbara Bush would later say, adding, “I married the first man I ever kissed.”
Prescott Bush wanted his son to go right to Yale upon graduation from Andover. But Mr. Bush said his father had also insisted that privilege carried a responsibility to “put something back in, do something, help others.”
His own time to serve came on his 18th birthday, when he enlisted in the Navy; within a year, he received his wings and became one of the youngest pilots in the service.
Sent to the Pacific, he flew torpedo bombers off the aircraft carrier San Jacinto. On Sept. 2, 1944, his plane was hit by Japanese ground fire during a bombing run on Chichi Jima in the Bonin Islands in the western Pacific. He pressed the attack even though his plane was aflame.
Mr. Bush bailed out over the ocean and was rescued by a submarine. His two crewmen were killed. The future president was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After the war, he went to Yale, where he was a member of Skull and Bones, the university’s storied secret society, and captain of the baseball team. Barbara took their baby son, George W., to the games.
In 1948, following his graduation, he was rejected for a post he wanted with Procter & Gamble. So he moved to Texas to go into the oil business and snagged an entry-level job through a family connection.
His political career
Mr. Bush began his political career as chairman of the Harris County Republican Party at a time when being a Republican in Texas was as much an electoral liability as having Northeastern roots.
In 1964, he ran for the U.S. Senate and was defeated by Democrat Ralph Yarborough. In 1966, after selling his interest in his oil company, Mr. Bush was elected to the first of two terms in Congress from a House district in Houston.
In 1970, at the request of President Richard M. Nixon, who wanted to shore up Republican fortunes in Texas and elsewhere in the Sun Belt, he made a second
run for the Senate and lost to Democrat Lloyd Bentsen.
Mr. Bush recruited his longtime friend James A. Baker III — a nominal Democrat with little interest in politics — to run that campaign, in part to help Baker get through his bereavement after the death of his wife. Baker switched parties, and their friendship became an alliance that would help shape policy and politics for decades.
After Mr. Bush’s 1970 Senate defeat, there came a rapid progression of high-profile jobs that began when Nixon named him ambassador to the United Nations. In 1973 and 1974, Mr. Bush served as chairman of the Republican National Committee during the waning days of the Watergate scandal that would result in Nixon’s resignation.
He was disappointed when Nixon’s successor, Gerald R. Ford (R), chose Nelson Rockefeller, rather than him, as vice president in 1974. In 1974 and 1975, Mr. Bush was the chief U.S. envoy to China. In early 1976, he became head of the Central Intelligence Agency. He was well regarded but left no great mark in any of those jobs. Nor did he commit any major blunders.
After former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter (D) defeated Ford in the 1976 presidential election, Mr. Bush returned to private life and began preparing for his most audacious move yet: a run for president.
During the 1980 primaries, Mr. Bush positioned himself as a moderate, pragmatic alternative to Reagan, and he derided as “voodoo economics” the former California governor’s vow to simultaneously cut taxes, boost defense spending and balance the budget.
Mr. Bush pulled off a surprise win in the Iowa caucuses and declared that he had “big mo’ ” that would carry him to the nomination. Ultimately, he proved no match for Reagan and the conservative forces that had come to dominate the party.
Yet he found another opening at the Republican National Convention that year, when he emerged as the consensus choice to be Reagan’s running mate, after party elders botched an effort to put together a Reagan-Ford ticket.
It took no small amount of adjustment for Mr. Bush to remold himself according to Reagan’s brand of conservatism. Among other things, he changed to Reagan’s positions on abortion and supply-side economics. The comic strip “Doonesbury” later described him as having put “his political manhood in a blind trust.”
The ticket won in back-to-back landslides in 1980 and 1984. Once elected, Mr. Bush maintained a relatively low-profile role as vice president — chairing a number of task forces, offering counsel on foreign policy — while sharpening his bona fides and his political organization to make another run for the presidency.
Mr. Bush was barely brushed by Iran-contra, the major scandal of the Reagan presidency. He said he had been “out of the loop” when decisions were made to sell military equipment to Tehran to gain the release of U.S. citizens held hostage by pro-Iranian terrorists in Lebanon. This was contrary to Reagan’s declared policy of never dealing with terrorists. The profits from the sales were used to provide aid to the anticommunist contra rebels in Nicaragua, which was a violation of U.S. law.
Never fully accepted into the Reagan inner circle, Mr. Bush established some distance from his former boss in his 1988 Republican National Convention speech, when he promised a “kinder, gentler nation.” Reagan’s wife, Nancy, was widely reported to have bristled, asking: “Kinder and gentler than whom?”
In the 1988 election, Mr. Bush’s Democratic opponent was Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, who captured his party’s nomination largely on the strength of the “Massachusetts Miracle,” a surge of technologydriven economic growth.
The Bush campaign turned Dukakis into an object of scorn, raising questions about his patriotism, his competence, his environmental and fiscal records and, most damaging, his attitude toward criminals.
Dukakis had supported a program that allowed convicted murderers in Massachusetts prisons to earn furloughs for good behavior. One such inmate was Willie Horton, who, while on furlough, went to Maryland and raped a woman after beating and knifing her fiance. Dukakis was appalled and promptly shut the program down.
To Lee Atwater, Mr. Bush’s chief campaign adviser, Horton was an irresistible opportunity. Horton was black, and his elevation into a national figure by Bush supporters was widely denounced as a crude appeal to racism. Atwater himself expressed regrets about the 1988 campaign before he died of cancer, at 40, in 1991.
Mr. Bush won the election with 53 percent of the vote. He carried 40 states and received 426 electoral votes. He was the first sitting vice president elected to the nation’s highest office since Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson in 1837.
‘The vision thing’
As president, Mr. Bush worked long hours and had a penchant for detail. Fred Malek, his campaign manager in 1992, described him as “a guy who wanted to do everything well.” But in stark contrast to his predecessor, Mr. Bush failed to articulate an overarching view of the principles by which he governed.
“The vision thing,” as he called it, eluded him. “Some wanted me to deliver fireside chats to explain things, as Franklin D. Roosevelt had done,” he confided to his diary. “I am not good at that.” He was, he said, a “practical man,” who preferred “what’s real,” not “the airy and abstract.”
Mr. Bush espoused generally conservative economic and social programs: lower taxes, regulatory reform, more support for commercial development and access to foreign markets. He negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, a measure that was ratified by the Senate in President Bill Clinton’s first term.
Mr. Bush supported voluntary prayer in public schools and adoption rather than abortion. He also supported gun owners’ rights. “Let’s not take away the guns from innocent citizens,” he said in a speech. “Let’s get tougher on the criminals.”
Faced with Democratic control of both houses of Congress, Mr. Bush followed what became known as his “veto strategy.” In all, he vetoed 44 bills. Ten of them were intended to ease restrictions on abortions. The others concerned various regulatory, tax and spending measures. All but one of his vetoes — of a bill to regulate the cable television industry — were sustained.
But Mr. Bush could not allay suspicions in some quarters that he lacked core beliefs. To critics, particularly in the right wing of the GOP, he seemed willing to say whatever was necessary to get elected.
His was a team of seasoned advisers who forged an active but pragmatic foreign policy and set a less divisive and less ideological course on domestic matters.
Mr. Bush placed a high value on loyalty and on cultivating relationships that became part of the through line of his career.
Chief among those relationships was his friendship with Baker, who at various points served as Mr. Bush’s campaign manager, secretary of state and White House chief of staff. Baker also did stints as Reagan’s chief of staff and treasury secretary, and in the messy aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, led the Republican team monitoring the Florida recount that put Mr. Bush’s eldest son, George W. Bush, over the finish line.
Other relationships would also link the two Bush presidencies. After his first choice for defense secretary, Sen. John G. Tower (R-Tex.), failed to be confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Bush tapped another old friend, Richard B. Cheney, a conservative Republican congressman from Wyoming, for the job. For chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he picked Gen. Colin L. Powell, who had been national security adviser in the Reagan White House.
Baker, Cheney and Powell played central roles in U.S. interventions in Panama and the Persian Gulf during Mr. Bush’s presidency. Cheney and Powell went on to hold high office in George W. Bush’s administration: Cheney as vice president and Powell as secretary of state.
One of Mr. Bush’s more impulsive selections was his choice of Dan Quayle, the junior senator from Indiana, to be his running mate in 1988. Mr. Bush made the move without consulting even his closest aides, leaving his campaign unprepared for what followed.
There were immediate questions about Quayle’s service in the Indiana National Guard during the Vietnam War. He also attended law school at Indiana University during that period. Critics noted that he had never practiced law and suggested that he had used the Guard to avoid the draft.
Quayle never fully laid to rest those questions or the broader doubts about his qualifications for stepping into the presidency. While the vice president earned high marks as the administration’s emissary to conservatives, Mr. Bush wrote in his diary that he “blew” the decision on Quayle in 1988. But in 1992, he refused to replace him on the ticket.
Mr. Bush made two nominations to the Supreme Court. The first was David H. Souter, a federal appeals court judge, who was confirmed without difficulty. The second was Clarence Thomas, an African American who was a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Thomas was appointed to succeed Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to serve on the high court. Anita Hill, a former aide to Thomas, accused him of sexual harassment. After rancorous hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, the full Senate confirmed him by a vote of 52 to 48, the closest margin since the 19th century.
Foreign policy triumphs
It is not possible to appreciate the signature foreign policy achievements that occurred on Mr. Bush’s watch without viewing them in the context of the four decades that preceded them.
In the era after World War II, the United States sought to contain Soviet influence around the world. The nation fought divisive and demoralizing wars in Korea and Vietnam, headed the NATO alliance that stood against Warsaw Pact forces in Europe and engaged in a global nuclear
THE LAST CAMPAIGN: President George H.W. Bush is showered with confetti at a Nov. 1 rally in Cleveland during his unsuccessful 1992 reelection campaign.
THE DAD: U.S. Rep. George H.W. Bush, in 1970, with his sons, from left, Neil, Jeb, George W. and Marvin. That year, he ran for Senate and lost. But soon he was appointed ambassador to the United Nations.
THE YOUNG PILOT: Navy Lt. j.g. George H.W. Bush, center, with Joe Reichert, left, and Leo Nadeau during World War II.
IN MOSCOW: President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev hold a news conference at the end of a 1991 summit.
ON CAPITOL HILL: George H.W. Bush, the vice president-elect, with Presidentelect Ronald Reagan after the 1980 election.
AT CAMP DAVID: President George H.W. Bush, with Ambassador Robert Strauss at right, gives Russian President Boris Yeltsin birthday boots in 1992.
FREE FALL: The former president plummets with a member of the Army Golden Knights parachute team in November 2007.