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 U.S. to victory in a 1991 effort to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.
Bush lost his bid for reelection to President Bill Clinton, but saw his son, George W. Bush, elected president just 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.
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Bush has 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 — and was put on a ventilator — 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.
Born to wealth and privilege
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 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 S. 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.
Persian Gulf War
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.
The elder Bush also oversaw the West’s victory over Soviet communism after 50 years of Cold War. The victory had been won over the decades, but Bush got credit for his evenhanded response when the Soviet Union finally collapsed.
“Some wanted an overreaction,” said Parmet. “But Bush said we don’t have to dance on the Berlin Wall. Steering the end of the Cold War without having the Russians or the Soviet Union collapse in a way that would have redounded to our disadvantage, without pushing them into the arms of hard-line extremists, that was extraordinarily important to the legacy in a way most Americans do not appreciate.”
Two weeks after the war against Iraq ended, 91 percent of the American people said they liked Bush and approved of the job he was doing. Yet just beneath the euphoria of victory was economic anxiety – simmering anger at a president who’d raised taxes in violation of his “Read my lips” campaign pledge not to do so and growing angst over the toll a broad recession had taken on wages and personal financial security.
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. 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 18-year-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.”
Backed by money from family and friends, Bush and his Zapata oil equipment business did make money, lots of it. Still in his 30s, Bush looked to politics for new challenges.
His interest came naturally. His father had been elected to the Senate from Connecticut in 1952 and served two six-year terms. As Prescott Bush left the Senate, the younger Bush decided in 1964 to seek a Senate seat from Texas. He lost.
Two years later, Bush won a seat in the House of Representatives, and won re-election in 1968. By 1970, he was itching to move up and weighed whether to give up a safe seat in the House for an uncertain second bid for the Senate.
The young Bush went to see a fellow Texan who knew more about politics than almost anyone he knew. In his trademark drawl, former President Lyndon Johnson told Bush the difference between the Senate and the House “is the difference between chicken salad and chicken s---.”
Bush took the advice, ran for the Senate and lost. His four-year career in Congress was over.
He looked instead to the executive branch, working for other presidents, learning how to pull the levers of power and working his way upward. For Richard Nixon, he served as ambassador to the United Nations and chairman of the Republican National Committee. For Gerald Ford, he served as liaison to China and director of the CIA.
Running for president
Finally in 1980, he was ready to make his try for the top job himself. He sought the Republican presidential nomination against the better-known former governor of California, Ronald Reagan.
Bush ridiculed Reagan’s economic proposals as “voodoo economics” but lost the nomination to Reagan, who picked Bush as his running mate. Bush served from 1981 to 1989 as Reagan’s loyal vice president, meeting weekly with the president for lunch.
“I learned more from Ronald Reagan than from anyone I encountered in all my years of public life,” Bush remembered when he eulogized Reagan in June 2004.
Seeking the GOP presidential nomination in 1988, he was the automatic front-runner. Though he was himself a political moderate, Bush painted himself as a tough conservative and attacked Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, his chief rival, as a closet moderate who refused to rule out tax increases.
He did the same against the Democrats, asserting boldly at the Republican convention: “Read my lips. No new taxes.”
After wrapping up the nomination, Bush surprised the political establishment when he selected the young and unknown Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana as his running mate. Quayle was attacked in the news media for his failure to serve in Vietnam and his relative lack of stature.
“It was my decision, and I blew it, but I’m not about to say I blew it,” Bush wrote in his diary at the end of the Republican National Convention.
Guided by political aide Lee Atwater, Bush ran an intense campaign attacking Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis as soft on crime, weak on pollution in his state of Massachusetts and unpatriotic.
Alvin Felzenberg, a former Princeton University political scientist who served as an aide to Bush, said the “disjointed themes” of Bush’s 1988 campaign suggested that he was trying to “embrace values that he presumed working class Reagan Democrats might hold if he had known any at all well. His professed liking for country music and pork rinds seemed out of character.”
Perhaps, but Bush crushed Dukakis, carrying 40 states and winning the presidency.
“The happiest day of my life was the day I was sworn in as president,” Bush later recalled.
Energetic, personable, engaged, surrounded by children and grandchildren, Bush enjoyed soaring popularity with the American people.
“He had a folksy touch,” said Levantrosser. “He was very cordial, gracious. A person in his position could easily slip into arrogance, but he never did. He always tried to make people feel comfortable.”
One reason for his popularity was that his administration appeared honest and ethical.
“His personal integrity was never really questioned,” said Parmet. “And his administration was decidedly less prone to scandal than the administration that preceded his or followed his.”
Asked later what made him proudest, Bush replied, “We tried to treat the office of the presidency with respect and honor.” That was after the Iran-Contra scandal had tarnished Reagan’s presidency and before Clinton was impeached on charges of lying under oath to conceal an extramarital affair. Bush’s son rode to the White House in 2000 with a crowd-pleasing promise to “uphold the honor and the dignity of the office.”
Bush also enjoyed a large and close-knit family, a contrast to Reagan’s aloofness from his own children and Clinton’s marital problems. After his 3-year-old daughter, Robin, died of leukemia in 1953, Bush wrote of his loss in a letter to his mother with an eloquence he rarely revealed in public. “There was about her a certain softness,” he wrote. “Her peace made me feel strong, and so very important . . . but she is still with us. We need her and yet we have her. We can’t touch her, and yet we feel her.”
His sons George and Jeb later recalled that their dad always made time for them and family, even when he was president.
“My dad was president, but he was also a person motivated by his faith in God, by his love of family. That’s where his inner strength came from,” said Jeb Bush.
Added George W. Bush: “In spite of the fact that George Bush was always busy as president, he was always a great dad. . . . George Bush was a great president. But first and foremost, he was a great man.”
Domestically, Bush’s accomplishments included a federal bailout of the savings and loan industry, the Clean Air Act to curb smog and acid rain, the Americans with Disabilities Act to protect the rights of people with disabilities, and a 1990 budget deal with Congress that curbed a runaway deficit by capping discretionary spending and raising taxes.
Often overlooked, the savings and loan bailout, as well as the 1990 budget deal, helped lay the groundwork for the economic recovery of the 1990s. But neither helped Bush politically at the time.
“The financial community in the United States was very, very seriously damaged in the savings and loan crisis,” recalled Andrew Card, a longtime friend and aide to Bush who served as deputy chief of staff in the White House and as secretary of transportation and later became chief of staff to the younger Bush.
“The president, against the advice of his political managers, said, ‘I want to address the problem. I want to solve it.’ ”
While the budget deal put future limits on discretionary spending, it also raised taxes, violating Bush’s pledge.
When the Persian Gulf War ended, conservatives who’d never embraced Bush turned on him for agreeing to raise taxes. While conservative commentator Pat Buchanan failed to defeat Bush in any Republican primaries, his challenge to a sitting president underscored Bush’s vulnerability on economic matters.
As the campaign started in 1992, the country was still shaking off the scars of a recession. Widespread layoffs made headlines. Wages were losing ground to inflation.
“The economy was feeling more strain than the people around President Bush wanted to acknowledge,” said Card.
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.”
Steve Thomma is Executive Director of the White House Correspondents’ Association.