George H.W. Bush, 1924–2018
The war hero and president who stood tall on the world stage
Chants of “Bush! Bush!” rang out as President George H.W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress in March 1991, days after a U.S.-led victory in the Gulf War. Once a loyal, low-profile vice president to Ronald Reagan, Bush had rallied more than 30 nations to repel Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. And in just 100 hours, the Iraqi dictator’s forces were crushed—on live TV. With the Soviet Union only months away from collapse, the success of Operation Desert Storm marked the beginning of a new era in which the U.S. would be the world’s undisputed sole superpower. Bush was rewarded with a record 90 percent approval rating, yet his popularity quickly evaporated, as he failed to jump-start the economy out of a recession and broke a pledge to not raise taxes. After losing the presidency to Bill Clinton in 1992 and then watching his eldest son, George W., win the White House in 2000 and start a far longer war with Iraq, Bush 41 later wondered if his single term would be seen as a blip in history. “I am lost between the glory of Reagan,” he said, “and the trials and tribulations of my sons.”
Born in Milton, Mass., and raised in moneyed Greenwich, Conn., George Herbert Walker Bush grew up “sheltered from the Depression, tended by maids and a driver,” and “instilled with an enduring sense of noblesse oblige,” said The New York Times. He was set to follow his father—an investment banker and two-term U.S. senator—and attend Yale, but World War II intervened. Bush enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday and was a trained pilot by his 19th. He flew 58 combat missions in the Pacific and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross in 1944 after he completed a bombing run even though his torpedo bomber had been hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire. Two of his crew died in the attack, and after bailing out, Bush spent four hours floating on a raft before being rescued by a U.S. submarine. Reassigned to the U.S. in late 1944, “Bush was a man in a hurry,” said USA Today. He married his girlfriend, Barbara Pierce; had a son, George W.; graduated from Yale within three years; and then drove his red Studebaker to Odessa, Texas, to become an oilman. By 1959 he was the millionaire president of an offshore drilling company and had moved his family to Houston, where he won a U.S. House seat in 1966.
Bush was Houston’s first Republican in Congress, “and the star of the growing Texas GOP,” said the Houston Chronicle. “I want [the party’s] conservatism to be sensitive and dynamic,” he said at the time, “not scared and reactionary.” President Richard Nixon persuaded Bush to run for the Senate in 1970, and when he lost Nixon named him U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and two years later made him chairman of the Republican National Committee. In that role Bush urged Nixon to resign at the climax of the Watergate scandal. New President Gerald Ford appointed Bush envoy to China and, for a year, director of the CIA. Following Ford’s defeat by Jimmy Carter in 1976, “Bush returned to private life and began preparing for his most audacious move yet: a run for president,” said The Washington Post. He presented himself as the moderate alternative to Reagan during the 1980 GOP primaries, deriding the former California governor’s promise to simultaneously cut taxes, boost defense spending, and balance the budget as “voodoo economics.” Bush proved no match for the more charismatic Reagan but was named his running mate to reassure GOP moderates. Together, Reagan-Bush steamrolled Carter and his running mate, Walter Mondale.
The new vice president positioned himself as Reagan’s rightful heir, moving “from firmly pro-choice to staunchly pro-life as the religious right steadily gained strength,” said The Times (U.K.). Accepting the GOP presidential nomination in 1988, Bush called for a “kinder, gentler nation,” though his campaign proved anything but. His infamous Willie Horton TV ad—which blamed his rival, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, for the rape of a white woman by a black parolee—was criticized as race-baiting. Yet Bush carried 40 states in the election and became the first sitting VP elected president since 1837. Ten months into his presidency, the Berlin Wall that had separated East and West Germany for 28 years was torn down, and Bush helped persuade skeptical European leaders that the two Germanies should be united. Following the successful invasion of Panama to overthrow strongman Manuel Noriega, and a lightning victory in the Gulf War, Bush “basked in the biggest outpouring of patriotism and pride in America’s military since World War II,” said the Associated Press. He declared a “new world order” that would be “free from the threat of terror.”
But the president’s foreign policy acumen stood in contrast to his seeming ambivalence on domestic matters. Although he signed the Americans With Disabilities Act and a revamping of the Clean Air Act, Bush continued to be criticized for his lack of what he dismissively called “the vision thing.” At his nominating convention, he’d drawn cheers by declaring, “Read my lips: No new taxes.” But as the economy deteriorated and the budget deficit swelled, Bush signed a budget that raised taxes, triggering “an insurrection among his own party’s conservatives,” said The Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, he struggled to connect with ordinary voters hit by the recession, urging Americans to shop their way out of hard times and telling a town hall meeting in New Hampshire, “Message: I care.” Bush was defeated in 1992 by then Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, whose campaign mantra was “It’s the economy, stupid.”
“Bush faded from view during the Clinton years,” said CNN.com, but returned to the public spotlight—“and became the subject of a torrent of amateur psychology”—when George W. ran for president in 2000. Those expecting a restoration of the elder Bush’s ways were disappointed. The new president responded to the attacks of 9/11 “by rejecting the internationalism of his father and embracing the neoconservative doctrine of pre-emptive war.” The acerbic 2016 election, when his son Jeb was bullied into irrelevance by Donald Trump, seemed to mark the end of the “more courtly, old-fashioned politics practiced by George H.W. Bush, who until late in his life would pen handwritten notes to friends, former political allies, and foes.” Many old rivals became firm friends with Bush, and he collaborated with Clinton on a series of philanthropic projects. Once criticized as an inept communicator, Bush learned to shrug that off. “I may sometimes be a little awkward,” he said, “but there’s nothing self-conscious in my love of country.” ■