George HW Bush, the former US president who saw America through Cold War
George HW Bush, the US president who fashioned a restrained response to the Soviet Union’s collapse and assembled the multinational coalition that liberated Kuwait from an Iraqi invasion, hoping that would be a model for “a new world order,” has died. He was 94.
Bush died shortly after 10pm. Friday at his home in Houston, according to a statement from a family spokesman. The longest-living president in American history, he used a wheelchair in recent years after being diagnosed with a form of Parkinson’s disease. His wife of 73 years, Barbara, died on April 17 at age 92.
“George H. W. Bush was a man of the highest character and the best dad a son or daughter could ask for,” his son and former President George W. Bush said in a separate statement.
George HW Bush drew on a lifetime of experience in international affairs during a presidency that faced tests around the globe. The achievements he could claim on the world stage weren’t enough to win him a second term, as American voters held him accountable for rising unemployment. His 1992 defeat at the hands of Democrat Bill Clinton made Bush the eighth US president to lose a bid for re-election after serving a full term. The Bush name was far from done, however, as two of his sons became governors who ran for the presidency, with one succeeding.
Groomed for Success
Born to New England privilege, successful in the oil business in Texas, Bush straddled the Republican Party’s ideological divide between northeastern moderates and southern conservatives. He built his specialty in foreign policy as he ascended in Republican politics, serving in Congress and as US ambassador to the United Nations, special envoy to China and director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
His rise to the pinnacle of American power was based more on experience, friendships and party service than on any signature cause or exhortation, and as the 41st US president, from 1989 to 1993, he struggled to articulate what he called “the vision thing.”
“Despite an almost sacrificial devotion to the Republican Party,” former New York Times writer Tom Wicker wrote in a 2004 biography, Bush “sometimes exhibited chameleon-like changes of coloration within its spectrum of opinion and never overcame the suspicions of its most conservative elements.”
Bush served as vice president under Ronald Reagan even after mocking Reagan’s campaign agenda as “voodoo economics.” He courted his party’s tax-cutting wing as a candidate for president in 1988 -- “Read my lips: No new taxes” -- then infuriated it by agreeing to a tax increase. He appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court both David Souter, who became a gift to liberals, as well as Clarence Thomas, a hero to conservatives.
Following his 1992 defeat, Bush’s eldest son, George W, carried out a rapid rise through politics in time to succeed Clinton as president in 2000.
Bush 43, as the son is sometimes known, signed on with the tax-cutting conservatives who had distrusted his father, resumed armed combat against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and, on the strength of the leadership he showed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, won the second term his father had been denied.
Had Bush 43 sought to distinguish himself from his father? Such speculation “burns me up a little bit,” Bush 41 said in a 2009 interview with Fox News. “I don’t think there’s ever been any competition of that nature that I’m aware of.”
Still, their legacies were intertwined. Public approval of the first Bush presidency slid during his son’s terms, then rebounded, according to the Gallup Poll. Bush received a 63 percent approval rating in June 2014, compared with 53 percent for his son.
In “41: A Portrait of My Father,” published in 2014, the younger Bush praised his father’s accomplishments and said that while other biographies may be objective, “This one is not. This book is a love story.”
Another Bush son who went into the family business, Jeb Bush, the former two-term governor of Florida, lost his bid to become the Republican presidential nominee in 2016.
The popular image of George HW Bush as president was that he was cautious above all, a caricature sealed by “Saturday Night Live” comedian Dana Carvey’s impression of him repeating the phrase, “Wouldn’t be prudent.” Bush’s refusal to gloat when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union disintegrated spurred accusations that he cared more about his friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev than the quest for democracy around the globe.
Later scholarship would take a kinder view.
With his restrained public comments, Bush “coaxed the Soviet Union toward worldwide surrender” by “never giving Moscow a pretext to reverse course,” Michael Beschloss and Strobe Talbott wrote in “At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War’ (1993).
Publicly celebrating the fall of the Iron Curtain “would have been the stupidest thing I could have done,” Bush said in “41,” an HBO documentary about his life that aired in 2012. “Everybody’s got certain levels of respect and pride, and for me to stick my finger in the eyes of Gorbachev or the Soviet military would have made no sense at all.”
In an address marking Gorbachev’s resignation on Dec. 25, 1991, Bush said, “We stand tonight before a new world of hope and possibilities and hope for our children, a world we could not have contemplated a few years ago.”
The “new world” Bush envisioned had, earlier that year, survived a major test.
After Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait in August 1990, Bush arranged the coalition of dozens of countries that came to Kuwait’s defense. Following weeks of bombardment that began in January 1991, coalition ground troops routed Iraq’s army in 100 hours in Operation Desert Storm.
In his State of the Union address on Jan. 29, 1991, Bush said that what was at stake in Kuwait “is more than one small country. It is a big idea: a new world order, where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind -- peace and security, freedom and the rule of law.”
Bush chose not to chase the enemy into Iraq to topple the Hussein regime. That could have made the U.S. “an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land,” he later wrote, a comment oft-quoted years later when his son did order an invasion of Iraq.
Saving Kuwait was the high point of Bush’s term in office, lifting his approval rating to 90 percent in polls before a faltering economy at home chipped away at his popularity. The US went into recession from July 1990 until March 1991, and the unemployment rate climbed to 7.8 percent in June 1992 from 5.4 percent when he took office.
A growing federal deficit also forced Bush to renege on the “no new taxes” campaign pledge he had made, to acclaim from his party.
The deficit rose each year of his presidency, from $152.6 billion in 1989 to $290.3 billion in 1992. During closed-door budget negotiations in 1990, the Democrats who controlled Congress insisted that Bush, not they, put tax increases on the table.
Bush, relenting, released a statement that included “tax revenue increases” in a list of necessary measures. In some quarters of his party, that was never forgiven.
Did he regret his acquiescence? “Nope, because it was right,” he said in the HBO documentary.
George Herbert Walker Bush was born on June 12, 1924, in Milton, Massachusetts, named for his maternal grandfather, George Herbert Walker, founder of the Wall Street investment firm GH Walker & Co. Since his grandfather was known as “Pop,” Bush became “Poppy.”
His father, Prescott Bush, was a partner at Wall Street’s Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. before serving as a Republican senator from Connecticut from 1952 to 1963. While experiencing politics and public service through his father, Bush said he learned important lessons about modesty from his mother, the former Dorothy Walker.
“She had these kind of truisms that served me in good stead even when I got to be president of the United States,” he recalled in the HBO film. “She said, ‘Nobody likes a braggadocio, don’t be bragging about yourself all the time.’ She said, ‘Listen, don’t talk all the time.’ She said, ‘Give the other guy credit.’”
At Phillips Academy boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts, Bush lettered in baseball, soccer and basketball. At 17, attending a dance in Greenwich, Connecticut, he met 16-year-old Barbara Pierce, daughter of the president of McCall Corp., publisher of magazines including McCall’s and Redbook. They married in January 1945, while Bush was on leave from the US Navy.
Bush enlisted on his 18th birthday, seven months after the US entered World War II. He was the youngest US naval aviator when he completed preflight training in June 1943, according to the Navy.
He flew 58 combat missions in the Pacific war against Japan, one of which almost ended his life.
On Sept. 2, 1944, the TBM Avenger he was piloting in a bombing raid on the island of Chichi Jima was struck by anti-aircraft fire. Bush parachuted from the airplane before it crashed in the ocean. A US submarine located his yellow lifeboat and rescued him. His two crewmates didn’t survive.
Bush received the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in action.
After the war, he earned an economics degree and made Phi Beta Kappa at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he was captain of the baseball team. He then parlayed family connections into lucrative business success in Texas, a path that his firstborn son, George W, would later follow on his own way to the presidency.
With his wife and that son, Bush moved to Odessa, Texas, to join an oil field-supply firm that was a subsidiary of Dresser Industries, on whose board his father sat. Dresser was acquired in 1998 by its competitor, Halliburton Co. After his apprenticeship he settled in Midland and helped start a new business buying and developing oil leases.
With two partners, brothers Hugh and William Liedtke, Bush founded Zapata Petroleum Co. in 1953, the name inspired by the 1952 Marlon Brando film “Viva Zapata!” By the end of the 1950s, Bush had moved his family to Houston and was running an offshoot of Zapata that churned out profits from high-risk offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
In Houston, he became chairman of the Harris County Republican Party. Following a spirited, unsuccessful challenge to Democratic US Senator Ralph Yarborough -- “He does not represent Texas; he represents the New Frontier and the labor bosses in Detroit,” Bush said in one television commercial -- Bush won two terms in the House of Representatives, from 1967 to 1971. After another failed Senate bid, he was named ambassador to the UN by President Richard Nixon.
Nixon turned again to Bush two years later, to succeed Robert Dole as chairman of the Republican National Committee. Bush was handed the unenviable mission of revitalizing the party as the Watergate scandal was bringing it down.
“It was a bleak future at that moment” for Republicans, Bush said in the HBO documentary. “But that’s why these things come and go. It gives me perspective over the years. I mean, when it seems gloomy and down, you bounce back.”
Gerald Ford, who became president when Nixon resigned, appointed Bush chief of the US liaison office in China in 1974. Based in Beijing, then called Peking, Bush sometimes traveled to meetings by bicycle and entertained guests with old movies, popcorn and soft drinks, according to a 1975 New York Times profile that said he “succeeded, at least to a limited degree, in erasing the image that many persons in Peking had of America as an elitist country.”
Ford recalled him in 1976 to take over the CIA, an agency, Bush later said, that was “battered by a decade of hostile congressional investigations, exposés, and charges that ran from law-breaking to simple incompetence.”
When Democrat Jimmy Carter became president in January 1977, Bush was out of politics for the first time in a decade. He began a campaign for president in May 1979 that, for a time, looked like it might spoil what became the Reagan Revolution.
He defeated Reagan in the kickoff Iowa caucuses and went on to win six other primary contests before bowing to Reagan’s overwhelming delegate lead. Along the way, he derided as “voodoo economics” Reagan’s contention that lower taxes could be combined with higher military spending with no effect on the deficit. That didn’t stop Reagan from naming Bush to his ticket.
Bush’s “finest moments” as vice president, Time wrote in 1984, may have come when he acted “calmly and with sensitivity” amid the turmoil set off by the assassination attempt on Reagan in March 1981. Bush deferentially declined entreaties to take a helicopter directly to the White House, where aides were monitoring reports of Reagan’s medical condition. Bush later explained, “Only the president lands on the South Lawn.”
During Reagan’s second term, Bush tried to distance himself from the Iran-Contra scandal, the secret effort to aid anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua with money raised from arms sales to Iran. He claimed he had been “out of the loop.”
That view would be challenged by Reagan’s secretary of State, George Shultz. He wrote in his 1993 memoir that he had warned Bush, face to face, that an arms-for-hostages exchange had at least been attempted and “would never stand up in public.”
Along with his “Read my lips” tax pledge, Bush vowed to shape “a kinder, gentler nation” as he accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. His victory over Democrat Michael Dukakis, whom he portrayed as soft on crime, made Bush the first sitting vice president in more than 100 years to get elected to the top job.
Seeking re-election in 1992, Bush found himself challenged not just by Clinton but also by Ross Perot, the billionaire founder of Electronic Data Systems Corp., running as an independent. Television cameras caught Bush checking his watch during a three-way debate in which Perot displayed a folksy wit and Clinton demonstrated his ability to connect with voters’ pocketbook concerns.
On Election Day, Clinton took 43 percent of the vote to Bush’s 37 percent, with Perot winning almost 19 percent. Of Perot, Bush would later say: “I think he cost me the election, and I don’t like him.” Others doubt that Perot had a decisive impact on the result.
In a final chapter to the arms-for-hostages case, Bush, in his waning weeks in the Oval Office, pardoned Reagan’s defense secretary, Casper Weinberger, and five others.
Bush moved from the White House back to Houston, where he monitored development of his presidential library. He formed an unlikely and lasting friendship with Clinton, teaming up to raise relief funds for victims of the December 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia and of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. He parachuted from airplanes to mark several birthdays in his later years. His last jump came when he turned 90.
In November 2017, about midway through his 94th year, he became the longest-living U.S. president, a distinction that had been held by Ford, who died in 2006.
Bush is survived by sons George, Jeb, Neil and Marvin and daughter Dorothy Bush Koch, plus 17 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. His first daughter, Robin, died of leukemia at age 3.