George Herbert Walker Bush, a World War II veteran who led an international coalition through the Gulf War during his time as the 41st president, and whose son’s presidency furthered the family’s political dynasty, died Friday. He was 94.
His presidency, from 1989 to 1993, was highlighted by successes abroad, like the Gulf War. Bush also provided steady leadership on the global stage during a period of intense turmoil in Europe that included the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Iron Curtain and dissolution of the Soviet Union. He faced challenges at home, however, including a relatively weak economy and persistent criticism from some Republicans who said he wasn’t conservative enough on fiscal and social issues.
A statement late Friday from George W. Bush, who served in the Oval Office years after his father, said the elder Bush “was a man of the highest character and the best dad a son or daughter could ask for.”
“The entire Bush family is deeply grateful for 41’s life and love, for the compassion of those who have cared and prayed for Dad, and for the condolences of our friends and fellow citizens.”
Former President Barack Obama wrote on Twitter that “America has lost a patriot and humble servant in George Herbert Walker Bush. While our hearts are heavy today, they are also filled with gratitude. Our thoughts are with the entire Bush family tonight – and all who were inspired by George and Barbara’s example.”
Bush’s life was filled with service, from his days in the military to his charity work after leaving office. In a speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, he spoke of building a “kinder, gentler nation.”
“I say it without boast or bravado, I’ve fought for my country, I’ve served, I’ve built,” Bush said. “And I will go from the hills to the hollows, from the cities to the suburbs to the loneliest town on the quietest street to take our message of hope and growth for every American to every American.”
The message, delivered by an upper-class New Englander-turned-Texan, struck a chord with voters and helped Bush land in the White House after serving two terms as Ronald Reagan’s vice president. Bush enjoyed broad public support during the first half of his presidency, but his approval numbers dropped steadily during his last year in office, and his failure to win re-election in 1992 was viewed by many on the right as a missed opportunity for the Republican Party.
Bush grew more popular after he left office, as he stepped into the role of party elder and came to symbolize, for many Americans, the hard work and sacrifice of the “Greatest Generation” that led the nation through the Second World War. And despite his status as a former president, Bush and his wife, Barbara Bush, who died in April 2018, came across as easy going and down-to-earth, characteristics that helped endear them to the public as America watched the former first couple grow into old age. Bush was known for wearing colorful dress socks and for his love of skydiving, a hobby he pursued all the way up to his 90th birthday.
His resurgence in popularity coincided with the rise of his son, George W. Bush, who served as governor of Texas before winning the 2000 presidential election. The younger Bush’s turbulent, two-term presidency — which was dominated by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,and the 2008 financial crisis — complicated the family’s legacy and made it impossible for historians and the public to fully separate the father from the son.
While most of the spotlight went to his son as he grew older, the elder Bush weathered a tumultuous American political landscape over the course of a five-decade career that spanned intense changes in the U.S. and among its allies across the world.
President Donald Trump wrote in a statement that “through his essential authenticity, disarming wit, and unwavering commitment to faith, family, and country, President Bush inspired generations of his fellow Americans to public service — to be, in his words, ‘a thousand points of light’ illuminating the greatness, hope, and opportunity of America to the world.”
George H.W. Bush was born on June 12, 1924, to an affluent family in Milton, Massachusetts. He attended the Phillips Academy, a prep school in Andover, Massachusetts, before enlisting in the armed forces at age 18. He was the Navy’s youngest pilot when he started flying torpedo bombers over the Pacific. In all, he flew 58 combat missions during the war. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery.
After the war, in January 1945, he married Barbara Pierce. The couple would have six children: George W., who would become the 43rd president; Robin, who died in childhood from leukemia; Jeb, the former two-term governor of Florida who ran for president in 2016; Neil, Marvin and Dorothy.
At Yale University, where he enrolled after the war, Bush became an accomplished student and athlete, playing first base and serving as the captain of the school’s baseball team. He received a degree in economics in 1948 and, after graduation, launched a career in the West Texas oil industry.
After success in the oil sector, Bush, a Republican, followed his father Prescott Bush, who served as a U.S. senator in Connecticut, into public service. In 1966, he won the first of two terms in the House as a representative from Houston. Bush also ran for the Senate twice — in 1964 and 1970 — but lost both times. He became U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under President Richard Nixon, and for a year, was chairman of the Republican National Committee. During Gerald Ford’s presidency, Bush served as an envoy to the People’s Republic of China from 1974 to 1975 and then as director of the CIA.
In 1980, he campaigned for the Republican nomination for president. But his run came as a conservative wave swept through the country — bad timing for the scion of a political family with Northeastern roots who was not embraced as a movement conservative. In Ronald Reagan, Bush faced a talented primary opponent with movie star charisma, two terms as California governor, and a deep connection to the ascendant conservative wing of the party.
Speaking on the MacNeil-Lehrer Report in 1979, Bush shook off suggestions that he step aside so Republicans could have an easier path to the White House. He contended he had more experience in business, foreign affairs and Congress. Bush had an early lead, but lost it after memorably criticizing the policies that would later be called “Reaganomics.”
“He’s promising to cut taxes by 30 percent and balance the budget and increase defense spending and stop inflation all at the same time,” he said of Reagan during an address in April 1980 at Carnegie Mellon. “It just isn’t going to work — what I call a ‘voodoo economic policy.'”
The phrase “voodoo economics” entered the political lexicon, but Bush ran an otherwise unmemorable campaign and bowed out of the primaries a month later. After Ronald Reagan won the nomination, he tapped Bush as his vice president. The move drew ire from the party’s conservative wing, but the ticket won in a landslide over Democratic President Jimmy Carter and his vice president, Walter Mondale.
In March 1981, just two months after the pair took office, Bush was nearly thrust into the presidency following an assassination attempt on Reagan outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. The president survived, and Bush continued in his role for the next eight years.
During his time as vice president, Bush took heat from some Republicans, who said he was not conservative enough. He shot back by citing his voting record and positions in past Republican administrations. The critics were also silenced in 1984, when Reagan and Bush won re-election in overwhelming fashion, carrying 49 states and dealing the Democrats an embarrassing defeat.
In his second term as vice president, Bush faced major foreign policy challenges after finding himself at the center of two international crises: America’s conflict with Iran and U.S. support of anti-Communist rebels in Central America.
In late 1986, the “Iran-Contra” affair exploded when news reports indicated that, despite an arms embargo, the Reagan administration had sold arms to Iran in an effort to secure the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon. The proceeds were then funneled illegally to the Contras, rebels trying to overthrow Nicaragua’s socialist government.
Bush participated in more than a dozen meetings that included discussion of the weapons sale, and acknowledged some responsibility for the deal. But he insisted he knew nothing about the unlawful transfer of money. The scandal eventually blew over, after Reagan accepted full responsibility in a live television address to the nation, but it lingered as a stain on Reagan and Bush’s record.
In 1988, despite facing some criticism for a perceived lack of visibility during Reagan’s tenure as president, Bush beat then-Kansas Senator Bob Dole to capture the GOP presidential nomination. Bush chose Dan Quayle, a young senator from Indiana, as his running mate.
During his speech at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans that year, Bush famously promised Americans that he would not raise taxes. “The Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I’ll say no,” he said, “and they’ll push, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push again, and I’ll say to them, ‘Read my lips: no new taxes.'”
Bush went on to win the election easily, as voters opted to give Republicans a third consecutive term in the White House. The 1988 race remains the last time a party won three straight U.S. presidential elections. While Bush ran a successful race, his campaign stirred controversy by running a racially charged political ad on crime.
In it, a narrator criticized Democrat Michael Dukakis, Bush’s opponent, for supporting while governor of Massachusetts a weekend furlough program that allowed a convicted murderer named Willie Horton to spend time out of prison. During one of his releases from prison, Horton, who was black, assaulted and raped a woman. The ad was criticized for its racial undertones, and has since become an oft-cited example of dog-whistle politics.
Bush took office with soaring approval ratings, but within two years of his inauguration, the former president did, in fact, raise taxes as part of a 1990 budget deal, souring his relationship with many conservative Republicans.
In a 2004 interview with the PBS NewsHour’s Jim Lehrer, Bush reflected on the decision and his nomination speech, saying it did his political career irreparable damage.
“I remember saying no taxes and then having had to, in my view, make a compromise to control spending and taxes,” Bush said. “I wish like hell I had never said that because they could focus on the quote rather than on how the economy was.”
Bush did win favor with the American public in November 1989 for his handling of the fall of the Berlin Wall and his effort to reintegrate Eastern Bloc nations that had shed 40 years of Soviet domination. The moment, captured through dramatic news coverage of individuals dismantling sections of the wall, represented the beginning of the end of the Cold War, a decades-long conflict that helped shape the worldview of a generation of American leaders, including Reagan and Bush.
As president, Bush also sent U.S. troops into Panama that December to overthrow the country’s regime, which was threatening the Panama Canal and Americans living there. The country’s leader, General Manuel Noriega, was brought to the U.S. for trial as a drug trafficker. Another major foreign policy crisis followed months later when, in August 1990, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and threatened to move into Saudi Arabia.
Bush rallied support from the United Nations and Congress, sending 425,000 American troops to the region. They were joined by another 118,000 troops from allied nations. Launched in mid-January 1991, The Gulf War — dubbed “Operation Desert Storm” — included weeks of air and missile strikes, followed by a 100-hour land battle that routed the Iraqi army. Bush chose not to send U.S. and coalition forces all the way to Baghdad to remove Hussein from power, even as the Iraqi dictator’s army returned to their barracks, and Bush’s popularity skyrocketed.
But at home, high deficit spending and a sagging economy plagued his presidency. He also faced rising inner city violence, all of which contributed to a sag in his approval ratings as he prepared to seek a second term.
In 1992, Bush was forced into a tough re-election battle against two opponents:Bill Clinton, the Democratic governor of Arkansas, and Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who ran as an independent.
Bush was portrayed by his opponents during the election as an out of touch Washington insider, and he floundered in the presidential debates that fall.He famously checked his watch during one debate, a small but telling gesture that reinforced the sense Bush was disinterested with the proceedings. He lost the White House to Clinton.
He led a largely private life during the term of his successor, refusing to pass judgement on Clinton, even when Clinton was embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment proceedings that followed.
In 2000, the Bush family returned to the spotlight when the former president’s son,George W. Bush, won a bitterly contested presidential race over Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore. The victory meant the pair became only the second father-son duo in American history to win the White House. The other was John Adams and John Quincy Adams (the second and sixth American presidents, respectively.)
As he did when Clinton was president, the elder Bush refused to get involved in politics when his son was in office. Instead, he watched from the sidelines as the debate raged over George W. Bush’s foreign policy — a debate that centered, in part, on the 41st president’s decision not to drive Saddam Hussein from power during the first Gulf War.
Critics of George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 often argued that the war was an effort by the president to settle what he saw as his father’s unfinished business in the region. George W. Bush surrounded himself with top advisors, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz — the deputy secretary of defense from 2001 to 2005 — who had held top defense posts in his father’s administration. (Cheney served as George H.W. Bush’s secretary of defense and led the Operation Desert Storm campaign.)
The Iraq War focused fresh attention on George H.W. Bush’s legacy, in the process cementing the connection between his presidency and his son’s. Still, the elder Bush gave his son a wide berth and refused to wade into the political fray.
“I had my chance, and now I just get out of the way and be there as a father,” Bush said in his 2004 discussion with Jim Lehrer. “It’s not easy, but I’m so much in agreement with what the president’s doing and has done … I don’t want to complicate the life of the president.”
Bush did later join forces with Clinton, first to help victims of the 2004 tsunami in Asia, then again the following year after Hurricane Katrina. The show of bipartisan public service by two popular former presidents drew praise in the U.S. and around the world. After Hurricane Harvey ravaged Texas in 2017, Bush teamed up with the other living presidents — Obama, the younger Bush, Clinton and Carter — for relief and recovery efforts.
As he grew older, Bush led an active life. He was seen repeatedly at golf outings and participated in the coin flip at a Houston Texans football game in 2014. Late in life, he went skydiving for numerous birthdays, including his 90th, when he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and confined to a wheelchair.
Bush was hospitalized for nearly two months at the end of 2012 for a bronchitis-related cough and other issues. In December 2014, he was briefly hospitalized after experiencing shortness of breath. And in July 2015, he was hospitalized for four days after he fell in his Kennebunkport, Maine, home and broke a bone in his neck.
In January 2017, Bush was hospitalized for respiratory issues related to pneumonia. At the same time, his wife Barbara was treated in the hospital for bronchitis. He was released from the ICU in time for the pair to oversee the coin toss at last year’s Super Bowl in Houston, where the couple lived and were treated as local celebrities. Bush established his presidential library not too far away, in College Station, Texas. He remained overwhelmingly popular across the state through the end of his life.
— NFL (@NFL) February 5, 2017
Barbara Bush died on April 17, 2018. The former president held her hand and was by her side when she died. The couple’s marriage lasted 73 years — the longest among any other president and first lady.
In November 2014, George W. Bush wrote “41: A Portrait of My Father,” recalling his father’s place in history. In the book, the younger Bush said that historians had begun the process of reassessing his father’s presidency, and he wanted to take part.
George H.W. Bush is “an extraordinary man,” he wrote. “In my judgement,” he added, Bush “is the finest one-term president our country has ever had.”