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George H.W. Bush | Article

Biography: George H.W. Bush

George H.W. Bush. Public Domain Image.

Born in 1924 to a prominent New England family, George Herbert Walker Bush enjoyed a privileged childhood and a close-knit family. Later in life, Bush would say, "Family is not a neutral word for me. It's a powerful word, full of emotional resonance. I was part of a strong family growing up, and I have been fortunate to have a strong family grow up around me."

Duty and Humility
His parents, firm believers in the maxim that "from those to whom much is given, much is expected," deeply influenced their second son. By day, his father, Prescott Bush, was a partner in a prestigious Wall Street investment firm, Brown Brothers Harriman. By night, he served as moderator of Greenwich, Connecticut's town meetings. While his father bestowed on young George a sense of duty, his mother, Dorothy Bush, instilled in him a sense of humility. She warned her children against bragging or having "too many 'I's' in that sentence." Prescott and Dorothy raised their five children to be a close-knit group.

Popular At Prep School
Inseparable from his older brother, Bush begged his parents to allow him to join Prescott at Phillips Academy, a boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts, a year early. Young George Bush headed off to the prestigious prep school where one of the school's mottoes, "not for self," matched his parents' own values. His junior year, Bush contracted a serious staph infection, which put him in the hospital for six weeks. Bush decided to repeat the year. His brothers and sisters have referred to this as a defining moment in his life: "the making of George Bush." Now with students his own age, he came into his own. He was elected senior class president, captain of the baseball and soccer teams, and was a member of a number of other clubs. His sister Nancy would later recall, "I was terribly popular for a while -- everyone wanted to come to our house because they might run into George."

Volunteering to Fight
In December 1941, Bush's senior year at Andover, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Bush heard the news while walking across campus and had what he called the "typical American reaction that we had better do something about this." Against his father's wishes, Bush deferred acceptance to Yale and joined the Navy on his 18th birthday. Two months later, he boarded a train to North Carolina for flight training. He earned his wings in one year and became the youngest pilot in the U.S. Navy.

Pilot in the Pacific Theater
Ensign Bush was assigned to the torpedo squadron VT-51, based in the Pacific. The first casualty in their unit was the crew aboard a plane flown by Jim Wykes, Bush's close friend and roommate aboard the aircraft carrier. There was no distress signal. The plane simply disappeared from radar. Bush recalls curling up on his cot and crying when it became clear the crew would not return. On September 2, 1944, Bush's plane was shot down in a bombing run over the island of Chichi Jima, a key location for Japanese operations in the Pacific. Bush and one of his crewmen bailed out, but the other man's parachute never opened. The third crewman went down with the plane. Alone in the ocean off the coast of Chichi Jima, Bush was eventually rescued by an American submarine on patrol for downed pilots. More than 50 years later, Bush said the deaths of his two crewmen "still weigh heavy on my mind."

Love and Marriage
On leave from the Navy in January 1945, George Bush married Barbara Pierce. The two had met three years earlier at a Christmas dance, just weeks after Pearl Harbor. The war ended the summer after their wedding and Bush was honorably discharged. He and Barbara moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where Bush began Yale on an accelerated schedule. Bush excelled at sports and captained the Yale baseball team. Two and a half years later, Bush graduated with honors and a degree in economics. While in New Haven, Barbara had given birth to their first son -- future president George W. Bush. 

To Texas
Offered a job at his father's Wall Street firm, Bush decided instead to set out for West Texas, to try his luck in the oil boom. A family friend, Neil Mallon, helped Bush land an entry-level job, and just two years later, Bush struck out on his own as a wildcatter, purchasing land with money from investors and hoping to strike oil. Bush partnered with a neighbor and friend, John Overbey, who knew the oil business inside and out. With Bush's East Coast investment connections and Overbey's expertise, the two were moderately successful, and soon joined with a team of two brothers from Oklahoma to create Zapata Petroleum. Zapata struck it big at an oil field in Coke County known as Jameson Field. Meanwhile, back in Connecticut, Bush's father was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1952. Following his father's example, after having made enough money to secure his family's future, Bush started to explore politics.

A Tragic Loss
In 1953, tragedy struck the Bush family. Born in 1949, George and Barbara's first daughter, Robin, was diagnosed with leukemia soon after the birth of their third child, Jeb. Robin died seven months later, just before her fourth birthday. For more than 40 years afterward, Bush carried a gold medallion in his wallet that read, "For the Love of Robin." When the Bushes had another daughter, six years after Robin's death, Bush visited the nursery, pressed his face against the glass, and sobbed.

Houston Politics
In 1962, after a decade in office, Bush's father, Prescott Bush, retired from the U.S. Senate. That same year, his son made his political debut as chairman of the Republican Party in Houston, Texas. George Bush was soon seen as a bright light in the Texas Republican Party. After an unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign in 1964, Bush won a seat in the U.S. Congress in 1966.

In Washington
As congressman, Bush struggled to strike a balance between the conservative Texas electorate and his more moderate personal views. His vote in favor of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was not popular among his constituents, but he defended it strongly. Despite not leaving too much of a mark in Washington in those four years, he did earn the nickname "Rubbers" for his deep interest in population control and family planning. With his father's help, Bush became the first freshman in 63 years to be offered a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. In 1970 Bush relinquished his safe House seat in favor of another run for the Senate. Once again, he was defeated.

Team Player
After two unsuccessful Senate campaigns, Bush's political future was uncertain. President Nixon had promised him a job if Bush lost. Nixon kept his promise and for the next six years, Bush was appointed to a string of administrative posts in the Nixon and Ford administrations -- U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations -- Chairman of the Republican National Committee -- U.S. Liaison to China -- and Director of Central Intelligence. When Jimmy Carter was elected and Democrats took control of the White House in 1976, the Bushes returned to Texas.

Vice President
After just two years as a private citizen, George Bush threw his hat back in the ring when he announced in May of 1979 his candidacy for president. Though Ronald Reagan ultimately won the Republican nomination, Bush's rise from an asterisk in the polls to the only other candidate to win any primaries earned him a spot on the 1980 Republican ticket. In November, Reagan-Bush defeated the incumbent, Jimmy Carter. As vice president, Bush saw his role as being a loyal supporter of Reagan and refrained from expressing his own position on political issues. Bush's statements, such as, "I'm for Reagan, blindly," were jokes to him, but to some observers demonstrated a lack of strong principles.

1988 Campaign
Bush's image problem became a factor during the 1988 presidential campaign. As Bush's campaign got underway, the perception that Bush was unwilling or unable to speak out against President Reagan's policies signaled to some that he was not strong enough for the presidency. The week Bush announced his candidacy, a Newsweek cover read, "Fighting the Wimp Factor." Though Bush ultimately won in 1988, that campaign is remembered largely for his team's palpable shift toward attack-style, negative campaign tactics.

The  41st President
Bush's experiences at the U.N., in China, and at the CIA influenced his foreign policy approach. When the Cold War came to a quiet end in the first half of the Bush presidency, many wondered what this seismic shift would mean. The struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union had defined international relations for much of the 20th century. When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait in the summer of 1990, Bush saw an opportunity to set a new standard for international cooperation in the post-Cold War world -- a world in which the strong nations stood up for and protected smaller, weaker ones. He assembled an unprecedented coalition to condemn Saddam Hussein's actions. The Gulf War -- Operation Desert Storm -- succeeded in driving Iraq out of Kuwait with minimal American casualties. As a result, Bush enjoyed the highest presidential polling numbers recorded at the time.

The 1992 Campaign
With his approval rating soaring to 89 percent in the wake of the Gulf War, Bush knew that the only way for his fortunes to go was down. Yet he was not prepared for a complete reversal in the minds and hearts of the American people. Less than two years after his Gulf War achievement, Bush lost the 1992 election to Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Though many factors caused Bush's loss, the sluggish economy was the most important. After abandoning his famous 1988 campaign pledge, "Read my lips, no new taxes," Bush presided over a long period of recession and economic unrest. His unwillingness to extend unemployment benefits for fear of increasing the budget deficit led to his being portrayed as uncaring and unsympathetic to those hurting the most. Increasing numbers of Americans began to see Bush as "out of touch," a charge that his patrician upbringing and manner did not help mitigate. Also, Americans shifted focus, in this post-Cold War era, from international issues to domestic concerns.

When George H.W. Bush left the White House in January 1993, he mostly left politics behind him. The note he wrote for President Clinton in the Oval Office assured the new president that he would not make any trouble by publicly criticizing Clinton. When his son, George W., became the 43rd president, the elder Bush, often referred to as "41," continued to keep out of the political limelight. However, staying out of politics has proven more difficult with his son in the Oval Office. The advice that "41" may or may not give to his son has been the subject of much speculation throughout the latter's presidency. 

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