He was the last of a string of eight consecutive American presidents who wore a uniform during World War II, a teenage volunteer who learned to fly bombers at Chicago’s Navy Pier and at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Glenview.
George Herbert Walker Bush, 94, the 41st president of the United States, died Friday night at his home in Houston, surrounded by family and friends. His last words were “I love you, too,” spoken via telephone to his son, George W. Bush, the 43rd president. He had been hospitalized three times in recent years, and his health deteriorated after the death in April of his wife of 73 years, former first lady Barbara Bush. They were married longer than any other presidential couple.
A combination of two heretofore distinct American types — East Coast patrician and Texas oil man, Yale blue blood and Houston wildcatter — Bush presided over what many remember as indeed being the “kinder” and “gentler” era he envisioned. Both in U.S. politics, just before the polarizing Bill Clinton years, and in a world where the Soviet Union fell apart, seemingly of its own accord and war — the 1991 Gulf War, which Bush led after assembling an international coalition to repulse Saddam Hussein from Kuwait — was brief, relatively painless and victorious.
With his passing there are now four living former presidents, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and the oldest, Jimmy Carter. Funeral plans are being finalized, but the late president will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda from Monday evening through Wednesday.
The current occupant of the White House, President Donald Trump, issued a statement Friday night praising Bush’s “essential authenticity, disarming wit, and unwavering commitment to faith, family, and country … His example lives on, and will continue to stir future Americans to pursue a greater cause.”
Bush was the first sitting vice president elected to the nation’s highest office since Martin Van Buren in 1836, and the first vice president since John Adams to serve two terms then immediately win the presidency, defeating Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Also like John Adams, George H.W. Bush lived to see his son elected president. Together with son George W. Bush, they formed the second of two father/son presidential pairs in United States history, one requiring a retrofitting of his middle initials to tell them apart. While in office, he had been simply “George Bush,” a president distinguished by his energy, athleticism and basic decency, a man, in the words of his friend James Baker, “who never learned to sit still.”
Yet despite his successes, Bush seemed not to excite the passions stirred by other presidents. His four years in office were an economically troubled interlude between two of the most popular politicians in 20th century American history: Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. While his administration had noteworthy moments, from sending troops to capture Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega early in his presidency to joining with Russian President Boris Yeltsin to announce the conclusion of the Cold War, overall, the one-term Bush presidency left an “indistinct mark on America,” according to Northwestern history professor Michael Sherry, who wrote that “except for the 100-hour Gulf War, it featured no grand event, great speech, dismaying scandal, ideological crusade or decisive political turn.”
Perhaps that was inevitable, given Bush’s background of privilege and orderly achievement. He was born in Milton, Mass., on June 12, 1924, related to four previous American presidents. His father, Prescott Bush, was a banker and future U.S. senator, an avid golfer who headed the USGA and married Dorothy Walker, whose father created golf’s Walker Cup. When George, whom everybody called “Poppy,” or his four siblings were naughty, Bush later recalled, his father’s regular punishment was to spank them with a squash racquet.
The family moved to Connecticut shortly after Bush’s birth. He was an athletic boy but not a particularly studious one. Asked during the 1988 campaign to name a few of the books he had read in childhood, he replied, “I can’t … I don’t read that much.” At 12, he was sent away to an elite boarding school, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
Hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Bush, then 17, resolved to enlist, but his father, who had fought at the Argonne in World War I as an artillery captain, strenuously objected, and the two squared off for six months. Bush signed up for the Naval Air Reserves on the day after his 18th birthday, later recounting it was “the first I had ever seen my dad cry.”
In August 1943, he became one of 15,000 pilots to learn to fly by taking off at Glenview Naval Air Station and landing on a pair of carriers anchored at Navy Pier. Or not landing on those carriers: 300 World War II-era planes still rest on the bottom of Lake Michigan, put there by pilots attempting a skill they had not yet mastered.
The youngest pilot commissioned in the U.S. Navy, Bush was assigned to a torpedo squadron, stationed aboard the light aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto. Twice Bush was flying in a plane that was forced to ditch at sea. The second time, during an attack on the Bonin Islands, Japanese anti-aircraft fire set Bush’s Avenger aflame. He dropped his bombs then bailed out. Two other crewmen were killed. Bush ended up in the water where, fearing atrocities, he “swam like hell” to get away from Japanese boats trying to pick him up, snagged his sea pack and ended up bobbing anxiously in an inflatable raft in the South Pacific for four hours until he was rescued by a submarine, the USS Finback, performing “lifeguard duty.”
He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for that action, and he ended up flying 58 combat missions, earning three Air Medals, before being reassigned to Norfolk to train pilots.
In January 1945, he married Barbara Pierce — a distant cousin of President Franklin Pierce — whom he had met at a dance when she was 16. The Bushes had six children, George, Jeb, Neil, Marvin, Dorothy and Robin, who died of leukemia at age 3 in 1953. Bush carried a token, a heart with her name on it, in his wallet for 40 years.
After the war, Bush went to Yale, as his father had and his son later would. He pledged to the Skull and Bones secret society, another family tradition, and graduated in 1948 with a degree in economics.
The family settled in Midland, Texas, where Bush joined the oil boom, forming the Bush-Overby Oil Development Corp. — with a helpful investment of half a million dollars by his grandfather. That company became Zapata Petroleum, named for the Mexican revolutionary. It gambled nearly all its capital on an enormous expanse of land in Texas. The first 71 wells Zapata drilled struck oil.
His fortune made, Bush felt the urge to follow his father into public service, becoming active in the Republican Party, first as chairman of the Harris County Republicans, then as a delegate to the 1964 National Convention. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas’ 7th District in 1966 and in 1968, running unopposed. At Richard Nixon’s urging, he resigned his safe seat to try for the Senate in 1970 but was defeated by Democrat Lloyd Bentsen.
As a consolation prize, Bush went on to serve in a variety of jobs under Nixon, first two years as ambassador to the United Nations, where he described that organization as doomed to be “a reflection of, rather than a solution to, the tensions that exist in the world.” In 1973, he became chairman of the Republican National Committee. The next year, during the height of the Watergate scandal, Bush formally requested that Nixon resign, for the good of the party.
Under Ford, Bush filled two year-long posts, first as an unofficial ambassador to China — unofficial because the United States did not yet have relations with Communist China — sometimes surprising Chinese officials by arriving to meetings on a bicycle instead of in a limousine. Then he became director of the Central Intelligence Agency, from January 1976 to January 1977, helping guide it through the aftermath of a particularly scandal-plagued period.
He decided to run for president in 1980 but instead ran smack into the political phenomenon that was Ronald Reagan, who crushed him in the primaries, then turned around and picked Bush as his vice president.
Bush was a steady, reliable vice president, distinguishing himself by his calm and appropriate conduct in the difficult days after Reagan was shot in March 1981 (as opposed to Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who doomed his own political future by storming the microphone during a White House briefing and announcing that he was in charge).
Bush also served as temporary president during Reagan’s term, briefly. On July 15, 1985, surgeons operated on Reagan to remove a cancerous polyp, and Bush became the only vice president to become acting president in accordance with the 25th Amendment, filling that role for just under eight hours.
Of the rest of Bush’ eight years as vice president, little need be said, beyond that he did the typical officiating over events too trivial to demand the president’s presence. Bush was away from Washington more than he was there, visiting all 50 states and 68 foreign countries during his tenure. When he was in Washington, he would have weekly lunches with Reagan, who liked to bounce jokes off him. A Secret Service agent taught Bush horseshoes, and he had the free time to become proficient at it, joining the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association. As president, he installed a professional horseshoe pit at the White House, another at the family home in Kennebunkport and a third at Camp David, where he played against Mikhail Gorbachev.
As for politics, he once said, “I’m for Mr. Reagan blindly.”
In 1988, he edged ahead of Republican rivals Bob Dole, Jack Kemp and Pat Robertson to win the nomination in New Orleans. The Reagan revolution — shrink government by starving it of money — was in full swing. “Read my lips, no new taxes” Bush promised the convention. He chose Indiana Sen. J. Danforth Quayle as his vice president and slid rightward during the primaries, championing the exact policies he had condemned as “voodoo economics” in 1980.
An unenthusiastic, squeaky-voiced campaigner, Bush spoke of a nation illuminated by “a thousand points of light.” While Newsweek raised what it called “the wimp factor” — particularly unfair considering his war heroism — Bush came from behind in the opinion polls to defeat Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis after a blistering campaign that saw Bush castigate Dukakis as a “liberal” and a “card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union.” He campaigned for harsher punishment of criminals, criticizing Dukakis for opposing the death penalty and running notorious TV commercials featuring Willie Horton, a black man who committed a rape while on a weekend furlough from jail in Massachusetts. In an election that set a new post-World War II low for voter turnout, Bush won decisively, with 54.6 percent of the vote and 426 electoral votes.
Democrats retained control of both the House and the Senate, placing him in a difficult political situation.
Bush, in his inaugural address, said “a new breeze is a blowing, and a world refreshed by freedom seems reborn.” And indeed, huge changes, though not of Bush’s doing, occurred during his term, particularly the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of its domination of Eastern Europe, and the rise of Solidarity in Poland (the spring after Bush took office young people in China, trying to catch the winds of freedom in their own sails, misread their government and staged the ill-fated uprising that ended in Tiananmen Square.)
One international change Bush refused to tolerate occurred Aug. 2, 1990, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded his neighbor, Kuwait, conquering the country in two days. Bush worked through the United Nations to build a coalition to thwart this “naked aggression,” sending 500,000 American troops to the region. After six months of preparation, Operation Desert Storm began with six weeks of bombardment followed by a 100-hour ground war that won Kuwait from the Iraqis with a loss of 147 Americans. Though urged to continue on to Baghdad, Bush resisted, a decision much criticized at the time.
Not all of his international efforts worked so well. In December 1992, just before leaving office, Bush ordered 28,000 American troops to Somalia to support famine relief efforts there, a move that set the stage for the infamous “Black Hawk Down” battle in October 1993 that cost 18 American soldiers their lives and prompted Bill Clinton to withdraw American forces.
There was trouble, too, at home. Bush’s term was defined by financial difficulties, primarily the savings-and-loan scandal, a result of Reagan’s passion for deregulation. Bush pledged $166 billion to close the failed savings and loans. The 1991 budget forced him to renege on his “read my lips” pledge.
He also nominated Clarence Thomas to fill Thurgood Marshall’s seat on the Supreme Court, leading to his dramatic Senate confirmation hearings featuring testimony from Anita Hill, who accused Thomas of sexual harassment. The Senate nevertheless confirmed him, barely, by a vote of 52-48.
A milestone of progressive American government occurred during the Bush presidency — the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in July 1990. Physical activity, a focus for Bush since he was a boy, was a hallmark of what one wit called “an aerobic presidency,” though his healthful lifestyle did not, famously, include broccoli.
The faltering economy scuttled Bush’s chances for a second term. Sixteen months before the 1992 election, Bush’s approval rating had soared above 90 percent, but financial bad news eroded his popularity. Just as he had in the primaries with Ronald Reagan in 1980, in 1992 he faced another force-of-nature politician, this one from the left, Bill Clinton. Clinton’s decisive victory — he won by more than 5 million votes — shocked Bush, a man who had named his speedboat “Fidelity.”
“He, a family man and a wartime hero, had been defeated by a womanizer and draft dodger,” wrote University of Illinois at Chicago history professor Robert V. Remini.
Bush’s 20 years out of office were softened by seeing his legacy grow in light of subsequent events. His son’s disastrous foray into Iraq showed just how prudent — to use a word satirists welded to Bush — his decision to hold back from pushing on to Baghdad had been. He kept a low profile during George W. Bush’s eight years in office, never criticizing his son publicly.
That was not a courtesy extended toward our current president, however. Bush told author Mark Updegrove that he does not like Donald Trump and considers him “a blowhard.”
Bush parachuted again, of his own accord this time, to celebrate his 75th, 80th, 85th and 90th birthdays, his “hip-hip-hip hooray enthusiasm about life still undiminished,” The New York Times noted. The last jump made despite losing use of his legs to a form of Parkinson’s disease. Bush made a total of eight parachute jumps in his life, once as part of a fund-raiser to pay for construction of his presidential library at Texas He is the only American president to jump out of a plane.
In retirement, he also forged an unlikely friendship with former rival Bill Clinton, the two taking seven trips to work on humanitarian issues together.
“I do think our friendship has sent a message around the world that just because you disagree on something doesn’t mean you can’t work together,” Bush said.
Clinton issued a statement late Friday, saying he would be “forever grateful for the friendship we formed.” It continued, in part: “Few Americans have been — or will ever be — able to match President Bush’s record of service to the United States and the joy he took every day from it.”
Working with Clinton, Bush helped raise $100 million to aid survivors of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and set an example for our present leaders.
“Because you run against each other, that doesn’t mean you’re enemies,” Bush said at the time. “Politics doesn’t have to be uncivil and nasty.”