Former President George H.W. Bush, the 41st president and self-effacing patriarch of one of America’s premier political families, which has included two occupants of the White House, a senator and a governor, died Friday, at age 94.
As president, Bush led an international coalition to victory in the first Persian Gulf war in 1990-91, only to lose his bid for re-election the following year to Democrat Bill Clinton primarily because of a prolonged recession and Bush’s perceived inability to cure it.
Having won the race to succeed President Ronald Reagan in 1988, Bush had famously promised the Republicans who nominated him, “Read my lips: no new taxes,” a pledge that would haunt him when he agreed to higher taxes in a budget deal with Democrats two years later in 1990.
Bush’s political trademarks were his caution — lampooned by Saturday Night Live’s Dana Carvey with the line, “Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent” — and his perseverance, including eight years as Reagan’s vice president. When Republicans chose him at their convention in New Orleans in 1988, along with an obscure running mate, Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana, CQ summed up Bush in the headline: “Never Awesome, Ever Resilient.”
Bush himself was uncomfortable articulating broad political themes — what he caustically dismissed as “the vision thing.” Some thought it cost him the election, though the consensus was that the sluggish economy drove him from office. In the words of Clinton advisor James Carville at the time, “It’s the economy stupid.”
In retirement, Bush was avuncular and scarce, except when he teamed up with political nemesis Clinton to help victims of natural disasters and other distress around the world. Bush and his wife Barbara — they’d been married since 1945 — divided their time between Houston, Texas, and Kennebunkport, Maine, where in 2014 Bush celebrated his 90th birthday by skydiving from a helicopter, strapped to an ex-military jumper. It was the eighth jump he performed.
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Born to a political family, Bush had been destined for a career in public service — first as a naval aviator in World War II, as a congressman from Texas, ambassador to China and a CIA director before he served as Reagan’s vice president.
The Bushes became a true American political dynasty when son George W. Bush following him to the White House.
“Being President will test you to your core,” the elder Bush assured supporters via email in the midst of son Jeb’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. “Even though I was Vice President for eight years and had been in the Oval Office many times for important meetings with my friend President Reagan, I still did not appreciate the enormity of the job until I put my hand on that Bible and took the Oath of Office. It’s that big.”
“Any definition of a successful life must include serving others,” Bush told the nation from the South Lawn of the White House shortly after taking office. The journey toward a successful life began on June 12, 1924, in Milton, Mass. Bush was the second of five children born to U.S. Sen. Prescott Bush and Dorothy Walker Bush.
A largely uneventful youth — save for a bout in 1940 with a debilitating staph infection that forced him to spend weeks convalescing at Massachusetts General Hospital — was interrupted when the Axis powers took aim at the United States.
Bush enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday, almost six months to the day after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor drew the U.S. into World War II. A year later, he became the youngest commissioned pilot in the VT-51 torpedo bomber squadron.
On Sept. 2, 1944, Bush took heavy fire over the Japanese island of Chichi Jima. He managed to destroy the intended target before bailing out of his badly damaged plane.
Bush was rescued by the crew of the USS Finback, and later received a Distinguished Flying Cross for completing his mission.
While on the mend, Bush decided to tie the knot with Barbara Pierce. The two made it official on Jan. 6, 1945. Nine months later, the war was over and Bush was granted an honorable discharge from service.
Bush enrolled at Yale University to study economics. He would go on to become captain of the baseball team and was admitted into the secret society Skull and Bones, which had welcomed his father three decades earlier.
According to biographer Jon Meacham, who collaborated with Bush on “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush,” assuming leadership roles was basically hardwired into his DNA.
“The tension in George Bush’s life was to serve and to succeed,” Meacham told CBS. “He was always ferocious in his pursuit of power.”
Bush’s firstborn, George W., arrived in 1946 while Bush was still at Yale. Upon graduating, “Poppy” Bush, as his eldest would eventually delight in calling him, took his economics degree and budding family to Texas to try his luck in the oil game.
“He wanted to be adventurous… He didn’t want to go work for his father or his grandfather down on Wall Street,” Meacham told CBS.
That adventure led Bush from Corpus Christi to Odessa to Midland to Houston.
Bush graduated to wildcatter — snapping up prospective drilling sites on behalf of well-heeled investors — and later helped co-found Zapata Petroleum.
The Bush family expanded over the next decade: daughter Pauline Robinson Bush arrived at the end of 1949 (she died of leukemia in 1953), followed by sons Jeb, Neil and Marvin in 1953, 1955 and 1956, respectively and daughter Doro in 1959.
Climbing the ladder
In 1962 Bush ventured into Texas politics as chairman of the Harris County Republican Committee in Houston. With that initial victory under his belt, Bush upped the ante the following cycle and made a play for a U.S. Senate seat, but incumbent Democrat Ralph Yarborough handed Bush his first political defeat.
The loss stung but did not deter Bush from trying again in 1966, setting his sights on the U.S. House and knocking out Harris County District Attorney Frank Briscoe to become the first Republican to represent Houston in Congress.
The relative unknown arrived in D.C. and was rewarded with an assignment to the influential Ways and Means Committee — brokered by his well-connected father. Bush did his time in the minority, mostly keeping his head down, and coasted to re-election in 1968.
In 1970, he sought a rematch with Yarborough, but Rep. Lloyd Bentsen took out Yarborough in the Democratic primary that year and beat Bush in November by 8 points.
After Bush left Capitol Hill, President Richard Nixon offered him the post of Ambassador to the United Nations, where he served from 1971 to 1972, then signed on as chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1973.
The Watergate scandal tested Bush’s allegiance to Nixon and in the summer of 1974, the party chairman wrote Nixon a letter urging him to resign. The following day, Nixon announced that he was stepping down.
Then-Vice President Gerald Ford succeeded Nixon, but Bush was passed over in the scramble to fill the vacant vice president’s office — Nelson Rockefeller got the nod instead. But Ford appointed Bush ambassador to China, where he served for a year, then returned to Washington as head of the Central Intelligence Agency. In order to expedite the confirmation process, Ford had to promise skeptical senators that Bush would not be chosen as his running mate in 1976.
Behind the scenes, Bush aligned himself with powerful figures — including James Baker III, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who would all play a role in a future Bush administration.
Decades later, Bush would excoriate those same acquaintances for failing his son in the White House.
Of Rumsfeld, Bush wrote in his biography, “I don’t like what he did, and I think it hurt the president having his iron-ass view of everything. There’s a lack of humility, a lack of seeing what the other guy thinks.”
Cheney, too, incurred his wrath: “His seeming knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything,” Bush told Meacham of his former Defense secretary. “He just became very hard-line and very different from the Dick Cheney I knew and worked with.”
In May 1979 Bush kicked off his own presidential campaign. The biggest obstacle in his way was former two-term California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who had run unsuccessfully against Nixon in 1968 and had given Ford a run for his money in 1976.
Reagan’s prospects seemed much brighter the third time around as incumbent Jimmy Carter struggled to contend with crippling gas prices, the Iran hostage crisis and a moribund economy.
Bush rattled the presumed front-runner in January 1980 by winning the Iowa caucuses and the Puerto Rico primary back-to-back. More importantly, he managed to get under the one-time actor’s skin by famously deriding Reagan’s supply-side economic policy as “voodoo economics.”
But the Gipper soundly defeated Bush in subsequent contests in New England (New Hampshire, Vermont) and across the South (South Carolina, Alabama, Florida and Georgia). Mounting losses — including a rejection by his now-home state to Reagan by seven points — stretched into the spring. Within days of being outperformed in Pennsylvania, Bush called it quits at the end of May.
But Reagan chose Bush for No. 2 on the GOP ticket because he considered him a worthy adversary.
“The history was one of intense competition between the two,” Baker told U.S. News in 2011. Reagan calculated that working with, rather than against Bush would help unite the party, Baker said. It also allowed the Washington outsider to capitalize on Bush’s “golden resume” — his Capitol Hill experience, foreign service and connections within the Republican National Committee.
The one-time rivals would go on to trounce Carter and spark the so-called “Reagan Revolution.”
Bush’s vice presidential ride, though, was a bumpy one.
He was thrust into the limelight in 1981 when would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. shot Reagan outside a Washington hotel. He famously declined to occupy Reagan’s chair during interim Cabinet meetings.
Bush readily adopted the existing policies and programs that had kept Reagan in office for two terms when he launched his second presidential run in 1988. He tapped Quayle to appeal to younger voters, and used the bully pulpit to assure older folks he planned to stay the course.
Republicans looking for change engineered a wakeup call early in the campaign. Bush finished behind then-Sen. Robert Dole, and televangelist Pat Robertson in the Iowa caucuses that year but defeated his primary opponents in the next contest in New Hampshire. Dole then swept Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, while Robertson triumphed in Alaska and Washington state.
But Bush ran the table from March 15 on, logging more than a dozen double-digit victories before clinching the nomination.
He and Quayle defeated Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and former Texas rival Bentsen that November by a nearly 4-1 margin in electoral votes (426-111, respectively) and with 53 percent of the popular vote.
On to the White House
Now firmly in command, Bush tussled with pressing issues both domestically and abroad.
He proposed bailing out the faltering savings and loan industry and signed into law the Clean Air Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act.
He presided over a period of global realignment marked by an uprising in China that was put down with the massacre at Tiananmen Square, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. More foreigners were invited to come chase the American Dream as a result of his green-lighting the Immigration Act of 1990.
His most damaging stumble came from political necessity.
Faced with mounting deficits and a legislative branch led by Democrats, Bush was forced to go back on his convention pledge during budget talks. The about-face on taxes outraged fiscal conservatives in the House, prompting then-Minority Whip Newt Gingrich to campaign against the bipartisan spending blueprint. Former rival Dole helped shepherd through the Senate the fragile bargain, which had to comply with all the safeguards embedded in the nascent Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act. But the compromise exposed ideological fault lines that threatened to rend the party.
According to Meacham, Bush deeply regretted his heat-of-the-moment pledge not to raise taxes.
“I asked what the biggest regret of his political life was and he said, ’I shouldn’t have said, ‘Read my lips,’ ” Meacham related, adding that Bush “didn’t really expect to keep it all four years anyway.”
The conflicts didn’t end there.
The war hero entered skirmishes in Panama, Iraq, and Somalia. Operation Desert Storm, in particular, would affect his standing as a world leader. Sky-high approval ratings after the war plunged soon after.
Back home, solidarity around the war effort did not translate to another term for Bush, who was portrayed in the media by opponents as being out of touch on the economy. Whether fumbling around with supermarket scanners he seemed unfamiliar with, or noticeably checking his watch during a 1992 debate, Bush provided plenty of ammunition to those who maintained he was not on the same page as the rest of the country.
A third-party challenge mounted by self-funded businessman Ross Perot appealed to nearly a quarter of voters on Election Day, leaving Bush and Quayle — whom Baker attempted to remove from the ticket following a series of embarrassing stumbles, including misspelling “potato” by adding an “e” on the end while visiting a sixth-grade class in New Jersey — to scramble for 30-odd percent of the electorate while former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and Tennessee Democrat Al Gore carried a majority of states (32) and claimed 43 percent of the vote.
Bush was absolutely stunned by the turnabout, particularly after riding so high in the immediate wake of the first Iraq War.
“George H. W. Bush was more conservative than he is given credit for,” former White House chief of staff and New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu said of his one-time boss. Moreover, Sununu thinks the single-term leader is frequently undervalued as a dealmaker, arguing that Bush “passed more significant domestic legislation than any president except Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt.”
Leaving politics behind opened the door to a host of alternative endeavors for the seasoned diplomat.
Bush expanded upon the call to action he’d issued in his inaugural address with the Point of Light Foundation, a non-profit geared toward promoting volunteerism at the global level. He backed up his rhetoric with action, joining with Clinton to spearhead relief efforts following the 2004 tsunami that ravaged Southeast Asian and in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina decimated the Deep South.
“I do believe, if there were more people like him, the world would be a better place,” Clinton, reflecting on the unlikely partnership in 2014, assured CNN. “His primary motivation was to serve. You don’t get to pick the time you serve, and you can’t control the circumstances in which you govern. There’s always some good and some bad in it. But he made the most of a hand that was not the easiest hand to play. And he did it because, at heart, he’s a servant.”
Bush warmed to other former adversaries as well.
He befriended comedian Dana Carvey, the impressionist who portrayed him as an overly gesticulating mess of a man for several seasons on Saturday Night Live.
Whether he ever patched things up with animated troublemaker Bartholomew J. Simpson remains in question. The two had it out on Evergreen Terrace in “Two Bad Neighbors,” an episode of The Simpsons in which all hell breaks loose once retiree Bush moves next door to the chaotic cartoon family.
For a while he captured the imagination of the hosiery-obsessed, rolling up his trousers to show off signature socks celebrated the world over. In 2003 he shaved his head in solidarity with a little boy battling cancer.
Ages after plunging earthward out of necessity, Bush took to leaping from perfectly functioning aircraft for fun. He embraced skydiving as the preferred way to mark his last four milestone birthdays (75th, 80th, 85th and 90th).
The self-styled daredevil was not, however, entirely superhuman. He was diagnosed in his 80s with a form of Parkinson’s disease that made it increasingly difficult for him to walk. He spent several years in and out of medical facilities; he was hospitalized because of bronchitis for two months in 2012, spent part of Christmas 2014 under observation due to shortness of breath and was treated in early 2015 for a fractured vertebra in his neck caused by a fall.
Bush is survived by his children Jeb, George W., Neil, Marvin, and Dorothy Bush Koch.