George H.W. Bush, President And War Hero, Dies At 94
The elder Bush was the 41st president of the United States and father to the 43rd president.
HOUSTON, TX — President George Herbert Walker Bush, who followed Ronald Reagan to the White House as the nation’s 41st president but joined the ranks of White House one-termers when he ran into the political force of Bill Clinton, died Friday. He served as president from 1989-1992 and died at age 94.
Bush died shortly after 10 p.m. Friday, about eight months after the death of his wife, Barbara Bush, family spokesman Jim McGrath confirmed.
Sandwiched between the Reagan and Clinton administrations, Bush’s presidency would have been largely unremarkable except for his leadership in the war to push Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991.
He felt the wrath of his own Republican Party as he sought re-election for having reneged on a campaign promise that became one of the most remembered lines in history. “Read my lips,” he had told enthusiastic crowds in envisioning his response should Congress ask for increased spending. “No new taxes.”
Like the one-term president before him, though, Jimmy Carter, Bush enjoyed increased popularity in the years after leaving office, in part because of his humanitarian and charity work. A common school of thought took root: Say what you will about the politics of Carter or Bush, but they both proved to be genuinely decent men.
The patriarch of formidable political family, Bush was the first president since John Adams whose son and namesake, George W. Bush, would later became president after having served as governor of Texas from 1995-2000. His son John “Jeb” Bush was governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, and ran unsuccessfully for president in 2016.
He is also survived by two other sons, Marvin and Neil; and a daughter, Dorothy Bush Koch. He was preceded in death by his wife, Barbara, who died in April 2018, and a daughter, Pauline (Robin), who died of leukemia before her fourth birthday.
Before his death, he was the oldest living former president and vice president. After his namesake son ascended to the presidency in 2000, Bush was referred to in the nomenclature as “Bush 41” to distinguish from the younger Bush, often referred to simply as “W” in reference to his middle initial.
The family released a statement Friday night.
“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.”
Bush, the first sitting vice president since Martin Van Buren to be elected to the presidency, had a long history of domestic and foreign service. A World War II naval aviator and war hero who flew 58 combat missions, he served two terms in Congress beginning in 1967, and was a former Republican National Chairman, ambassador to China, chief of the U. S. Liaison Office in the People’s Republic of China and director of the CIA. He ran for president in 1980, losing the Republican Party’s nomination to Ronald Reagan, who chose him as his running mate. Bush served two terms as Reagan’s vice president, then won the presidency in 1988.
During his vice presidential stint, Bush was perhaps best known for taking the reins on the “War on Drugs” and also busied himself on various task forces centered on deregulation.
Bush ran against Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts, for the U.S. presidency after Reagan’s two terms, winning both the popular and Electoral College vote in trouncing his opponent. Bush secured 53.4 percent of the popular vote to Dukakis’ 45.6, and a whopping 426 electoral votes versus 111 secured by his Democratic rival.
But his win didn’t come devoid of controversy. During a heated campaign, the Bush camp pulled out all the stops in invoking reference to William R. “Willie” Horton, a convicted felon who benefited from a Massachusetts weekend furlough program while serving a life sentence for murder. Horton failed to return from his furlough, ultimately committing armed robbery, assault and rape while out on the streets.
In what became known as the “Willie Horton ad,” a campaign blaming Dukakis for the Horton fiasco proved an effective tactic for the Bush camp. While Dukakis hadn’t personally started the furlough program, he had expressed support for the initiative as a rehabilitation method. But the mugshot of the hardened Horton, an African American, portrayed as a menacing metaphorical threat was roundly criticized as tinged with racist undertones. To this day, that tactic is believed by many to have ushered in the no-holds barred campaign tactics of today’s politics.
Once elected, Bush secured a unique perch to two of the most transformative events of the 20th century, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by the fall of the Soviet Union two years later. The two events happening under his watch were apt given that the Bush presidency was defined by foreign policy, chiefly military operations.
As commander in chief of the military, Bush was at his strongest, skillfully managing growing geopolitical conflicts. He ordered the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to stop then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s aggressive actions to take control of Kuwait’s rich oil fields, action that, if successful, would wreak havoc over U.S. energy policy and oil prices. He put together a coalition of allies in the Persian Gulf War in a strike that had been code-named Operation Desert Storm.
In 1989, he ordered the invasion of Panama to overthrow dictator Manuel Noriega, who had been indicted on drug trafficking charges in the United States, and who had been accused of suppressing democracy. And in what was the second-largest military operation of his presidency and during its final days, he ordered 28,000 American troops to protect the relief efforts and bring food to starving Somalis in drought-stricken northern Africa .
Bush amassed an impressive record in diplomacy and is credited with thawing relations with traditionally hostile Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of a bitter, 40-year Cold War. With then-Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, he signed the START-I treaty, which required both countries to reduce their arsenal of nuclear warheads. In the last weeks of his presidency, he and Gorbachev’s successor, Boris Yeltsin, proposed additional reductions in strategic nuclear arms.
A moderate Republican on domestic issues, and perhaps even liberal by today’s standards, he promised in his 1989 inaugural address to make America a “kinder and gentler nation,” calling community volunteers “a thousand points of light.” In his first year as president, he established the Points of Light Foundation, which has since grown into the world’s largest nonprofit group dedicated to volunteer service. Since 1989, more than 25 million Americans have embraced volunteer service
President Barack Obama praised the former president in 2013 as the two bestowed the 5,000th Point of Light Award, noting the “country is a better and stronger force for good” because of Bush, who established the first White House office dedicated to volunteer service and signed the National and Community Service act with “little fanfare,” Obama said.
“I am one of millions of people who have been inspired by your passion and your commitment,” Obama told the former president.
During his presidency, Bush signed two important pieces of civil rights legislation — the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which made it easier for employees to sue their employers on the grounds of discrimination. He also signed the Clean Air Act of 1990, which tightened air pollution standards to reduce urban smog and acid rain and eliminate industrial emissions of toxic chemicals by the end of the 20th century.
Against a backdrop of weak recovery after an economic recession ushered in during the Reagan years, Bush signed a $140 billion increase in taxes passed by Congress.
Bush changed his mind on another issue, too. In 1989, he made permanent a temporary ban on semi-automatic rifles, drawing the ire of the powerful National Rifle Association. He was prodded to do so by William J. Bennett, the federal drug czar at the time, who argued they were the preferred weapons of drug dealers and street gangs.
Ultimately, it was his domestic policies that proved to be the undoing of his presidency. Voters never forgave him for raising taxes, or for a staunch pro-life position that appealed to the growing evangelical presence in the Republican Party. He lost Republican votes to independent Ross Perot, though historians are divided on whether Perot’s upstart candidacy cost him the election. Ultimately, voters turned to Clinton, then a youthful Arkansas governor, and his equally youthful running mate, Al Gore.
In a surprisingly ironic twist of fate, Bush would later team up with his old political rival Clinton in various humanitarian activities during the post-presidential periods of both men. They forged what became a remarkable friendship when both were tapped to lead humanitarian relief efforts after an Asian tsunami in 2005 and later that year to raise money for Hurricane Katrina victims. Those natural disasters would be the first of several in which the two former presidents would team in humanitarian relief efforts.
Bush was born in Milton, Massachusetts, on June 12, 1924, to Prescott Sheldon Bush and Dorothy Walker Bush, he attended Phillips Academy in Andover, where he was a student leader, and enlisted in the armed forces on his 18th birthday, becoming the youngest pilot in the Navy to receive his wings.
True to form for members of that generation, Bush didn’t dwell on his military service for political gain. However, remarkable, grainy footage of the torpedo bomber pilot being rescued from the ocean after his plane was shot down over the Pacific proved a powerful bit of imagery in encapsulating the man’s service to his country.
While still in the Navy, he married Barbara Pierce, whom he had met at a country club dance in Greenwich, Connecticut. Their love affair and long marriage endeared them to millions of Americans whose fascination with the couple has never waned. During his recent bouts with pneumonia, photos shared on social media illustrated their devotion, with Mrs. Bush at his side with each hospitalization.
On the Today Show in 2011, the two shared some of the love letters each penned throughout the course of their 72-year marriage — from the earliest blossoms of romance to the mutual devotion of their twilight years.
“Will you marry me?” one 1994 letter from the former president read. “Oops, I forgot you did that 49 years ago today. I was very happy on that day in 1945. I’m even happier today,'” Bush said on the broadcast as he read from the note. “You’ve given me joy that few men know. I’ve climbed perhaps the highest mountain in the world, but even that cannot hold a candle to being Barbara’s husband.”
Reacting to his reading of that letter, the former first lady said the palpable passion of those letters hasn’t waned. “I love him that much,” she said.
After his discharge from the Navy in September 1945, Bush enrolled in Yale University, where he played baseball and eventually became the captain of the team. He was known there by his childhood nickname of Poppy, the name his granddaughter Jenna Bush Hager gave her daughter.
After his 1948 graduation from Yale, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the exclusive secret Skull and Bones Society, he moved his family to West Texas, intent on becoming a wildcatter amid an oil industry that was yielding overnight millionaires at the time.
Bush had success in those Texas oil fields, becoming a millionaire by the time he was 40. With businessman Hugh Liedtke, he formed Midland, Texas-based Zapata Oil in 1953, the name chosen after both had seen the film “Viva Zapata” starring Marlon Brando.
As an oilman, Bush had a penchant for high-risk drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, a tactic yielding great success. By around 1959, he cut ties with Liedtke who would later form Pennzoil Corp. of Houston.
By 1995, Bush quit the oil patch in a move that surprised financial analysts and observers alike, as the New York Times reported at the time. The announcement made after the close of the stock market came after Zapata stock had jumped by 6 percent on the day. A Zapata Oil spokesman explained the decision to sell the company was “based on the belief that business outside the energy industry may provide better opportunities.”
While the divestment was a surprise, Bush hadn’t been involved in the company for several years as he pursued a political path. Like his father, a U.S. senator in Connecticut in 1952, he yearned for political service and had become involved in politics soon after founding his oil company. He served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for two terms after a pair of unsuccessful bids for the Senate.
Until his recent illness, Bush remained active, making seven skydiving trips, including one on his 85th birthday. In June 2016, he skippered a 38-foot speedboat that carried 40 wounded veterans from the invasions of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan on a fishing trip known as “Fishing for Freedom.” Putting action behind his words, President and Mrs. Bush volunteered at their local church and served on various local boards as they split time between Houston and Kennebunkport, Maine, where the Bush family also maintains a residence.
The former president and his beloved Barbara opened the 2017 Super Bowl at NRG Stadium in Houston with an emotional coin toss a week after he was released from the hospital following his first bout with pneumonia. A military serviceman rolled the former president’s wheelchair to centerfield. Mrs. Bush was at his side in a golf cart.
The sight of them together after both had been ill brought spectators to their feet in rousing non-partisan fashion, and indeed kinder and gentler after a bitterly partisan presidential election, and once again held George and Barbara Bush in their hearts as America’s first couple.