George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States and the head of one of the most prominent families in American political history, died Friday at the age of 94.
In a statement released through his son, former President George W. Bush, the family described their patriarch “as a man of the highest character and the best dad a son or daughter could ask for.”
No cause of death was given. Instead the statement simply announced that “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’s wife, Barbara, died in April.
The Bushes had been married for 73 years at the time of her death. Back then, her husband released a statement calling her “the most beloved woman in the world.”
Bush served for eight years as vice president to Ronald Reagan before winning the White House himself, beating Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis by a convincing margin in 1988. In doing so, he became the
first incumbent vice president since Martin Van Buren in 1836 to be elected to the nation’s highest office.
As president, Bush showed considerable deftness and prudence in foreign affairs, leading a broad international alliance to victory in the first Gulf War and helping to ensure order, rather than chaos,
following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But he was undone by a recession, an infamous U-turn on a campaign pledge not to raise taxes and a more nebulous but important perception that he was not in touch
with the challenges faced by the general public.
Former President Clinton thwarted his bid for reelection in 1992, imbuing Bush with the scent of failure that clings to all one-term presidents.
To his supporters, it was an unfair fate for an honorable man. Bush’s modesty, sense of propriety and reluctance to articulate any grandiose sense of what he disdainfully called “the vision thing” made
him an uneasy fit for modern political culture.
The era in which Bush came of age was very different. He was born in Massachusetts in 1924. His father, Prescott Bush, was a successful businessman and banker who went on to represent Connecticut in the
Senate. The future president and his four siblings were closer to their mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, than to the forbidding Prescott Bush. But Dorothy Walker Bush cautioned them against any hint of hubris, rebuking any such tendencies with the phrase, “We’ve heard enough of ‘the Great I Am.’” Shortly after the United States joined the Second World War, George H.W. Bush enlisted in the Navy. He became its youngest pilot.
His war record belies the charge of wimpishness that was sometimes leveled against him as he rose up the political ladder. Bush was shot down over the Pacific in 1944. Two comrades were killed.
He was picked up by an American submarine and, once he recovered from his injuries, returned to combat duties.
In early 1945, he married the former Barbara Pierce. The couple remained together for the rest of her life. In the years after the war, Bush earned an economics degree from Yale and, declining to join his father’s business, built up his own career in the Texas oilfields.
His first moves toward elected office came in the early 1960s. He became chairman of the local Republican Party in the Houston area in 1962. Two years later, he failed in his effort to wrest a Senate seat away from Democrat Ralph Yarborough. He won election to the House in 1966 and served two terms. Another Senate bid, in 1970, again ended in failure. He was then appointed as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations by former President Nixon.
The next few years brought more high-profile appointments. He was head of the Republican National Committee in 1973 and 1974, as the Watergate scandal reached its climax; he served as a quasi-ambassador
to China at a time when the two nations did not have full diplomatic relations; and he became director of the CIA in the waning days of former President Ford’s administration.
Bush contested the Republican presidential primary in 1980, deriding Reagan as “as far to the right as you can get.” More famously, he called Reagan’s enthusiasm for supply-side, trickle-down theories
After his own bid faded, however, Bush was added by Reagan as his vice presidential running mate. In office, Bush served with an acute sense of loyalty, never publicly expressing differences of opinion with the
The link with Reagan would prove a mixed blessing for Bush. The prominence of his office enabled him to see off other challengers for the GOP presidential nomination in 1988. In the general election, he benefited from Reagan’s strong approval ratings and a prosperous economy. But questions about the Iran-Contra scandal, which marred Reagan’s second term, continued to dog Bush.
The central machinations involved the United States organizing clandestine arms sales to Iran in order to expedite the release of American hostages. Some of the profits were then funneled to the Contras, several Nicaraguan opposition groups tied to the former regime, who were fighting to overthrow the country’s leftist
Bush later claimed that he had been kept “out of the loop” on the project. But skeptics believed his explanation strained credulity, given that he had attended numerous meetings at which it had been discussed.
No legal wrongdoing on Bush’s part was ever proven, but the reverberations lasted long enough to do him damage.
In the closing days of the 1992 campaign, Bush’s aides felt they were making up ground on Clinton. But in the final week, a prosecutor released a document that cast serious doubt on Bush’s earlier accounts of Iran-Contra. That was enough to put a stop to his momentum. Despite the wounds inflicted during that election campaign, Bush and Clinton went on to develop a close and respectful relationship. In the first decade of this century, they worked together on aid efforts following two natural disasters: the Asian tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
By the time of Katrina, one of Bush’s sons, George W. Bush, was serving his second term as president. The Bushes were only the second father-and-son in history to have held the office, after John Adams and John Quincy Adams.
In 2016, however, a presidential run by another son, Jeb Bush, went nowhere. Jeb Bush had previously served as governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007 but he proved a bad fit for a discontented electorate.
It was a bitter campaign, and the patriarch told The Texas Tribune through a spokesman that he would neither “participate in or comment on the presidential campaign,” after it became apparent that Donald Trump would become the Republican nominee.
However, Bush wrote to Trump, apologizing that he would not be able to attend the 45th president’s inauguration because of health concerns.
George H.W. Bush is survived by five of his children: George W., Jeb, Dorothy, Neil and Marvin. A sixth child, Robin, died of leukemia in 1953 at the age of 3.