By Adam Nagourney
George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States and the father of the 43rd, who steered the nation through a tumultuous period in world affairs but was denied a second term after support for his presidency collapsed under the weight of an economic downturn and his seeming inattention to domestic affairs, died Friday night at his home in Houston. He was 94.
His death, which was announced by his office, came less than eight months after that of his wife of 73 years, Barbara Bush.
Bush entered the White House with one of the most impressive resumes of any president. He had been a two-term congressman from Texas, ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee during Watergate, United States envoy to China, director of the CIA and vice president under Ronald Reagan.
And he achieved what no one had since Martin Van Buren in 1836: winning election to the presidency while serving as vice president. (Van Buren did so in the footsteps of Andrew Jackson.)
A son of wealth and a graduate of Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and of Yale, Bush was schooled in the good manners and graciousness of New England privilege and civic responsibility. He liked to frame his public service as an answer to the call to duty, like the one that had sent him over the Pacific and into enemy fire as a 20-year-old.
Bush’s post-presidency brought talk of a political dynasty. The son of a U.S. senator, Bush saw two of his own sons forge political careers that brought him a measure of redemption after he was ousted as commander in chief. George W. Bush became the first son of a president since John Quincy Adams to follow his father to the White House, but unlike his father, he won re-election.
Another son, Jeb Bush, was twice elected governor of Florida and ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2016.
As the elder Bush watched troubles envelop the eight-year presidency of his son, however, what had been a source of pride, friends said, became a cause of distress. The contrast between the two President Bushes – 41 and 43, as they came to call each other – served to burnish the father’s reputation in later years. As the younger Bush’s popularity fell, the elder Bush’s public standing rose.
It was a subject the elder Bush avoided discussing in public but one he finally addressed in conversations with Jon Meacham, his biographer, in a book released by Random House in 2015. Bush blamed men who had long been part of his own life and who were later figures in his son’s orbit.
“I do worry about some of the rhetoric that was out there – some of it his, maybe, and some of it the people around him,” Bush said in the book, “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.”
In 2016, Bush and his sons did not attend the Republican National Convention that nominated Donald Trump as its presidential candidate, and he pointedly did not endorse Trump in his race against Hillary Clinton.
After his loss in 1992 to Bill Clinton in an election in which the independent candidate Ross Perot won almost a fifth of the vote – a loss that left him dispirited and humiliated, by his own account – the elder Bush and his wife, Barbara, repaired to their home in Houston and to their oceanfront compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. But he did not quite retire.
“George H.W. Bush was the best one-term president the country has ever had, and one of the most underrated presidents of all time,” James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state and Bush’s closest adviser for nearly 50 years, said in an interview in 2013. “I think history is going to treat him very well.”
In his first year at the White House, Bush sent troops into Panama to oust its strongman, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. The rapid, relatively bloodless conclusion of the Persian Gulf War of 1991 earned him a three-minute standing ovation and shouts of “Bush! Bush!” when he addressed a joint session of Congress that March. Foreign policy successes were the hallmark of his presidency.
Not so his domestic record.
By the midpoint of his term, leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties complained that in the midst of the worst economy any U.S. president had faced since the end of World War II, Bush had no domestic agenda. Many questioned his sensitivity to the worries of ordinary Americans.
His signal domestic decision was almost certainly the 1990 budget deal, which sought to address deepening deficits by raising taxes on the wealthy. If it helped put the nation back on solid financial footing, it nevertheless reversed one of the most explicit campaign pledges ever uttered by a major-party presidential candidate: “Read my lips: No new taxes.”
Bush was given to malapropisms, a trait he may have handed down to his son George. He tangled his sentences, particularly when he was nervous. And he supplied a stream of entries into the American political lexicon. He talked about the “Big Mo” to describe the momentum that a victory in the Iowa caucuses had given his campaign; tough moments were “tension city”; in asking voters not to pity him, he plucked a line from the musical “Evita,” saying, “Don’t cry for me, Argentina.”
His speeches were delivered with a nasal voice and clipped cadence that invited parody. Comedian Dana Carvey made his Bush imitation a staple of “Saturday Night Live.” (“Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.”)
Rarely did Bush display the kind of emotional acuity that could move an audience. Yet for all these moments, Bush could exhibit a gracious charm and authenticity. He was that rare figure in Washington: a man without enemies – or with very few, at any rate.
Besides his sons George and Jeb, Bush is survived by two other sons, Neil and Marvin; his daughter, Dorothy Bush Koch; a brother, Jonathan; a sister, Nancy Walker Bush Ellis; 17 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. Another daughter, Robin, died of leukemia at age 3 in 1953. His older brother, Prescott S. Bush Jr., died in 2010 at 87, and his younger brother, William, died in March at 79.
George Herbert Walker Bush – he was named after his mother’s father, George Herbert Walker – was born on June 12, 1924, the second of five children, in Milton, Massachusetts, outside Boston.
His family moved soon after to Greenwich. His father, besides his two terms in the U.S. Senate, was a banker who commuted to Wall Street as a managing partner at Brown Bros. Harriman, the white-shoe investment firm. His mother, the former Dorothy Walker, was a native of Maine. It was she who gave George his nickname, Poppy, when he was a toddler.
The children grew up sheltered from the Depression, tended to by maids and a driver. George enrolled at Greenwich Country Day School and Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. They spent summers in Kennebunkport.
If his father set the tone for Bush’s career, his mother shaped his values. His daughter, Koch, wrote in a memoir that he had been admonished to eschew self-promotion. “‘Nobody likes the big I am, George,’ my grandmother would say to him,” Koch wrote.
Six months before he graduated from Phillips Academy, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. “I could hardly wait to get out of school and enlist,” he wrote years later.
In September 1944, on a bombing run from the aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto, his plane was hit near the island of Chichi Jima by anti-aircraft guns.
Two men on the plane died in the attack. Bush hit his head bailing out, he said, but landed safely in the ocean. He floated on a raft for hours, “violently sick to my stomach,” until a submarine rescued him. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.
He returned home on Christmas Eve 1944. Days later, he married a young woman he had met at a dance three years earlier: Barbara Pierce, the daughter of Marvin Pierce, the publisher of Redbook and McCall’s magazines.
After graduating from Yale in 1948 with a degree in economics, Bush drove to Odessa, Texas. A wealthy family friend, Henry Neil Mallon, gave him an entry-level job at his Texas oil company, landing him in a state that he barely knew but that would become a part of his political identity.
In February 1966, Bush ran for Congress in a wealthy Houston district. Bush won handily, with 67 percent of the vote.
Twice defeated as a Senate candidate, and with his term in the House about to expire, Bush was looking for work. He was soon summoned to the White House, where H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, talked to him about a White House staff job. Bush, however, wanted to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Nixon agreed.
In 1972, after the break-ins at the Democratic Party offices at the Watergate Hotel, Nixon had a more urgent need for Bush: to lead the Republican National Committee. He took the job, he wrote, certain of Nixon’s innocence in the scandal, and he defended Nixon, though it was not easy.
After Nixon resigned, ceding the presidency to Vice President Gerald R. Ford, Bush hoped to fill the vice president’s office. Ford called him in Kennebunkport two weeks later to tell him that he had chosen former Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York for the job.
Ford lost the subsequent election to Jimmy Carter, and Bush returned to Texas. He turned his sights to running for president in 1980.
He succeeded in Iowa, but then lost in New Hampshire, and by May the party was coalescing around Ronald Reagan.
Bush decided on a new goal: to become vice president. That November, the Reagan-Bush ticket won in a landslide and Bush offered the new president his fealty.
He tied himself ever more tightly to Reagan by presenting himself as the rightful heir to his party’s presidential nomination in 1988.
Bush came in third in the Iowa caucuses, behind Dole and the evangelical preacher Pat Robertson. It was an embarrassment for a vice president in office and the presumed heir to the nomination.
Stung, Bush turned his hopes to New Hampshire, where his campaign was being run by Gov. John H. Sununu.
Sununu advised him to counter his image as a man of privilege. Soon the president was campaigning in a windbreaker, pumping hands at factory gates and, at one point, leaping from his motorcade to help a driver stuck in a snowbank.
By the spring, Bush had pivoted toward the Democratic field, where Michael Dukakis had emerged as the party’s choice. The Bush camp decided to portray Dukakis as a Massachusetts liberal.
His victory, on Nov. 8, was convincing: He won 40 states and 54 percent of the popular vote, to Dukakis’ 46 percent. The next day, Bush assured reporters that they would never again see the candidate some had begun calling George the Ripper.
The Bush White House
In his Inaugural Address, Bush pledged “to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.” He talked about a “thousand points of light,” a reference to community and charitable groups, “spread like stars throughout the nation.” But he soon met obstacles to that lofty ambition – some political, some economic, some of his own doing and some beyond his control.
In the spring, the Bush presidency turned to foreign affairs, where it stayed for much of the next two years. In Panama, Manuel Noriega claimed victory in an election in May that independent observers said had been stained with fraud. Bush declared the election stolen and called for international pressure to make the Panamanian strongman step aside. It would take almost eight months to accomplish that goal.
The Soviet bloc was in even greater upheaval. Mikhail Gorbachev, who had come to power in 1985, had begun a campaign for economic and democratic change, shaking the foundations of communism across Eastern Europe. Bush found himself under pressure to respond with equal boldness.
Through all of this, Bush, trying to establish a presidential identity distinct from Reagan’s, was moving away from his predecessor’s policies. He slowed spending on the missile defense shield and the Strategic Defense Initiative (known as Star Wars), and delayed production of the Stealth bomber. He proposed a tougher Clean Air Act to curb major sources of hazardous air pollution, including emissions from coal-burning power plants.
Bush also negotiated and signed the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act, largely fulfilling a 1988 campaign pledge. Nearly 3,000 people, many in wheelchairs, attended the White House signing. “Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down,” he said.
Supporters of the bill called it the most significant piece of civil rights legislation in two decades.
War in the Persian Gulf
In the early hours of Aug. 2, 1990, Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein rumbled into Kuwait and seized its oil fields. In an address to the nation a few days later, Bush signaled that the United States was prepared to respond with force. “This will not stand,” he said.
The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution at the end of November authorizing the use of force against Iraq if it did not leave Kuwait by Jan. 15, 1991. It did not.
At 3 a.m. in Iraq on Jan. 16, after a midnight deadline had passed without an Iraqi withdrawal, Bush ordered airstrikes; waves of bombers and cruise missiles hit Baghdad, and targets elsewhere in Iraq and in Kuwait.
“Our goal is not the conquest of Iraq, it is the liberation of Kuwait,” Bush said in a televised address.
When it came, the ground war lasted almost exactly 100 hours, with minimal American casualties. Encircled, the Iraqi army surrendered. Bush called a cease-fire, even though it allowed members of the Republican Guard, an elite Iraqi unit, to escape and even though it left Saddam in power.
Bush would be called to defend that decision time and again, saying that he had been convinced that Saddam would be overthrown once the war ended. “We underestimated his brutality and cruelty to his own people and the stranglehold he has on his country,” Bush wrote in February 1991, years before Saddam was actually ousted. “We were disappointed, but I still do not regret my decision to end the war when we did.”
The 1992 election was still more than a year away, but Bush was considering his prospects for a second term when he took note of a governor who sought to run against him. “The stories keep saying I will be very hard to beat: The more we hear of this, the more worried I become,” he wrote in his diary. “Bill Clinton, a very nice man, may get into the race.”
An Economy ‘in Free Fall’
Bush’s 12-day trip to the Far East opened the last full year of his presidency. The White House presented the trip, six weeks before the New Hampshire primary, as an effort to open export markets. Instead, it produced what Bush saw as one of the most damaging moments of his time in office.
At a state dinner in Tokyo hosted by Kiichi Miyazawa, the Japanese prime minister, Bush turned white, vomited on his host and fainted. Miyazawa cradled Bush’s head as the president crumpled to the floor, an unsettling image that dominated the news for days.
Bush came home to a bleak domestic picture. Unemployment was at 7.1 percent, the highest level in six years. A New York Times/CBS News opinion poll found that just one-fifth of Americans thought Bush cared about their problems. When Bush visited New Hampshire in mid-January, his anxiety was evident the moment he stepped off Air Force One.
“I probably have made mistakes in assessing the fact that the economy would recover,” he said. “I think I’ve known, look, this economy is in free fall. I hope I’ve known it. Maybe I haven’t conveyed it as well as I should have, but I do understand it.”
There was little respite for Bush as he prepared for the nominating convention in Houston. At that point, he had to deal with the prospect of a third-party challenge from Perot. Bush shrugged off the threat at first.
But Perot had captured the public’s imagination. He presented himself as the symbol of change and did not play by the rules of traditional politics.
The Final Election
Bush remained ostensibly confident. “I can make it; I can out hustle Clinton; out work him; out jog him; out campaign him; and we’ll win,” he wrote in his diary. But on Nov. 3, Clinton defeated
Bush, 43 percent to 37 percent, with Perot drawing almost 19 percent. Bush believed he would have won were it not for Perot, Baker said.
Bush spent the rest of his life as more of an observer than a player. His public profile dropped as criticism of his son’s presidency mounted, and there were reports that foreign policy advisers to the elder Bush had counseled against the war in Iraq that so troubled George W. Bush’s presidency.
Bush was never a man comfortable with self-examination, but in an interview with Meacham, his biographer, he evinced some insecurity about how history might judge him. “I am lost between the glory of Reagan – monuments everywhere, trumpets, the great hero – and the trials and tribulations of my sons,” Bush said.
But the 41st president may have best summed up his talents and ambitions in a diary entry on the last day of 1989, as the first year of his presidency drew to a close.
“I’m certainly not seen as visionary,” Bush wrote. “But I hope I’m seen as steady and prudent and able.”