George HW Bush obituary: A steady and prudent president

Foreign policy successes were his hallmark but domestic record was his undoing

US president George Bush in 1992. Photograph: Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images

US president George Bush in 1992. Photograph: Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images

 

Born: June 12, 1924

Died: November 30th, 2018

George HW 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 on 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 CVs 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 US 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.

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.

Loss to 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 ocean-front compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. But he did not quite retire.

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 US president had faced since the end of the second World War, Bush had no domestic agenda. Many questioned his sensitivity to the worries of ordinary Americans.

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.

George Herbert Walker Bush – he was named after his mother’s father, George Herbert Walker – was born on June 12th, 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 Senate, was a banker who commuted to Wall Street as a managing partner at Brown Brothers Harriman, a 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.

Pearl Harbor

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 Chichijima 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 per cent 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 HR Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, talked to him about a White House staff job. Bush, however, wanted to be the US 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.

Vice-presidency

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 governor 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 but settled for the vice-presidency under Ronald Reagan.

He ran in 1988 and won 40 states with 54 per cent of the popular vote.

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 early hours of August 2nd, 1990, Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein rumbled into Kuwait and seized its oilfields. In an address to the nation a few days later, Bush signalled that the United States was prepared to respond with force. “This will not stand,” he said.

When it came, the ground war lasted almost exactly 100 hours, with minimal American casualties. Encircled, the Iraqi army surrendered. Bush called a ceasefire, 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.”

Low profile

After his loss in 1992 Bush became more of a 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 counselled 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.”

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 leukaemia at age three in 1953. His older brother, Prescott S Bush jnr, died in 2010 at 87, and his younger brother, William, died in March at 79.