HOUSTON — George Herbert Walker Bush, the president who managed the end of the Cold War and forged a global coalition to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait, has died at age 94. In a political career that spanned three decades, he lost his bid for re-election and lived to see his son win the Oval Office.
The death of Bush — nicknamed “41” to distinguish himself from son George W. Bush, “43” — was announced in a statement released late Friday.
“Jeb, Neil, Marvin, Doro and I are saddened to announce that after 94 remarkable years, our dear Dad has died,” his son, former President George W. Bush, said in a statement released by family spokesman Jim McGrath. “George H.W. Bush was a man of the highest character and the best dad a son or daughter could ask for. 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 death comes months after the passing of his wife of 73 years, Barbara. The former first lady died in April.
Bush bristled at the term “dynasty,” but his family defined the term. He was the son of a senator, Prescott Bush of Connecticut, and the father of Jeb Bush, the two-term governor of Florida, and George W. Bush, the two-term governor of Texas who went on to win two terms as president. Only the founding Adams family, John and John Quincy, can also claim both father and son as presidents.
The elder Bush entered the Oval Office with the longest political resume of any president in modern times: congressman. United Nations ambassador. Republican national chairman. U.S. liaison to China. Director of the CIA. When he lost the GOP presidential nomination in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, the former California governor and primary foe offered him the vice presidency, a role he filled for eight years before winning the top job himself in 1988 over Democrat Michael Dukakis.
But Bush’s bid for a second term in 1992 was rebuffed by voters who weren’t convinced he understood the economic anxieties in their lives, choosing Bill Clinton instead.
George Bush moved home to Houston, where he and wife Barbara became familiar figures at Astros games, local restaurants and fundraising galas for cancer research, literacy and other favored causes. He oversaw the building of the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the grounds of Texas A&M, in College Station. And he determinedly rejected efforts to analyze his role in history, declining even to write the sort of memoir that has become the lucrative last word for past presidents.
“I don’t want anyone to pay attention to me,” he said in an interview with USA TODAY in 1997, a few days after he parachuted out of an airplane, just to prove that, at age 73, he could. “I’m confident that historians from one perspective or another are going to write and say what they think and then there’ll be a merge of a judgment of our administration.”
He added with a smile: “I think history’s going to be relatively kind.”
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss agreed.
“Especially after his presidency, Bush came to be seen as a real human being and, instinctively, Americans felt good about him,” he said.
The coarsening of the American political debate and the fierce polarization of Washington in recent years has created among some a nostalgia for the Bush era. His presidential campaigns were hard-fought and sometimes negative, but it was still a time when bipartisanship wasn’t seen as a distant memory. In recent years, the rise of Donald Trump tested Bush’s lifelong allegiance to the Republican Party: In 2016, he cast his presidential ballot for Hillary Clinton.
—————— Man in a hurry
Bush was born in Milton, Mass., on June 12, 1924, into a family of entitlement, energy and public service. His mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, was a particular force throughout his life. Barbara Bush once called her mother-in-law the most competitive person she had ever met, albeit one who warned her brood against bragging about themselves.
On the day he turned 18 years old, Bush both graduated from Phillips Academy Andover and enlisted in the Navy, little more than six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Less than a year later, when he was still 18, he received his wings and officer’s commission, believed to be the Navy’s youngest pilot.
For the next two years, with World War II at its peak, Bush flew torpedo bombers off the USS San Jacinto. On Sept. 2, 1944, his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire while he was on a bombing run in the Pacific. Bush bailed and was rescued by a submarine, but his two crewmembers were killed. Bush would later say he thought of them every day.
After the war, Bush was a man in a hurry. He married Barbara Pierce in 1945 and graduated in 1948 with a degree in economics from Yale, where he was also captain of the baseball team. He and Bar and son Georgie, then a toddler, moved to the Oil Patch in Odessa, Texas, to seek his fortune. He started as a salesman of oil field equipment for a company owned by a friend of his father, then ultimately founded an oil company of his own.
They would have six children in all: George, Robin, Jeb, Neil, Marvin and Doro. Robin died at age 3 of leukemia, a loss that would reverberate through their lives. Decades later, her portrait was still hanging in a corner of her parents’ living room. Barbara Bush died at their Houston home on April 17 after a long battle with congestive heart failure. Her husband of 73 years, the longest presidential marriage in history, was holding her hand.
Bush had first gotten involved in politics as chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, in Houston. He lost his first political campaign, for a Senate seat in 1964, but he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1966. He was re-elected two years later and then lost a second campaign for the Senate in 1970.
President Richard Nixon appointed Bush ambassador to the United Nations and then drafted him to chair the Republican National Committee during the Watergate scandal, a mostly thankless task. After Nixon resigned from office, President Gerald Ford named Bush chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in China and then director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
In 1980, with some reluctance after a tough primary campaign, Ronald Reagan selected Bush to be his running mate. After eight years as vice president, he won the job he had long wanted.
Bush was not Reagan, especially when it came to public affection and communications skills. But his background in national security and his relationships with foreign leaders – forged during his tenure at the UN and the CIA and in China – prepared him for dealing with a world that was teetering on the precipice of dramatic change. A year after he was elected, on Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Then the Soviet Union unraveled and its former satellites embraced democratic revolutions.
“He’ll be admired for ending the Cold War on terms that Americans never could have dreamt possible for the 45 years of the Cold War,” Beschloss says. “It would not have happened if George Bush hadn’t been there….He formed a relationship with (Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev of trust that encouraged Gorbachev to give up a lot of concessions.”
There would be other foreign crises: a famine in Somalia, the seizure of Panama’s corrupt leader Manuel Noriega and the Gulf War. The ultimate test of Bush’s foreign-policy leadership came after Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. Three days later, returning from Camp David, Bush told reporters waiting for him on the South Lawn: “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.”
Bush agonized over his decision to send American troops into combat. “I shall say a few more prayers, mainly for our kids in the Gulf, and I shall do what must be done,” he wrote in a letter to his children on Dec. 30, 1990.