By Miriam Raftery
Photo: Former President George H.W. Bush and his late wife, Barbara, U.S. Defense Dept.
December 1, 2018 (Houston) – George Herbert Walker Bush, the oldest living former president in U.S. history, died yesterday at his home in Houston at age 94.
The Republican president led the nation through globally turbulent times that included the fall of the Berlin Wall, breakup of the Soviet Union leaving the U.S. as the only global superpower, an end to the cold war nuclear threat, and military success in the short-lived Persian Gulf War. Controversies of his presidency included a military invasion of Panama, a taxpayer bail-out of the failed savings and loan industry, and the pardoning of key figures in the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan administration.
President Trump has declared Wednesday, December 5th a national day of mourning and announced that a state funeral will be held; flags have been ordered flown at half mast for a month at the White House and at federal facilities worldwide. Most federal agencies will be closed Wedneday, though some related to national security will remain open.
Trump once criticized Bush for promising a "kinder, gentler America," stating in a 1990 magazine interview, "I think if this ocuntry gets any kinder or gentler, it's literally going to cease to exist."
But as President, Bush put his “kinder, gentler America” pledge into practice in several ways. He signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law to give civil rights to the disabled. Despite critics who said it would be too costly, he said upon signing, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion come tumbling down.”
In 1990, he signed a landmark Immigration Act that increased immigration to allow 700,000 immigrants into the U.S. each year from 1992-94 and 675,000 annually after that. The Act also made family reunification a priority. It also designated a portion as job-based and skill-based immigration visas. On signing, Bush said the bill, “accomplishes what this Administration sought from the outset of the immigration reform process: a complementary blending of our tradition of family reunification with increased immigration of skilled individuals to meet our economic needs."
He promoted a “Thousand Points of Light” program and charity recognizing good works done by ordinary citizens to help others. He also signed a strengthened Clean Air Act into law, sent troops to Somalia to help starving Africans during a famine. After leaving the presidency, he teamed up with former president Bill Clinton to raise billions of dollars for victims of a tsunami in Asia and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
A decorated World War II combat pilot and war hero (photo, right, National Archive) and graduate of Yale University, Bush also served as Vice President under Ronald Reagan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, oil company founder, ambassador to the United Nations, Congressman, and chairman of the Republican National Committee during the twilight of the Nixon administration during Watergate.
His political views evolved through the years, but he is most remembered as a statesman who presided over the end of the Cold War and who halted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s effort to invade Kuwait by organizing a United Nations led coalition of 30 countries in a military victory that came after just 100 hours, resisting calls from some to depose Hussein because it would exceed the mission authorized by the U.N. and “would have incurred incalculable human and political costs.” His statement proved prophetic; Bush’s son, George W. Bush, the 43rd president, later did authorize America to invade Iraq after the 9/11 attacks based on inaccurate claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, an action that caused many deaths of U.S. service members as well as Iraqi civilians.
In stark contrast to the current administration, Bush articulated American ideals that were inclusive and denounced the politics of racism. In 1990 he proclaimed a “new world order” that he envisioned would be “free from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice and more secure in the quest for peace—a world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak.”
In 1987, he argued for racial tolerance before the National Religious Broadcasters, stating, “We must let our children know hatred has no place in America. The Ku Klux Klan is am embarrassment to Christ, whose gospel is love, and an embarrassment to our nation, whose gospel is freedom.” Later in 2017, Bush condemned violence at the “Unite the Right” rally.
The pilot who once bombed the Japanese during World War II later signed into law as president financial reparations to Japanese-Americans interned during the war, providing $20,000 to each survivor, and later had meetings with Japan’s prime minister that led to a Japanese apology for the attack on Pearl Harbor, seeking to help heal old wounds in U.S.-Japanese relations.
He at times drew criticism from both left and right, enjoying nearly a 90% approval rating after the Gulf War victory that eroded to just 29% by the time he sought reelection, when the economy had fallen into a recession. Breaking a “no new taxes” campaign pledge, he approved a budget that would address the nation’s deficit without massive cuts in social programs or military spending, That decision is likely what cost him reelection; he was defeated by Bill Clinton who ran on a platform of rebuilding the economy and who connected with blue collar working Americans, while Bush was perceived as out of touch with their struggles.
Some also criticized his administration for promoting the oil industry in which he had made his fortune and favoring oil-rich nations in foreign policy decisions and domestic policies such as regarding solar.
The savings and loan industry collapse also proved an embarrassment for the Bush administration, with the President’s own brother, Neil, fined by federal regulators for his role in a failed S&L that he owned. More than 700 savings and loans failed or were shut down, due largely to deregulation policies implemented during the Reagan administration with taxpayers footing a hefty bailout bill. Financial reforms were implemented in 1989 to protect taxpayers and investors in the future, though key reforms were later repealed under a future Republican-controlled Congress.
Bush drew ire from conservatives, but also drew criticism from moderates and liberals for shifting to more conservative stances on abortion during his political career and for spearheading an invasion of Panama that led to imprisonment of Manuel Noriega, a dictator once backed by the CIA who was later convicted of drug operations.
As president he stood for conservative economic and social values with a generally pro-business stance. He negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada that was later adopted under the Clinton administration. Some of his key appintees including Dick Cheney as defense secretary and General Colin Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff proved influential in the Persian Gulf crisis and Panama situation.
He met with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who sought to reform the Soviet Union through openness and economic reforms, also allowing satellite Soviet nations in eastern Europe to break off from the Soviet Union and declare independence. He negotiated the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I ) with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to defuse the nuclear arms race and reduce nuclear weaponry in both nations.
At times he stood up on principal on issues even at risk of political backlash. A lifetime member of the National Rifle Association who generally supported gun rights, in 1995 , then President Bush resigned his membership in protest over NRA leader Wayne LaPierra attacking federal agents as “jack-booted thugs” for actions after the Oklahoma City bombing by a domestic right-wing terrorist. Bush wrote, “…your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decenty and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country.” Bush had previously lost the NRA endorsement after his 1989 temporary ban on importation of certain semiautomatic rifles.
He showed flashes of genuine humanity, such as when he shaved his head in 2013 to support the 2-year-old son of one of his security officers battling leukemia.
As president he appointed Supreme Court justices David Souter, who became a swing vote on the court in later years, and Clarence Thomas, a staunch conservative. But Bush also called for Barack Obama’s liberal appointee Sonia Sotomayor to receive a fair hearing. Two years later, in 2011, President Obama awarded Bush the Presidential Medial of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of his charitable accomplishments.
Born into a privileged family in Massachusetts, son of a Wall street banker and U.S. Senator, Prescott Bush, George H.W. Bush attended prep schools and at age 18, enlisted voluntarily in the U.S. Navy. During a bombing mission against the Japanese, Bush’s aircraft was struck by anti-aircraft fire and the engine caught fire, yet Bush managed to complete the attack with engine ablaze before bailing out along with a crewman who died when a parachute failed to open. An Episcopalian evangelical, Bush reportedly asked, “Why had I been spared and what did God have in store for me?” He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Presidential Unite Citation for his service.
While in the Navy, he married Barbara Pierce, to whom he remained wedded for 73 years until her death earlier this year. Thy were the longest married presidential couple, surpassing the 54 year record set by John and Abigail Adams. Known to family as "Poppy," George H.W. and Barbara had six children, including George W. Bush who became the 43rd president and Jeb Bush, who served as Governor of Florida, and a daughter who died at age 4 of leukemia in a tragedy that left life-long emotional scars.
After his military service he went to Yale University, where he showed early signs of leadership as captain of the baseball team and a fraternity, graduating in 1948 with a bachelor's degree in economics. He and his family moved to Texas, where he began working in the oil industry and eventually started an oil development company as well as co-founding an offshore drilling oil business. He had become a millionaire by the time he was elected to Congress in 1966. He cast a key vote to abolish the draft as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. He later ran for the Senate, but lost.
Nixon appointed Bush to sere as Ambassador to the United Nations in 1971. In 1973, Nixon chose Bush to chair the Republican National Committee, where Bush first defended Nixon but as the Watergate crimes became clear, Bush asked Nixon to resign for the good of the party. President Ford later named bush to head a liaison office to China and in 1976, appointed Bush to head up the Central Intelligence Agency which had previously been rocked by scandals including illegal activities investigated by the Church Committee in Congress. Bush was credited with restoring agency morale but also presided over the agency at a time when Operation Condor was in force, a program spanning several presidencies that officially aimed to block Soviet influences in central and South America but which drew criticism for backing state-sponsored terror including assassinations of political opponents.
In 1980, Bush first ran for president but was defeated in the primary by Ronald Reagan, who later named Bush as his vice presidential running mate. (Photo, Reagan and Bush, National Archive.) Though he’d earlier criticized Reaganomics as “voodoo economics” for its promise to cut taxes, boost defense spending and balance the budget, and positioned himself as a moderate alternative to Reagan’s staunch conservatism, bush later backed Reagan’s economic policies.
Bush served as acting president for eight hours after Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt and underwent surgery, famously refusing to allow the helicopter carrying him back to Washington D.C. to land on the White House lawn, stating, “Only the President lands on the South lawn.” As vice president, he chaired task forces on deregulation and disrupting international drug smuggling. He also cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate to approve the MX missile development.
The Iran-Contra scandal in 1986 shook the Reagan administration when news reports revealed that administration officials had secretly arranged weapon sales to Iran to free hostages in Beirut, then used the money to illegally fund anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua. Bush claimed to be unaware of the funds diversion but his diary suggested, “I’m one of the few people that know fully the details.” Later during his own presidency, Bush pardoned six officials implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal, ending the criminal investigation.
He was elected president in 1988 with Senator Dan Quayle as his running mate, delivering an inspiring “thousand points of light” speech at the national Republican convention. He called for a “kinder, gentler nation”, a description that reportedly offended the Reagans.
At his January 1989 inauguration, Bush stated, “We live in a peaceful, prosperous time, but we can make it better…The totalitarian era is passing, its old ideas blown away like leaves from an ancient, lifeless tree. A new breeze is blowing, and a nation refreshed by freedom stands ready to push on.”
His zest for living continued well into retirement, including several parachute jumps on his 75th, 80th, 8th and 90th birthdays. In his later years, he suffered from declining health and was wheelchair bound with vascular Parkinsonism.
Tributes to the late president have poured in from both left and right. Trump, who frequently criticized Bush in the past and mocked his Thousand Points of Light program, tweeted today, “President George H.W. Bush led a long, successful and beautiful life. Whenever I was with him I saw his absolute joy for life and true pride in his family. His accomplishments were great from beginning to end. He was a truly wonderful man and will be missed by all!”
House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, called Bush Sr. a “beloved American statesman and leader,” adding, “In the Congress, my colleagues and I knew President Bush as a gentleman of the highest integrity and deepest patriotism. It was a privilege to work with him and witness his firm commitment to ensuring America lived up to our Founders’ promise of hope and freedom.”
Bush at times objected to the shift toward extremism in politics as early as 1964, when after losing his first run for elected office, he wrote to a friend, “When the word moderation becomes a dirty word, we have some soul searching to do.”
In the 2016 election, in which Donald Trump defeated Bush’s son, Jeb, in the Republican primary, Bush became a critic of Trump and reportedly voted for Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, but later sent Trump a congratulatory message after Trump won the general election.
At 94, Bush was the oldest living president and vice president in American history, with a lifetime that spanned nearly a century, from the roaring ‘20s through the technological innovations of the 20th and early 21st centuries, a time that also saw the norms of politics devolve from standards of civility even among political opponents, an era when compromise was considered a mechanism of progress to find common ground, to today’s brawling partisan divide.
The Washington Post calls his death “the passing of an era, noting, “Although Mr. Bush served as president three decades ago, his values and ethic seems centuries removed from today’s acrid political culture. His currency of personal connection was the handwritten letter—not the social media blast…but his principal achievements were produced at negotiating tables.”