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George H.W. Bush, a war hero and president, dies at 94

Former president George H.W. Bush in 2008.Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images/File/AFP/Getty Images

George Herbert Walker Bush, a late 20th-century president and the father of an early 21st-century president and a World War II aviator who served as commander-in-chief during the first Gulf War, died Friday. He was 94.

President Bush, a New England patrician whose political base was Texas, was a diplomat, House member, party chairman, intelligence chief, and two-term vice president. His own presidency from 1989 to 1993 coincided with the end of the Cold War abroad and with the beginnings of voter rebellion at home. A gifted foreign-policy leader who was defeated for reelection because of public uneasiness with the economy, he would see his oldest son, George W. Bush, inaugurated president in 2001.


The first vice president to be elected directly to the White House in a century and a half, President Bush worked successfully to win strong environmental measures and legislation giving the disabled new access to the nation’s opportunities and its public buildings. He enjoyed remarkable popularity — his public approval rating rose to 89 percent after the Gulf War, a level exceeded only by his son in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States — and he was such a commanding presence on the American political scene that many of the Democrats’ most appealing political figures declined to take him on in an election eventually won by Bill Clinton in a three-way contest.

In his last years, President Bush had emerged as a symbol of a long-ago era of civility in politics, celebrated by members of both parties. He was in constant touch with the leaders with whom he shared the world stage, many of whom believed, as former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney put it in an interview, “No greater gentleman ever sat in the White House.’’

At age 89, he cut off all his hair in support of the 2-year-old son of a Secret Service agent undergoing cancer treatment. Sitting in a wheelchair with the words “President of the United States” printed on the back of his seat, President Bush spoke of his new hairstyle and invited a visitor, “You want to touch it?”


A master of discipline and of detail, President Bush knew the world and its leaders but was mimicked in his presidential years as being out of touch at home. He was courtly in manner in private affairs but was sometimes harsh and shrill — or worse — in political struggles.

He was taunted as effete but mounted a military invasion in Panama and then led the multi-national effort against Iraq, prevailing in a stunning hundred days of battle. He was portrayed as an elitist, but when he returned to Washington for the unveiling of his official portrait he said the only people he missed were members of the White House staff.

As he grew older and as the tone of American civic life grew ever more coarse, President Bush seemed to become ever softer. On the very midsummer day in 2016 that Donald J. Trump, who belittled President Bush’s son Jeb in a bitter Republican primary struggle, was speaking a mere 28 miles from the family’s summer compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, President Bush changed the subject when the topic of the Manhattan businessman came up. He indicated that if he spoke he would make big news — but preferred not to.


As he grew more frail, he grew in the nation’s eyes. A biography titled “Destiny and Power’’ provided a revisionist boost to his image and to his last years, which were bathed in the nation’s nostalgic appreciation for a politics that reflected one of President Bush’s enduring phrases: “kinder and gentler.’’ He didn’t crack the covers of that biography for eight months and then, curiosity getting the better of him as his ability to read diminished, he asked Jean Becker, his chief of staff, to read it to him, a few pages at a time. Only a fortnight after President Trump was nominated, the biographer, Jon Meacham, traveled to Kennebunkport to read portions of the book to his subject.

In April, the death of his wife, the former Barbara Pierce, prompted an outpouring of praise for her style, a mixture of quiet dignity and outspoken digs at those who crossed her.

The son of a senator, President Bush was the last of the 20th-century American establishment leaders whose perspectives were rooted in the easy nonchalance of New England private schools and grassy Ivy League universities, in the diplomatic lessons of pre-World War II appeasement and in the cultural folkways of the city club and the tennis court.

He had the entrepreneurial impulses of the wildcatter but the buttoned-down demeanor of Wall Street. He criticized supply-side theories as “voodoo economics’’ but donned the cloak of the Republican antitax theology of the Reagan years. He made his own no-new-taxes pledge at the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans (“Read my lips,’’ he bellowed) but then signed a bipartisan budget deal in 1990 that included tax increases — and that caused a fateful rift in the Republican caucus on Capitol Hill.


President Bush was a Republican and a conservative, but his ideology really was service.

He was chief American delegate to the United Nations and then chief American liaison in China and finally was named director of Central Intelligence in 1976. Richard Nixon had considered naming him his running mate eight years earlier and President Bush lobbied Gerald Ford for the vice presidential nomination after being named CIA director — a notion that Senator Barry Goldwater, in an acidic commentary on President Bush’s intellect, helped persuade the 38th president to forgo. It took a presidential campaign of his own in 1980 to win President Bush a place on Ronald Reagan’s national ticket.

Like his son, the first President Bush thought in the linear and unforgiving idiom of old-fashioned power politics but spoke in an idiom all his own. He referred to himself as Mr. Smooth, described a confrontation with CBS anchor Dan Rather as “Tension City,’’ and disparaged what he described as the vision thing, which he never mastered, at least publicly. Some of his phrases — “deep doo-doo,’’ for example — became fodder for late-night television and cabaret comedians.

He was close to scandal — GOP chairman during the Watergate years, vice president during the Iran-Contra imbroglio — yet was not tainted by it. He preached loyalty and he practiced it; he didn’t criticize President Reagan even when it became politically acceptable to do so, and he stuck by Vice President Dan Quayle even when top advisers and some family members advised that he be replaced on the 1992 ticket.


President Bush could fight fiercely. His 1988 campaign against Senator Bob Dole of Kansas and a large field of Republican contenders was tough and bitter, surpassed only by his general election campaign against Michael Dukakis, which emphasized respect for the flag and the Massachusetts governor’s record on furloughs for murderers.

When he told Saddam Hussein shortly after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 that “this will not stand,’’ he meant it. When his sons George W. Bush and Jeb Bush conducted drives for the governors’ offices in Texas and Florida, respectively, in the 1990s, he joined spiritedly in their campaigns — and beamed when they were inaugurated in Austin and Tallahassee.

His trademark was his graciousness and his impulse toward forgiveness, never so brilliantly on display as when, in his ninth decade, he and Clinton, who had defeated him in a bitter 1992 presidential race that denied President Bush a second term, repeatedly appeared together, so much so that his real sons began to joke that Clinton had replaced them in the former president’s heart.

“This man who’d I’d always liked and respected and run against, I literally came to love,’’ Clinton said. “He can virtually do no wrong in my eyes.”

Despite his internationalist bent and his Texas base, President Bush was a son of New England. He was born at home, in Milton, Mass.; educated at Phillips Academy Andover and Yale; and reared in a nine-bedroom home in leafy Connecticut. There were members of the Bush family on Cape Cod in the mid-17th century.

His maternal grandfather built a stone and shingle home on rocky Walkers Point in Kennebunkport that the young George Herbert Walker Bush used as a base to collect starfish and sea urchins and to catch small mackerel and pollock; that President Bush often retreated to for relaxation; and that emerged as a sturdy, sunbathed symbol of New England in summer. His sons built salt-stained homes on the property, which became something of a coastal Maine tourist attraction. Even more than a quarter century after his departure from the presidency, a sign nearby urged motorists to spend no more than 15 minutes at the small parking inlet built to accommodate visitors from around the world.

For all his efforts to be a populist — he spoke rapturously of pork rinds and left his clock radio alarm tuned to WMZQ, Washington’s country music station — President Bush was unable to wash away a background steeped in privilege. His father, Prescott S. Bush, was a partner in Brown Brothers Harriman and Co. and defeated such Connecticut icons as Abraham Ribicoff and Thomas Dodd in Senate campaigns. His maternal grandfather, for two years the president of the US Golf Association, established the Walker Cup.

He was known, in his family and eventually in the cartoon strip Doonesbury, as Poppy. He was described, sometimes archly, oftentimes affectionately, as preppy. But his style, both personal and on the campaign trail, was best described by a term ubiquitous during President Bush’s youthful prime at mid-century but oddly incongruous now: peppy.

For President Bush’s true avocation was activity. The enduring image of his tenure in China in the mid-1970s is of President Bush and his wife, Barbara, tooling around Beijing on bicycles. At ages 75, 80, 85, and 90, he marked his birthdays by jumping out of an airplane.

His rhetoric matched his metabolism. In his 1980 campaign, he pronounced himself “up for the 80s.” Shortly after his remarkable breakthrough in the 1980 Iowa caucuses, where he defeated Reagan, President Bush declared that he had the “big mo,” Bush argot for momentum. Later, as president, he raced through golf and tennis matches, went on marathon (and sometimes spectacularly unsuccessful) fishing expeditions and then sped around Atlantic inlets in his cigarette boat.

But a stern, almost Puritanical strain of duty ran through President Bush, and it was evident even in his prep school years at Andover, where he was known, as one student put it, as “the greatest kid in the school.’’ It was there that he first put into action his relentless impulse to be — though the phrases were not known then — an accommodator and facilitator.

On his 18th birthday he enlisted in the Navy and could hardly restrain his excitement as he contemplated the war ahead. “I was gung-ho to strap on the leather helmet and goggles,’’ he wrote in his 1987 memoir, “Looking Forward.’’ He flew 58 missions in a single-engine aircraft, one of which ended in a rescue at sea by a submarine (and a Distinguished Flying Cross).

President Bush’s life is a compendium of chance meetings — one with Babe Ruth, for example — but none was more important than the time that, with the tunes of Glenn Miller playing in the background, he met a young woman named Barbara Pierce. She would be known to the nation as Barbara Bush, revered for her outspokenness and for her stylishly retro ways. The Bushes would have six children together — a daughter, Robin, died of leukemia at age 3— and President Bush would rave that his wife, whom he called Bar, was the rudder of the family.

It was a remarkable family, and though surrounded by a generation of achievers before and after him, President Bush was the center of the family dynasty. “He was always a great father,’’ the younger President Bush said. “He was always a man who gave me unconditional love.’’

As President Bush declined, his children grew ever more protective, and ever more respectful, of him. “He modeled the kind of behavior I wanted my own children to have,’’ Jeb Bush said in a recent interview for this obituary. “He didn’t preach it, he did it. He never cursed. He never showed disrespect to my mom. He set a standard for all of us.’’

Indeed, both sons Bush acknowledged that they were moved to run for the White House because of their father. “The truth of the matter is that the final motivating factor was my admiration for George Bush, and I wondered whether or not I had what it took to get in the arena like he did,” the 43rd president said of the 41st.

President Bush played in many arenas. As a young man, he would make much of his days as a Texas oilman, casting himself and his wife as lonely entrepreneurs (and outsiders) in Texas and, not unimportant, providing his sons with authentic Texas childhoods. In truth, much of the financial support for his oil days came from his family. Though the years in business in Midland, Texas, became a recurrent part of the folklore of the first President Bush, they are important chiefly because they gave him a staging ground for his early political stirrings.

He was a Barry Goldwater supporter at the 1964 GOP convention, but felt more comfortable as a traditional business Republican. Eventually President Bush won two terms in the House but his progress to the Senate was halted when he was defeated by Lloyd M. Bentsen in a celebrated 1970 race for an open seat. However, a succession of appointed jobs kept him in the public eye and at the forefront of GOP politics, positioning him for the long-shot 1980 campaign in which he won quick attention, faded in the shadow of Reagan, and eventually was chosen as the Republicans’ vice presidential nominee.

The Reagan-Bush ticket defeated President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter F. Mondale. President Bush was an active if not especially influential vice president. He concentrated on regulatory reform, terrorism, and the drug war and won such notoriety for attending scores of funerals around the world that he joked his motto was: “You die, I fly.’’

Early on, President Bush wrote, “I recognized that the most important ingredient in an effective vice presidency is mutual respect between the president and vice president, based on mutual confidence.’’

In truth, President Bush almost became vice president a dozen years earlier, when an unusual group of patrons, including the Rev. Billy Graham, former governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York, and former president Dwight D. Eisenhower pressed Nixon to select him as his running mate in 1968.

President Bush sometimes had an arch streak, most noticeable when he was in what he would call “campaign mode.’’ It was evident when he faced the first female vice presidential nominee, Representative Geraldine Ferraro, in 1984 — a moment when his congenital politesse failed him — and again when he faced Dukakis in 1988.

President Bush was able to place that persona on a shelf, as if to conserve it for another day, and to resume his life as the gentleman politician — a prolific writer of gracious notes and a compulsive, welcoming host. That identity was sullied when, in his 90s, he was accused of groping two women. His aides attributed the actions to vascular Parkinsonism, which, they said, can lead to behavior out of character, but President Bush issued an apology.

Shortly after the 1988 election — he took 54 percent of the vote, winning 426 electoral votes to Governor Dukakis’s 111 — he was able to dismiss the tensions that had produced one of the nastiest contests of the century. “That’s history,’’ he said. “That doesn’t mean anything anymore.’’ To him, it didn’t.

President Bush was sometimes the beneficiary of others’ short temper — and of his own steely sense of determination.

The struggle for the 1988 GOP nomination opened, for example, with President Bush finishing a stunning and sobering third (behind Senator Bob Dole and Pat Robertson, a religious-broadcaster-turned-candidate) in the very Iowa caucuses that had catapulted him to national prominence in 1980. Eight days later, however, President Bush roared back in the New Hampshire primary, and an outburst by Dole directed at the vice president symbolized the end of the Kansan’s prospects and the inevitability of President Bush’s nomination.

President Bush’s presidency was more stewardship than leadership; Michael Duffy and Dan Goodgame, Time magazine White House correspondents, titled their chronicle of the Bush years “Marching in Place.’’ He appointed David H. Souter of New Hampshire to the Supreme Court and then stood by Clarence Thomas of Georgia during confirmation hearings that inserted sexual harassment into the national conversation.

But many of the most memorable events of the Bush years occurred abroad, and in most of them — the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and then of Soviet Russia itself, in particular — the president and the United States were bystanders. Only in the Gulf War and in minor adventures in Central America and Somalia did President Bush play a preeminent role.

On the eve of his presidential campaign in 1988, he assembled a set of questions he hoped the press might ask him along with the answers he’d like to give. His final question was: Going back to 1948, the year you left college and went out to Texas. Out of all the things you’ve done since then — in business, Congress, the UN, China, the CIA, the vice presidency — what single accomplishment are you proudest of?

His answer was one sentence: The fact that our children still come home.