George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States, a modest man who reached the heights of public office, died on November 30, 2018, in Houston, Texas. He was 94 years old. “Poppy Bush” as he was known, is remembered for his service to his country in war and peace and as a man of great character.
George H. W. Bush arguably possessed the strongest resume in the history of U.S. presidents—war hero, Congressman, public servant, and vice president—when he ran for president in 1988. Born into privilege and wealth on June 12, 1924, Bush was the son of Senator Prescott Sheldon Bush and Dorothy Walker Bush. Young George attended private schools and graduated from prestigious Phillips Academy in 1942.
After graduation, George H. W. Bush enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve and was commissioned as a naval aviator before his 19th birthday. As a member of the “Greatest Generation,” Bush flew some 58 missions in the Pacific theater before being shot down by Japanese anti-aircraft. After being rescued, Bush received the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in action.
After the war, George H. W. Bush began building his life. He married Barbara Pierce and entered Yale University, excelling in sports and academics. After graduating with a degree in economics in 1948, Bush and his young bride traveled to Texas where he entered the oil industry. Within five years, he was running his own company and within 15 he was a millionaire. The Bushes also suffered some tragedies along the way. In 1953, their first daughter, three-year-old Robin, was diagnosed with leukemia and died. For decades after, a gold medallion inscribed with Robin’s name was always in Bush’s wallet.
Having made his mark in business, George H. W. Bush devoted the second half of his life to public service. After holding administrative positions in the local Republican Party, he set his sights high and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in Texas in 1964 and again in 1970. Always modest, Bush found it difficult to campaign on his accomplishments. He did win two consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1966 and 1968. Though leaning conservative, Bush voted his conscience supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Two unsuccessful runs for the Senate might have ended most other politicians’ political careers, but Bush had impressed high-ranking members of the Republican Party as a team player. For the next six years, he was appointed to different posts in the Nixon and Ford administrations including UN Ambassador, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, U.S. Envoy to China, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Bush announced his candidacy for president in 1980. He lost his primary bid to the Reagan Revolution but was seen as an experienced asset and placed on the 1980 Republican ticket with Ronald Reagan. Together, they soundly defeated President Jimmy Carter. Bush served as an active vice president with the responsibility to implement federal deregulation and anti-drug programs.
Bush never complained when his party’s base failed to see the merits of his temperament and experience. However, by 1988 his time had finally come and he was ready. After a decisive victory over challenger Michael Dukakis, George H. W. Bush became the 41st president of the United States. The first two years of his presidency looked like a second term was imminent. The Cold War had ended, America was in firm standing throughout the world, the United States Special Forces had successfully ousted corrupt Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and Bush had led an international coalition to push the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. By late 1991, his public approval rating was as high as 89 percent.
However, in the last year of his presidency, all this changed. A sagging economy and a broken promise not to raise taxes resulted in the loss of confidence by moderates and conservatives within his own party. By the November 1992 election, Bush faced conservative pundit Pat Buchanan, a pugnacious Ross Perot, a 29 percent approval rating, and Bill Clinton. The defeat was bitter to the taste. Bush gracefully bowed out of political life, but not out of public service. After the White House, he became involved in a number of humanitarian causes, including raising money for Katrina flood victims. In a further display of character, he enthusiastically partnered with former President Clinton to raise money for tsunami victims in Indonesia.
Retirement wasn’t all just duty to the country for Bush. He also found time to fulfill his ‘bucket list” organizing a fishing tournament in the Florida Keys and instituting a birthday tradition of skydiving up until his 90th birthday. Along the way, he picked up numerous awards and honors including the Medal of Freedom, an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II, and had a U.S. Navy Nimitz-class super-carrier commissioned in his name.
George H. W. Bush was a rare breed of character, duty to country, modesty, and integrity. Though the press tried to characterize him as the patriarch of a political dynasty, he hated the reference. He was genuinely proud of his two son’s becoming state governors and one becoming a president. For “Poppy” Bush, it was all in keeping with the family’s tradition of good character and service to the country.
He is survived by five children and their spouses, 17 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren and two siblings. He was preceded in death by his wife of 73 years, Barbara, their second child Pauline Robinson "Robin" Bush and his brothers Prescott and William Bush.