George H.W. Bush, the careful and pragmatic manager of the Cold War’s final dramas, had nearly every tool a great president needs. He had fire and drive, which are indispensable to a great statesman. From his glamorous youth through his momentous single term as 41st President of the United States, Bush was consumed, in the words of one biographer, by “an almost insatiable ambition and competitiveness.” He had experience, gained over decades in private business and public service. He had good judgment, cultivating the quality that Aristotle called “practical wisdom,” but which Bush referred to as “prudence.” He had the courage to make difficult decisions. He was discerning in his choice of strong advisers, and was comfortable with dissenting views. Bush was a natural born leader.
All of which points to the riddle of his life: why did his presidency end in rejection?
Bush—who died Nov. 30, 2018 at the age of 94 years,eight months after thepassing of his wife Barbara—employed all of his strengths as, step by cautious step, he consolidated America’s position as the lone superpower in a new world order while, at the same time, he allowed the Soviet Union to die with a measure of dignity. Rarely, if ever, has so much power shifted so peacefully. Then Bush marshaled this enhanced U.S. influence to lead a global coalition to repel Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Thirty-five nations, from Syria to Senegal and Bahrain to Bangladesh, contributed support to the U.S.-led Operation Desert Storm. Bush’s decision, after driving the invaders out, to stop short of forcing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power was necessary to hold the coalition together. It was the prudent thing to do, though arguably it came at a price that is still being paid more than a quarter-century later.
So what was the missing piece or surplus gene to explain his failure in 1992 to win a second term? Perhaps it was as simple as unlucky timing. Bush had the unenviable task of following Ronald Reagan, the genial conservative who chose Bush to be his two-term vice-president. Eight years in which Reagan restored stability to the presidency after a string of five administrations cut short by assassination, Vietnam, Watergate, an energy crisis and runaway inflation. Reagan was among the most popular presidents of the 20th Century, and—as singer Andy Williams once said of Vegas showman Joe E. Lewis—he was “the star, he always got top billing, and he always closed the show.”
But poor timing alone could not explain the Bush roller-coaster—from landslide victory in 1988 to sky-high approval ratings in 1991, only to meet crushing defeat the following year. Bush was uncomfortable with many of the public aspects of the presidency. The demands of self-promotion ran counter to his well-bred Yankee reticence, even as his will to win drove him more than once to embrace eye-gouging political tactics. Bush was that rare hybrid, a self-effacing president. His blazing internal fire was carefully banked beneath a mantle of modesty carved into his character by his forceful mother. “He was always hearing his mother’s admonitions to avoid talking about himself,” wrote biographer Jon Meacham, “which created an ambivalent relationship between himself and the first-person pronoun.”
In his youth, Bush admired the quiet and modestly great first baseman Lou Gehrig over brash Babe Ruth, and even if you didn’t know this fact, you could guess it from the way he carried himself in office. Bush was better at being president than he was at appearing presidential, and while competence is a necessary ingredient in Oval Office success, it is not sufficient. He never embraced the reality that the presidency is a performance art. Does the artist inhabit the role? After the electorate chose to restore him to private life, Bush slipped from the costumes of power like a boy escaping from a scratchy Christmas sweater.
Indeed, Bush in retirement was widely beloved. Though he became, in 2001, only the second president in U.S. history to see his son follow him to the highest office, Bush always seemed as approachable as a warm park bench. He celebrated his birthdays by jumping from airplanes, entertained photographers by flashing silly socks, and cheered up a young cancer patient by shaving his own head to match the boy’s chemotherapy baldness. The same modesty that made him so winsome in private life had made him, in office, somehow smaller than his accomplishments.
And there was another thing, perhaps. Bush was the last of the World War II generation to serve in the Oval Office. As such, he was steeped in the sense of duty and common purpose that John F. Kennedy once expressed with his call to “pay any price, bear any burden” in the cause of liberty around the world. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought the United States to a position without historical precedent. Bush read the moment as a summons to even greater global leadership. He challenged the country and its allies to “seize this opportunity to fulfill the long-held promise of a new world order, where brutality will go unrewarded and aggression will meet collective resistance.
“Only the United States of America has both the moral standing and the means to back it up,” he continued, a moderate Republican channeling the moderate Democrat Kennedy, linked not so much by wealth and privilege as by common sacrifice. “This is the burden of leadership and the strength that has made America the beacon of freedom in a searching world.”
Bush discovered, to his obvious bewilderment in the campaign of 1992, that a younger generation of voters was less interested in bearing burdens. They wanted a “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War; instead, the U.S. economy sputtered. And Bush had damaged himself with the Republican right wing by accepting a tax increase as part of a 1990 budget deal to rein in the deficit. And so, with some help from Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot—who struck a populist, nationalist chord by complaining about foreign nations taking advantage of America—the Baby Boomer Bill Clinton rang down the curtain on the Greatest Generation. Bush’s share of the popular vote, less than 37.5 percent, remains the smallest for a major party candidate in the past 80 years.
A Connecticut Yankee goes to Texas
George Herbert Walker Bush was born June 12, 1924 in Milton, Mass., the blue-blooded offspring of America’s industrial-age aristocracy. There was banking on one side of the family tree, manufacturing on the other, and a world of country clubs, prep schools, and black tie dinners where the two branches met. As a boy, he went by the name Walker Bush—Walker as in golf’s Walker Cup competition, which his family created, a talisman of the WASP upper crust. And Bush as in Samuel Bush, whose Ohio-based industrial fortunes were closely tied to the Rockefellers. His mother, the irrepressible and athletic Dorothy Walker, was the daughter of St. Louis financier George Herbert Walker, whose genius with money made him indispensable to the Harriman family of railroad glory. E.H. Harriman controlled the Union Pacific and the Illinois Central and a bunch of other lines to boot. His son Averell wanted to start an investment bank with the family’s stupendous wealth. Bert Walker was recruited from Missouri to New York to help him do it.
In time, Bert Walker brought everything together by hiring his daughter’s husband, a tall and athletic veteran of the Great War named Prescott Bush, to work at the Harriman bank. Bristling and competitive, Walker liked the cut of the young man’s jib and the quality of his golf game. Prescott Bush returned the compliment by naming his second son after his father-in-law. The boy was sometimes called “Poppy” because Bert Walker was known in the family as “Pop.” But the greatest influence on the man who would eventually reclaim his given name and live to see “George Bush” written across two presidential library facades was not his grandfather or his dad. It was his mother, who had “10 times more influence” over her son than anyone else, according to former First Lady Barbara Bush. Dorothy Walker Bush was so tough and intense that she once broke her wrist playing tennis, yet finished the match anyway.
Young George grew up in the rarified worlds of Greenwich, Conn., Phillips Academy, and the family’s summer compound at Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport, Maine. Slim, athletic and handsome, he was a popular boy whose teachers worried that he might be too hard on himself. Push himself he did, but Bush was empathetic and forgiving with others. Classmates dubbed him “Have-Half” Bush, because he was always offering to share whatever he had. Though he would learn years later that his father had narrowly skirted financial disaster in the 1930s, George Bush felt insulated from the Great Depression, riding to and from his boarding school in a chauffeured car.
George Bush is shown at age 14 or 15 in 1939. Bush was born in 1924 in Milton, Mass., and grew up in Greenwich, Conn.
He was in high school as Europe and Asia sank into war. Men from the Harriman bank had front-row seats. Prescott Bush served on the board of the Union Banking Corporation, which was closely tied to German industrialist Fritz Thyssen, an early supporter and financier of the Nazis who became a critic and was eventually sent to a concentration camp. Averell Harriman represented President Roosevelt in Moscow and London. Robert Lovett, another partner in the firm, was right-hand man to the Secretary of War. George Bush learned more than most teenagers about world events simply by listening to his father’s table talk. Still, it was a shock when—on a December Sunday during his senior year of high school—the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. At 17, Bush had been poised to follow his father (and grandfather, and great-grandfather) to Yale; instead, he finished high school in a rush and immediately entered training as a Navy pilot.
At an age when he might have expected to be dancing with debutantes and pledging a fraternity, Bush found himself in south Texas learning to fly a torpedo plane. In future political campaigns, he would often be introduced as the youngest naval aviator of the war, but eventually Bush learned of another pilot, 11 days younger, who also earned his wings before his 19th birthday. Still, command of a plane and its crew in combat was an awesome responsibility for one so young, even for the conscientious Bush, and required a lot of growing up in a very short time.
On Sept. 2, 1944, during a bombing run over the Pacific island of Chichi Jima about halfway between Guam and Tokyo, Bush’s plane was hit with anti-aircraft fire. After completing his run, Bush ditched his dying plane in the ocean. During a war crimes trial after the Japanese surrender, enemy soldiers who had served on Chichi Jima testified that other American pilots shot down in the raid were captured, tortured, killed—and even eaten. Bush was spared that gruesome end when the crew of an American submarine spotted the dazed lieutenant bobbing in a life raft, the sole survivor from his crew. Though shocked and grieving, he rushed through his rehabilitation and soon returned to combat, eventually completing 58 missions while earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Gold Stars.
Navy Lieutenant George H.W. Bush and Barbara Pierce get married in the First Presbyterian Church in Rye, New York, on Jan. 6, 1945.
After the war, a battle-hardened Bush went back to Connecticut. Waiting for him was a dark-haired beauty with knowing eyes and a tart wit named Barbara Pierce, the daughter of a New York magazine-publishing executive. They had met at a party before he enlisted, and her promise to marry him buoyed him through those 58 missions. The ordeal had matured them like time-lapse photography, and Bush returned from the Pacific ready for a marriage that would last 73 years, until her death on April 17 at age 92. Picking up the thread at Yale, he lettered in soccer and captained the baseball team even as he and his wife began building their family. As he later put it, he felt “that after four years of war, we had a lot of catching up to do.” The first of their four sons, George Walker Bush, was born July 6, 1946.
Given his wide circle of friends and family connections, Bush had plenty of opportunities upon graduation, including an invitation to join what was now the elite partnership of Brown Brothers Harriman. But he wanted to prove himself farther from home. Lured by the gushers of money pumping through the oil industry, Bush packed up his debutante wife and squirmy toddler and moved to the windswept expanse of West Texas. The Bushes and Walkers did not believe in lavish trust funds for young people who were perfectly capable of earning their own way. So George and Barbara Bush moved into a tiny duplex in Odessa, and shared a common bathroom with their next-door neighbors, mother and daughter prostitutes. Not that they were entirely on their own: Bush worked initially for Dresser Industries, whose dynamic chief executive, Neil Mallon, was so close to Prescott Bush that the Bush children called him “Uncle Neil.” And when George Bush decided to leave Dresser to make his way as an independent oilman, friends of his father and his grandfathers were willing to invest start-up capital.
Bush proved to be a shrewd and perceptive businessman, well adapted to the high-stakes gambles that made post-war Texas one of the world’s great casinos. He liked putting it all on the line because he knew, down deep, that he was a winner. With three partners, Bush formed the Zapata Petroleum Corporation in Midland, and even though his personal bank account was so meager that he had trouble buying a home, he was soon placing million-dollar bets on cutting edge offshore drilling platforms. Bush chased deals from the Persian Gulf to the waters of Trinidad. By his mid-30s, he had built a significant operation in the Gulf of Mexico, operating four offshore rigs and employing nearly 200 people. Though he never managed to land a blockbuster, he did accumulate his own small fortune to put alongside the many large and small piles of the Walker-Bush clan.
The family grew. A daughter, Robin, was born just before Christmas 1949. In 1953, a second son arrived, named John Ellis Bush—he would be called Jeb. The new addition was barely home from the hospital when his sister, who was then 3 years old, complained of fatigue one day. A trip to the doctor led to a blood test, and the results of that test ushered the young family into a furnace of tragedy. Robin had leukemia, a brutal disease for which there were few treatments in those days. The doctor in Midland cried as she advised the parents that their child might be dead within weeks. But Bush had an uncle, John Walker, who was a cancer specialist at New York’s Memorial Hospital—then, as now, one of the leading cancer research centers in the world. Bush later wrote: “I told him of our local doc’s advice and he said ‘You have no choice—none at all—you must treat this child. You must do all you can to keep her alive,’ and he went on to tell me of the strides in the field and of the importance of hope.” Over the next six months of remission and relapse, Robin was in and out of the vast hospital on York Avenue, while Barbara made camp at Bert Walker’s apartment on nearby Sutton Place. George rushed back and forth between the child’s bedside and his growing business until Robin died on October 11, 1953, not long before her fourth birthday.
Bush kept a picture of the chubby-cheeked child with the feathery blonde curls in his desk drawer throughout his presidency, and never forgot “her hugs,” which “were just a little less wiggly” than the ones received from his sons. With the arrival of Neil Mallon Bush in 1955 and Marvin Pierce Bush in 1956, the grieving parents never stopped mourning the loss of their little girl. But the gnawing sense that their family of boys was missing an important ingredient was partly soothed in 1959, when the last of the six Bush children was born and named after her grandmother: Dorothy Walker Bush, called Doro.
Politics in his blood
While George Bush was building a business and moving his growing family to Houston, his father was making a second career. After a failed attempt in 1950, Prescott Bush was elected to a U.S. Senate seat from Connecticut in 1952, and the moderate Republican quickly found himself in the center of the Washington whirl. His banker’s discretion and superb game of golf endeared Sen. Bush to the new president, Dwight Eisenhower, and the two men became frequent companions on the links and at the White House. Liberal on such issues as civil rights, birth control, and McCarthyism, pragmatic on economic matters, Bush was a key supporter of Eisenhower’s plan for an interstate highway system. He served until 1963.
Watching his father make the step from business to politics planted a seed in the mind of George Bush. “Politics entered into my thinking,” he recalled, “especially after Dad went to the Senate.” The political life spoke to his love of competition and his self-reliance, his knack for making friends and his desire to be of service. In boardrooms, at Little League ball games, and on the tennis courts and golf course of the Houston Country Club, Bush cultivated the friendships he would need to follow in his father’s footsteps. (A frequent tennis partner in the 1950s, James A. Baker III, would eventually serve as Secretary of State under President Bush.) In 1962, not long after Prescott Bush announced his retirement from the Senate, Bush met with leaders of the Harris County Republican party who wanted to back him for the post of party chairman. And not long after he won the job, GOP leaders from Dallas approached him with a bigger opportunity: a shot at the U.S. Senate seat occupied by the liberal Democratic hero Ralph Yarborough.
In a state where right-wing politics were on the rise—conservative Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater was the early favorite to win the votes of Texas Republicans for the 1964 presidential nomination—Yarborough looked vulnerable. Bush jumped at the chance to take him on. The campaign was well financed, of course, and the candidate was as energetic as ever. But Bush was a rookie running against one of the most experienced campaigners in the state, and it was clear that he had a lot to learn. A top campaign adviser complained about the Yale man’s ten-dollar vocabulary on the stump, where Bush denounced “profligate spending.” (Yarborough’s signature line, by contrast, was this: “Let’s put the jam on the lower shelf so the little people can reach it.”) Bush favored preppy rep ties over bolos, and his enemies had a field day with his family’s connections to East Coast plutocrats.
George H.W. Bush and family at home in 1971. From left: Nephew Billy, daughter Dorothy, George H. W., son Neil, wife Barbara, nephew Jon.
Leonard McCombe—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
When President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas not long after Bush tossed his hat into the ring, the novice candidate became collateral damage. Yarborough’s former partner in the Senate, Lyndon Johnson, now had the power of the presidency behind him, and the bristling, militant rhetoric of Goldwater was suddenly all wrong for the grieving mood of the country. Johnson rolled up one of the widest winning margins in presidential history in 1964, helping to lift the Democrats to some of the largest Congressional majorities on record. Yarborough was reelected easily.
But Bush tallied more than a million votes in his losing effort, something no Texas Republican running for the Senate had ever accomplished. In hindsight, Bush would wonder whether he might have fared better if he had pursued a more moderate line instead of the hard-right platform he chose to run on. Unlike his father, who voted for every civil-rights bill that came up during his years in the Senate, Bush attacked Yarborough for supporting the landmark legislation of 1964. Federally mandated integration was “a course of action which will be most detrimental to the concept of States’ rights which is near and dear to so many Texans,” Bush declared during the campaign. In private letters and conversations he anguished that he might be “teaching my children a prejudice which I do not feel.” But he had no illusions about the demands of representative politics. A candidate cannot dictate morals to the voters; he had to reflect their views, at best channel them. Half a century later, to biographer Meacham, Bush mused that “the Washington guys wanted me, on some of the issues, to be like the senator from Connecticut.” But Bush had left New England behind. “I was a Texan,” he said emphatically. “I was running for office in Texas.”
A new seat in the House of Representatives had been created for fast-growing Houston. In sizing it up, Bush let slip the fact that his ultimate aim was the White House—but winning an election seemed like a necessary step on that path, and this was the best opportunity. Bush sold his interest in Zapata to clear the decks for his new career, and his 1966 campaign reflected the lessons he had learned. In place of the hard Goldwater line, he pitched a “sensitive and dynamic” version of conservatism: one that addressed, rather than stiff-armed, the needs of the poor, and “a million other pressing problems that face our people.”
In a career that would see many election night defeats to go with the victories, the 1966 win was essential in two ways. First, Bush made his bones as politician. There is a club open only to those willing to put themselves on the line, to let the public measure their value to the decimal point and to suffer repudiation or emerge victorious. Bush entered the club. At the same time, knowingly or unknowingly, he pitched his family’s flag at the heart of what would become the essential Republican quandary of the next half-century. How could a conservative party persuade the public that it cared? The “sensitive and dynamic” conservatism of Bush ’66 would become the “kinder, gentler” vision of Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign—and would find echoes in the “compassionate conservative” message that his son would run on in 2000. It is a question the GOP continues to wrestle with today.
Having survived the electoral hazing, in Washington Bush’s connections—and his talents—produced immediate results. Dad and Mom welcomed George and Barbara to the capital with a glittering party attended by all the right people. A visit by Prescott to powerful Ways and Means committee chairman Wilbur Mills helped to whisk the new Congressman past the velvet rope to a most coveted assignment. When the GOP bought expensive television time to rebut a major speech by President Johnson, the freshman from Houston secured a starring role.
Texas Republicans touted him for governor in 1968, but Bush had his eyes fixed higher. At the GOP convention in Miami that year, he ran hard for Richard Nixon’s nod as the vice-presidential candidate. The Southern Association of Republican State Chairmen put him on their short list. “Though we finished out of the money it was a big plus for me,” Bush wrote to a supporter, because the effort had further raised his profile.
With new prominence and limitless ambitions, Bush hitched his wagon firmly to Washington’s star. Passing up Austin, he announced another go at the Senate for 1970. “He just must get to the Senate where he can have the national forum that he wants,” his wife Barbara wrote at the time. But in this election, instead of the increasingly out-of-step Yarborough, Bush faced Lloyd Bentsen, a conservative Democrat from the Rio Grande Valley, who had ousted the liberal incumbent in a primary. Bentsen and Bush were both young, handsome businessmen with moderate (for Texas) views. Bush ran a personality-based campaign, heavy on video of the candidate tossing a football with his sons. Bentsen complained that the GOP was selling Bush “like a bar of soap.” With his deep, honeyed drawl, Bentsen tapped into the last vestiges of the old Democratic South and pulled a victory from the unsubstantial campaign. “Like Custer, who said there were just too many Indians, I guess there were just too many Democrats,” Bush said in defeat.
But again, failure raised his profile. President Nixon liked what he saw in Bush and sent him to New York as Ambassador to the United Nations. Now he was launched on a decade of electoral politics by other means.
Bush’s first failed bid for the White House
Bush often said among friends that his greatest interest as a politician was world affairs. Any voter could tell by watching his body language that he was more comfortable talking about the balance of power in Asia than the price of a gallon of milk. He was in his element at the U.N., where he fought a stout but doomed battle to keep the People’s Republic of China out of the Security Council. His tenure at Turtle Bay was brief, however, because Nixon yanked him back to Washington after the 1972 election to smother a rogue grenade. The Watergate scandal was boiling, and Nixon wanted Bush to head the Republican National Committee.
With each passing month in the job—as the President’s inner circle headed to prison and Nixon’s grip on office weakened—service as party chairman looked more and more like a suicide mission. Somehow, Bush survived. As a reward, Nixon’s accidental successor Gerald Ford granted his wish to be envoy to China. There, the globally minded Texan enjoyed a front-row seat on the nascent rise of a future power.
But again, his time as a diplomat was short. The sour aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate had produced a thorough Congressional scrubbing of the Central Intelligence Agency. What Congress uncovered—schemes to assassinate foreign leaders, meddle in the affairs of other nations, and illegally spy on domestic targets—produced a leadership crisis at Langley. Ford called Bush home to run the battered agency. It was the last assignment in the world he might want; George and Barbara Bush both believed it would be fatal to his career, a “political graveyard,” as Bush put it. “This new job will be full of turmoil and controversy,” Bush wrote to his children, but he felt he had no choice. The President was calling: his duty was to answer. During his short tenure, Bush revived CIA morale and projected a new culture of responsibility. Years later, the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, was named in Bush’s honor.
President Gerald R. Ford and Barbara Bush watch as Justice Potter Stewart swears in George H.W. Bush as the new Director of the CIA, at CIA HQ in Langley, Virginia on Jan. 26, 1976. The outgoing Director William Colby is at the left in the background.
David Hume Kennerly—Getty Images
Despite his success, there was no immediate reward. In 1976, after fending off a strong challenge from California’s Gov. Reagan for the Republican nomination, Ford chose Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas as his running mate instead of Bush. Dole was a product of small-town, Depression-scarred America who overcame severe combat injuries to reach the main stage of American power. Through eight consecutive presidential cycles, from 1976 to 2004, every GOP presidential ticket would include the name Bush or Dole.
But the real Republican winner in 1976 was Reagan, whose near-miss only whetted the appetite of conservatives for their smooth and polished hero. Unlike Bush, Reagan never muted his rhetoric, nor did he flinch from offending liberal sensibilities. Reagan relied on his movie star charm to put a friendly patina on hardline politics, and success in California gave him a record of executive achievement. By challenging Ford, Reagan may have doomed him, but the election of the dark horse Democrat Jimmy Carter made Reagan the immediate frontrunner to lead the GOP ticket in 1980.
Bush decided to take him on. He knew there were Republicans who found Reagan too extreme, and others who worried that he was too old. Bush could be the younger, more moderate alternative. Recruiting his old friend James Baker as campaign manager, the Yankee from Texan took a page from Carter’s 1976 playbook and virtually took up residence in Iowa. Bush proved to be a tireless campaigner, racking up nearly 350 campaign days in 1978 and 1979. He noted the punishing pace in a 1979 diary entry quoted by Meacham: “I’m surprised my body can take it. The mind is still clear, although I totally lose track of where I’ve been and whom I’m with.”
Capitalizing on his vigor and energy, Bush was frequently seen jogging as local television crews tried to keep up. He also contrasted his extensive resume with Reagan’s never-served-in-Washington biography. “A President we won’t have to train,” his campaign brochure bragged. Surging past a field of rivals, Bush aimed to be the last opponent standing against Reagan, the one to beat him if he proved beatable—but not so fierce a foe that Reagan would not pick him as a running mate if the frontrunner won the nomination.
When he scored an upset victory in the Iowa caucuses, Bush joyously proclaimed that “the Big Mo”—momentum—was with him. But the result jolted Reagan like a hard left hook, and with more than a week of campaign days before the New Hampshire primary, the older man had time for a comeback. Reagan threw himself into the Granite State with eye-popping energy. On a single day, he made 11 separate appearances.
It was an event in Nashua that swung the Big Mo away from Bush. Sponsored by Reagan and billed as a head-to-head debate with the Iowa winner, the evening forum saw Reagan arrive with a number of the uninvited candidates in tow. The former movie star had created a memorable scene in which he could play the hero, standing up for free speech and openness. Taking the stage as Bush looked on ineffectually, Reagan demanded that the debate be opened to all comers, and when the moderator tried to silence him, he bellowed dramatically, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!” It was brilliant political theater. Compared to the forceful Reagan, Bush looked to Manchester newspaper publisher William Loeb like a “little boy who thinks his mother may have dropped him off at the wrong birthday party.”
New Hampshire voters delighted in Reagan’s campaign virtuosity, his ability to sell red meat with a wink and a grin, to package the hard line in a hopeful wrapper, and they gave him a smashing win. In most campaigns, there is only one chance to unhorse the frontrunner, and Bush had missed his. He battled on through the late winter and spring—memorably calling Reagan’s tax proposals “voodoo economic policy”—and managed wins in such important states as Pennsylvania and Michigan. But Reagan’s lead became insurmountable. Quitting did not come easily for Bush, but Baker insisted that his friend quit before the California primary. To take a hopeless campaign into Reagan’s home state would only antagonize the inevitable winner, and Bush would lose any chance of joining the ticket. Reluctantly, Bush agreed.
And yet, the gesture seemed pointless when the GOP convened in Detroit and Bush watched dejectedly as Reagan tried to woo former President Ford into joining the ticket. The idea was unprecedented; no former president had ever come back to run for vice-president. Nevertheless, Reagan pursued it to the 11th hour, and when the deal finally fell apart, the nominee was unsure where to turn. Bush had gotten under Reagan’s skin with his “voodoo economics” line and his unsubtle prodding of the age issue. He gut told him not to pick Bush. But the whole idea behind the Ford gambit was to reassure moderates. Bush had proved he could do that in key parts of the country. The decision was made. Reagan-Bush steamrolled Carter and his running mate Walter Mondale. On January 20, 1981, Bush became Vice President of the United States.
Bush’s road to the presidency
Now he was one step removed from the top of the pile, and his chance of taking the final step depended less on his own competitiveness and discipline than on the success of the new president. No matter what Bush did to position himself as Reagan’s successor, if Reagan failed he would drag Bush under the waves.
But first came the office at hand, which has often been a humiliation for the men who have held it. Fortunately for Bush, his friend Baker had earned Reagan’s trust during the campaign and emerged as one of three key presidential aides, along with Edwin Meese and Michael Deaver. From his position in “the Troika,” Baker was able to ensure that Bush was involved in important decisions and had regular access to Reagan at weekly lunches. The Vice President was put in charge of the international crisis-management team, to the dismay of volatile Secretary of State Alexander Haig. For his part, Bush promised Reagan he would never undercut the president with anonymous leaks or complaints to the Washington press corps, and he offered to take the meetings that Reagan wanted to avoid, and carry unwelcome messages that the President didn’t wish to deliver personally. “I will never do anything to embarrass you politically,” he pledged.
Bush was on a routine trip to deliver a speech in Texas on March 30, 1981, when an assassin fired on Reagan and his entourage outside a Washington hotel. For several hours, while the wounded President underwent emergency surgery, Bush didn’t know whether the top job was about to be thrust upon him. Many in the administration were knocked off balance—most notably Haig, who went before live television cameras to announce, “I’m in charge here.” But Bush handled the crisis with aplomb, striking “just the right note,” in the words of columnist William Safire. The country could have only one president at a time, Bush reminded the White House team, and their task was to keep things running smoothly while that president recuperated. This self-effacing calm only strengthened his relationship with Reagan, Bush believed, because he had proved his loyalty as a subordinate when the chips were down.
Reagan would prove to be the more popular conservative candidate in the race for the Presidency and would eventually gain the Republican nomination, but in a surprising turn of events, Reagan would pick Bush to be his vice presidential nominee. Here, the two candidates join Senate Majority leader Howard Baker for a rally on Capitol Hill in September 1980.
But that loyalty also opened Bush to caricature by his opponents on both ends of the political spectrum. To the fervent conservatives who had backed Reagan for years, the Vice President’s eagerness to do the President’s bidding suggested a man without conviction, and thus a would-be successor they could never support. “The unpleasant sound Bush is emitting as he traipses from one conservative gathering to another is a thin, tinny arf—the sound of a lapdog,” wrote columnist George Will, a Reagan favorite. Liberals in the Democratic party and the press added variations on the theme.Newsweekexplored Bush’s struggle with “the wimp factor.” “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau drew him “placing his manhood into a blind trust.”
Undeterred, after the team was reelected with the largest Electoral College landslide since George Washington, Bush moved plans for his own campaign into high gear. The prominence of his office and the extent of his political network, built up over decades and generations, made him the betting favorite but hardly a sure thing. It was soon clear that Bob Dole was going to renew their rivalry. New York Congressman Jack Kemp—like Reagan a sunny hero of economic conservatives—came bounding into the race. Television evangelist Pat Robertson, a favorite of social conservatives, took on the role of spoiler. Al Haig swaggered into the race. Bush was even outflanked in the Old Money department with the entry of Delaware’s Pierre “Pete” DuPont.
Just as his bid started rolling down the runway, the wheels threated to come off. After six relatively scandal-free years, the Reagan administration blundered into a doozy, which came to be known as Iran-Contra. In violation of the government’s stated policy, U.S. agents had been funneling weapons through Israel to Iran in exchange for Americans held hostage. That was bad. But it got worse when the public learned that a White House staffer, Marine Col. Oliver North, had funneled the proceeds from the secret arms sales to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua—in violation of a law known as the Boland Amendment. Wittingly and unwittingly, Bush had played various parts in this tangled tale of hypocrisy, deception, and illegality. Many leading Republicans doubted that he could survive it. Bush risked “getting drawn into a web of lies,” Secretary of State George Schultz confided. “Blows his integrity. He’s finished then.”
Bush’s years of Washington experience were never more valuable than in 1986 and 1987, as he mixed strategic deception with carefully timed leaks and well-crafted spin to white-knuckle his way through the scandal. He pronounced himself “out of the loop” on the arms trade (not true) and said he knew nothing of the Contra diversion (true enough). In the end, he arguably was saved by Reagan, who delivered a primetime address, carried by all major television networks, in which the popular President put the best possible face on the administration’s motives and apologized for the deception.
Still, it was a more vulnerable George Bush who took to the 1988 campaign trail. It was not a race for the faint of heart. Early in the contest, Democratic frontrunner Gary Hart of Colorado was hounded from the field by allegations of adultery. His extraordinary collapse opened up the sex lives of other leading candidates. Immediately, rumors swirled around Bush’s relationship with a longtime staff member, Janet Fitzgerald. Suspecting Dole’s campaign of spreading the gossip (perhaps to divert attention from rumors that Dole had cheated on his first wife), Bush appealed directly to his foe to raise the tone—and the phone call was immediately leaked to a New York tabloid. As wisps of smoke began to rise from the incendiary gossip, George W. Bush finally demanded the truth from his father, who denied any impropriety. The younger Bush sought to stamp the matter out. “The answer to the Big A question is N.O.,” he told reporters, in characteristic family vernacular.
So it would be a campaign of sharp elbows. Bush armed himself for combat by hiring two of the toughest operatives in the Republican party: strategist Lee Atwater and media man Roger Ailes. They pitched in furiously after Robertson stunned Bush with an easy win in the Iowa caucuses, where Bush finished third behind Dole. With Dole polling well in New Hampshire, Bush now faced potential disaster, and there was nothing to do but attack. With Atwater hatching schemes and Ailes firing off tough TV ads, the Bush campaign hammered Dole so hard that the laconic Kansan finally exploded. “Stop lying about my record!” growled the lifelong conservative who had found himself tarred as a tax-and-spender. Even more damaging, Dole would muse in later years, were the photo ops cooked up by Atwater and Ailes after a massive snowstorm hit the Granite State. Bush was pictured driving a snowplow, wielding a shovel, helping to push stuck cars from towering drifts. Because of his war wounds, Dole could do none of those things. He would have beaten Bush, Dole later reflected, “if I had been whole.”
With his win in New Hampshire, Bush was airborne, and by the time he reached the convention in New Orleans, the tough primaries were far enough behind him that he could speak of “a kinder, gentler nation.” He also delivered a promise that would detonate in his hands two years later: “Read my lips. No new taxes!” Then it was back to the trenches, where the Bush team carved up Democrat Michael Dukakis with brutal, slashing attacks. The environmentalist from Massachusetts was charged with polluting Boston Harbor. The budget-balancing governor was painted as an out-of-control spender. Toughest of all, Dukakis was saddled with the story of Willie Horton, a violent felon who attacked a family while on furlough from a Bay State prison. With crime at near-record levels across the country, it was fatal for a candidate to appear soft on criminals. The campaign reached a nadir when a debate moderator asked Dukakis how he would react to the rape and murder of his wife.
“Saturday Night Live” caught the flavor of the race in its final weeks by having a Dukakis impersonator listen perplexedly as an actor playing Bush delivered a series of slogans and talking points in fractured syntax, his arms flailing and chopping. “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy!” the fake Dukakis moaned. But lose he did, and badly, as Bush and his youthful running mate, Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle, notched victories in 40 states. George Bush was 64 years old, and he had finally won the biggest game of all.
Winning the Cold War
President Bush found himself in a role few modern presidents have faced: succeeding a popular two-term president from his own party. By electing him, voters had endorsed continuity, but success required him to establish his own identity. That was easy enough in terms of style: compared to the Hollywood Reagans, the Bushes projected an easy down-to-earthiness. George liked to pitch horseshoes in Washington and drive his speedboat in Maine, while Barbara slipped into the role of America’s cool grandma, white-haired, comfortably dressed and puckishly prone to salty remarks. In matters of policy, Bush knew he was no Reagan. He didn’t see himself as the leader of a revolution or exponent of a philosophy. In truth, he found himself facing the consequences of Reagan’s idealism in the form of a massive federal budget deficit. Reagan’s tax cuts and defense buildup were charged to the national credit card, and Bush believed the debt would soon become a drag on the economy. Unless it was tamed, the country was headed for a shock. And with Democrats in control of Congress, a deal on the deficit would have to include more tax revenue. His most famous campaign promise –“read my lips!—was doomed from the start.
The new President also wanted changes in foreign policy to reflect his deep experience of the world. With characteristic caution, he declared a pause in foreign initiatives to set the new course. Bush hoped to be advised by two Texans he had known for decades—James Baker as Secretary of State and former Sen. John Tower as Secretary of Defense—with the seasoned Washington hand Brent Scowcroft as his national security adviser. It wasn’t to be. The Tower nomination was a disaster. Years of hard drinking and sexual harassment could be forgiven in Washington (indeed, had been forgiven many times). But Tower’s notorious carousing proved fatal because he committed the added sin of being widely disliked. Needing a replacement, Bush knocked down the suggestion of Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon—he didn’t trust the guy—and instead gave the post to Wyoming Rep. Dick Cheney. This reboot had lasting implications, because plucking Cheney from Congress made room in the leadership for Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich, a bombastic and driven conservative who quickly became a rock in the President’s shoe.
By the time Bush had his team was in place, world events were ripping through his putative pause. Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev had launched a program of reform and openness—“perestroika” and “glasnost”—that appeared to be producing genuine change, and across the communist sphere, pro-democracy dissidents were demanding more. Thousands of protesters rose up in Czechoslovakia just days before Bush took office. Authorities jailed hundreds of them, including the playwright Vaclav Havel. A few weeks later, in February 1989, Poland gave in to popular pressure and recognized the pro-reform Solidarity party, with striking dockworker Lech Walesa as its leader. Nationalist Georgians took to the streets in Tbilisi in April, sparking a confrontation with Soviet troops that left 19 protesters dead. Hungary threw open its border with Austria, rending the Iron Curtain. In China, thousands of students poured into Tiananmen Square to welcome a visit by Gorbachev, and refused to leave when he departed. Their protest camp would soon feature a handmade version of the Statue of Liberty.
Allies and friends urged Bush to take the initiative. He judged that the moment required subtlety. Too much pressure could lead Soviet hardliners to replace Gorbachev with a reactionary leader. Too little could leave the U.S. looking weak. Bush unveiled a surprise proposal at the 40th anniversary meeting of NATO in May 1989. Calling for a 20 percent reduction in NATO forces if the Soviet Union would match the cuts, Bush managed to assert his leadership while cooling tensions. As an added bonus, the lowered temperature between West and East allowed him to slow the deployment of new nuclear weapons in Western Europe—a Reagan initiative that was hugely controversial in many NATO countries. French President Francois Mitterrand praised Bush for “intellectual audacity of the rarest kind,” and Bush pushed the proposal past opposition from conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
This first step marked the path Bush would follow in handling the crumbling Cold War adversary. Biographer Meacham summarized the President’s prudent philosophy: Bush “did what he could to project a sense of steadiness in the West and of fair play toward the East.” Bush refused to “gloat” in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down, and was appalled at the suggestion by Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine that the President rush to Germany to claim victory. “God, the guy has got to have been nuts to suggest you pour gasoline on those embers,” Bush said of Mitchell in his diary. Though he marveled at the speed with which the world was changing, Bush never took the end result for granted. He knew that Gorbachev could reverse course or be ousted in an anti-reform coup. So he moved cautiously and gave Gorbachev plenty of ways to save face. “I’m criticized for not doing enough,” he told his diary, “but things are coming our way, and so why do we have to jump up and down, and risk those things turning around and going in the wrong direction?”
This same caution dictated his muted response to the massacre in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. China’s decision to clear the Tiananmen protesters by force led to a massacre in which untold hundreds of demonstrators were killed. Liberal and conservative leaders in the U.S. joined in calling on Bush to punish China. But here, too, he worried that too strong a denunciation would only provoke a backlash in Beijing.
Bush preferred to assert American strength in ways that would not threaten the emerging post-Cold War order. He found one in Central America, where the corrupt Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, a useful U.S. tool during the Cold War, found himself estranged from Washington as the Soviet Union turned inward. Flaunting his ties to Colombian drug smugglers, ignoring election results he didn’t like, and threatening Americans in the Canal Zone, Noriega ultimately declared war on the United States in December 1989. When a U.S. marine was killed at a checkpoint and a navy lieutenant and his wife were attacked, Bush drew the line. In the largest deployment of U.S. forces since Vietnam, the President sent 26,000 troops into Panama to secure the canal, topple the government, and bring Noriega to the U.S. to stand trial.
Perhaps the most delicate steps in his diplomatic dance were taken after the Berlin Wall came down. Though the barrier had symbolized oppression and division, to European leaders it also represented a stable status quo, in which Germany—where two world wars were hatched—was subjugated and split while the rival superpowers balanced each other out. Now the dying Soviet Union lacked the strength to control East Germany, and the West Germans asserted a right to reunification. How could that be accomplished without upsetting the balance and perhaps opening Pandora’s box?
During the six months after the fall of the Wall came down, Bush convened two summits with Gorbachev to wrestle with this issue. But more important may have been the cold, hard choice he made between the two meetings, when he acquiesced as Soviet troops suppressed reform protests in the Baltic states. Criticism was intense from both sides of the political spectrum, but Bush perceived that Russia wasn’t ready to accept pro-Western governments on its strategic border with the Baltic Sea. And he soon felt vindicated when Gorbachev came to Washington in May 1990 for a series of discussions that ended with his agreement to a unified Germany that would take its place as a member of NATO.
The Cold War was over.
Like many presidents, Bush found the chessboard of foreign relations more satisfying than the grind of domestic legislation. Still, his term saw the passage of a number of important laws. The Americans With Disabilities Act guaranteed wider access to opportunities and public places for individuals and groups too-long isolated. The Immigration Act of 1990 opened the country to the largest influx of legal immigrants in history over the ensuing decade. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 expanded protections against workplace discrimination. The High Performance Computing Act of 1991 provided funding and public access to the nascent Internet. A law passed in 1989 created the Resolution Trust Corporation to unwind the mess left by the implosion of America’s savings and loan sector. Although experts would generally praise the work of the RTC in mopping up a terrible mess, the rescue was extremely controversial at the time—made more so by the involvement of Neil Bush, the president’s son, in a Denver S & L.
Bush’s appointments to the Supreme Court were less sure-handed. In 1990, he named a New Hampshire judge, David Souter, to fill the seat of retiring liberal giant William J. Brennan. Believing that he was getting a pragmatic conservative, Bush was disappointed to see Souter move steadily to the left during his 20 terms on the high court. In 1991, Bush promoted federal appeals court Judge Clarence Thomas to succeed Thurgood Marshall and become the second African-American to serve on the court. Many blacks were offended by the appointment of a stern conservative to take Marshall’s seat, and Thomas’s confirmation hearings were brutally divisive. Not only were Thomas’s intelligence impugned and his motives questioned; the televised confrontation culminated with accusations that Thomas sexually harassed a former employee, Anita Hill. Though he was narrowly confirmed, the episode left a sour cloud over Thomas that has never entirely lifted.
Bush negotiated the free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada that came to be known as NAFTA, and sponsored a program to encourage volunteerism that he called A Thousand Points of Light. Perhaps the most consequential domestic initiative, at least in terms of Bush’s future, was the 1990 budget deal that marked a path to lower deficits—but at the cost of his promise of no new taxes. The bipartisan agreement infuriated conservative Republicans, led by the firebrand Gingrich. Never a favorite of the right wing, Bush had no well of sympathy to draw on. Instead, the conservatives felt confirmed in their belief that he was an unprincipled moderate, and Bush was sure to get a damaging challenge from the right when he ran for reelection.
Bush loses the White House
The greatest drama of Bush’s political life began after he finished hitting a bucket of golfs balls to work off the stress of the budget fight. It was August 1, 1990. Bush received news that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had pushed his Republican Guard troops into Kuwait to seize the oil-rich emirate, giving him immediate control of one-fifth of the world’s known petroleum reserves, and putting him in position to invade Saudi Arabia. Though tensions between Iraq and Kuwait had been rising through the summer, Saddam’s blitz took the world by surprise.
As it happened, Secretary of State Baker was meeting with his Soviet counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze. It was a sign of how far the world had come that Baker quickly persuaded him that the Soviet Union—a longtime supporter of Saddam—should cast its vote in the Security Council to condemn the invasion. The unanimous vote might have been a warning to the Iraqi, but Saddam boasted the fourth-largest army in the world, and felt his grip on Kuwait was a fait accompli. As Bush gathered information and mulled the situation over the next 24 hours, he became convinced that something much more than a U.S. resolution was required. Iraq must be driven back. And only the United States could project enough force to move such a large enemy.
But how? An effective response would require hundreds of thousands of American troops, thousands of vehicles, hundreds of aircraft, a naval armada. They had to be gathered somewhere, and Arab leaders feared a backlash from their own people if they welcomed the Americans. Since most of the force would have to concentrate in Saudi Arabia, Bush began a flurry of quiet negotiations focused on a reluctant King Fahd, who was initially inclined to explore a deal of some kind with Saddam. Only after Bush explained that no nation would be safe in a world where rogue regimes could invade their neighbors—and promised that the U.S. would not use half-measures or quit if the fight grew difficult—did the Saudis come around.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait, Bush responded by sending troops to the Persian Gulf. In November, he and Barbara visited a Marine Division in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, above. A few months later, in February 1991, U.S. forces entered Kuwait. The war would turn out to be the most difficult foreign crises for the Bush presidency.
Diana Walker—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Now Bush was confident that he could mount a counterattack. His public statement on August 5 dispelled growing complaints that he was being wishy-washy. “This will not stand,” he said emphatically. But at the same time, Bush saw that the U.S. action would have more legitimacy, and the world might become more cooperative over the long haul, if other nations joined in the effort. Feeling his way toward a coalition that would have been impossible just a few years earlier, Bush found himself inventing the future. Along with the Soviet “aye” he won China’s acquiescence; Beijing also agreed to cut off arms sales to Iraq. Just as remarkable, Bush gathered most of the Arab world into his coalition. He welcomed nations large and small into the effort. For former Soviet satellites like Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, participation in the coalition was a declaration of liberty; for Senegal, Niger, and Afghanistan, it was their claim to a seat at the table.
After months of diplomacy and deployment—and a narrow win in Congress backing the action—Bush gave the order to start bombing on Jan. 17, 1991. Saddam responded to the air war by lobbing Scud missiles at Israel, hopeful that he might draw the Israelis into the conflict and thus put an end to Arab cooperation. Never in his years as a businessman and politician did Bush cajole like he did with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir; it was “the hardest sale I have ever used,” he reported to his diary. Shamir bought what Bush was selling, keeping Israel on the sideline under the protection of U.S. Patriot anti-missile batteries.
When Saddam was still defiant after more than five weeks of aerial assaults, Bush unleashed the ground attack. Motorized troops—equipped with protective gear in the event of a chemical attack—roared across the Saudi border into Kuwait. While units on the right smashed through the Iraqi line, fast-moving columns swept around the left in a flanking maneuver so successful Saddam’s forces were routed within hours. A feared bloodbath was instead a virtual cakewalk, and voices in Washington and among the ground commanders urged Bush to keep going all the way to Baghdad. Bush, too, wanted to topple the dictator—but he decided the prudent course was to stick to his original demands. He had organized the world around the goal of liberating Kuwait, and that job was finished.
“To occupy Iraq would instantly shatter our coalition, turning the whole Arab world against us,” he said years later, “and make a broken tyrant into a latter-day Arab hero.” The American public embraced the decision, at least initially. In March 1991, shortly after the official end of Operation Desert Storm, Bush’s approval rating in the Gallup poll was 89 percent, the highest mark for any president in the history of the survey.
Bush knew that number would sink, and he knew why: while attention was focused on the Persian Gulf, the American economy had tipped into recession for the first time since 1982. Unemployment was up. Tax revenue was down—which meant that his painful budget compromise would yield no immediate victory in terms of a shrinking deficit. The ups and downs of the economic cycle were old hat to a Texas oilman. But Bush understood that voters weigh their wallets before casting their ballots. And if the economy did not improve by the middle of 1992, he would be in trouble.
A personal depression rolled in after the war. Gripped by gloom, Bush considered retirement instead of running for reelection. He felt unsettled by the war’s conclusion. Saddam still ruled Iraq. An uprising against the regime—which Bush encouraged—was brutally crushed while America watched from the sidelines. Painfully aware of all that could go wrong in the morass of Iraqi politics, he nevertheless was haunted by the untaken risks that might have paid off.
The discovery that Bush was suffering from Graves Disease, which stems from an overactive thyroid gland, explained some of the President’s mood. But not all. Even after he was treated for the hormonal imbalance, Bush never regained the full measure of his competitive fire. His White House diary, shared with Meacham, revealed a man struggling to brace himself for a race he didn’t really want to run. And it showed: his re-election effort would die its symbolic death when he was caught on camera checking his watch with a bored look in the middle of a presidential debate.
It was as if he realized that his entire life had been pointed to the diplomacy and leadership, the exquisite balancing of risk and caution, that he had brought to the effort in Kuwait. To marshal the world for the first time—still the only time—and to balance that world on the knife’s edge between restraint and fury, and to unleash that power so decisively, and to halt it with such discipline, was a work that would not be surpassed in a second term. Having done his best when it counted, a seed of doubt crept in: did he really want to grind out a less dramatic second act?
The coup attempt by Soviet hardliners that he had been dreading for years finally came in August 1991 and tested his sense of balance anew. To overreact—by mobilizing NATO troops, for example—might solidify the plot, which had stirred strong internal resistance led by a Russian politician named Boris Yeltsin. To underreact might suggest that the U.S. didn’t care one way or the other what happened to Gorbachev. Again, Bush found a delicate middle ground. The coup failed. Gorbachev returned to Moscow, and the next phase of history in the soon-to-be former Soviet Union clearly belonged to Yeltsin. It was another win for Bush.
There would not be many more. None of Bush’s achievements on the world stage could save him from the voracious political talent that was Bill Clinton. The young man from Arkansas was damaged goods from the moment a lounge singer named Gennifer Flowers produced tape recordings to document an affair that Clinton had denied. Yet his relentlessness, shamelessness, and focus—his war room slogan was: “it’s the economy, stupid”—kept Clinton moving forward as Bush and Perot made mistake after mistake. Bush seemed distracted on the campaign trail, where his famously fractured syntax teetered on the brink of incoherence. “Message: I care,” he announced at a rally in New Hampshire, as though he couldn’t be bothered to translate his notes into sentences.
A primary challenge by pundit Patrick Buchanan left the President bloodied from the right, so much so that he surrendered much of the GOP convention in Houston to the leaders of the conservative wing. In one sour speech after another, they pandered to a Republican base that would never really love George Bush, while alienating the moderate voters who were his only hope to salvage a victory. The President entered the general election campaign trailing Clinton badly. And he was still struggling with the depressive effects of Graves Disease. A glum and irritable Bush could not believe that the American public would elect “a draft dodger” like Clinton, but his prediction from 18 months earlier had proved correct: the election did hinge on the economy, and on that subject Bush just couldn’t connect. His frustration boiled over in the final weeks: at one point, referring to Clinton and his running mate Al Gore, Bush shouted to a surprised audience that his dog, a springer spaniel named Millie, “knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos!”
With Perot in the race, neither major party candidate came close to winning more than half of the votes. But Clinton’s 43-percent plurality produced the biggest Electoral College total for Democrat in more than a quarter-century. Publically, Bush was stoical about the loss, though between Clinton and Perot his opponents had captured more than 62 percent of the popular votes. It was a stinging repudiation. Privately, Bush was anguished, sickened by a sense of failure. “God, it was ghastly,” he later reflected. “My problem was the feeling of letting people down.”
‘You’re going to be a beloved figure’
During his last days as President, Bush encountered Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, the former Democratic speaker of the House. The wise old Boston pol told the rest of the George Bush story in one sentence: “You ran the worst campaign I ever saw, but you’re going out a beloved figure; everybody will tell you that.” Indeed, he remained largely beloved for the rest of his life, though his legacy was marred in his last months by allegations from several women thatthe elderly former president had touched them inappropriately. (A spokesman apologized for what he said was Bush’s “good-natured” behavior.)
In the more than 25 years of his post-presidency, Bush was never far from politics, but at the same time above and apart from it. It was the family business, but he was no longer behind the counter. After a failed first attempt, his son Jeb was twice elected governor of Florida. Later, Jeb was an early favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, before the earthquake named Donald J. Trump knocked him out. George W. Bush became governor of Texas, then climbed from that office to the GOP nomination in 2000. His battle against Gore for the presidency came down to a recount in Florida that was ultimately decided by a single vote in the U.S. Supreme Court.
On Jan. 20, 2001, Bush saw his son in the Oval Office. Only John Adams shared the experience of being a president and fathering one.
They came to be known as “41” and “43,” on account of their places in the roll call of presidents. From the start, “43” was determined to be his own man. “My dad went to Greenwich Country Day School in Connecticut, and I went to San Jacinto Junior High in Midland,” he liked to say. His decision to appoint Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense made his father bristle—though “41” kept his thoughts to himself.
When the course of the second Bush presidency took a sharp turn on Sept. 11, 2001, many commentators wondered about the role that father-son dynamics might have played in the decision to return American forces to Iraq, this time with the explicit purpose of toppling Saddam. According to the biographer in whom he confided, the father had misgivings about the complexity of the undertaking—not the military piece so much as what would come next. The elder Bush was at his best in thinking things through before he acted, which sometimes struck the pubic as indecision. The younger Bush strove to be decisive above all else. Time would show that neither he nor his war council, led by Vice-President Cheney and Rumsfeld at Defense, gave sufficient thought to the occupation and reconstruction of post-Saddam Iraq. Rumsfeld “served the President badly,” George Bush said after his son pushed him out of the Pentagon in 2006.
George H. W. Bush attends a dedication at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston on Oct. 1, 1993.
In any event, by all accounts “43” did not often seek his father’s advice, and “41” was loath to give it. He saw his job as supporting, encouraging, and commiserating with his son. He knew what it was like to sit in the President’s chair, to bear the weight of information available to no one else, to make decisions so difficult that no one else can make them.
Meanwhile, Bush’s genuine charm and forgiving nature brought him full circle with his former rivals. He delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Ronald Reagan in 2004, grew friendly with Bob Dole, and shared work on disaster relief with Bill Clinton—their friendship led George W. Bush to dub Clinton his “brother from another mother.” The elder Bush marveled (and rolled his eyes) at Clinton’s endless chatter on a universe of topics, and tolerated—not easy for a scion of one of golf’s leading families—Clinton’s creative scorekeeping on the links. The writer Tom Wicker summed up the interplay of Bush’s character with his reputation: “His willingness to take on even thankless jobs and his ability to do them well, together with his gift for friendship and his loyalty to the countless friends he had made and kept—sometimes to the point of political risk—lay at the core of his achievement.”
Bush is survived by five of his six children, 14 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. He will be buried on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum. Among many recognitions and awards—including his happy wheelchair ride to midfield of the 2017 Super Bowl to toss the ceremonial coin—he was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, presented in 2011 by President Barack Obama.
George Bush had a vision of what the world might be after the long twilight struggle of the Cold War. “Out of these troubled times,” he said, “a new world order can emerge: a new era—freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony… A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle.” From the slaughterhouse of Syria to the nuclear menace in North Korea, from the resurgence of nationalism to the persistence of hate, the world he envisioned eluded him, but never left him jaded, because he was unafraid to reach for things just beyond his grasp. In this quality, America recognized herself in him, and came to love him for it.
With reporting by Laurence Barrett
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