President George H.W. Bush, 1924-2018
The 41st president of the United States has died at age 94
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George Herbert Walker Bush, war hero, Republican statesman, and 41st president of the United States, died Friday night at his Houston home. He was 94 and suffered from a form of Parkinson’s disease that had confined him to a wheelchair since 2012.
Bush began his presidency on Jan. 20, 1989, and led the country during an era of tumultuous foreign politics in a fragile, rapidly changing world. He was a man of traditional values who spoke unashamedly about his faith, loved country music, and sparked a collective national gasp when he admitted he hated broccoli.
He was also the second U.S. president after John Adams to live to see his son elected to the same office. George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, issued a statement Friday calling his father “a man of the highest character,” adding, “The entire Bush family is deeply grateful for 41’s life and love, for the compassion of those who have cared and prayed for Dad.”
During the four years the elder Bush held the nation’s highest office, Germany’s Berlin Wall fell, reunifying that nation, the Cold War came to an end, democracy spread through Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the United States forged a new partnership with Russia, resulting in the first agreements to dismantle and destroy strategic weapons since the dawn of the Atomic Age.
In his first year in office, Bush led an invasion to capture the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who threatened the Panama Canal and the Americans living there. In 1990, he rallied a 30-nation coalition that took only one month to successfully defeat Iraqi forces that invaded Kuwait and threatened to move into Saudi Arabia. The short duration and success of the first Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Storm, skyrocketed Bush’s approval ratings to 90 percent.
“People today do not appreciate how dangerous a time that was and how much pressure was on him simply not to make the wrong moves,” said Paul Bonicelli, a professor of government at Regent University in Virginia. “He was patient and deliberative.”
A well-seasoned statesman, Bush brought to the White House “foreign affairs expertise that was almost unmatched,” said Mark Smith, professor of political science at Cedarville University in Ohio.
But Bush proved far more skilled with foreign policy than domestic issues.
“These heights of foreign policy success were diminished by the depths of his domestic struggles,” Smith said.
Bush reneged on his 1988 campaign promise of “no new taxes” and signed a large tax increase into law. After that, he never regained the full faith and confidence of his fellow Republicans, Smith said. Refusing to hold the line against new taxes disconnected Bush from his predecessor President Ronald Reagan’s legacy and he never recovered, losing reelection in 1992 to Bill Clinton after one term in office.
Described by those who knew him as a kind and decent man, Bush envisioned fashioning America into a kinder, gentler nation. In his presidential nomination acceptance speech, he encouraged the country to eschew abortion and embrace adoption.
“Barbara and I have an adopted granddaughter,” he said. “The day of her christening we wept with joy. I thank God that her parents chose life.”
Brought up in a family that stressed service and giving back to society, Bush believed in volunteerism. In his presidential inaugural address in 1989, he called the American people to acts of service. He spoke of community organizations as “a thousand points of light … spread like stars throughout the nation.” In his second year as president, he created the Daily Point of Light Award to recognize the efforts of individual volunteers. That concept launched the world’s largest private nonprofit organization dedicated to volunteer services, which now engages more than 4 million volunteers and 30 million hours of service each year.
Bush was born June 12, 1924, in Milton, Mass., to Prescott and Dorothy (Walker) Bush. On Jan. 6, 1945, he married Barbara Pierce of Rye, N.Y., and they had six children. Their second child, Pauline Robinson “Robin,” died of leukemia at the age of 3, an event the former president could not discuss without choking up, even half a century later, according to those who knew him well. Barbara Bush preceded her husband in death in April of this year at age 92.
Anxious to serve his country in World War II, Bush enlisted in the U.S. Navy on his 18th birthday. Less than a year later, he was commissioned and received his wings, making him the youngest pilot in the Navy. He nearly lost his life during one of 58 combat missions when his plane was shot down near the Island of Chichi Jima, about 600 miles south of Japan. Despite a badly damaged aircraft engulfed in flames, Bush completed his mission before he bailed into the sea. With Japanese gunboats in pursuit, he paddled his life raft for two hours before being rescued by a Navy submarine. His actions that day earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross award and three Air Medals.
The harrowing experience spawned a president who took sending U.S. soldiers and sailors to war very seriously. Forty-seven years later, he agonized over the decision to go to war with Iraq.
“It is my decision that affects [the] husband, the girlfriend, or the wife that is waiting, or the mother that writes, ‘Take care of my son,’” he wrote in his diary. “And yet I know what I have to do.”
Following World War II, Bush pursued an accelerated degree in economics at Yale University, allowing him to graduate in 2½ years. He served as captain of the varsity baseball team, was on the Yale cheerleading squad, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1948. He moved to West Texas, worked as an oil field supply salesman, and eventually founded his own oil company before embarking on the road to politics.
“Beyond his military service, George H.W. Bush constructed a remarkable career,” Smith said. “He was at the forefront of the growth of the Republican Party in the South. … Bush was a party trailblazer in Texas, which had been long dominated by Democrats.”
Bush served four years in the U.S. House of Representatives, beginning in 1966. In 1971, he was appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and became chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1973. He was appointed director of the Central Intelligence Agency and envoy to China in 1976 during a crucial period when the United States was renewing ties with that country. He was sworn in for the first of two terms as vice president on Jan. 20, 1981, under President Ronald Reagan.
After leaving office, Bush and his wife returned to Houston and spent their summers in Kennebunkport, Maine. In 1993, Bush was the third American president, after Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, to be awarded an honorary knighthood in the United Kingdom by Queen Elizabeth II.
Bush volunteered time at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston and sat on his local hospital board. After a tsunami in the Indian Ocean struck Southeast Asia in 2004, he worked with former President Bill Clinton to create the Bush-Clinton Houston Tsunami Fund. The two teamed up a year later to raise relief funds in Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina and again in 2008 to create the Bush-Clinton Coastal Recovery Fund to focus on long-term recovery efforts all along the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Ike.
Never forgetting his two friends who didn’t survive when his plane was shot down in World War II, Bush celebrated his 80th birthday by skydiving in their honor. He continued the tradition on his 85th and 90th birthdays.
Five children—George Walker Bush, John Ellis (Jeb) Bush, Neil Mallon Bush, Marvin Pierce Bush, and Dorothy Bush Koch—17 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren survive him.
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