By Joshua Yasmeh
As the nation mourns the death of former President George H.W. Bush many obituaries have focused on the man and his accomplishments. Yet, most of those tributes have overlooked how his iron character was forged – and how he often came close to political disaster.
Bush passed away this past week at the age of 94 – just seven months after the death of wife Barbara. His death follows a life-time of service to his country. He was the last elected Republican president since Dwight Eisenhower who wasn’t universally reviled by the opposing party.
His valor was evident as a young man when he defied his parents’ wishes and joined the Navy the day he turned 18 to defend his country in World War II. As a combat pilot who carried out many successful missions, Bush’s plane was shot down during one mission by the Japanese; he was forced to bailout from his damaged warplane over open ocean but was fortunately saved by a U.S. submarine after several hours.
His brothers in arms weren’t as lucky, and two crewmen on his plane were never seen again. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Bush would be haunted with the belief that he could have done something, anything, to save their lives. Even after leaving office, he would symbolically re-enact the scarring event with commercial parachute jumps. That loss in an otherwise effectual war career was just the beginning of the trials and tribulations he was destined to face during his long career in public service.
To shake the ghost of war and emerge from the shadows of his father – Wall Street banker and U.S. Senator Prescott Bush (R-CT) – Bush and his young wife Barbara moved to Texas to chase the American dream of black gold. At his core, Bush was an oil man. And while he could have headed his family’s east coast-based business, comfortably settling into an executive role, he was keen to shake the perception that he was the privileged son of one of America’s wealthiest scions.
Bush chose to push back against being pigeon-holed and consequently named his oil company Zapata Oil after the Mexican revolutionary and outlaw.
Quiet and polished, Bush worked within the structures of his patrician world to leave a legacy that was neither conformist nor entirely radical. This pragmatic world view, one in which compromise and empathy shaped his interpersonal interactions, was informed by a life defined marked by resilience in the face of setbacks.
In Texas, Bush would experience another crippling loss when his daughter Robin died of leukemia just two months before her fourth birthday. Bush spent many a night comforting his wife as she cried herself to sleep.
But it was in these moments of hardship, of unimaginable despair that Bush gained the fortitude necessary to lead his beloved country out of the abyss of the Cold War. He was a product of what psychologists call post-traumatic growth; a man who wasn’t defined by trauma but harnessed the power of grief to propel him forward into the tumultuous world of American politics.
Bush’s political career began in 1960 when he won a congressional seat in Texas but, by the end of the decade, his independence agency was hampered by prevailing political forces. Bush became a political pawn of President Nixon who urged him to run against Senator Ralph Yarborough – a strong Nixon critic. Bush lost the election to the popular Yarborough badly (53% – 46%). Nixon, who had urged Bush to relinquish his congressional seat to run for the senate, sheepishly offered him a position as special assistant to the president in 1970. However, in a gesture of self-assertion, Bush convinced Nixon that he was better suited as ambassador to the United Nations. Nixon soon came to put great stock in Bush. Eventually, Nixon tapped him to become the U.S. liaison to communist China – the U.S. still did not have formal ties with China then.
While serving in China, Bush baptized his daughter Dorothy. She became the first person publicly baptized in the People’s Republic of China since 1949. Holding his baby in his arms, Bush couldn’t help but think of the loss of Robin all those years ago. Dorothy would be Bush’s last child.
Sandwiching his service in China (1974-75) between a series of other high profile jobs, Bush served in a number of governmental posts, including Ambassador to the United Nations (1971-73); Chairman of the Republican National Committee (1973-74) and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (1976-77)
Perhaps as a result of the influence of his father, Senator Prescott Bush, a genteel senator from Connecticut, Bush was the last moderate Eisenhower Republican not afraid to develop a streak of bipartisanship. He was even casually suggested to incoming President Carter to stay on as CIA chief. After all, the Cold War was at its peak, and the national security establishment felt as though a steady hand was needed at the country’s top intelligence post.
But Carter passed on Bush, who soon set his eyes on the presidency. By the late 1970s, Bush had built political clout by maintaining a Rolodex of 10,000 important individuals and perhaps, more importantly, writing an intimate handwritten thank you note to anyone who did him a favor. These connections, and the establishment Republican view that his main opponent, Ronald Reagan, was too conservative, seemed to position him well for the 1980 GOP presidential primary.
Bush’s moderation, however, failed to win him many friends amongst the conservatives. This was despite the fact that he spent several decades attempting to woo the right-wing of the party. Many conservatives never fully embraced him despite his aggressive courtship. In the early 1960s, he brought controversial John Birch Society loyalists into the Republican mainstream. In the 1990s, he personally carried the bag of Rush Limbaugh when the conservative radio personality was invited to spend a night at the White House. At times, he picked fights with the free-market wing of the party, undermining his own rapprochement efforts. While running for president in 1980, he characterized Ronald Reagan’s supply side economic views as “Voodoo Economic Policy.” Such statements misjudged the national mood, and after winning the Iowa caucus, his campaign fizzled with Bush winning only eleven states before dropping out in May.
His political career seemed finished.
Ronald Reagan’s first choice for vice president was supposed to form a “dream-ticket” with former President Gerald Ford. When negotiations broke down with Ford at the Republican convention, Bush was Reagan’s last minute choice. Once again, Bush had risen from defeat and maintained an enviable position in the national arena.
The two proved to be an effective team. Bush wasn’t the great communicator that his boss was, but nobody worked harder to help Reagan develop and successfully execute his policies. No one was more loyal. He helped elevate the vice presidency, symbolized his weekly, one-on-one lunch with the president. Bush was the wonk of the Reagan administration, the man who checked his emotions in ways that made him both respected from a policy standpoint but somewhat unrelatable from a public relations perspective.
“Win this one for the Gipper,” Reagan told the Republican National Convention in 1988 in reference to Bush.
Bush had been called a “wimp” by Newsweek in 1987 but, this was largely a stage-managed act. Anyone who was the former head of the CIA and a combat fighter pilot knew how to play hardball. Leveraging his public image, Bush famously decided to “go negative” with the Willie Horton ads. These ads targeted his opponent Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis as soft on crime after having given furlough to a prisoner who went on to a commit a murder. Indeed, Dukakis’ ineptitude was a boon for Bush. When Dukakis posed in a tank to make himself appear more macho, the Bush campaign was quick to remind people that is was the vice president who was an actual combat veteran.
Powered by Reagan’s success, Bush won a landslide victory in 1988 to become the 41st president of the United States. In doing so, Bush became the first U.S. vice presidential candidate elected directly to the presidency since Martin Van Buren in 1836.
As president, Bush put his heart into foreign policy, perhaps more so than domestic politics. He watched as the Berlin Wall fell and Iran fought a gory war with Iraq. Though at the time Bush was criticized for failing to publicly display enthusiasm over the collapse of the Soviet Union, historians would later praise his prudence, crediting him with the relatively smooth reunification of Germany.
Though soft-spoken, Bush didn’t hesitate to use American military power in Panama, Iraq, and Somalia.
“Nobody should starve on Christmas,” Bush said in the closing days of his presidency when he committed some 20,000 U.S. troops to a U.N. mission in Somalia. It was the first large-scale deployment of U.S. troops to Africa since World War II.
While subsequent presidents have ignored the chaos in the geopolitically important country, President Donald Trump recently announced the re-opening of the U.S. embassy in Somalia and deployed the first regular U.S. combat troops there since the early 1990s.
The success of Bush’s military operations paved the way for more hubristic applications of American military power by the neoconservatives under his son George W. Bush.
“This cannot stand, this aggression against Kuwait,” Bush said in 1990 during an impromptu press conference with reporters on the White House Lawn following Saddam’s occupation of oil-rich Kuwait.
Bush hoped his foreign policy accomplishments, most notably his victory in the First Gulf War – the first major American military operation since the Vietnam War – would allow him the galvanize domestic support to pass a tax increase that contradicted his famous “Read My Lips” tax pledge – itself an homage to the film “Dirty Harry.” And though Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker managed to put together a remarkable international coalition to competently execute Operation Desert Storm, victories in the global arena failed to win him adequate backing at home.
The 1992 presidential election saw the emergence of Bill Clinton, a young, charming, saxophone playing Arkansas governor who outshined the older, more austere Bush. Clinton appeared hungrier. He was more ambitious and was ironically seen as the Democratic version of Bush’s old boss, Ronald Reagan. Despite a willingness to defy Republican orthodoxy, Bush fell short of realizing his long-term ambitions as many “Reagan Democrats” switched to support Clinton. Riding the coattails of the Reagan presidency into office in 1988, Bush never received America’s full support outside of the shadow of his charismatic predecessor. Adding insult to injury, Ross Perot launched a third-party campaign to challenge Bush; this unorthodox, outsider challenge from a neophyte that would later influence Donald Trump’s presidential run in 2016.
In a classic display of candor, Bush admitted that he had trouble with “the vision thing.” He never gave voters a clear reason why he should be re-elected. The “Reagan Democrats” switched to support Bill Clinton in part because the media had portrayed the economy as faltering when in fact GDP grew by an impressive 3.5% that year.
Given these dynamics, it perhaps wasn’t all too surprising that Clinton, a relative newcomer to the national stage (and a former draft dodger) defeated an experienced and established war hero who thrived in the foreign policy arena by large margins. Bush won only 37% of the vote in the three-way race. It was another tough setback.
After leaving office, Bush settled into retirement but was still outspoken about what he saw as incompetence. He was acutely critical of two former associates, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, both of whom helped guide his son’s hand in deciding to go to war in Iraq following 9/11. Bush, ironically, may have influenced his son’s decision to fight when it was revealed that Saddam Hussein had launched a plan to assassinate the former president because of the Gulf War.
Besides his enduring service to country, Bush’s greatest accomplishment was his family, which he helped turn into a political dynasty that still steers the country’s fate. He fathered six children during his 73-year marriage with Barbara, many of whom went on to live a life of public service. His eldest and most famous son, George W. Bush was elected as president in 2000, narrowly defeating Bill Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, in what appeared to a classic example of poetic justice less than a decade after Bush Sr.’s electoral loss to Clinton. Bush’s second son, John Ellis, known to most as Jeb, lost a primary bid for the Republican presidential nomination to Donald Trump in 2016, but still managed to make his father proud during his long stint as the bilingual Governor of Florida.
Like all great figures, Bush will be remembered for his victories. But it was his response to tragedy and defeat that revealed the true measure of his character.
“There are times when the future seems thick as a fog; you sit and wait, hoping the mists will lift and reveal the right path. But this is a time when the future seems a door you can walk right through into a room called tomorrow,” Bush famously said in his 1989 inaugural address. These memorable lines might as well explain his political path as well.
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