George Herbert Walker Bush, the United States president who promised to lead a “kinder and gentler” nation in his 1988 campaign, died on Nov. 30 at the age of 94. He was the longest-living president in U.S. history, born just three months before Jimmy Carter in 1924. Family spokesman Jim McGrath says Mr. Bush died shortly after 10 p.m., about eight months after the death of his wife of 73 years, Barbara Bush, who died on April 17, 2018, at the age of 92. They were the longest-married presidential couple in U.S. history.
Mr. Bush served as vice president to Republican Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1989; he was chosen by Mr. Reagan as his running mate after finishing second in the 1980 Republican presidential primaries. Though it is rare for a political party to win more than two consecutive presidential elections, Mr. Bush was able to hold the White House for the Republicans by winning easily in 1988, with 53 percent of the national vote. However, four years later he received only 37 percent, the worst performance for an incumbent since 1912, undermined by a weak economy, the breaking of his pledge not to raise taxes and the strong third-party candidacy of fellow Texan H. Ross Perot.
He won in 1988 in part by promising a change in direction from Mr. Reagan, a conservative icon who had reined in spending on social welfare programs. Besides the “gentler” pledge, Mr. Bush, a lifelong Episcopalian, celebrated “a thousand points of light,” a phrase he used in his acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican convention and in his first inaugural address to refer to community organizations and religious charities.
“This is America,” he said in his convention speech, written by Peggy Noonan and Craig Smith. “The Knights of Columbus, the Grange, Hadassah...a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.” As America editor-in-chief Matt Malone wrote in 2015, “Vice President Bush was aligned with the thinking of John Courtney Murray, S.J., who viewed civil society as an ascending world of social organizations that, along with government, form a coherent, cohesive whole.”
“This is America,” he said. “The Knights of Columbus, the Grange, Hadassah...a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.”
As president, Mr. Bush generally governed as a moderate, able to work with the Democrats who controlled both houses of Congress throughout his presidency. One issue on which he evolved was abortion: While a congressman from Texas in the 1960s, Mr. Bush was considered “pro-choice” and supportive of Planned Parenthood, but as president he worked with pro-life groups, addressing the annual March for Life (via phone) and steering foreign aid away from “family planning” programs that funded or promoted abortion.
Mr. Bush made 26 international trips during his four years as chief executive, leaving the country more frequently than any previous president and setting a new standard for face-to-face diplomacy. He visited St. John Paul II at the Vatican twice, in May 1989 and November 1991.
With a background in diplomacy, including stints as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (1971-73) and U.S. ambassador to China (1974-75), President Bush paid particular attention to foreign affairs while in the White House. His most successful initiative in that area was the Gulf War: In response to the invasion of Kuwait in early 1991 by Iraq and its leader Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bush organized a coalition of nations that used air and land attacks to push back Iraqi forces. The attack ended after four weeks, stopping short of any attempt to oust Mr. Hussein from power; Mr. Bush said he wanted to minimize U.S. casualties. As the fighting ended, Gallup reported that Mr. Bush had an 89 percent approval rating among U.S. voters, one of the highest jumps in presidential popularity in the history of the polling organization.
After liberating Kuwait, he rejected suggestions that the U.S. carry the offensive to Baghdad, choosing to end the hostilities a mere 100 hours after the start of the ground war.
“That wasn't our objective,” he told The Associated Press in 2011 from his office just a few blocks from his Houston home. “The good thing about it is there was so much less loss of human life than had been predicted and indeed than we might have feared.”
But the decisive military defeat did not lead to the regime's downfall, as many in the administration had hoped.
"I miscalculated," acknowledged Mr. Bush. His legacy was dogged for years by doubts about the decision not to remove Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi leader was eventually ousted in 2003, in the war led by Bush's son that was followed by a long, bloody insurgency.
As president, Mr. Bush generally governed as a moderate, able to work with the Democrats who controlled both houses of Congress throughout his presidency.
The popularity of the military campaign did not extend to the Vatican. During his Easter Sunday message, while U.S.-led forces were moving against Iraq, Pope John Paul II denounced the war as a “darkness” that had “cast a shadow over the whole human community.”
Communism began to crumble on the 41st president’s watch, with the Berlin Wall coming down, the Warsaw Pact disintegrating and the Soviet satellites falling out of orbit. He seized leadership of the NATO alliance with a bold and ultimately successful proposal for deep troop and tank cuts in Europe. Huge crowds cheered him on a triumphal tour through Poland and Hungary.
Mr. Bush’s invasion of Panama in December 1989 was a military precursor of the Gulf War: a quick operation with a resoundingly superior American force. But in Panama, the troops seized dictator Manuel Noriega and brought him back to the United States in chains to stand trial on drug-trafficking charges.
Months after the Gulf War, Washington became engrossed in a different sort of confrontation over one of Bush's nominees to the Supreme Court. Clarence Thomas, a little-known federal appeals court judge, was accused of sexual harassment by a former colleague named Anita Hill. His confirmation hearings exploded into a national spectacle, sparking an intense debate over race, gender and the modern workplace. Mr. Thomas was eventually confirmed.
Though the agreement was not ratified until after he left office, Mr. Bush also signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), which created a trade bloc comprising the United States, Canada and Mexico.
In domestic policy, his notable achievements included enacting the Americans With Disabilities Act, a landmark piece of bipartisan legislation that bans discrimination against the disabled in hiring practices and in public accommodations. In signing the bill in 1990, Mr. Bush once again looked to the world stage, saying “its passage has made the United States the international leader on this human rights issue.”
The decisive military defeat did not lead to the Saddam regime's downfall. "I miscalculated," acknowledged Mr. Bush.
Referencing the fall of the Berlin Wall the year before, Mr. Bush added, “Now I sign legislation which takes a sledgehammer to another wall, one which has for too many generations separated Americans with disabilities from the freedom they could glimpse, but not grasp. Once again, we rejoice as this barrier falls for claiming together we will not accept, we will not excuse, we will not tolerate discrimination in America.”
He won in 1988 with a startlingly tough campaign against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, repeatedly criticizing the Massachusetts governor for vetoing a bill requiring public school teachers to lead the Pledge of Allegiance. Mr. Bush also benefited from a television commercial blaming Mr. Dukakis for a murder committed by someone on furlough and from a debate in which Mr. Dukakis stated his opposition to the death penalty.
Mr. Bush reneged on a 1988 campaign promise, assuring American voters then, “Read my lips, no new taxes.” It was a turn of phrase which would come back to haunt him politically. After a struggle with Congress, he signed an increase in taxes in compromise legislation meant to address the nation’s deficit with Senate Democrats that would provoke a fury among his supporters.
He lost his bid for re-election to Bill Clinton in a campaign in which businessman H. Ross Perot took almost 19 percent of the vote as an independent candidate. Still, he lived to see his son, George W., twice elected to the presidency—only the second father-and-son chief executives, following John Adams and John Quincy Adams.
The 43rd president issued a statement following his father's death, saying the elder Bush “was a man of the highest character.”
“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,” the statement read.
Mr. Bush cultivated the image of the ultimate diplomat, and he was famous for his handwritten thank-you notes to political allies and foes alike. After he was defeated for re-election, he left behind a note in the White House for his successor, President Clinton, saying, “I wish you happiness here.... Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
Mr. Bush reneged on a 1988 campaign promise, assuring American voters then, “Read my lips, no new taxes.” It was a turn of phrase which would come back to haunt him politically.
After his 1992 defeat, George H.W. Bush complained that media-created “myths” gave voters a mistaken impression that he did not identify with the lives of ordinary Americans. He decided he lost because he “just wasn't a good enough communicator.”
Once out of office, Bush was content to remain on the sidelines, except for an occasional speech or paid appearance and visits abroad. He visited the Middle East, where he was revered for his defense of Kuwait. And he returned to China, where he was welcomed as “an old friend” from his days as the U.S. ambassador there.
He later teamed with Mr. Clinton to raise tens of millions of dollars for victims of a 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean and Hurricane Katrina, which swamped New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005. During their wide-ranging travels, the political odd couple grew close.
“Who would have thought that I would be working with Bill Clinton, of all people?” Mr. Bush quipped in October 2005.
In his post-presidency, Mr. Bush’s popularity rebounded with the growth of his reputation as a fundamentally decent and well-meaning leader who, although he was not a stirring orator or a dreamy visionary, was a steadfast humanitarian. Elected officials and celebrities of both parties publicly expressed their fondness.
Mr. Bush was born in 1924 in Milton, Mass., almost three decades before his father, banker and businessman Prescott Sheldon Bush, won election as a Republican to a U.S. seat in Connecticut. He attended Phillips Academy Andover, a boarding school in Massachusetts; after graduating in 1942, a few months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. (He met Barbara Pierce, his future wife, at a Christmas dance in 1941.)
In 1943, he became a pilot, probably the youngest one in the Navy, according to biographer and historian Jon Meacham, flying torpedo bombers in the Pacific. His plane was shot down by Japanese fire in 1944, and he bailed out over the ocean, eventually being rescued by a submarine. His two crewmates perished. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery.
With additional content from The Associated Press