He was born into a family of wealth, prestige and privilege with, one might say, patrician bloodlines. He could have taken the easy way out. He could have lived a soft, cushy (albeit nondescript) life. He could have let his connected family secure him a safe, non-combat position during WWII, and then he could have lived out his life working in the family’s business. But, that was not who he was. In the modern vernacular, that was not how he “rolled.”
George Herbert Walker Bush was born on June 12, 1924 in Milton, MA. Soon after his birth his family moved to Greenwich, CT. His father, Prescott, was a Wall Street investment banking executive and the son of a wealthy and influential business executive. In addition, he was active in local GOP politics. He was a supporter of President Dwight Eisenhower and served as Senator from 1952-1963. George’s maternal grandfather, George Herbert Walker, for whom he was named, was a successful banker and businessman. Moreover, he served as president of the USGA for many years, and it is he for whom the famed Walker Cup is named.
George attended the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, MA. While there, he demonstrated leadership skills that were a precursor of what was to come. For example, he was elected president of his senior class, secretary of the student council, a member of the editorial board of the school newspaper, president of the community fund-raising group, and captain of both the soccer and baseball teams. But, most significantly, while at a dance he met Barbara Pierce, the daughter of the publisher of McCall’s Magazine.
His true character manifested itself after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the US into WWII. In June 1942 upon graduation from Phillips and shortly after his 18th birthday George enlisted in the Navy with the intention of becoming a Navy pilot. He did so despite the strenuous objections of his father, who wanted him to continue his education. The following June he was commissioned as an ensign and, at 19, became the youngest naval aviator ever to that date.
In 1944 George had a brush with death. While engaged in a battle against the Japanese in the Bonin Islands in the Pacific, his plane was severely damaged by anti-aircraft fire. Despite the exigency of the situation George first completed his bombing mission, then he and his crew bailed out over the ocean. George was rescued after floating in a lifeboat for several hours, the only survivor. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. As an aside, it was later learned that the Japanese were executing any captured pilots and eating their livers. Ugh!
In January 1945, George married the aforementioned Barbara Pierce. They had six children – four boys and two girls. One girl, Robin, died tragically from leukemia at the age of 3. As we all know, one son, George W, became the 43rd President of the US.
The Bushes were married 74 years, the longest presidential marriage ever. Whose marriage is the second longest? Answer below. Furthermore, George and George W. were only the second father-son presidential combination. See below for the identity of the other one. Also, we have had one grandfather-grandson combination. Again, see below for the answer.
In 1948, after graduating from Yale in 2 1/2 years as a Phi Beta Kappa, he eschewed the family business and struck out on his own to make his fortune. He went as far away from his roots as he could, both literally and figuratively. He loaded up his family and drove to West Texas, which, at the time, was truly the “wild west” and the middle of nowhere, to seek his fortune in the oil business. He was a rousing success, first in sales, then as a “wild-catter.” By the mid-1950s he was co-owner of the huge Zapata Petroleum Corp and a multi-millionaire.
The next step was politics. In 1964 he lost his first race, which was for the US Senate. But, 1966 he was elected to the House of Representatives, becoming the first GOPer ever to represent the City of Houston. He became a staunch supporter of President Nixon. It was Nixon who persuaded him to give up his spot to run for the Senate in 1968. He lost, but Nixon, in recognition of his “sacrifice,” appointed him Ambassador to the UN. Later, he was elected chairman of the Republican National Committee and served as Chief of the US Liaison Office of China. (Since the US did not recognize China, this was the highest diplomatic position and equivalent to an ambassadorship.) In 1976 President Ford appointed George head of the CIA, which had been coming under much criticism and was being investigated by Congress for alleged illegal and unauthorized activities.
In 1980 George ran for the GOP nomination for president. He started as a big underdog but ended up giving the eventual nominee, Ronald Reagan, a tough fight. Impressed, Reagan tapped him as his VP. They served for eight years together. In my opinion the Reagan presidency was a huge success, winning the cold war and presiding over a booming economy. George was his loyal VP.
In 1988 George ran for the presidency. His primary rivals for the GOP nomination were Senator Bob Dole (Kansas) and Representative Jack Kemp (NY). (Kemp was a former professional quarterback for the Buffalo Bills.) Bush won handily. During his acceptance speech he uttered a pledge that would later prove to be problematic for his presidency. He pledged, “read my lips. No new taxes.”
He faced Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in the general election. At first, Bush was way behind, but Dukakis’ soft stance on crime and opposition to capital punishment proved to be fatal for him. Bush won the election comfortably, thus becoming the first sitting VP to be elected president since 1836.
In my opinion, Bush’s tenure as president was a mixed bag – some successes and some failures. For instance, on the plus side, when Iraq invaded Kuwait Bush managed to forge a coalition of Arab states to combat Iraq. In addition, he managed to keep Russia from actively opposing the coalition. The Iraqi army was quickly forced out of Kuwait, but Bush was criticized in some quarters for not pursuing the fight all the way to Baghdad and deposing Saddam Hussein. (As it happened, that was probably the right decision. As we have seen, when Hussein was deposed some years later Iraq descended into chaos and civil war between the Sunni and Shia factions. Also, the power vacuum facilitated the rise of ISIS.)
Bush’s main failure was the economy. He was largely unsuccessful in curbing the deficit. Unemployment rose to a peak of 7.8%, and in 1989 the Census Bureau disclosed that 14.2% of Americans were living in poverty. However, the worst decision he made was to agree to a tax increase in order to get the Democratic Congress to agree to spending cuts. Conservative Republicans never forgave him for that. It may have been the right thing to do for the country, but it was devastating, politically. Most likely, it was one of the major factors that caused him to lose his re-election bid in 1992.
By the time the 1992 election campaign rolled around Bush’s approval rating, which had exceeded 90% after the defeat of Iraq, had declined to 37%, primarily because of the weak economy. So, Bush became a one-term president, with the dubious distinction of the being first elected Republican president to lose a re-election bid since Herbert Hoover in 1928 (and we all know why he lost).
With the passage of time George’s popularity and standing as president have seemed to improve. This is not uncommon with presidents as the perspective of history often provides a more realistic assessment of their job performance. According to “USA Today,” his positive foreign policy achievements – the victory over Iraq, his presiding over the defeat of Russia and the successful reunification of Germany – have improved his legacy. Those achievements have seemed to overshadow the memory of the weak economy under his administration.
In 2007 at the age of 83 he decided to freefall out of an airplane, which he did with the assistance of a professional guide. Guide or no, that was pretty impressive for an 83 year old. In the last few years of his life George was forced to get around in a motorized scooter or wheelchair due to a form of Parkinson’s Disease called vascular parkinsonism, but it did not dampen his enthusiasm and zest for life.
George Herbert Walker Bush passed away on November 30, 2018 at the age of 94. He lived a full and rewarding life – war hero, successful businessman, public servant, statesman, and family patriarch. He has the distinction of being the longest-lived American president.
Rest in peace, George. You were an exceptional person, and you will be sorely missed.
1. The second longest presidential marriage at 54 years was John and Abigail Adams.
2. The other father-son combo was John Adams (1797-1801) – John Quincy Adams (1825-1829).
3. The grandfather-grandson combo was William Henry Harrison (1841)- Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893). For you trivia buffs, William Henry has the dubious distinction of having served the shortest term as president, 31 days. He caught a cold at his inauguration, contracted pneumonia, and in those pre-antibiotic days, that was that.