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date: 24 May 2022

Bush, George H.

(12 June 1924–30 Nov. 2018)

Bush, George H.

(12 June 1924–30 Nov. 2018)
  • Barbara A. Perry

George H.W. Bush, 1989, by Michael Geissinger

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Bush, George H. W. (12 June 1924–30 Nov. 2018), forty-first president of the United States, was born George Herbert Walker Bush in Milton, Massachusetts, to Prescott S. Bush, an investment banker, and Dorothy Walker Bush, a homemaker. The family moved to Greenwich, Connecticut in 1925 and spent summers at the Walker family’s resort home in Kennebunkport, Maine. Called “Poppy,” after his namesake uncle, young George attended Greenwich Country Day School, before enrolling in the elite prep school, Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he became a star baseball player and popular student noted for protecting freshmen from older bullies. Empathy was a noted hallmark of his personality.

Bush enlisted in the Navy during World War II, immediately after graduation from high school in 1942. He became one of the youngest Navy fighter pilots in the war and displayed extraordinary heroism in the South Pacific, flying fifty-eight combat missions off the USS San Jacinto. After a September 1944 bombing run over the Japanese-held island of Chichi Jima, where his plane took a direct hit, Lieutenant (jg) Bush had to bail out over the ocean, where he spent several hours adrift in a raft, frantically paddling against the current that was carrying him back toward the enemy. Miraculously, a U.S. submarine discovered and rescued the young pilot from certain capture, torture, or death at the hands of the Japanese, who were later tried for cannibalizing U.S. airmen on the island. For his bravery, Bush earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, but he always grieved the loss of his two crewmates.

Returning stateside, he married Barbara Pierce in January 1945. They would produce six children, including their eldest, George W. Bush, who would become the forty-third president of the United States, and John Ellis (Jeb), who was elected governor of Florida and ran unsuccessfully for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Their second child, Robin, succumbed to leukemia at age three, devastating the family.

After mustering out of the service, Bush enrolled at Yale, completed his undergraduate economics degree, and earned Phi Beta Kappa honors in fewer than three years, graduating in 1948. As a star first baseman, he led Yale’s team to the first college World Series in 1947 and again in 1948. Although the Bulldogs failed to win the championship, Bush’s senior season was capped by meeting major league star Babe Ruth, who presented him with a signed copy of his autobiography at Yale Field just a few months before cancer claimed the baseball legend’s life.

Looking to make his own way in business, Bush decided to leave the Northeast and settled in Odessa and then Midland, to forge a career in the West Texas oil fields. In 1953 he co-founded an oil company, Zapata, added to the Bush family fortune with his own financial acumen, and moved his growing brood to Houston. With his father holding a seat in the U.S. Senate from Connecticut, Bush decided to enter politics, too. He began working for the election of GOP candidates and by 1962 had become chair of the Harris County Republican Party, a powerful organization in Texas’s largest county. He absorbed the details of grassroots politics and networked with other party leaders around the Lone Star State.

At age thirty-nine, Bush tossed his hat into the political arena for the 1964 Senate race against incumbent Democrat Ralph Yarborough. He lost this first contest for elective office but emerged victorious two years later for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas’s 7th District, where he served for two terms, from 1967 to 1971. His father’s congressional connections scored Bush a plum assignment to the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, where all tax legislation originates. The Texas congressman earned a reputation as a hardworking freshman representative, who kept in close touch with his constituents, handwrote personal notes to colleagues, and invited friends over to the family home in Washington for backyard cookouts, organized by Barbara.

Bush also kept a close eye on two divisive issues of that era—the Vietnam War and civil rights. In late 1967 he visited Southeast Asia and accepted the official line that the U.S. was winning the war to thwart the Communist takeover of South Vietnam. But, as opposition mounted to the war at home, and American objectives grew further out of reach, he began to doubt the wisdom of the limited war strategy that, nevertheless, wrought a burdensome toll in dead, wounded, and captured service personnel. He also noticed the disproportionate contributions of Black Americans, who had few options to being drafted and serving on the front lines. Bush’s son George, on the other hand, used the family’s status to land a coveted spot in the Texas Air Guard, ensuring that he would avoid overseas deployment, much less face combat.

Bush’s observations of racial disparities in the military propelled him toward a more liberal stance on racial equality. He had opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, arguing the conservative position that the federal government was violating states’ rights, but now he joined the more progressive wing of the GOP in calling for equity based on race. In the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, Bush voted for the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which made racial and ethnic discrimination in housing purchases illegal. His more moderate Republicanism and geographic diversity landed him on a short list for the vice-presidential slot on the GOP’s 1968 presidential ticket, headed by Richard Nixon.

Instead, Nixon chose Maryland Governor Spiro T. Agnew, but he encouraged Bush to run again for the Senate in 1970. Once more, the upper congressional chamber proved elusive, as Bush went down to defeat at the hands of Democrat Lloyd Bentsen. Yet he had impressed Nixon, who in 1971 named Bush U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. To his growing expertise in domestic policy from two congressional terms, he would now add international affairs to his résumé and take his place in the president’s cabinet.

Ambassador Bush supported President Nixon’s decision to open relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with a historic visit to the isolated country in 1972. Acceptance of Communist China into the U.N., however, came at the expense of longtime ally Taiwan. Third World countries, particularly those that were anti-American, joined a movement to expel the beleaguered island from the international body. Although impatient with the endless rounds of diplomatic lunches, dinners, and other social occasions, Bush wrote to President Nixon just after his 1972 landslide defeat of George McGovern for reelection to a second term: “I have been dealing happily, and I hope effectively, with the top international leadership” (George H. W. Bush, p. 163). Nixon called for the resignation of all cabinet members, and Bush told him that the secretary of state position “would be tops” for his next position. Instead, the president named Bush chair of the Republican National Committee. The former congressman and ambassador could not have known that the position would afford him an unwanted ringside seat at the most disruptive political scandal to rock the presidency in its history.

Bush accepted his new job in January 1973, under the firm impression that Nixon had no role in the Watergate drama, starting with the break-in and bugging of the Democratic National Committee’s offices the previous June by operatives working for the Committee to Reelect the President. But as The Washington Post’s dogged investigative team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, along with the Senate Watergate Committee, began to unspool the story, the threads inexorably led to the president himself. Revelations that Nixon had secretly recorded conversations, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that he must release the tapes as evidence in his advisors’ criminal trials, stunned Bush. When the recordings revealed that the president had been a party to the Watergate coverup (if not the initial break-in), the RNC chair penned a letter to the president: “It is my considered judgment that you should now resign” (Meacham, p. 173). Two days later, with the House of Representatives moving toward impeachment, the Senate sure to convict, and GOP leaders in both houses informing Nixon that he had lost their support, he became the first president to step down from the nation’s highest office.

A new challenge awaited Bush when Nixon’s successor, Gerald R. Ford, after considering Bush for appointment to the vice presidency, named him chief of the Liaison Office to the People’s Republic of China in September 1974. Although the position, short of ambassador status because the United States still did not have full diplomatic relations with the PRC, did not advance Bush’s ambitions to higher political office, it offered a respite from Watergate-saturated Washington and, like the U.N. post, gave him the opportunity to hone his diplomacy skills and learn firsthand about the rising Asian power.

These international experiences paved the way for his next government office, director of central intelligence, to which Ford nominated him in early 1976. Bush and his spouse both became tearful when word arrived in Peking (now Beijing) that this seemingly dead-end post was the next, and they thought last, stop in George’s public service. The CIA had suffered embarrassing revelations in congressional investigations about its clandestine operations abroad in regime change (including through assassination attempts) and abuse of its power at home under the Nixon administration’s political espionage schemes. When Ford lost a close race to Democrat Jimmy Carter later that year, Bush offered to stay at the CIA, but a new party in the White House meant a clean sweep of top offices, and Bush headed back to Houston after barely a year as the nation’s “spymaster.” Yet he could take pride in having boosted morale at the CIA and allowing some outside intelligence analysis to balance the otherwise insular institution.

As early as March 1977 Bush wrote to a friend, “I think I want to run [for president] or at least be in a position to run in ’80” (George H. W. Bush, p. 271). He and Barbara undertook a global “business/speaking tour” in the spring of 1978, during which he met with the Shah of Iran, whom the CIA had returned to power in the 1950s, after engineering the ouster of a popularly elected president, whom the U.S. opposed because of his emerging alliance with the Soviet Union. Less than a year after Bush’s visit, the shah would flee from the Islamic revolution that installed the Ayatollah Khomeini as head of Iran’s new theocracy and precipitated the seizing of the American embassy and its staff in Teheran. With young Islamic militants holding sixty-three American hostages, after the November 1979 embassy seizure, and a failing domestic economy, Carter’s reelection chances looked bleak.

Sensing a GOP victory in the offing for 1980, a bevy of Republican candidates, led by former California governor Ronald Reagan, joined the race for their party’s nomination. Bush announced his candidacy on 1 May 1979. He won the Iowa caucuses that next January, after Reagan ran an anemic campaign in the Hawkeye State. But the Republican Party had reached an historic inflection point, tacking away from the northeastern moderation embraced by Bush (despite his newfound Texas roots) and toward Reagan’s western “Movement Conservatism” that espoused low taxes, reduced regulation, and “family values” at home and more belligerent Cold War statecraft on the international stage, particularly aimed at the Soviet Union. With this ideological tailwind, Reagan emerged with the nomination, and Bush pledged his wholehearted support.

“I went to the Republican convention in Detroit knowing the vice presidency was a possibility, but I did not expect it,” Bush later remembered. “No one was more surprised than I was when I answered the phone in my hotel suite, and Ronald Reagan was on the other end of the line [offering him the ticket’s vice-presidential spot]” (George H. W. Bush, p. 299). After a landslide victory over Carter, George Bush was sworn in as the 43rd vice president of the United States on 20 January 1981. Being a heartbeat away from the presidency took on new urgency when President Reagan was severely wounded in an assassination attempt barely two months into his term. Bush earned high praise for his trademark thoughtfulness and propriety. As he flew back from Texas, his aides suggested that he helicopter from Andrews Air Force Base directly to the White House. The vice president demurred, noting that only the president lands on the South Lawn.

Following the new, more activist, model for vice presidents that Carter had established for Walter Mondale, Bush met with Reagan for weekly lunches, chaired a government deregulation panel, and represented the president in bilateral talks with foreign leaders around the world. He found Reagan “the most understanding human being” but “hard to read” (George Herbert Walker Bush, p. 327). The president did not ask for Bush’s advice, yet neither did he discourage it, so the vice president felt comfortable offering his thoughts and suggestions at their weekly lunches.

Earning 525 electoral votes and 58.8 percent of the popular vote, the Reagan–Bush ticket easily swept to reelection in 1984 over former vice president Mondale and his running mate Geraldine Ferraro. Bush’s lifelong tendency toward loyalty ill-served him in a scandal that clouded the Reagan administration’s second term. Despite its enunciated policy never to negotiate with terrorists, the administration secretly sold arms to Iran to secure release of American hostages being held in Lebanon by radical Islamicists. In turn, Reagan officials illegally transferred the proceeds from arms sales to pro-American Contras fighting Communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Bush claimed to have been “not in the loop” on the scheme, a half-truth, at best. He may not have known every detail of the arms-for-hostages plan, but he knew its broad outlines. No wonder he prevaricated: the scandal threatened to bring down the administration, along with the vice president’s hopes to run for the top office in 1988.

On 12 October 1987, Bush made it official, announcing his presidential candidacy at a Houston rally. His first challenge resulted from a Newsweek cover story that claimed he had to fight the “wimp factor”—ironic given his fierce competitiveness on any athletic field, heroism in combat, and feisty campaign persona in the 1980 race against Reagan. Yet two terms as the Reagan administration’s second banana and his WASPy gentility led some reporters to portray him as the sensitive gentleman his parents had raised him to be.

Bush’s stunning third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, behind Senator Robert Dole and televangelist Pat Robertson, who ran to the vice president’s right, convinced him that he should hew closely to the still-popular policies of Reagan conservatism. Although Bush had once dismissed Reagan’s proposals for massive tax cuts as “voodoo economics” during the 1980 nomination contest, he now announced his opposition to all tax increases. That tactic, along with his strategist Lee Atwater’s ability to garner southern votes through thinly veiled racist messages, secured the 1988 presidential nomination for Bush.

With the vice president seventeen points behind his opponent, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, just after the Democratic convention, Atwater urged an aggressive attack on the liberal policy wonk. At the GOP convention Bush repeated the no-tax pledge in his acceptance speech, prefacing it with a Clint Eastwood twist: “Read my lips: No—new—taxes.” His choice of Indiana Senator Dan Quayle for a running mate failed to energize the ticket, but the Bush campaign’s assault on Dukakis’s supposed lack of patriotism hit their mark. The ultimate weapon against the governor was campaign ads that portrayed him as soft on criminals because he supported his state’s prison furlough program. An independent pro-Bush group added a racial theme to its ads, which focused on a Black convict, Willie Horton, who had committed additional violent crimes while out on furlough.

In the second presidential debate with Bush, Dukakis committed an unforced error from which his candidacy never recovered. His unemotional response to a hypothetical question about whether he would change his anti-capital punishment stance if his wife were raped and murdered sealed his fate. Bush swept to victory with 426 electoral votes and 53 percent of the popular vote, becoming the first incumbent vice president to win the presidency since Martin Van Buren in 1836.

Bush assumed the presidency with arguably more experience in foreign affairs than any of his thirty-nine predecessors. If ever a man’s résumé suited his time as president, it was George H. W. Bush’s. He also assembled an experienced foreign policy team, including General Brent Scowcroft as national security advisor, Richard Cheney as secretary of defense, James Baker as secretary of state, Robert Gates as CIA director, and General Colin Powell, nominated as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff six months into the administration.

“[I]n a man’s heart, if not in fact, the day of the dictator is over,” Bush declared in his inaugural address (Perry, p. 20). This “new breeze,” as Bush described the rebirth of freedom sweeping the world, spurred Chinese students to mount a democracy movement, complete with a replica of the Statue of Liberty that they erected in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. As Bush and his foreign policy advisors attempted to determine who was actually making decisions in the Chinese regime, Communist leaders brutally quashed the uprising in May 1989. Nevertheless, China eventually embraced a more open economy if not the accompanying democratic political freedoms that dissidents had demanded.

Also starting in May 1989, the Bush administration faced a crisis in Panama, where president General Manuel Noriega, indicted by the Reagan administration for his role in the illegal drug trade, interfered in the Panamanian election, thwarted a coup to remove him, and precipitated a December 1989 U.S. intervention when American Navy service members were attacked in the Latin American country. President Bush sent in troops to remove Noriega and transport him to Florida to stand trial in a federal court. Although the U.S. intervention was successful, it revealed a weakness in the foreign policy decision process, which Scowcroft addressed by creating an active National Security Council subcommittee composed of deputies to the principal members. It ran an effective interagency process to discuss options, especially during international crises, and would remain a key component of subsequent presidents’ foreign policy-making structures.

At the same moment as the China and Panama crises appeared on the president’s radar, Bush decided to act boldly in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Taking advantage of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms of his empire’s stultifying Communist system, Bush decided to propose a bilateral force reduction in Europe between the Soviet and American militaries. In addition, the administration supported those Soviet satellite countries in Eastern Europe, behind the “Iron Curtain,” as Britain’s Winston Churchill had so starkly described the Eastern Bloc nations in 1946, that were trying to liberalize their systems. That strategy placed Poland, with its reform-minded shipyard workers’ union, Solidarity, led by Lech Walesa, at the top of the list for U.S. backing. By Bush’s first summer in the White House, both Hungary and Poland would be on their way to democratizing, without having provoked intervention from the Soviets, who had crushed previous liberal uprisings in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). Within a year of Bush’s inauguration, the Berlin Wall, the most despised symbol of the schism between Communism and the Free World, collapsed, and the Cold War entered its death throes. Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia joined Poland and Hungary in peaceful ousters of their Communist authoritarian regimes. Only Romania, always the most repressive Iron Curtain country, had to endure a bloody revolution to depose its totalitarian Stalinist dictator.

President Bush led the Western allies, and his own advisors, in calling for reunification of Germany. Just after the wall’s toppling, the president and his Soviet counterpart met at the summit in Malta. Bush reassured Gorbachev with promises that the U.S. would not undermine his position in the world. The American commander in chief also noted that he had not gloated, at the Soviets’ expense, over the historic events in Berlin.

Meanwhile, the U.S.S.R.’s republics, starting with the Baltic states, began moving toward independence from Moscow. The Warsaw Pact (the Soviet bloc’s counter alliance to NATO) was rapidly deteriorating. Its demise provided President Bush with the rationale to sign landmark agreements with the Soviet Union (Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty and Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I and II).

In Central America, where Soviet efforts to expand Communist regimes were losing steam, President Bush ordered humanitarian aid (allowed under U.S. law) to the Nicaraguan Contras. Within a year, a free election there in 1990 defeated the Marxist regime.

Although Bush took great pains not to humiliate Gorbachev on the world stage, the Soviet leader could not survive centrifugal forces at home. He faced challenges from rival Boris Yeltsin, the new democratically elected Soviet president of Russia, and a 1991 coup attempt from hard-liners in the faltering Communist Party. The brash Yeltsin foiled the takeover, climbing aboard a tank in front of the Parliament to prove his steadfast defiance of the military and KGB conspirators. Gorbachev and the Soviet Union could not survive these events. By New Year’s Day 1992 he had left office, and the U.S.S.R. passed out of existence.

Resolving the twentieth century’s most dangerous international struggle, which could have resulted in a nuclear conflagration at any point, was never a foregone conclusion. For George Bush to preside over its peaceful conclusion, using his diplomatic skills and modest persona that allowed Gorbachev to save face, will forever constitute a major component of the forty-first president’s historic legacy.

As the Bush administration addressed the decline of the Soviet empire, and its implications for what the president called the “New World Order,” he faced a flashpoint in the volatile Middle East. On the first of August 1990 Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein launched a blitzkrieg across his southern border with Kuwait, seizing its rich oil fields. Within twenty-four hours, Iraq’s forces, with 120,000 troops and nearly one thousand tanks, overran the tiny emirate.

Saddam’s blatant invasion stunned the president and his national security team. Just three days after the Iraqi incursion, Bush ordered a buildup of American military forces in Saudi Arabia, which appeared to be Saddam’s next target. On 5 August the president unequivocally declared, “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait” (Perry, p. 57). The administration began assembling a military and financial coalition of allies around the world to oppose Iraq’s occupation of its sovereign neighbor. The U.S. strategy included pressing the United Nations Security Council to pass resolutions in support of Kuwait’s defense. At home, the Bush administration persuaded Congress to authorize the president to repel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

On 17 January 1991 the U.S. and its allies launched Operation Desert Storm, with unrelenting air attacks on Iraqi targets. Saddam retaliated by raining down SCUD rockets on Israel. Five weeks later, with Saddam refusing to concede unconditionally, President Bush ordered the ground invasion by U.S. Marines to commence in Kuwait. After only one hundred hours, with the Iraqis expelled from the emirate, retreating over their border, and surrendering to American forces in droves, Bush called a halt to the allied offensive. He hoped that defeat of Iraq’s forces would topple Saddam, but the brutal dictator remained in power.

President Bush’s decision to stop short of invading Baghdad and deposing Saddam would engender both criticism and kudos. Yet the allies had retaken the Kuwaiti oil fields (though not before the Iraqis set them ablaze) and defended Saudi Arabia from almost certain Iraqi aggression, with a minimum of American casualties. When Shiites and Kurds revolted against Saddam’s regime in the wake of the Iraqi defeat, however, he massacred thousands of his opponents, including using chemical weapons, and precipitated a massive humanitarian crisis. “We underestimated his brutality and cruelty to his own people,” Bush later wrote. “We were disappointed, but I still do not regret my decision to end the war when we did. … Our mission, as mandated by the United Nations, was clear: end the aggression. We did that” (George H. W. Bush, p. 514).

The Iraq War and the fall of the Soviet empire, both successes on the Bush foreign policy ledger, tended to overshadow domestic issues. Bush’s “no new taxes” pledge in the 1988 presidential campaign initially limited his options for lowering the ballooning deficit. He faced a classic schism on Capitol Hill, with Republicans calling for reductions in government spending, and Democrats, who controlled both houses of Congress, clamoring for increased taxes and expanded federal programs. Although his approval ratings would reach a high of 89 percent in the aftermath of the Gulf War’s successful prosecution, President Bush’s popularity, especially among Republicans, never recovered from the tax hikes he finally approved in the 1990 federal budget compromise. He had committed a cardinal sin against Reagan conservatives, prompting a primary challenge in his run-up to renomination from right-wing commentator and culture warrior Pat Buchanan.

It did not help Bush among conservatives that he was closer to the Democrats’ agenda on the environment; he supported the 1990 Clean Air Amendments that addressed the problems of acid rain by offering economic incentives to companies. In addition, the president sponsored and signed into law the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, the broadest civil rights legislation since 1964. It mandated accessibility for the disabled to businesses, transportation, and public accommodations.

Bush further upset evangelical leaders by addressing the burgeoning HIV/AIDS crisis, although not nearly as comprehensively as activist groups on the other side wished. Gay rights advocates criticized the government for moving far too slowly on AIDS research and treatments. Inspired by First Lady Barbara Bush’s public concern for those suffering from the disease and those who had succumbed to it, the president called on the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control to go “on a wartime footing” to battle the virus. He viscerally understood the plight of families touched by a fatal illness, and, in a March 1990 speech, referred to his “beautiful little girl” who had died of blood cancer (Page, pp. 191–92). It was the only time he mentioned this personal tragedy in public during his presidency. Shortly after the speech, he signed into law a requirement that the attorney general compile statistics on hate crimes, including those prompted by animus toward sexual orientation.

In response to several Supreme Court rulings narrowing the reach of civil rights legislation, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and President Bush signed it into law, after having vetoed an earlier version for fear that it would impose minority hiring quotas on employers.

President Bush welcomed two opportunities to nominate an associate justice to the U.S. Supreme Court. The first came in July 1990 with the unexpected retirement of liberal icon, Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., due to declining health. Upon the recommendation of Republican Senator Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, Bush had named David Souter to the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals the previous May. Now the president invited the new federal judge to the White House to interview for the Brennan seat on the highest court in the land. The two New England-born, Episcopalian, Ivy Leaguers had a pleasant chat in the Oval Office. Thought to be a moderate conservative and possessing a stellar academic record at Harvard (for both undergraduate and law degrees) and Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), Souter seemed the perfect replacement for Brennan. He sailed through the Senate confirmation process, with a 90–9 vote.

The next summer, ill health also forced civil rights pioneer and the Court’s first Black justice, Thurgood Marshall, into retirement. Once more Bush turned to one of his recently appointed federal appeals court judges, conservative Clarence Thomas, of the District of Columbia circuit, to fill the tribunal’s Black seat. A graduate of the College of the Holy Cross and Yale Law School, Thomas had a compelling, up-from-poverty personal story. He had served during the Reagan presidency as assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education and then as chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Accusations of sexual harassment by his former employee, Anita Hill, nearly derailed his nomination and held the country spellbound through televised Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, which Thomas angrily labeled “a high-tech lynching for an uppity Black man” (Nelson and Perry, p. 177). But he survived, barely, with a 52–48 vote in the Senate.

Justice Souter, who served on the high bench until his retirement in 2009, disappointed conservatives with his turn to the left, especially in abortion cases. Bush’s second appointee, however, hewed to the conservatism that Thomas’s supporters hoped would guide his Supreme Court votes.

On a beautiful spring day in 1991 at the presidential retreat, Camp David, in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, President Bush became severely winded on one of his routine jogs. Doctors discovered an irregular heartbeat that they diagnosed as a symptom of Graves’s disease, an autoimmune illness of the thyroid. Once on the appropriate medicine, his cardiac rhythm returned to normal, but his staff wondered if his heart was really in the 1992 reelection fight. When cameras caught him glancing at his watch at a townhall debate with Democratic nominee Arkansas governor Bill Clinton and third-party candidate Ross Perot, opponents pounced. “It’s time for him to go!” became their slogan. In the midst of a recession, he fumbled an answer in the debate from an audience member about how the nation’s debt affected him personally, while Clinton made a heartfelt case for feeling the pain of average Americans. In the three-way race Bush earned only 37.5 percent of the popular vote and became the last member of the World War II generation to serve as president, relinquishing the Oval Office in January 1993 to the first Baby Boom chief executive, Bill Clinton.

The Bushes returned to their Houston home, continued to summer in Kennebunkport with their growing passel of grandchildren, wrote books, participated in humanitarian efforts around the world, and established the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, as well as the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University in College Station. Leaving the White House just three months after his defeat, Bush had already risen twenty percentage points in approval ratings. When he died in Houston at age ninety-four, he was hailed throughout the world as a consummate statesman who brought the Cold War to a peaceful close, reunified Germany, thwarted Saddam Hussein’s aggression, and worked in a bipartisan manner to accomplish domestic policy goals. After lying in state at the U.S. Capitol and being eulogized at Washington’s National Cathedral, he was laid to rest with daughter Robin and wife Barbara, who died just seven months before him, at the Bush Presidential Library, in his adopted state of Texas.


Bush’s personal and presidential papers are held by the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, College Station, Texas ( Bush did not pen a memoir, but his volume, All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings is a delightful portrait of his life and career (1999). The most detailed, and highly readable, biography, is Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, by Jon Meacham (2015). A poignant family homage to Bush by his son, President George W. Bush is 41: A Portrait of My Father (2014). Two brief treatments of 41’s presidency are Timothy Naftali’s George H. W. Bush (2007) and John Robert Greene’s The Presidency of George Bush (2000). Scholarly essays, based on the oral history of Bush’s administration, are contained in 41: Inside the Presidency of George H. W. Bush, co-edited by Michael Nelson and Barbara A. Perry (2014). The oral histories can be found at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center (, along with a commemorative book, George H. W. Bush Oral History Project, compiled by Barbara A. Perry (2011) ( See also Susan Page, The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty (2019).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat An obituary appeared in The New York Times, 30 Nov. 2018.