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George HW Bush: WWII pilot, oilman, ambassador and founder of the US’ foremost political dynasty

George HW Bush: WWII pilot, oilman, ambassador and founder of the US’ foremost political dynasty

George Bush was an American patrician who brought great talents to the presidency and wrought great achievements, but never quite grasped the pitiless frivolity of US politics. At his zenith, he shone in the international firmament, as the embodiment of US hegemony; at home his grasp was never so sure, and his single term in the…

George Bush was an American patrician who brought great talents to the presidency and wrought great achievements, but never quite grasped the pitiless frivolity of US politics. At his zenith, he shone in the international firmament, as the embodiment of US hegemony; at home his grasp was never so sure, and his single term in the White House ended in frustration, controversy and bitter defeat. 

Bush won election in 1988 after eight years as vice-president to his fellow Republican, Ronald Reagan. Where Reagan’s great achievement, in foreign affairs, was to perceive the weakness of the Soviet Union, to stand up to the Soviet leadership and eventually to reach agreements with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, Bush inherited a world in which Communist regimes were already collapsing, in which the United States found itself, somewhat to its own surprise, as the only superpower.

Bush reacted at first with caution. But when challenged by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, he responded with energy and skill in both the diplomatic and military fields. For a while, after his triumph in the Gulf War, he enjoyed the distinction of being the most popular US President since opinion polls began. But that popularity would be fatally eroded by a perception he had been excessively concerned with international affairs, to the neglect of his domestic duties.

Even so he exuded an old-world dignity and decency, in defeat as well as victory. He might have moved to Texas as a young man to make his fortune, but Bush forever incarnated the north-eastern Protestant élite that once ran the country. He represented the traditional US values of directness, good humour, fairness and toughness – together with a streak of ruthlessness, when he saw his own or America’s interests or reputation at stake.

Few presidents entered office after a longer, more varied or more appropriate training for the job. After a brilliant war record – he was at one time the youngest pilot in the US Navy – and a modestly successful stint in the Texas oil industry, he served a single term in Congress, then represented the United States at the United Nations. In 1973 he became chairman of the Republican national committee, before going to Beijing to head the United States liaison office in China. In 1976, he was called in to restore the morale of the CIA, as director of central intelligence. His preparation for domestic policymaking was however less exhaustive, and his performance as a campaigner and in office reflected his comparative lack of touch with economic and social problems. 

For such a courteous and generally good-natured man, he proved to be an effective and, on occasion, sharp-elbowed competitor in politics. During Bush’s eight years as vice-president he was mostly the unobtrusive loyalist, gradually overcoming the suspicions of more ideological conservatives. But when disaster briefly threatened in the 1988 campaign, he and his campaign manager – his close friend and eventual Secretary of State James A Baker III – did not hesitate to stoop to base tactics. That was “campaign mode,” Bush would say, when even gentlemen had to do what it took. 

The son of a United States Senator from Connecticut, educated at Phillips’ Academy, Andover and Yale, Bush cultivated, not always very adeptly, a breezy classless manner to offset his upper-class credentials. He played baseball for Yale and briefly cherished hopes of making it in the major leagues, and all his life he was besotted with sports. At every opportunity he would retreat from the White House to the mini-estate he inherited in Kennebunkport on the southern Maine coast, where he would escape the cares of office by playing golf, tennis and horseshoes, fishing and sailing. 

These were the preferred pastimes of that moneyed Eastern breed into which George Bush was born in 1924. His  grandfather, Samuel, was president of a foundry in Columbus, Ohio; his father, Prescott Bush, was a business executive who became a partner in the blue-blooded New York investment house of Brown Brothers, Harriman. By the time George arrived, his family lived in style in the affluent New York suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut. Prescott was later elected to the US Senate, where he was known as a moderate Republican – a trait that his son would share. 

George Bush was sent to Andover, often described as the American Eton. In fact, the school’s traditions were quite un-Etonian, involving as they did strong patriotic and Puritan strands. Bush, as well as shining at sports, especially baseball, and tennis, absorbed these stern and strenuous values. 

In 1941, Andover’s commencement address was given by one of its most distinguished old boys, President Roosevelt’s secretary of war Henry Stimson. After the speech, in which Stimson lectured his audience on their duties when liberty was threatened, George Bush brushed aside his father’s advice to get his degree at Yale before volunteering for service, and signed on as a naval seaman. It was his 18th birthday.

Later, he became the youngest pilot in the US Navy, flying in the South Pacific theatre. In the course of a raid he was shot down. Two of his crew members were killed, and he spent 90 minutes in the sea before being rescued by a submarine. Altogether, he flew 58 combat missions and was decorated for gallantry with the Distinguished Flying Cross. Reassigned to the United States, he married Barbara Pierce in January 1945, whom he had met at a Christmas dance three years earlier. 

After leaving the service, Bush enrolled as a matter of course at Yale, where he did well enough in his major, economics, to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the national ‘‘honours society’’ for bright students, as well as to Skull & Bones, the secret society with a legendary reputation for giving its members a helping hand in finance, business and politics. A stylish first baseman, he captained the Yale baseball team, and also played soccer. Once married, he led a fairly quiet life, and when he graduated he and Barbara even thought for a time of a Grant Wood-inspired life on a Middle Western farm. 

Instead, they headed for Texas. Bush took up an offer from one of his father’s friends who happened to be the head of Dresser Industries, the oil-drilling equipment manufacturer. Bush learned the business as a salesman in Odessa, Texas, then in Bakersfield, California. In 1950, new oilfields had made Midland, Texas, the ‘‘tall city of the plains’’, and the Bushes moved there when Bush set up as an independent oil man, putting together leases and financing. 

In 1953, he was one of the founding partners in Zapata Petroleum, which evolved into Zapata Offshore. George Bush was the president, modestly a millionaire, and he and Barbara moved to Houston. Their oldest son, George, had been born in 1947; a daughter, Robin, born in 1949, died of leukaemia shortly before her fourth birthday. The Bushes went on to have four more children, Jeb, Neil, Marvin and Dorothy. 

George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, at his Senate election campaign headquarters on 6 June 1964 (AP)

In Houston, the wealthy young oilman with the patrician Eastern background began to meet tycoons, financiers and politicians. He flirted with joining the Democratic party which then dominated Texas politics. But he rejected the temptation and decided to work, with his new friend James Baker, a well-connected young Houston lawyer, to build up the Republican party in Texas.

In 1962, ambitiously for a man who had held no lower office, Bush decided to run for the Senate, and won his party’s primary before losing to the liberal Democrat Ralph Yarborough in November. The political bug however had entered his bloodstream. In February 1966 he resigned from Zapata to run for the US Congress, and in November that year was elected to the House of Representatives from the 7th Texas district, the blue-stocking suburbs of Houston. 

In 1970 he gave up his seat in a second bid for the Senate. This time though he was faced not by the fading Yarborough, but by the conservative Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, and was again defeated, albeit narrowly. For other men, it might have been a terminal political setback. Instead, through an extraordinary series of moves, Bush found himself, only 10 years after this near-catastrophe, riding high as the winning candidate for vice-president. He was lucky – but also handled himself in a way that gave luck a chance. Behind the amiable and self-controlled façade lurked a very considerable ambition and a fierce competitive instinct. 

Days after losing to Bentsen, he was named by President Nixon to succeed Charles Yost, a career diplomat, as permanent representative of the United States, with rank of ambassador, at the United Nations. The appointment was denounced as a political job for a lame-duck congressman, but in his brief tenure in New York Bush made a respectable name for himself.

By early 1973 Nixon was already beginning to be embroiled in the Watergate scandal, and that January he asked Bush to take over as chairman of the Republican National Committee. The intention was to build a new, broader Republican coalition. As things turned out, the best Bush could do was to keep the Republican machinery more or less intact, amid the hammer blows of the Watergate revelations. Even so, he remained loyal to Nixon almost to the end.

Former US presidents (from left to right) Jimmy Carter, George HW Bush, George W Bush, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton in 2017 (Jim Chapin/AFP/Getty Images)

When Gerald Ford took over the White House, Bush had hopes of being chosen as vice-president: instead, the job went to Nelson Rockefeller and in September 1974 he departed for Beijing as head of the US Liaison Office, effectively ambassador to China. But in January 1976 he was again back in Washington, this time as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

After a long string of mis-steps, scandals and lurid revelations, the CIA’s reputation and morale were at a nadir. Making matters still worse, while Bush was awaiting Senate confirmation, the agency’s station chief in Athens was murdered after his name had been published in an anti-CIA newsletter. Bush arrived at the Agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, with much pruning and much soothing to do. Once again, he would not be long in the job – until January 1977 when Jimmy Carter becamer president. Yet he was credited with calming things down, and doing much to restore the CIA’s standing.

In six years, Bush had thus served in two of the most important embassies; run the Republican party; and directed the intelligence community, taking over each job at a moment of exceptional difficulty. Over that period he had risen from one of the lowest forms of national political life, a lame-duck Congressman who had just lost an election, to become a potential and eminently plausible presidential candidate. And before 1977 was over, together with his Houston friend James Baker, he was planning a White House campaign. 

Bush announced his candidacy in May 1979, and even beat Ronald Reagan in the first test of the campaign, the Iowa caucuses. But he lost the key primary in New Hampshire, and although he won in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, he was thrashed by Reagan in his own home state of Texas in early May. By then Bush’s funds were running out and, persuaded by Baker, he reluctantly pulled out of the race.

In retrospect, Bush owed much to Baker for the skilful way the latter navigated those last months of a bitter campaign. There had been unpleasantness over a televised debate in New Hampshire, while Reagan’s team was furious at Bush’s quip that their conservative, supply-side policies were ‘‘voodoo economics’’. Thanks however to Baker’s realism and political deftness, when Reagan won the nomination, it was Bush – his beaten opponent from the opposite wing of the party – that he chose as running mate; not one of the many ardent conservatives who had supported him when Bush was ridiculing him.

Then-President George HW Bush in the Rose Garden of the White House after meeting with top military advisors to discuss the Gulf War (Ron Edmonds/AP)

Even so, in the early Reagan White House, the Right was rampant. Wisely, Bush chose a posture even less provocative than that usually adopted by vice-presidents, then treated as invisible and insignificant. But he was experienced enough in the ways of Washington to insist on being shown all White House papers and regular access to Reagan, and successfully set about making himself politically useful to the President.

One of his roles was to attend the funerals of world statesmen in place of his elderly boss: ‘‘You die,’’ Bush joked, ‘‘I fly’’. He also contributed to the administration’s foreign policy by, for example, helping persuade the European allies to accept Reagan’s plans to deploy intermediate range nuclear forces (INF) on their soil. He was involved too in the administration’s support for the Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua. Bush was never formally implicated in what became known as the Iran-Contra Affair, even though insiders suspected that he and key members of his staff knew more than they chose to reveal about the most damaging scandal of the Reagan years.

By now Bush was virtually undisputed heir to the throne. First though, he had to get elected – the part of the political game at which he shone least. The Democrats nominated the lacklustre Governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, seconded by Bush’s conqueror of 1970, Senator Bentsen of Texas. Bush won the Republican nomination without difficulty, then astonished everyone by choosing as his own running mate a little-known and distinctly conservative senator from Indiana, Dan Quayle. The nomination evoked nationwide derision and at one point Dukakis shot to a 17-point lead in the polls. For Bush the Queensberry Rules now no longer applied. He sanctioned a series of vicious television ads, including one suggesting that as governor, Dukakis had paroled a prisoner, Willie Horton, who proceeded to rape a woman and murder a man after his release. As the ad also made crystal clear, Horton was black. 

With the help of such ruthless tactics, on November 8 1988 Bush was duly elected the 41st president, to the accompaniment of more sighs of relief than sniffs of disapproval.  His values, and his morality, might have been old-fashioned – but but he was not soft. In 1987 Newsweek magazine had caused a furore by depicting Bush on its cover as a “wimp.” But the term denoted not weakness, merely that Bush was a child of privilege, born with a silver spoon in his mouth; and he was.

George HW Bush, then US Vice President, at a press conference in London in 1984 (PA)

Throughout his career he sought in vain to shed that image. As president, he would boast of his affection for plebeian delicacies like pork rinds. In the next breath however, he would delight the press corps by coming out with weird upper-class slang, as when he referred to excrement as ‘‘deep doo-doo.’’ In the process, “Bushisms,” as his patrician manglings of the English language were known, became a minor art-form. Pork rinds or not, Bush was for ever a member of the upper class, perhaps the last American gentleman – in the old, class sense – to sleep in the White House.

As to be expected with men who had been seeing each other regularly in the Oval Office for eight years, the Reagan/Bush transition was gradual and undramatic. Despite losing his first nominee for Secretary of Defence, John Tower, whose confirmation was defeated by the Senate, Bush soon put together a strong team in which old friends from Texas predominated: Baker became an accomplished Secretary of State; and other personal friends were put in such strategic positions as Secretary of Commerce and White House counsel.

Perhaps because of Bush’s gentlemanly and somewhat bland style, the decisiveness of which he was capable surprised many. It was first manifest in his furious reaction to a number of slightly equivocal incidents involving assaults on Americans in Panama. Bush reacted by sending in 30,000 troops to seize the Panamanian President, Manuel Noriega, in his own capital and drag him off to stand trial on drugs charges in Florida. 

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990, indignant moral certainty was mixed with prudence. Pledging to restore the freedom of Kuwait, Bush took a hard line in negotiations. But he carefully avoided committing himself to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, let alone the liberation of the various peoples of Iraq who had suffered from his tyrannical conduct. He also took care to ensure overwhelming international support.

Acting under the aegis of United Nations resolutions, Bush and Baker marshalled a remarkably broad coalition, ranging from Arab states like Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia and traditional allies like Britain and France to traditional rivals like the Soviet Union. The conduct of military operations was delegated to his generals, above all Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the flamboyant field commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf.

Their handling of the immense build-up, of 750,000 troops, some 500,000 of them American, and an almost unprecedented collection of military hardware, proved impeccable. In January 1991 the air war started, followed by a 100-hour ground blitzkrieg, that routed the Iraqis from Kuwait. Later, his refusal to drive on to Baghdad and topple Saddam would be criticised, as would his failure to protect the Kurds and Shia Arabs in southern Iraq from the dictator’s vengeance. But in spring 1991 Bush stood on a pinnacle of US public opinion and world esteem – one that also gave him the chance to exert pressure on Israel to reach a definitive peace settlement with the Palestinians.

By refusing to lend the administration’s support to a plan for guaranteeing $10bn in loans to help Israel, he broke with the Israeli government more sharply than any administration in Washington since the Truman era, and succeeded in forcing the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, to the negotiating table at the Madrid conference of October 1991. But the momentum of that drive for peace gradually dissipated.

Even more adroit, if anything, was his handling of the opportunities  and dangers presented by the rapid march of events in the Soviet Union. The storm-tossed December 1989 shipboard summit in Malta with Mikhail Gorbachev formally consigned the Cold War to history. Perhaps Bush remained loyal to his friend Mikhail rather longer than the latter’s power warranted – but then again, loyalty was in his DNA. And the astonishingly peaceful break-up of the rival superpower, and Moscow’s acquiescence in a re-unified Germany, testified to his deft diplomatic touch. Gentlemen did not gloat, nor did they strike a man when he was down.

By then however, the political climate at home was transformed. In April 1991, Bush’s re-election in 18 months’ time had seemed a formality. By the turn of the year, in the public mind, the hero of the Gulf War was metamorphosing into a bumbling, out-of-touch leader, indifferent to the ordinary American’s travails as recession deepened. In December 1991 he lost his White House chief of Staff John Sununu to a messy scandal; in the space of six months, his approval rating plunged from almost 80 per cent to 32 per cent.

In response, Bush first cancelled a trip to the Far East that had been conceived as an imperial progress, then re-invented it as a sales tour for US industry – only to learn that General Motors, whose president had been invited along for the ride, had just laid off 74,000 workers. The absolute nadir came on January 8, 1992 when the President of the United States, suffering from a violent stomach bug, vomited into the lap of the Japanese prime minister at a state banquet in Toyko.

The incident was a presage of the sad re-election campaign to come. Never one for the “vision thing,” Bush struggled throughout to articulate a coherent message. First, the populist paleo-conservative Pat Buchanan took aim at ‘King George,’ shocking Bush by winning 36 per cent of the vote in the Republicans’ New Hampshire primary. Later the Texas businessman Ross Perot entered the race, in the strongest third party presidential candidacy in 80 years that unquestionably siphoned off some Republican votes.

Bush’s biggest misfortune however was his Democratic opponent Bill Clinton, the most gifted political campaigner of his generation. Later conservatives would blame the defeat on Bush’s repudiation of his famous “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge at the 1988 convention, by agreeing to a 1990 deficit-cutting deal with the Democrats who ran Congress. Undoubtedly too, Americans simply wanted change in the White House after 12 years of Republican presidents. Facing another Democrat however, Bush might well have prevailed, for all his shortcomings. In the event, on November 3 1992 he became the first incumbent Republican since Herbert Hoover to lose re-election, by 168 electoral votes to the 370 amassed by the youthful and charismatic Clinton.

The outcome was a terrible blow, even though Bush bore his tribulation with outward grace and the wry, self-deprecating humour that was his trademark. His popularity however quickly rebounded. In 1993, he was made an honorary knight by Queen Elizabeth – the same year that he was target of an Iraqi assassination plot during a visit to Kuwait to commemorate the victory in the Gulf War. In 2011 he was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian honour, by President Barack Obama.

In his later years, the focus increasingly became his family. On January 6 2013, he and Barbara (‘Bar’ as he called her) celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary, at the summit of an unmatched American political dynasty. His eldest son George W was twice elected Governor of Texas, and twice President of the United States, the first such White House double act since John and Quincy Adams in the early 19th century, while his youngest son Jeb, was a two-term Republican governor of Florida and a possible presidential contender himself in 2016. Other Bushes are displaying political aspirations too.

In fact, relations between ’41’ and ’43,’ as the two president Bushes would refer to each other, were not always easy during the latter’s eight years in office. George Senior was wounded by the fierce criticism that rained upon his son, but few doubted that he opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The born-again Christian George Junior admitted as much, telling an interviewer his decision-making had been guided not by his biological father but by “a higher father”. 

Barbara Bush died 17 April 2018, 73 years after the couple married in New York. One of her husband’s last public appearances was at her funeral in Houston, Texas.

George H W Bush may never go down as a great president; for all his international expertise, he never seemed quite to get the beat of American life. But he was a pragmatic, reasonable, brave and decent man. There are many worse qualities in a leader.

George Herbert Walker Bush, US president, born 12 June 1924, died 30 November 2018

Rupert Cornwell died in 2017 

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