George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States and the father of the 43rd, who steered the nation through a tumultuous period in world affairs but was denied a second term after support for his presidency collapsed under the weight of an economic downturn and his seeming inattention to domestic affairs, died Friday night at his home in Houston. He was 94.
His death, which was announced by his office, came less than eight months after that of his wife of 73 years, Barbara Bush.
Bush had a form of Parkinson’s disease that forced him to use a wheelchair or motorized scooter in recent years, and he had been in and out of hospitals during that time as his health declined. In April, a day after attending Barbara Bush’s funeral, he was treated for an infection that had spread to his blood. In 2013, he was in dire enough shape with bronchitis that former President George W. Bush, his son, solicited ideas for a eulogy.
But he proved resilient each time. In 2013 he told well-wishers, through an aide, to “put the harps back in the closet.”
Bush, a Republican, was a transitional figure in the White House, where he served from 1989 to 1993, capping a career of more than 40 years in public service. A decorated Navy pilot who was shot down in the Pacific in 1944, he was the last of the World War II generation to occupy the Oval Office.
Bush was a skilled bureaucratic and diplomatic player who, as president, helped end four decades of Cold War and the threat of nuclear engagement with a nuanced handling of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberation of Eastern Europe.
Yet for all his success in the international arena, his presidency faltered as voters seemed to perceive him as detached from their everyday lives. In an election that turned on the economy, they repudiated Bush in 1992 and chose a relatively little-known Democratic governor from Arkansas, Bill Clinton, a baby boomer, ushering in a generational shift in American leadership.
If Bush’s term helped close out one era abroad, it opened another. In January 1991 he assembled a global coalition to eject Iraqi invaders from Kuwait, sending hundreds of thousands of troops in a triumphant military campaign that to many Americans helped purge the ghosts of Vietnam.
But the victory also brought years of American preoccupation with Iraq, leading to the decision by George W. Bush in 2003 to topple the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, in a war that taxed U.S. resources and patience.
The elder Bush entered the White House with one of the most impressive résumés of any president. He had been a two-term congressman from Texas, ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, U.S. envoy to China, director of the CIA and vice president, under Ronald Reagan.
And he achieved what no one had since Martin Van Buren in 1836: winning election to the presidency while serving as vice president. (Van Buren did so in the footsteps of Andrew Jackson.)
A son of wealth and a graduate of Phillips Academy in Massachusetts and Yale, Bush was schooled in the good manners and graciousness of New England privilege and civic responsibility. He liked to frame his public service as an answer to the call to duty, like the one that had sent him over the Pacific and into enemy fire as a 20-year-old. (“The cockpit was full of smoke and I was choking from it,” he told his parents in a letter from the submarine that had plucked him from the sea.)
He underscored the theme of duty in accepting his party’s nomination for the presidency in 1988 in New Orleans. “I am a man who sees life in terms of missions — missions defined and missions completed,” he told Republican delegates in the Louisiana Superdome, acknowledging a swell of applause. He said he would “keep America moving forward” and strive “for a better America.”
“That is my mission,” he concluded, “and I will complete it.”
Tall (6 feet 2 inches) with an athlete’s graceful gait, Bush was genial and gentlemanly, except in the throes of a tough campaign. (Admonished by his mother against self-promotion, Bush, an inveterate note writer, in his clipped diction avoided the first person singular pronoun.) He represented a “kinder” and “gentler” strain of Republicanism — the often-quoted words he used in his Inaugural Address to describe his vision for the nation and the world — that has been all but buried in a seismic shift to the right in the party.
Generations in Politics
Bush’s post-presidency brought talk of a political dynasty. The son of a U.S. senator, Prescott S. Bush, Bush saw two of his own sons forge political careers that brought him a measure of redemption after he was ousted as commander in chief. George W. Bush became the first son of a president since John Quincy Adams to follow his father to the White House. (Unlike the father, the son won re-election.) Another son, Jeb Bush, was twice elected governor of Florida and ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2016.
As the elder Bush watched troubles envelop the eight-year presidency of his son, however, what had been a source of pride became a cause of distress, friends said. The contrast between the two President Bushes — 41 and 43, as they came to call each other — served to burnish the father’s reputation in later years. As the younger Bush’s popularity fell, the elder Bush’s public standing rose. Many Americans came to appreciate the restrained, seasoned leadership the 41st president had displayed; in an opinion poll in 2012, 59 percent expressed approval. Democrats, including President Barack Obama, praised the father as a way of rebuking the son.
It was a subject Bush avoided discussing in public but one he finally addressed in conversations with Jon Meacham, his biographer, in a book published in 2015. Bush was quoted as saying that his son’s administration had been harmed by a “hard line” atmosphere that pushed an aggressive and ultimately self-destructive use of force around the world, and he placed the blame for that on men who had long been part of his own life and who became key figures in his son’s orbit — Dick Cheney, his son’s vice president, and Donald H. Rumsfeld, his son’s secretary of defense, with whom the elder Bush had feuded.
“I do worry about some of the rhetoric that was out there — some of it his, maybe, and some of it the people around him,” Bush said in the Meacham book, “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.”
He was particularly critical of Rumsfeld. “I don’t like what he did, and I think it hurt the president, having his iron-ass view of everything,” he said, adding, “Rumsfeld was an arrogant fellow and self-assured, swagger.”
After his loss in 1992 to Clinton, in an election in which the billionaire independent candidate Ross Perot won almost a fifth of the vote, George and Barbara Bush repaired to their home in Houston and to their oceanfront compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. By his own account the loss had left him dispirited and feeling humiliated. But he did not quite retire.
Bush was president during a shift in the world order that had begun under Reagan. His measured response to upheaval in Eastern Europe drew complaints that he was not seizing the reins of history. But he chose a collaborative approach, working with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to allow for the reunification of Germany, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The two leaders signed treaties mandating historic reductions in their countries’ nuclear and chemical weapons.
“George H.W. Bush was the best one-term president the country has ever had, and one of the most underrated presidents of all time,” James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state and Bush’s closest adviser for nearly 50 years, said in an interview in 2013. “I think history is going to treat him very well.”
In his first year at the White House, Bush sent troops into Panama to oust its strongman, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. The rapid, relatively bloodless conclusion of the Persian Gulf War of 1991 earned him a three-minute standing ovation and shouts of “Bush! Bush!” when he addressed a joint session of Congress that March. It also sent his voter approval ratings soaring to close to 85 percent during the four-day aerial bombardment of Baghdad, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll. It was the pinnacle of his presidency, yet it lulled him, not to mention some potentially formidable Democrats, into assuming his re-election was certain.
Iraq was not an unalloyed victory. Bush felt compelled to defend his decision to suspend the assault before it could topple Saddam, and his critics questioned his earlier effort to give Saddam financial aid and intelligence data. Still, foreign policy successes were the hallmark of his presidency. Not so his domestic record.
By the midpoint of his term, leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties complained that in the midst of the worst economy any U.S. president had faced since the end of World War II, Bush had no domestic agenda. Many questioned his sensitivity to the worries of ordinary Americans. Though stung by the criticism, he did little to dispel that perception on a visit to an economically reeling New Hampshire during his re-election campaign, when he announced in January, “Message: I care.”
His signal domestic decision was almost certainly the 1990 budget deal, which sought to address deepening deficits by raising taxes on the wealthy. If it helped put the nation back on solid financial footing, it nevertheless reversed one of the most explicit campaign pledges ever uttered by a major-party presidential candidate: “Read my lips: No new taxes.”
That promise had been delivered to roars of approval in his acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans, and the turnabout provoked a chorus of reproach. Conservative Republicans revolted. Democrats found an opening for a bruising attack. And the stage was set for an unexpectedly strong third-party challenge by Perot, a fellow Texan, who had made his fortune in computers. “It did destroy me,” Bush told his biographer Meacham years later as he assessed the damage he had suffered from breaking his 1988 campaign pledge.
Barely a year after the world had hailed his success in Iraq, Bush found himself almost losing the Republican presidential primary in New Hampshire to the conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan. Bush won the nomination but was weakened by the Buchanan challenge and accordingly veered sharply to the right. He then lost to Clinton. Perot’s 19 percent of the popular vote helped deny both Bush and Clinton a majority.
A Measured Aristocrat
By any yardstick, Bush was an aristocrat, a product of moneyed Greenwich, Connecticut, where he was instilled with an enduring sense of noblesse oblige.
As a candidate, he was known to ask his Secret Service detail to stop at traffic lights. He wrote enough thank-you notes, courtesy cards and letters of sympathy — Bush seemed to know someone in every town in America — to fill a book, literally.
Its title was his customary signoff, “All the Best, George Bush.” Published in 1999, the book appeared in lieu of a traditional presidential memoir, which he thought would be unseemly for a man whose mother, Dorothy W. Bush, had taught him the importance of modesty.
But the patrician image also hurt him politically. He drew barbs for his drawing-room mannerisms and expressions. When a waitress serving coffee at a New Hampshire truck stop during the 1988 presidential campaign asked him if he would like a refill, he nodded, saying yes, he’d have another “splash.”
His critics saw him as out of touch with ordinary Americans, pointing to what they portrayed as his amazed reaction during a demonstration of a supermarket scanner when he visited a grocers’ convention while president. (He later insisted that he had not been surprised.)
In a debate during the 1992 campaign, he became flustered when a woman asked him how he could respond to the economic distress “of the common people” if he had “no experience with what’s ailing them.” Bush gazed uneasily at his questioner.
“Help me with the question, and I’ll try to answer it,” the president said.
Moments afterward, he watched as Clinton strode eagerly across the stage to engage the woman and, some said, win over much of the electorate.
Aware of his boarding-school image, Bush liked to point to his earthier chapters: his years in the Texas oil business, his wartime service. He reminded listeners that he did not wear button-down dress shirts or striped ties, thank you very much, and that he liked country music, horseshoes and pork rinds.
His courteousness was often taken — mistaken might be the better word — for docility. In 1987, Newsweek put his picture on the cover with the headline “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor.’” (“The cheapest shot I’ve seen in my political life,” Bush fumed in his diary.) But he could be fiercely competitive in both politics and play. He ran a harsh campaign to beat Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts in 1988. He did not simply play golf, he played what the White House physician called “aerobic golf,” a mad rush from green to green.
Bush was given to malapropisms, a trait he may have handed down to his son George. He tangled his sentences, particularly when he was nervous. And he supplied a stream of entries into the American political lexicon. He talked about the “Big Mo” to describe the momentum that a victory in the Iowa caucuses had given his campaign; tough moments were “tension city”; in asking voters not to pity him, he plucked a line from the musical “Evita,” saying, “Don’t cry for me, Argentina.”
His speeches were delivered with a nasal clipped cadence that invited parody. The comedian Dana Carvey made his Bush imitation a staple of “Saturday Night Live.” (“Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.”)
Rarely did Bush display the kind of emotional acuity that could move an audience. In a debate in 1992, a television camera captured him glancing at his wristwatch, as if he were bored.
Yet for all these moments, Bush could exhibit a gracious charm and authenticity. He was that rare figure in Washington: a man without enemies — or with very few, at any rate.
“You don’t see anybody trashing this president,” Baker said in the 2013 interview. “Whether they agreed with him on certain policy positions or not, people respected him and liked him.”
Besides his sons George and Jeb, Bush is survived by two other sons, Neil and Marvin; his daughter, Dorothy Bush Koch; a brother, Jonathan; a sister, Nancy Walker Bush Ellis; 17 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. Another daughter, Robin, died of leukemia at age 3 in 1953. His older brother, Prescott S. Bush Jr., died in 2010 at 87, and his younger brother, William, died in March at 79.
Bush remained physically and mentally robust well into his later years, pursuing a retirement seemingly as active as his career had been. At Kennebunkport, when not golfing, he could be found piloting his speedboat, grinning as it roared atop the waves while often terrifying passengers who had dared to join him.
The day before he turned 80, in 2004, he gave a eulogy at Reagan’s funeral in California. Back in Texas two days later, he celebrated his birthday with about 5,000 invited guests, including Gorbachev, at a gala dinner in Houston’s baseball stadium. The day after that, as 3,000 people watched from below, Bush strapped on a parachute and jumped out of a plane.
Privilege and Ambition
George Herbert Walker Bush — he was named after his mother’s father, George Herbert Walker — was born on June 12, 1924, the second of five children, in Milton, Massachusetts, outside Boston. His family moved to Greenwich. His father, besides his two terms in the U.S. Senate, was a banker who commuted to Wall Street as a managing partner at Brown Brothers Harriman, the white-shoe investment firm. His mother, the former Dorothy Walker, was a native of Maine. It was she who gave George his nickname, Poppy, when he was a toddler.
The children grew up sheltered from the Depression, tended to by maids and a driver. George enrolled at Greenwich Country Day School and Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. They spent summers in Kennebunkport.
Bush’s high school yearbook testifies to his ambitions and energy: He was president of the senior class, chairman of the student deacons, and captain of both the baseball team and the soccer team.
At 18, a handsome and strapping young man, he did enlist, as a seaman 2nd class in the Navy’s flight training program. Soon, he was flying combat missions in the Pacific. In September 1944, on a bombing run from the aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto, his plane was hit near the island of Chichi Jima by anti-aircraft guns. He looked out and saw the wings on fire.
“I headed the plane out to sea and put on the throttle so as we could get away from the land as much as possible,” he told his parents in a letter. “I turned the plane up in an attitude so as to take the pressure off the back hatch so the boys could get out. After that I straightened up and started to get out myself.”
Two men on the plane died in the attack. Bush hit his head bailing out, he said, but landed safely in the ocean. He floated on a raft for hours, “violently sick to my stomach,” until a submarine rescued him. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.
He returned home on Christmas Eve 1944. Days later, he married a young woman he had met at a dance three years earlier: Barbara Pierce, the daughter of Marvin Pierce, the publisher of Redbook and McCall’s magazines.
Discharged from the Navy as a lieutenant junior grade, Bush enrolled at Yale, where he was admitted to the exclusive Skull and Bones club. With the arrival of the couple’s first child, their apartment in New Haven became the home of two future presidents.
After graduating from Yale in 1948 with a degree in economics, Bush took his red 1947 Studebaker — a graduation present from his parents — and drove to Odessa, Texas. A wealthy family friend, Henry Neil Mallon, gave him an entry-level job at his Texas oil company, Dresser Industries, landing him in a state that he barely knew but that would become a part of his political identity.
But Bush grew bored in the job, and in 1951 he and a Texas entrepreneur formed an oil exploration business. Two years later, with the business struggling, they merged with another company to form Zapata Petroleum. Zapata had a reputation for never drilling a dry hole, and before long Bush had made his first million.
By 1963 he was living in Houston, and his thoughts turned to politics. There was a contest to lead the Harris County Republican committee, and by his account, local Republicans pressed him to jump in to prevent the far-right John Birch Society from taking over.
Night after night Bush drove across the county to make speeches, with Barbara typically sitting behind him onstage, crocheting. He won, and the victory caught the attention of state Republican leaders, who urged him to challenge Sen. Ralph Yarborough, a Democrat seeking a second term in 1964. Bush agreed.
In February 1966, Bush resigned as chairman and chief executive of Zapata to run for Congress in a wealthy Houston district. Surveying his electorate, he began moving to the center; he now spoke well of the Johnson agenda, declaring in a speech, “I generally favor the goals as outlined in the Great Society.” He told his minister: “I took some of the far-right positions to get elected. I hope I never do it again. I regret it.”
Bush won the House seat handily, with 67 percent of the vote. In Washington, he was one of 47 Republican freshmen in a Democratic-controlled Congress. In his telling, his most consequential vote there was for the open housing bill of 1968, an extension of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which he had campaigned against. He still had concerns about the act’s constitutionality, he wrote about his evolution, but the “problem of discrimination troubled me deeply.”
Bush was re-elected without opposition in 1968. The next spring, President Richard M. Nixon encouraged him to challenge Yarborough again for a Senate seat, although it would mean giving up a safe House seat and a post on the Ways and Means Committee. With Yarborough appearing more vulnerable this time, Bush took the challenge for the 1970 election.
Once again things did not turn out as planned. Rep. Lloyd Bentsen challenged Yarborough in the Democratic primary and, in an upset, won. Bush, suddenly confronting a much tougher opponent, lost by more than 150,000 votes.
Twice defeated as a Senate candidate, and with his term in the House about to expire, Bush was looking for work. He was soon summoned to the White House, where H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, talked to him about a White House staff job. Bush, however, wanted to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Nixon agreed.
His nomination drew a tide of criticism — his qualifications, as a former two-term congressman, were not immediately apparent — but Bush won confirmation in February 1971.
Diplomat and Partisan
His U.N. service began with an embittering defeat in a vote on whether to seat a delegation from China. The United States had wanted both Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China to be represented, but the General Assembly voted to expel Taiwan to make way for China. Delegates danced in the aisles, delighted to see the U.S. humiliated. When Bush rose to speak, he was hissed at. “Gladiatorial ugliness at its worst,” he later called it.
In 1972, after the break-ins at the Democratic Party offices at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, Nixon had a more urgent need for Bush: to lead the Republican National Committee. He took the job, he wrote, certain of Nixon’s innocence in the scandal, and he defended Nixon, though it was not easy.
Meeting with editors and reporters of The Washington Post at the newspaper’s offices, he talked about the pressures he felt even from within his own party. “I had two stacks of mail,” he said. The first asked, “How come you’re not doing more to support the president?” The second asked, “How come you’re keeping the party so close to the president?”
But as the scandal deepened, his support for Nixon began to erode, particularly after the Supreme Court ordered the president to turn over 64 tapes, including one that recorded him ordering Haldeman to block an FBI inquiry into the break-ins. “This was proof the president had lied,” Bush wrote in “All the Best, George Bush.”
“The man is amoral,” he said of Nixon in his diary.
After Nixon resigned, ceding the presidency to Vice President Gerald R. Ford, Bush hoped to fill the vice president’s office. Ford called him in Kennebunkport two weeks later to tell him that he had chosen former Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York for the job.
Bush went instead to China, as head of the U.S. Liaison Office, serving as an unofficial ambassador at a time when the two countries did not have full diplomatic relations. He would describe the period as a sabbatical, free of stress and obligations.
Ford brought him back for another assignment in 1976: to lead the CIA, which was still reeling from accusations that it had abused its power under Nixon, including plotting to assassinate foreign leaders and overturn governments. Bush was credited with restoring morale at the agency, but it was another short-lived appointment, lasting just under a year. Ford lost the election to Jimmy Carter that November, and Bush returned to Texas.
There he turned his sights toward running for president. “I am determined to make an all-out effort for 1980,” he wrote to Nixon in January 1979.
Bush put together a cabinet of advisers — including Baker, a Houston lawyer who had managed his 1970 Senate campaign and Ford’s 1976 presidential campaign — and began traveling the country. He focused first on the Iowa caucuses, borrowing from Jimmy Carter’s 1976 strategy of using a victory there to jump ahead of the field. He succeeded in Iowa, but then lost in New Hampshire, and by May the party was coalescing around Reagan. Bush met with his advisers.
“A consensus was reached — the campaign had no future,” he wrote in his autobiography. “There was only one dissenting voice. Mine.”
Bush decided on a new goal: to become vice president. But that July he learned from television that Reagan was seeking to enlist Ford. To ask a former president to take the No. 2 spot was a surprising move, but Reagan, a former actor and California governor with hard-right views, hoped that Ford would bring to the ticket both Washington heft and political moderation. Their negotiation faltered, however, and Bush received the telephone call he had wanted.
“Hello, George,” Reagan said to Bush. “This is Ron Reagan. I’d like to go over to the convention and announce that you’re my choice for vice president, if that’s all right with you.”
That November, the Reagan-Bush ticket won in a landslide and Bush offered the new president his fealty. “I will never do anything to embarrass you politically,” he wrote to Reagan.
Bush happily accepted his first assignment: leading a task force to reduce federal regulations. He rarely, if ever, said no to attending the funeral of a foreign dignitary, and he endured the ribbing that is the cost of being a vice president. “Let ‘em laugh,” Bush said. “There’s a lot going on, and it’s substantive, and I like it.”
The Reagan-Bush team was even more convincing in the 1984 re-election campaign, when the Democratic challenger, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, chose as his running mate Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro, the first woman nominated for national office by a major party. She and Bush sparred throughout the campaign, and he came in for criticism when he was overheard after a debate bragging that “we tried to kick a little ass last night.” But almost as soon as the votes began piling up, he turned to his own political future.
The Bush White House
Denied the presidency earlier and overshadowed by Reagan for eight years, Bush was triumphant as he stood at the West Front of the Capitol on Inauguration Day in January 1989, a throng of well-wishers spread out below. He was 64 years old and eager to move into the office down the hall and around the corner from the quarters he had occupied as vice president — so eager that he exclaimed “I” before Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist had finished asking him if he would solemnly swear to faithfully execute the office of president.
In his Inaugural Address, Bush pledged “to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.” He talked about a “thousand points of light,” a reference to community and charitable groups, “spread like stars throughout the nation.” But he soon met obstacles to that lofty ambition — some political, some economic, some of his own doing and some beyond his control.
The most immediate difficulty came from operating in Reagan’s shadow. Bush had replaced, and would be judged against, a two-term president who had come to embody a new era of Republicanism while presiding over what was, at the time, the longest period of economic growth in history. If things went wrong for Bush, he would not be able to blame his predecessor.
And clearly he did not approve of everything Reagan had done as president. The heavy budget deficit Reagan had left promised to complicate anything the new president might want to do.
Bush also faced a solidly Democratic Congress, a disadvantage he would later blame for his limited legislative record. And although Bush had defeated Dukakis soundly, he was not feared. Democrats were not inclined to afford him much of a ride.
Bush’s first test came with his nomination of an old ally, John G. Tower, as secretary of defense. Tower, a former senator from Texas, had served on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Bush thought the nomination would, as he wrote, “glide through the Hill for two good reasons: He was more than qualified for the job, and Congress is usually kind to its own.
“I could not have been more wrong.”
The problems rose from the right. Paul M. Weyrich, an uncompromising leader of the conservative movement, testified before the committee that he had seen Tower inebriated in public and in the company of women other than his wife. Weyrich said he had “serious reservations” about Tower’s “moral character.” The next day, Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., who was chairman of the committee, asked Tower if he had a drinking problem. “I have none, senator,” Tower said.
But the nomination was sliding off the tracks, and Bush responded with fury, denouncing what he called the “frenzied air of speculation” about Tower. He and Quayle began lobbying senators personally.
The Senate voted 53-47 to reject Tower’s nomination. It was the first time in 30 years that a president had been denied his choice of a Cabinet member.
Bush next nominated a popular House member for defense secretary: Cheney. But the Tower episode had taken a toll. The 41st president had not reached the 100-days-in-office bench mark, yet he felt compelled to declare that his White House was “on track.”
“I would simply resist the clamor that nothing seems to be bubbling around, that nothing is happening,” he said. “A lot is happening, not all of it good, but a lot is happening.”
A World in Turmoil
In the spring, the Bush presidency turned to foreign affairs, where it stayed for much of the next two years. In Panama, Manuel Noriega claimed victory in an election in May that independent observers said had been stained with fraud. Bush declared the election stolen and called for international pressure to make the Panamanian strongman step aside. It would take almost eight months to accomplish that goal.
The Soviet bloc was in even greater upheaval. Gorbachev, who had come to power in 1985, had begun a campaign for economic and democratic change, shaking the foundations of communism across Eastern Europe. Bush found himself under pressure to respond with equal boldness.
In April 1989, he went to a Polish enclave in Michigan to salute the Polish government for its political liberalization, including providing for the labor union Solidarity to regain its legal status. “The winds of change are shaping a new European destiny,” Bush said. It was time, he declared in Texas a few weeks later, to “seek the integration of the Soviet Union into the community of nations.” And at a NATO meeting in May in Brussels, where many world leaders wanted to see if he could hold his own, he presented Gorbachev with a proposal for conventional arms cuts.
Still, Bush was criticized, even by allies, for having responded tentatively and tepidly to developments behind the Iron Curtain.
After the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, reporters asked Bush why he seemed subdued. “I’m just not an emotional kind of guy,” he replied.
He bristled at the criticism. “If we mishandle this,” he said, speaking of the rebellions in Eastern Europe, “and get way out looking like an American project, you could invite crackdown and invite negative reaction that could result in bloodshed.”
Bush had been similarly cautious in June that year, when Chinese troops cracked down on students demonstrating around Tiananmen Square in Beijing and opened fire, killing hundreds. He announced sanctions against China but said he did not want to cut off diplomatic relations.
That fall, Bush announced that he and Gorbachev would meet, albeit with no formal agenda, on vessels off the coast of Malta, in the Mediterranean. The summit meeting took place in early December 1989. Rough waters forced the cancellation of a negotiating session, but when the seas abated, the two leaders met and vowed to conclude treaties on long-range nuclear weapons and conventional arms by the end of the next year. They agreed, Gorbachev said, that “the characteristics of the Cold War should be abandoned.”
At the time, Bush was frustrated by Noriega’s resilience. In October, dissident Panamanian defense forces had been crushed in an attempted coup that received some U.S. support, but not enough. Noriega appeared before cameras in a taunting show of defiance.
On Dec. 20, the United States invaded Panama in a swift overnight operation involving 11,000 troops; 23 Americans died. Noriega fled, eventually turning up at the residence of the Vatican’s representative in Panama City before surrendering to the U.S. to face narcotics-trafficking charges. Atwater, the chairman of the Republican National Committee at the time, said the capture was a “political jackpot” for Bush.
In the spring, Bush and Gorbachev concluded a summit in Washington with broad agreements to commit to reduce arsenals of long-range nuclear weapons and to eliminate most of their chemical weapons.
On the domestic front, Bush was ready to negotiate a deal on the growing budget deficit. But in doing so, he opened the door to what he would come to see as the worst mistake of his presidency.
“We need a deal,” he wrote in his diary. “I’m willing to eat crow, but the others are going to have to eat crow. I’ll have to yield on ‘Read My Lips,’ and they’re going to have to yield on some of their rhetoric on taxes and on entitlements.”
Marlin Fitzwater, the White House press secretary at the time, said the administration had “no preconditions” as it entered negotiations with congressional leaders. But Democrats, seeking to guard against Republican attacks in elections that fall, said that they would not consider any tax increases unless Bush publicly endorsed such a step.
The White House issued a statement by the president on June 26. “It is clear to me,” it said, “that both the size of the deficit problem and the need for a package that can be enacted require all of the following.” There was a short list of actions. One was “tax revenue increases.”
Bush and congressional Democrats agreed on a budget proposal that included raising taxes on gasoline, cigarettes, liquor and luxury items. The reaction was scathing. “The president gave away the crown jewel of his campaign promise to bring the Democrats to the table: That was ‘no new taxes,’” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.
The House voted down the budget proposal, 254-179, in October 1990. It took several weeks to reach a final deal, which included raising the tax rate on upper income earners to 31 percent from 28 percent. Bush said that he would sign it, but that he was “absolutely going to hold the line on taxes from now on.”
War in the Gulf
In the early hours of Aug. 2, 1990, Iraqi forces under the command of Saddam Hussein rumbled into Kuwait and seized its oil fields. “This is radical Saddam Hussein moving,” Bush wrote in his diary as he sat in the Oval Office at 6 a.m. In an address to the nation a few days later, Bush signaled that the United States was prepared to respond with force. “This will not stand,” he said.
Over the next two weeks, Bush moved the nation toward war while trying to reassure leaders like Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain, who told him, “Don’t go wobbly on me, George.” He sent paratroopers to Saudi Arabia and ordered warships to the Persian Gulf to enforce United Nations trade sanctions against Iraq.
From the start, Bush was dubious that Saddam would respond to diplomacy. But while Thatcher was trying to steel him, other European allies, as well as Gorbachev and Democrats in Congress, were pressuring him not to act too aggressively. Bush pressed his case, saying publicly that he wanted to avoid a military solution, while preparing for just that. “Vital issues of principle are at stake,” he declared to Congress on Sept. 11. “Saddam Hussein is literally trying to wipe a country off the face of the earth.”
In November, Bush nearly doubled the size of the U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf.
Democrats in Congress were concerned. “Howling in the Congress was loud,” Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush, wrote in his memoir. “Was this George Bush, whom some people criticized as a ‘wimp,’ trying to prove his manhood by starting a war?
The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution at the end of November authorizing the use of force against Iraq if it did not leave Kuwait by Jan. 15, 1991. It did not. On Jan. 12, the House and Senate, with bipartisan support, authorized military action in the Persian Gulf. By then Bush had built a foundation for it: 28 countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union, were behind him.
At 3 a.m. in Iraq on Jan. 16, after a midnight deadline had passed without an Iraqi withdrawal, Bush ordered airstrikes. Waves of bombers and cruise missiles hit Baghdad and targets elsewhere in Iraq and in Kuwait.
“Our goal is not the conquest of Iraq, it is the liberation of Kuwait,” Bush said in a televised address. Saddam proclaimed that the “mother of all battles has begun.”
The war began with a spectacular display of U.S. air power, as precision missile and bombing runs appeared to be inflicting grave damage on Baghdad. The White House held out hope that this assault alone would win the war, without American casualties, but Pentagon officials realized that a ground invasion was inevitable.
When it came, the ground war lasted almost exactly 100 hours, with minimal U.S. casualties. Encircled, the Iraqi army surrendered. Bush called a cease-fire, even though it allowed members of the Republican Guard, an elite Iraqi unit, to escape, and even though it left Saddam in power.
Powell advised Bush to end the fighting. “Mr. President, it’s going much better than we expected,” he recalled saying, according to his memoir. “The Iraqi army is broken. All they’re trying to do now is get out. We don’t want to be seen as killing for the sake of killing.” Bush, by Powell’s account, responded, “If that’s the case, why not end it today?”
Bush would be called to defend that decision time and again, saying that he had been convinced that Saddam would be overthrown once the war ended. “We underestimated his brutality and cruelty to his own people and the stranglehold he has on his country,” Bush wrote in February 1991, years before Saddam was actually ousted. “We were disappointed, but I still do not regret my decision to end the war when we did.”
An Economy ‘in Free Fall’
The 1992 election was still more than a year away, but Bush was considering his prospects for a second term when he took note of a governor who sought to run against him. “The stories keep saying I will be very hard to beat: The more we hear of this, the more worried I become,” he wrote in his diary. “Bill Clinton, a very nice man, may get into the race.”
Then came an Election Day jolt in 1991: Harris Wofford, an obscure Democrat running for the Senate in Pennsylvania and appealing to the economic concerns of the middle class, defeated Dick Thornburgh, an attorney general under both Bush and Reagan.
The next day, Bush canceled a trip to the Far East, wary of giving Democrats ammunition in portraying him as interested only in foreign policy. He summoned reporters to say that the economy was basically sound.
“You see, there’s some fairly good fundamentals getting out there,” he said. “Inflation is down. Interest rates are down. Personal debt is down. Inventories are down.”
But Americans, including Republicans, were dubious. One opinion poll found that only one in four respondents approved of Bush’s handling of the economy. Signaling more trouble, Buchanan, the conservative commentator, announced that he would challenge Bush for the Republican nomination.
Bush’s 12-day trip to the Far East opened the last full year of his presidency. The White House presented the trip, six weeks before the New Hampshire primary, as an effort to open export markets. Instead it produced what Bush saw as one of the most damaging moments of his time in office.
At a state dinner in Tokyo hosted by Kiichi Miyazawa, the Japanese prime minister, Bush turned white, vomited on his host and fainted. Miyazawa cradled Bush’s head as the president crumpled to the floor, an unsettling image that dominated the news for days.
Bush came home to a bleak domestic picture. Unemployment was at 7.1 percent, the highest level in six years. A New York Times/CBS News opinion poll found that just one-fifth of Americans thought Bush cared about their problems. When Bush visited New Hampshire in mid-January, his anxiety was evident the moment he stepped off Air Force One.
“I probably have made mistakes in assessing the fact that the economy would recover,” he said. “I think I’ve known, look, this economy is in free fall. I hope I’ve known it. Maybe I haven’t conveyed it as well as I should have, but I do understand it.”
Buchanan drew 37 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, unwelcome news for the beleaguered Bush.
A Loss and a Rebound
The president’s advisers promptly sent him to 22 cities in 20 days. He attacked welfare, big government and trial lawyers, and rued the day he had agreed to raise taxes, calling his decision to renege on his tax pledge the biggest mistake of his presidency.
Bush stopped his slide by solidly beating Buchanan in South Carolina. Clearly relieved, the president said he would cut back his campaign trips.
But Buchanan’s candidacy had highlighted Bush’s political frailty, forced him to act as a candidate rather than as a president, and pushed him rightward as Clinton seized the center.
There was little respite for Bush as he prepared for the nominating convention in Houston. At that point he had to deal with the prospect of a populist third-party challenge from Perot. Bush shrugged off the threat at first.
“Perot will be defined, seen, as a weirdo,” he wrote that spring, referring to Perot’s eccentric ways and folksy style. (He was drawn to conspiracy theories, among other things, and hired private detectives to chase his suspicions.) But Perot had captured the public’s imagination. He presented himself as the symbol of change and did not play by the rules of traditional politics.
Alarmed Republicans were blunt. At a fundraiser in Charlotte, North Carolina, the president was visibly uncomfortable watching a video in which Sen. Jesse Helms complained about Bush’s campaign. “Mr. President,” Helms said, “tell them once again, ‘Read my lips,’ but this time with gusto.”
Bush fixated on Clinton’s political skills. Clinton was “better at facts-figures, than I am,” he wrote to an adviser. “I am better at life.”
He also complained to supporters that he was not getting the credit he deserved for the fall of communism, the handling of the Persian Gulf war and the arms control treaties. “I have worked my heart out as president of the United States,” he said.
Clinton was nominated by a confident, united Democratic Party in New York in July. Republicans went on the attack, portraying him as a man of character flaws that made him unfit to lead. Clinton responded with equal force. “George Bush,” he said, “if you won’t use your power to help people, step aside. I will.”
Clinton’s convention was a success. In a New York Times/CBS News opinion poll, he had the biggest post-convention bounce in 50 years, leading Bush 55 percent to 31 percent.
Republicans despaired. Under pressure to shake up his White House, Bush pressed his old friend Baker to leave the State Department and return as White House chief of staff.
Bush accepted the nomination to run for a second term with a promise to cut taxes, a pledge to curb spending, an attack on Clinton’s credentials and — once again — an apology for having broken his tax cut pledge.
“Who do you trust in this election?” he said as Republican delegates in Houston roared their approval. “The candidate who raised taxes one time and regrets it, or the other candidate, who raised taxes and fees 128 times and enjoyed it every time?”
The convention was dominated by angry appeals to the party’s conservative wing, notably by Buchanan and Robertson, who were given prime-time slots to speak against abortion rights and gay rights. By the end of the month, a New York Times/CBS News poll showed that Clinton still had a resounding lead of 51 percent to 26 percent.
The Final Election
Bush remained ostensibly confident. “I can make it; I can out hustle Clinton; out work him; out jog him; out campaign him; and we’ll win,” he wrote in his diary. But his campaign was frantic. He jumped from offering an economic plan one day to attacking Clinton’s character the next, referring to Clinton’s military draft exemptions, his dabbling with marijuana and his protests against the Vietnam War while a student.
Bush’s attacks escalated as the weather turned cold. “My dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than those two bozos,” he said of Clinton and his running mate, Sen. Al Gore.
But on Nov. 3, Clinton defeated Bush, 43 percent to 37 percent, with Perot drawing almost 19 percent. Bush believed he would have won were it not for Perot, Baker said. That weekend, a dispirited Bush retreated with Powell to Camp David in Maryland, where they watched the movie “Enchanted April” and tried to understand what had just happened.
“I just never thought they’d elect him,” Bush told Powell. “Don’t understand it. But life goes on.”
Bush had not expected such an early retirement. He and Barbara Bush did not even really have a place to go: Their base in Houston was a hotel suite, and the Kennebunkport retreat had not been winterized.
But Bush was not finished with his presidency. At Christmas, he pardoned six Reagan administration officials who had been involved in the arms-for-hostages scandal. One, former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, was about to stand trial on charges that he had lied to Congress about his knowledge of arms sales to Iran. The trial would have opened up private notes referring to Bush’s support for the secret arms shipment.
The special prosecutor in the case, Lawrence E. Walsh, assailed the pardons. “The Iran-Contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed,” he said.
Bush returned to Russia for a final foreign policy triumph. He and President Boris N. Yeltsin signed a START II agreement providing for the steepest rollback of nuclear arms yet. Then, on Jan. 20, 1993, Bush took one last walk around the White House grounds.
Bush spent the rest of his life more as an observer than as a player, watching as one son was elected president twice and as another was elected governor twice before attempting his own run for the presidency. He joined Clinton in raising money for disaster relief efforts. His public profile dropped as criticism of his son’s presidency mounted, and there were reports that foreign policy advisers to the elder Bush had counseled against the war in Iraq that so troubled George W. Bush’s presidency.
Bush was never a man comfortable with self-examination, but in an interview with Meacham, his biographer, he evinced some insecurity about how history might judge him. “I am lost between the glory of Reagan — monuments everywhere, trumpets, the great hero — and the trials and tribulations of my sons,” Bush said.
At another point, he asked of those who would examine his career, “What if they just find an empty deck of cards?”
But the 41st president may have best summed up his talents and ambitions in a diary entry on the last day of 1989, as the first year of his presidency drew to a close.
“I’m certainly not seen as visionary,” Bush wrote. “But I hope I’m seen as steady and prudent and able.”