If the presidency were measured by résumé alone, George Herbert Walker Bush, who died Friday night at the age of 94, was one of the most prepared men to ever hold the job. Before his election in 1988, he had been vice president for eight years, ambassador to the U.N., envoy to China, and director of the CIA. He’d paid his political dues too, serving two terms in Congress, running unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and then taking on the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee at President Nixon’s request in the midst of the Watergate scandal. He managed to remain loyal to Nixon publicly even as he privately counseled him to resign.
Bush was only the second president, after John Adams, to have a son who would also serve as president. And he was surely the first in history to celebrate his 85th birthday by going skydiving, a testament to the good health he had enjoyed until recent months when vascular Parkinsonism affected his ability to walk and relegated him to a wheelchair. “It just affects the legs. It’s not painful,” he told Parade Magazine. “You tell your legs to move and they just don’t move. It’s strange, but if you have to have some bad-sounding disease, this is a good one to get.”
Bush was self-effacing almost to a fault, but his four years in the White House saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, momentous events that might have prompted any other president to take a victory lap. Bush understood the value of understatement. When he launched what turned out to be a 100-hour war to expel Iraq from Kuwait, he stopped short of ordering troops into Baghdad, producing a victory in the first Gulf War that did not cost any American lives and that propelled him to an 80 percent approval rating.
Bush had unquestionable prowess in foreign policy, assembling international support that no president since has rivaled, but he struggled with domestic issues, mainly rising deficits and a slowing economy. Working with a Democratic Congress he was forced to abandon his “no new taxes” pledge, a fateful step credited with putting the nation on the path to a balanced budget but earning Bush the enmity of his party’s powerful conservative wing. After he was defeated for reelection in 1992 by then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, Bush supporters couldn’t believe the country would reject a man who had so ably served his country both as president and as the youngest naval aviator in World War II after enlisting at age 18.
Bush later joined with the man who defeated him in a number of philanthropic causes. They have forged such a strong relationship that Barbara Bush has said of Clinton, “I think he thinks of George as the father he never had.” She says her children refer to him as “a brother by another mother,” while Clinton himself jokes, “Barbara began to refer to me as her black sheep son.”
Bush was only 20 years old and just weeks back from service in the Pacific when he married Barbara Pierce. They had six children, including a daughter, Robin, who died from leukemia when she was only 3. They had been married for 67 years at the time of Barbara’s death this April.
For all the high posts he held before entering the White House, Bush was untouched by scandal or controversy, a man so deft at diplomacy that when he first ran for president in 1980, he carried so little political baggage and was so seasoned that he seemed a sure winner over the man who became his chief rival, California Governor and former actor Ronald Reagan. When Bush won the Iowa caucuses, Newsweek pictured him jogging on the cover with the headline, “Bush Breaks Out of the Pack.”
The conservative Reagan went on to win the primaries, and in a bid to heal the party invited the moderate Bush to join the ticket, a deal brokered by Bush’s close friend, Texas lawyer James Baker, who would become Reagan’s chief-of-staff and accumulate a résumé nearly as weighty as Bush’s. When Reagan was the target of an assassination attempt just three months into his presidency, Bush rushed back to Washington to temporarily assume the duties of the president. He showed his extraordinary capacity for loyalty by declining to have his helicopter land at the White House. “Only the president lands on the South Lawn,” he said.
After eight years of dutiful and unsung service as Reagan’s vice president, Bush became a contender in his own right in 1987. Reagan’s second term had gotten embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal with evidence that the administration had secretly sold arms to Iran and shifted the money to fund the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua. Bush claimed he was “out of the loop,” and nothing more than an innocent bystander when the illegal trades occurred. The explanation was not fully plausible and when coupled with Bush’s history of avoiding stands that might compromise him politically produced what the media dubbed, “the wimp factor.” Newsweek put the phrase on its cover along with a picture of Bush out sailing the week he announced his candidacy.
The phrase stung, and the campaign that followed was brutally fought with television ads that at the time were seen by critics as going over the line of respectability, especially from a New England patrician like Bush. Bush hammered Democrat Michael Dukakis as a card-carrying member of the ACLU who was soft on crime. An ad picturing shadowy figures in a revolving door going in and out of prison played on racial stereotypes and fears. Bush won big with over 400 electoral votes, but the after-taste of the negative campaign prompted his chief strategist, the late Lee Atwater, to apologize to Dukakis.
Bush no doubt did what he felt he had to in order to win the presidency, but once in office the attributes that he will be most remembered for took hold. They include an endearing and self-effacing awkwardness, parodied on Saturday Night Live by Dana (“wouldn’t be prudent”) Carvey, great personal courage tempered by restraint, and a statesmanlike approach to foreign policy that stands the test of time as a model for his successors.