George Herbert Walker Bush: From Navy Blue to White House

George Herbert Walker Bush was born in 1924 into one of the most prominent families in the United States, a wealthy family committed to civil service. His parents instilled in him a sense of civic obligation — his father, Prescott Bush, was a Wall Street lawyer who served two terms as a U.S. Senator from Connecticut.

When World War II broke out, George Bush was prepared to study at Yale University. Instead, he enlisted in the navy in 1942 and became a torpedo bomber pilot, one of the youngest and most distinguished pilots of the war, flying more than 50 bombing missions against Japan.

In 1944, his plane was shot down by the Japanese. Bush survived for hours in the Pacific Ocean before a U.S. submarine rescued him.

Bush returned home from the war in late 1944. He married Barbara Pierce, the daughter of a magazine publishing magnate — her father published Redbook and McCall's magazines — in 1945. He returned to Yale and graduated in 1948 with a degree in economics. Afterward, he and Barbara moved to Texas, where Bush started a business producing oil-drilling equipment, and within a few years was a millionaire.

George H.W. Bush's early political career

Like his father, Bush was a moderate Republican. In 1962, he became the chairman of the Republican Party in Harris County, Texas. A couple years later, Bush thought he was ready to run for office. Following in his father's footsteps, Bush ran for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Ralph Yarborough in 1964. Although he lost the race, he gained the attention of the Republican Party by receiving a record number of votes for a Republican in Texas. Then-former vice president Richard Nixon took Bush under his wing and in 1966, Bush became the first Republican to represent Houston in the House of Representatives.

As a Representative, Bush pushed to abolish the military draft and to give 18-year-olds the right to vote. In 1970, Bush ran for Senate again. This time, he faced Lloyd Bensten, and he lost again. Richard Nixon, now the president, came to his rescue and appointed him the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

From 1971 to 1977, Bush served in numerous government positions, including

  • Ambassador to the United Nations (1971–1973)

  • Chairman of the Republican National Committee (1973–1974)

  • U.S. Envoy to China (1974–1975)

  • Head of the Central Intelligence Agency (1976–1977)

When the Democrats won the White House in 1976, Bush's public career was over for the time being. This gave him the time to turn his eyes to the big prize: the presidency.

The road to the White house

In 1980, Bush ran for the Republican presidential nomination — he was the only real challenger to Ronald Reagan. He ran as a moderate, pointing out his differences with the more conservative Reagan, even coining the phrase "voodoo economics" to describe Reagan's economic agenda. When Reagan won the nomination, he selected Bush to be his running mate. Bush had to promise to support Reagan's policies, even if he disagreed with them.

In 1988, Bush benefited from the fact that Reagan had retired as one of the most popular presidents in U.S. history, and so George H.W. Bush become the Republican presidential nominee, taking Indiana Senator Dan Quayle as his running mate. Reagan actively campaigned for Bush, and Bush promised to continue Reagans' policies.

Bush also promised the U.S. public that, as president, he would preside over a "kinder, gentler America," where especially the poor would benefit. At the Republican convention, he further pledged not to raise taxes, saying, "the Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I'll say no, and they'll push, and I'll say no, and they'll push again and I'll say to them, 'read my lips, no new taxes." This campaign promise would later come back to haunt him.

The 1988 presidential campaign between Bush and Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis got nasty at times, but in the end, Bush won 54% of the popular vote and carried 426 electoral votes to Dukakis's 111.

George H.W. Bush's presidency

Unlike Reagan, who liked to delegate authority, Bush was a hands-on president. He showed up early for work, and he immersed himself in decision-making. This work ethic showed especially in the area of foreign affairs, where Bush had many major accomplishments. However, he wasn't nearly as successful in his domestic policy.

Foreign policy

Foreign policy was Bush's great love, and he excelled at it — helped along to a major degree by his experiences and connections as a U.N. ambassador. His major foreign accomplishments include

  • Ousting Noriega: In 1989, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was actively involved in drug smuggling, and he nullified a democratic vote that he had lost. The murder of a U.S. marine by Noriega's forces was the last straw that prompted Bush's invasion of the country with 24,000 U.S. troops in December. The troops captured and removed Noriega from office in January, and he was brought to the United States to face trial. Noriega was convicted in April 1992 of drug trafficking and was incarcerated.

  • German unification: President Bush played an active role in convincing Soviet president Gorbachev to allow Germany, which had been divided since 1945, to reunify in 1990.

  • START I (STrategic Arms Reduction Treaty): This treaty, ratified in 1991, reduced U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals.

  • The Gulf War: In 1990, Saddam Hussein, the leader of Iraq, invaded neighboring Kuwait. Kuwait holds some of the largest oil reserves in the world. Bush, worried that neighboring Saudi Arabia would be Iraq's next target, created an international alliance sanctioned by the United Nations, including such unlikely allies as the Soviet Union and many Arab countries, to punish Iraq and drive them from Kuwait.

  • The end of the Cold War: With the collapse of the Soviet Union late in 1991, the United States had won the Cold War. It was the only remaining superpower. Bush proceeded slowly, trying not to antagonize Russia, and assured them economic aid.

    Bush was also actively involved in the liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet control. He advocated slow, cautious transition and extended economic aid to the new democracies in Eastern Europe.

  • The Understanding on Nuclear Arms Reduction Resolution: This 1992 resolution further reduced the nuclear arsenals of the U.S.A. and Russia (after the collapse of the Soviet Union).

Domestic policy

President Bush's foreign policy successes lifted his approval rating to an astonishing 91%, the highest ever for a sitting president. He seemed to be a shoo-in for reelection in 1992, but domestic problems interfered, including

  • The deficit: By 1989, the budget deficit had risen to $350 billion annually. The overall budget deficit reached $3.2 trillion — an all-time high at the time. In 1991, Congress and the Bush administration, in spite of Bush's "no new taxes" campaign promise, raised taxes to reduce the deficit.

  • The collapse of the savings and loan industry: The Reagan administration had deregulated the savings and loan industry in 1982. This freed institutions to engage in risky speculation, and many institutions were mismanaged. By 1989, approximately 1,000 savings and loan businesses had collapsed or were on the verge of doing so. The Bush administration stepped in and spent an estimate $500 billion to bail these industries out so that millions of Americans didn't lose their savings.

The Bush administration succeeded in some areas of domestic policy, including

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act made it mandatory for government installations, businesses, and public places to eliminate any physical obstacle that handicapped citizens might face. For example, elevators had to be installed in all multi-level government facilities.

  • The Clean Air Act provided higher standards for air quality.

  • NAFTA (The North American Free Trade Agreement) eliminated most tariffs between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and made provision for eligible Latin American countries to join at a later date. Bush proposed NAFTA in 1991, but Congress stalled the agreement until President Clinton signed it in 1993.

Losing reelection

President Bush fully expected to win reelection in 1992. He had many great foreign policy successes, and he thought that would be enough. In addition, he was opposed by a Democratic governor from a small state who had a lot of personal baggage to bring along.

What ultimately cost Bush the election was a third-party candidate, H. Ross Perot, a billionaire from Texas. Perot siphoned off conservative votes and won almost 20% of the total vote. Studies show that almost two-thirds of all Perot voters would have voted for Bush had Perot withdrawn his candidacy.

Retiring and advising

George Bush left office in 1993 and moved back to Houston, Texas. That same year, he was awarded an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II. He wrote his memoirs and continued giving speeches around the country.

When his son George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, the senior Bush often advised his son on foreign affairs.

In recognition for Bush's service to his country — not only as president, but throughout his life and into his retirement years — President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010.

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