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George H.W. Bush, the 41st U.S. president and father of the 43rd, has died at age 94

Saturday - 01/12/2018 12:09
The death of Bush — nicknamed "41" to distinguish himself from son George W. Bush, "43" — was announced in a statement released late Friday.
Barry Thumma / AP
Barry Thumma / AP

HOUSTON — George Herbert Walker Bush, the president who managed the end of the Cold War and forged a global coalition to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait, has died at age 94. In a political career that spanned three decades, he lost his bid for re-election and lived to see his son win the Oval Office.

The death of Bush — nicknamed "41" to distinguish himself from son George W. Bush, "43" — was announced in a statement released late Friday.

"Jeb, Neil, Marvin, Doro and I are saddened to announce that after 94 remarkable years, our dear Dad has died," his son, former President George W. Bush, said in a statement released by family spokesman Jim McGrath. "George H.W. Bush was a man of the highest character and the best dad a son or daughter could ask for. The entire Bush family is deeply grateful for 41's life and love, for the compassion of those who have cared and prayed for Dad, and for the condolences of our friends and fellow citizens."

Bush's death comes months after the passing of his wife of 73 years, Barbara.

Bush bristled at the term "dynasty" but in fact his family defined the term. He was the son of a senator, Prescott Bush of Connecticut, and the father of Jeb Bush, the two-term governor of Florida, and George W. Bush, the two-term governor of Texas who went on to win two terms as president. Only the founding Adams family, John and John Quincy, can also claim both father and son as presidents. 

The elder Bush entered the Oval Office with the longest political resume of any president in modern times: Congressman. United Nations ambassador. Republican national chairman. U.S. liaison to China. Director of the CIA. When he lost the GOP presidential nomination in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, the former California governor and primary foe offered him the vice presidency, a role he filled for eight years before winning the top job himself in 1988 over Democrat Michael Dukakis.

But Bush's bid for a second term in 1992 was rebuffed by voters who weren't convinced he understood the economic anxieties in their lives, choosing Bill Clinton instead.

George Bush moved home to Houston, where he and his wife, Bar, became familiar figures at Astros games, local restaurants and fundraising galas for cancer research, literacy and other favored causes. He oversaw the building of the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the grounds of Texas A&M, in College Station. And he determinedly rejected efforts to analyze his role in history, declining even to write the sort of memoir that has become the lucrative last word for past presidents.

"I don't want anyone to pay attention to me," he said in an interview with USA TODAY in 1997, a few days after he parachuted out of an airplane, just to prove that at age 73 he could. "I'm confident that historians from one perspective or another are going to write and say what they think and then there'll be a merge of a judgment of our administration."

He added with a smile: "I think history's going to be relatively kind."

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss agreed. "Especially after his presidency, Bush came to be seen as a real human being and, instinctively, Americans felt good about him," he says.

The coarsening of the American political debate and the fierce polarization of Washington in recent years has created among some a nostalgia for the Bush era. His presidential campaigns were hard-fought and sometimes negative, but it was still a time when bipartisanship wasn't seen as a distant memory. In recent years, the rise of Donald Trump tested Bush's lifelong allegiance to the Republican Party: In 2016, he cast his presidential ballot for Hillary Clinton.

MAN IN A HURRY 

Bush was born in Milton, Mass., on June 12, 1924, into a family of entitlement, energy and public service. His mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, was a particular force throughout his life. Barbara Bush once called her mother-in-law the most competitive person she had ever met, albeit one who warned her brood against bragging about themselves.

On the day he turned 18 years old, Bush both graduated from Phillips Academy Andover and enlisted in the Navy, little more than six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Less than a year later, when he was still 18, he received his wings and officer's commission, believed to be the Navy's youngest pilot.

For the next two years, with World War II at its peak, Bush flew torpedo bombers off the USS San Jacinto. On Sept. 2, 1944, his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire while he was on a bombing run in the Pacific. Bush bailed and was rescued by a submarine, but his two crewmembers were killed. Bush would later say he thought of them every day. 

After the war, Bush was a man in a hurry. He married Barbara Pierce in 1945 and graduated in 1948 with a degree in economics from Yale, where he was also captain of the baseball team. He and Bar and Georgie, then a toddler, moved to the Oil Patch in Odessa, Texas, to seek his fortune. He started as a salesman of oil field equipment for a company owned by a friend of his father, then ultimately founded an oil company of his own.

They would have six children in all: George, Robin, Jeb, Neil, Marvin and Doro. Robin died at age 3 of leukemia, a loss that would reverberate through their lives. Decades later, her portrait was still hanging in a corner of her parents' living room. Barbara Bush died at their Houston home on April 17 after a long battle with congestive heart failure. Her husband of 73 years, the longest presidential marriage in history, was holding her hand.

Bush had first gotten involved in politics as chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, in Houston. He lost his first political campaign, for a Senate seat in 1964, but he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1966. He was re-elected two years later and then lost a second campaign for the Senate in 1970.

President Nixon appointed Bush ambassador to the United Nations and then drafted him to chair the Republican National Committee during the Watergate scandal, a mostly thankless task. After Nixon resigned from office, president Gerald Ford named Bush chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in China and then director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

In 1980, with some reluctance after a tough primary campaign, Ronald Reagan selected Bush to be his running mate. After eight years as vice president, he won job he had long wanted. 

Bush was not Reagan, not when it came to public affection and communications skills. But his background in national security and his relationships with foreign leaders — forged during his tenure at the UN and the CIA and in China — prepared him for dealing with a world that was teetering on the precipice of dramatic change. A year after he was elected, on Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Then the Soviet Union unraveled and its former satellites embraced democratic revolutions. 

"He'll be admired for ending the Cold War on terms that Americans never could have dreamt possible for the 45 years of the Cold War," Beschloss says. "It would not have happened if George Bush hadn't been there....He formed a relationship with (Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev of trust that encouraged Gorbachev to give up a lot of concessions."

There would be other foreign crises: a famine in Somalia, the seizure of Panama's corrupt leader Manuel Noriega and the Gulf War. The ultimate test of Bush's foreign-policy leadership came after Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. Three days later, returning from Camp David, Bush told reporters waiting for him on the South Lawn: "This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait."

Bush agonized over his decision to send American troops into combat. "I shall say a few more prayers, mainly for our kids in the Gulf, and I shall do what must be done," he wrote in a letter to his children on Dec. 30, 1990.

He assembled a 30-nation coalition to oust Iraq in what became Operation Desert Storm. After weeks of bombarding Iraqi forces by air, the allies moved in on the ground and, in days, liberated Kuwait.

Although he was criticized later for not removing Saddam from power, the war would be the pinnacle of Bush's authority and popularity. But that turned out to be a double-edged sword. During his re-election campaign, some voters saw Bush as a chief executive who focused on foreign policy at the expense of concerns at home.

Bush did champion important legislation on domestic policy, at times at odds with the conservative orthodoxy of his party. He signed the Americans With Disabilities Act, which paved new ground for providing access and job protections to people with handicaps, and a significant revision of the Clean Air Act.

Most memorable — and most damaging to him politically — was his decision to embrace a budget agreement in 1999 that included an increase in several existing taxes. That broke the signature promise he had made in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 1988. "Read my lips," he had said to cheers. "No new taxes."

'WE'VE KEPT THE FAITH' 

Four years later, Bush couldn't quite believe he was going to be defeated by Bill Clinton, a Baby Boomer who had dodged the draft during Vietnam and who was being blistered by allegations of marital infidelity.

But Clinton made the economy his weapon. In fact, the nation's economy was technically in a recovery, but it didn't feel that way to many Americans. Lingering questions over how much Bush as vice president knew about the Iran-contra affair also dogged him, and the special counsel investigating the Reagan administration scandal indicted former Defense secretary Caspar Weinberger days before the election. The decision by an eccentric fellow Texan, H. Ross Perot, to wage an on-again off-again independent campaign didn't help.

White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater and other aides also wondered if Bush's bouts with a thyroid disorder and irregular heartbeat undermined the zest he showed for campaigning four years earlier.

"We have fought the good fight," Bush told his supporters on Election Night, "and we've kept the faith."

Later, he would become close to the man who denied him a second presidential term. At the request of George W. Bush, his father and Clinton worked together to raise money for victims of an Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. Barbara Bush later said that Clinton grew to see her husband "as the father he never had."

After he left the White House, Bush often said that his main occupation was grandparenting. He and Barbara Bush had 17 of them, and seven great-grandchildren by the time they had died. Many in the Bush clan congregated every summer at Walker's Point, the family's seaside compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, for fishing, games of tennis and horseshoes and rides on the fast speedboats that Bush favored.

In a 2004 interview with USA TODAY, just before his 80th birthday, Bush cited a Thomas Jefferson quote: "There is a fullness of time when men should go, and not occupy too long the ground to which others have a right to advance."

"It's exactly the way I feel about it," the former president said. "I had my chance."

Bush remained an athlete well into his 80s. He went skydiving again to mark his 80th and 85th and 90th birthdays. But his battle with vascular Parkinsonism robbed him of his ability to walk, and in recent years made it increasingly difficult for him to speak more than a few words at a time.

"Life goes on with all its mystery and wonder," he wrote in his diary on Sept. 2, 1988, 44 years after he had been shot down in combat, and two months before he would win the presidency. "I want to live to do good things and partly to meet the challenges that lie ahead, but I don't fear death."

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