George HW Bush: American Hero
By the time George Hebert Walker Bush was inaugurated as the 41st president of the United States in January 1989, he was already a war hero, had served as CIA Director and spent eight years as vice-president to Ronald Reagan, thus becoming the first serving vice-president for more than 150 years to be elected to the highest office.
Born on June 12, 1924 in Milton, Massachusetts, Bush was the son of an investment banker who later became a US senator.
He volunteered for the US Navy after Pearl Harbor and trained as an aviator before being assigned duties in the Pacific where he saw action against the Japanese during World War Two.
Just 18, he was the youngest pilot in the Navy, assigned to pilot torpedo bombers off aircraft carriers and flew 58 combat missions. He was shot down in September 1944 while on a bombing raid as his plane filled with smoke and flames that swallowed both wings.
He continued to pilot the aircraft, dropping his bombs on their target and ordered his two fellow crew members to parachute out of the plane but neither man survived.
Choking on the smoke, Bush followed his crew – smashing his head on the tail of the plane as the wind propelled him backwards.
However, he made it into a tiny life-raft and began paddling away from the nearby Japanese island with his hands. Incredibly, a US submarine rose to the surface right next to him and his rescue was even captured on camera.
He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery.
Following his honourable discharge from the navy in 1945, Bush married 18-year-old Barbara Pierce. Their marriage would last 72 years and they would have six children together. Their first son, the future president George Walker Bush, was born a year later. Barbara Bush passed on earlier this year in April.
Bush had been offered a place at Yale prior to his enlistment in the navy, and he took it up in 1945, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Bush and his family then moved to Texas where, with the use of his father’s business connections, he got a job in the oil industry.
Initially, he worked as a salesman for Dresser Industries, a company which manufactured oil drilling equipment and which was owned by a friend of his father.
The years following World War II were a boom time for both the US economy and the Texas oil industry and within three years, he had founded his own firm, the Bush-Overbey Oil Development Company, the first of a number of highly successful drilling ventures. By the age of 40, he was a millionaire.
However, his professional interest had turned to politics. After serving as the chairman of a local branch of the Republican Party he took a major step, seeking and winning the Republican nomination for the US Senate seat for Texas.
The Democratic incumbent successfully branded Bush as a right-wing extremist, gaining 56% of the vote to Bush’s 43%. Undaunted, Bush successfully stood for the House of Representatives in 1966, where he served for two terms.
President Richard Nixon persuaded Bush to try for the Senate again in 1970 but, again, he was defeated by the Democratic candidate. Instead, Nixon appointed him US ambassador to the United Nations in 1971 and then Republican Party chairman.
When Nixon was forced to resign in 1974, Bush did his best to heal some of the wounds left by Watergate, touring the country in support of Republican candidates. At the end of the year he went to Beijing as head of the new US mission there. After just over a year in China, President Gerald Ford brought him home to take charge of the Central Intelligence Agency, which had been rocked by a series of scandals relating to covert operations abroad and unauthorised spying on US citizens.
Bush left the CIA after Ford left office and, in 1978, began campaigning for the Republican nomination for the 1980 presidential election. He travelled the country, preaching his brand of moderate conservatism and, by the beginning of 1980, had emerged as the main challenger to Ronald Reagan.
But he entered the presidential fray only to find that his privileged past could be a political liability. “What’s wrong with excellence?” he said at the time. “What’s wrong with having a good education? What’s wrong with having excelled in my life and business or being a good ambassador in China or the United Nations, or having done an excellent job at the CIA? I have. I know that sounds a little immodest, but that’s my record.”
Defeated by Reagan there was, once again, a consolation: a ticket to the White House as Reagan’s deputy and eight years of training for the top job itself.
In the 1988 race which delivered George HW Bush to the presidency, he made two fundamental misjudgements.
The first was his choice of vice-presidential candidate: Dan Quayle, a little-known senator from Indiana, who gained international fame through a series of gaffes. The second was in a speech Bush made at the 1988 Republican National Convention.
During an attack on the fiscal policy of his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, Bush made a pledge that was to haunt his presidency and ultimately bring about his political downfall.
“Read my lips,” he told the assembled delegates. “No new taxes.” After one of the most acrimonious election campaigns in US history, Bush became the first serving vice-president to be elected to the top job since Martin van Buren in 1836.
It was a time of momentous change which saw the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet empire.
His true test came in August 1990 when the US was caught off-guard by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Bush moved quickly to build an international coalition to end Saddam Hussein’s occupation and establish a US military toehold in Saudi Arabia, a valuable strategic dividend.
He delayed military action in order to give time to secure UN approval for the action. The decision led to a famous rebuke from Margaret Thatcher.
‘Well, all right, George, but this is no time to go wobbly,” said the Iron Lady in a middle-of-the-night phone call from Downing Street.
The subsequent battle proved to be a triumph for American military expertise and a major boost for the nation’s morale.
In the defining moment of Bush’s presidency, the US and its allies swept across the desert in a ground war lasting just 100 hours. Bush ordered 425,000 troops into the Persian Gulf, in what would be called Desert Storm. American-led forces made quick work of the Iraqi army, forcing it from Kuwait and allowing Bush to declare victory.
The victory boosted the president’s standing despite the fact that US and allied forces stopped well short of Baghdad, allowing Saddam Hussein to remain in power. It would be left to the president’s son to topple the Iraqi dictator.
Despite achieving popularity ratings of 90%, Bush’s decision to concentrate on foreign affairs led to accusations that he was ignoring the worsening economic situation at home, most notably, the longest-lasting recession since World War Two.
To make matters worse he did the one thing he had promised he would never do: he raised taxes.
In the 1992 election, Bush could not match the energy of his opponent, the young Democratic governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who conveyed a new vision for America that Bush admitted he simply could not express.
The image that summed it all up came on a trade trip to Japan that ended in dismal failure when the president fainted after vomiting at a banquet laid on by his hosts. Bush went down to a landslide defeat.
After leaving office, Bush focused his time on charity work by raising hundreds of millions of dollars for organizations across the country.
He saw his son, George W. Bush, elected to two terms as president. It was at his son’s request that the elder Bush teamed up with former President Clinton to help raise money for relief efforts following the tsunami in Southeast Asia, Hurricane Katrina and the massive earthquake in Haiti.
Bush never lost his zest for life post-presidency; he skydived on his 85th and 90th birthdays.
As president, he would be remembered as an efficient chief executive a great manager of people who navigated his country through uncertain times at the end of the Cold War and during the Gulf War.