George Herbert Walker Bush served as president from 1989 to 1993.
George H.W. Bush (1924–2018), 41st president of the United States
Former President George Herbert Walker Bush died Friday, November 30, 2018.
Born June 12, 1924, he was the oldest living ex-president at 94, and he was the first president in almost 200 years whose son became president, too.
His passing comes just seven months after that of his wife, former First Lady Barbara Bush.
Bush’s son, former President George W. Bush, announced the death in a statement Friday, saying: “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 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.”
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As the 41st president of the United States from 1989 to 1993, following an eight-year tenure as Ronald Reagan’s vice president, Bush cut a pragmatic figure rather than a romantic one, even as he helmed a number of high-stakes international situations.
He worked with both the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, to declare an official, peaceful end to the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet power blocs, whose long struggle for dominance amid mutual nuclear threat had shaped global politics through the second half of the 20th century.
Bush also assembled the U.S.-led military coalition of nations in 1991 that forced Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to quit its armed annexation of its oil-rich Persian Gulf neighbor state, Kuwait.
On the domestic front, President Bush signed several major initiatives into law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protected the civil rights of citizens living with numerous physical and mental health conditions, and the Immigration Act of 1990, which expanded total immigration numbers by 40 percent. He also appointed Justices David Souter and Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.
Though he was popular with the American public following what was generally seen as a successful conclusion to the Gulf War, Bush’s esteem soon declined amid an ongoing economic recession. His famous campaign pledge, “Read my lips: no new taxes,” proved impossible to hold to in the face of a contrary Congress, and discontent voters in 1992 elected Bill Clinton, choosing to make Bush a one-term president.
Bush followed the tradition of penning a letter to his successor when he departed the White House, and his hand-written note reflected honestly on his own character as leader even as it offered encouragement to the man who defeated him: “I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described. There will be very rough times, made ever more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well.”
His family roots were in New England and in national politics: His father, Prescott Bush, served as U.S. Senator from Connecticut. But George H.W. Bush’s own professional roots were as a Texas oil man.
Young George was a prep school boy, attending prestigious Phillips Academy Andover as he prepared for military service during World War II. The youngest aviator in the U.S. Navy, Bush was honored with the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism under fire after being shot down by Japanese fire and bailing out in the ocean.
After the war, Bush attended Yale University before spending the 1950s and ’60s working his way up through the oil industry from sales clerk to president of his own company. By his side was wife Barbara, whom he married at 20 while on leave from his wartime service. The two picked up roots and moved frequently as they built their young family, eventually having six children over a period of 13 years. While Barbara raised the children and offered unwavering support, George gained fortune and recognition. By the mid-’60s, he was a millionaire and had set his sights on a political career.
His first congressional bid, running to represent Texas in the U.S. Senate, ended in defeat, but when he ran for a seat in the House of Representatives in 1966, he won. After Bush’s second House term, President Richard Nixon appointed him ambassador to the United Nations. Bush followed that job with a stint as chairman of the Republican National Committee, a role in which he ended up formally requesting the scandal-plagued Nixon to resign. Subsequently, President Gerald Ford made Bush chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in the People’s Republic of China before bringing him home to serve as director of Central Intelligence.
Bush had his sights set higher, though: He was angling for a vice presidential nomination. He didn’t get it in the 1976 presidential election, so in 1980, he went a step farther and pursued the Republican nomination for president. Though his campaign started strong, he lost the nomination to Ronald Reagan, who picked Bush as his running mate. The pair won, and Bush served two terms as Reagan’s vice president before finally winning the White House in 1988.
An Extraordinary Legacy
Bush’s presidency was succinctly summed up by President Barack Obama when, on Feb. 15, 2011, he presented the former president with the Presidential Medal of Freedom: “As President, he expanded America’s promise to new immigrants and people with disabilities. He reduced nuclear weapons. He built a broad international coalition to expel a dictator from Kuwait. When democratic revolutions swept across Eastern Europe, it was the steady diplomatic hand of President Bush that made possible an achievement once thought impossible – ending the Cold War without firing a shot.”
Among Bush’s other presidential legacies is Points of Light, a nonprofit organization formed in response to the “thousand points of light” theme he used frequently during his presidency after debuting it in his inaugural address: “I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the nation, doing good.” He went on to create the Daily Point of Light Award in 1989, given to one individual each day who had worked as a volunteer to make a better America.
In 2013, President Obama awarded the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award to Bush himself, remarking: “Given the humility that’s defined your life, I suspect it’s harder for you to see something that’s clear to everybody else around you, and that’s how bright a light you shine.”
Bush was also honored with the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s Profile in Courage Award in 2014 and the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award in 2007. In 1993, Queen Elizabeth II awarded him an honorary knighthood, making him a Knight of the Grand Cross. He was only the third U.S. president to receive this honor, following Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Before his death, Bush had been the oldest living president since the 2006 death of Gerald Ford.
Though Bush was a one-term president, his political legacy carried on, with son George W. Bush serving two terms as the 43rd president of the U.S. and son Jeb Bush serving two terms as governor of Florida before making a bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
In the years after his presidency, Bush didn’t hesitate to occasionally offer his commentary on the political and social issues of the day. After supporting the younger George’s successful 2000 and 2004 campaigns, he endorsed John McCain for the presidency in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. But he broke from supporting fellow Republicans in 2016 when he announced that, rather than back the party’s candidate, Donald Trump, he would vote for Hillary Clinton, whose husband had made him a one-term president.
Bush also surprised some in 2013 when he served as an official witness at a same-sex wedding in Maine, where same-sex marriage had been legalized the previous year. During his presidency, he had made it clear that he did not support legalizing same-sex marriage and that he didn’t believe the American people wanted it legalized. But in a 2013 note to his biographer, Jon Meacham, Bush explained that his views had changed: “Personally, I still believe in traditional marriage. But people should be able to do what they want to do, without discrimination. People have a right to be happy. I guess you could say I have mellowed.”
Bush’s retirement activities included the creation, with Bill Clinton, of the Bush-Clinton Tsunami Fund, created in response to the devastating tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in December 2004. He chaired boards including the Eisenhower Fellowships and the National Constitution Center. But his retirement wasn’t all business: he co-founded an annual fishing tournament in Islamorada, Florida, and he famously went skydiving on his 90th birthday – his eighth such jump.
Bush is survived by his children, George W. Bush, Jeb Bush, Neil Bush, Marvin Bush and Dorothy Bush Koch; 14 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife, Barbara Pierce Bush, and their daughter, Robin Bush.
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