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George H.W. Bush

In his rise to the presidency, George H.W. Bush held a variety of key positions over the years, often deemed by Republican presidents as the most qualified man in U.S. public life. He served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the early 1970s, chairman of the Republican National Committee a short time later, then as chief U.S. envoy to China in the mid-1970s. Later, he was director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Born to a wealthy family in Massachusetts in 1924, George H.W. Bush was a decorated Navy fighter pilot in World War II, who flew 58 combat missions. He was attacking Japanese targets at the age of 18, victorious in one of the war’s largest air battles, the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Later, he completed one mission after his plane was hit by flak, leaving his engine on fire. He bailed out of the aircraft and was rescued in the waters off the Bonin Islands. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery in action.

When he returned home from the war, he married the former Barbara Pierce, whom he had met as a student at Phillips Academy, and enrolled in Yale University. Graduating in 1948 as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, he entered the oil business as a sales clerk but soon started his own independent oil development company. As his business prospered, he moved to a larger house in Midland in 1955 and to Houston four years later. When he left active management of his company in 1966, he was already a millionaire.

He was not always a successful politician, losing a 1964 election for a U.S. Senate seat from Texas, where he later founded an oil company. He won an election for a seat in the House of Representatives before losing another bid for a Senate seat. That loss set him on a path to the string of high-level appointments in the 1970s.

Bush began the first of his two terms as a member of the United States House of Representatives in 1966, following his father into politics; Prescott Bush served as United States senator from Connecticut from 1952 to 1963. Unsuccessful in two campaigns for the Senate, George H.W. Bush next served in a series of high-level appointed positions, including ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, chief of the U.S. Liaison Office to the People’s Republic of China, and director of the Central Intelligence Agency. After challenging Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination, he accepted the vice presidential nomination in 1980. Vice President Bush had a large role in both foreign and domestic dealings, including Federal deregulation and anti-drug programs.

President Reagan enjoyed unusually high popularity at the end of his second term in office, but under the terms of the U.S. Constitution he could not run again in 1988. The Republican nomination went to Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush, who was elected the 41st president of the United States.

The campaign was marked by an infamous political television ad produced by a group supporting Bush that depicted Dukakis as weak on crime because as governor he had released on weekend furlough a convicted killer, a black man named Willie Horton, who then raped a white woman and assaulted her white fiance. Some critics viewed the ad as racist and an attempt to play on white voters’ fears of crimes committed by menacing black men.

Bush campaigned by promising voters a continuation of the prosperity Reagan had brought. In addition, he argued that he would support a strong defense for the United States more reliably than the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis. He also promised to work for “a kinder, gentler America.” Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, claimed that less fortunate Americans were hurting economically and that the government had to help them while simultaneously bringing the federal debt and defense spending under control. The public was much more engaged, however, by Bush’s economic message: No new taxes. In the balloting, Bush finished with a 54-to-46-percent popular vote margin.

During his first year in office, Bush followed a conservative fiscal program, pursuing policies on taxes, spending, and debt that were faithful to the Reagan administration’s economic program. But the new president soon found himself squeezed between a large budget deficit and a deficit-reduction law. Spending cuts seemed necessary, and Bush possessed little leeway to introduce new budget items.

The Bush administration advanced new policy initiatives in areas not requiring major new federal expenditures. Thus, in November 1990, Bush signed sweeping legislation imposing new federal standards on urban smog, automobile exhaust, toxic air pollution, and acid rain, but with industrial polluters bearing most of the costs. He accepted legislation requiring physical access for the disabled, but with no federal assumption of the expense of modifying buildings to accommodate wheelchairs and the like. The president also launched a campaign to encourage volunteerism, which he called, in a memorable phrase, “a thousand points of light.”

Bush administration efforts to gain control over the federal budget deficit, however, were more problematic. One source of the difficulty was the savings and loan crisis. Savings banks — formerly tightly regulated, low-interest safe havens for ordinary people — had been deregulated, allowing these institutions to compete more aggressively by paying higher interest rates and by making riskier loans. Increases in the government’s deposit insurance guaranteed reduced consumer incentive to shun less-sound institutions. Fraud, mismanagement, and the choppy economy produced widespread insolvencies among these thrifts (the umbrella term for consumer-oriented institutions like savings and loan associations and savings banks). By 1993, the total cost of selling and shuttering failed thrifts was staggering, nearly $525 billion.

In January 1990, President Bush presented his budget proposal to Congress. Democrats argued that administration budget projections were far too optimistic, and that meeting the deficit-reduction law would require tax increases and sharper cuts in defense spending. That June, after protracted negotiations, the president agreed to a tax increase. All the same, the combination of economic recession, losses from the savings and loan industry rescue operation, and escalating health care costs for Medicare and Medicaid offset all the deficit-reduction measures and produced a shortfall in 1991 at least as large as the previous year’s.

His international experience as vice president served President Bush well. His diplomacy smoothed the way, aiding the relatively peaceful transition from the Cold War into a new era of American and Russian relations. It was a time of dramatic change with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the resignation of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev; but Bush received high marks for his restrained handling of this volatile situation. In Latin America, he sent American troops into Panama to overthrow the corrupt regime of General Manuel Noriega. When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Bush put together a powerful international coalition to oppose him. The dramatic allied victory in Operation Desert Storm was a high point of his presidency.

Foreign policy dominated Bush’s administration, and his pursuit of a “kinder, gentler nation” did not include a large amount of domestic legislation. The Bush White House supported the Clean Air Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Problems on the domestic front eventually overwhelmed Bush’s popularity following the Gulf War. A faltering economy, rising violence in the nation’s cities, high budget deficits, and the difficulty of maintaining his “no new taxes” campaign pledge hurt him in the 1992 election, which he lost to Democrat William J. Clinton.

Bush was married for 73 years to the former Barbara Pierce, a woman he met in his teenage years. It was the longest marriage among any U.S. presidential couples. She died at 92 in April 2018.

George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, a man born of patrician pedigree, but with a sense of honor, duty and service to his country that played out over the last 60 years of the 20th century, died at his home in Houston, Texas on 30 Noveme 2018. The former president was 94 and had been in poor health for several years, suffering from a form of Parkinson’s disease and other ailments.

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Page last modified: 10-01-2019 17:22:10 ZULU