George H. W. Bush

(1924– ) U.S. president

George Herbert Walker Bush (b. June 12, 1924) was president of the United States from 1989 to 1993 after serving as Ronald Reagan’s vice president for the previous eight years. He was born in Massachusetts, the son of Prescott Bush, a banker and future senator whose indirect financial ties to the Nazi Party remain controversial. He followed in his father’s footsteps by entering military service on his 18th birthday, in the midst of World War II, and became the country’s youngest naval aviator; by the time he was discharged at the end of the war three years later, he had received three Air Medals, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Presidential Unit Citation. He entered Yale University, where he majored in economics, joined the Skull and Bones society as his father had, and captained the baseball team in the first College World Series.

In 1964, the year after Prescott finished his second and final year as senator from Connecticut, Bush ran for the Senate in Texas, winning the Republican nomination but losing the election. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1966, where he served until again losing the senatorial election in 1970. In the 1970s, he served as the United States ambassador to the United Nations and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, an appointment that confirmed for many people the suspicions that he had been involved with the agency since his days at Yale. In fact, CIA documents have admitted that Bush’s business partner in Zapata Petroleum, the oil business he started, was a covert agent. The extent of Bush’s other ties with the agency have not been established.

In 1980 Bush was Ronald Reagan’s principal opponent in the Republican primaries and the one who coined the derisive term “voodoo economics” to refer to Reagan’s fiscal policy. When Reagan won the Republican nomination, he made Bush his running mate; the two won decisively in both 1980 and 1984. In 1988 Bush became one of the few vice presidents to succeed his president.

Over the course of the Reagan presidency, the cold war had all but ended, and during Bush’s term, the Berlin Wall was taken down, Germany reunified, the Soviet Union dissolved, and many Eastern European countries behind the Iron Curtain began holding elections or overthrew their communist governments. In 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, Bush led the United Nations coalition in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, liberating Kuwait but stopping short of invading Iraq; it was, Bush said, not a war for oil but a war against aggression. Significantly, it was also a televised war, the first major American military action conducted under the watch of cable news. Americans whose parents had been the first to see footage of war on the evening news were now the first to see their war broadcast live.

The oldest son of President George H. W. Bush, Bush was raised in Texas where his father had moved to start his Zapata Oil corporation, and like other men in his family, attended Yale University where he earned a degree in history and was a member of the Skull and Bones society. While his father and grandfather had served in the navy during wartime, he served in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. Bush has described this period of his life as irresponsible and informed by bad choices, characterized by excessive drinking. After a failed congressional bid, he spent most of the 1980s working in the oil industry before purchasing a share of the Texas Rangers baseball team, of which he served as general manager from 1989 to 1994.

He ran for governor of Texas in 1994, the same year his younger brother Jeb ran for governor of Florida; Jeb lost, but was elected in 1998, the same year George won his reelection by a landslide. As governor of Texas, Bush was a noted conservative. State executions rose to higher levels than any other state in modern American history, and the line between church and state was worn thin when Bush declared June 10, 2000, to be “Jesus Day,” a state holiday in memory of Jesus and encouraging reaching out to those in need. At the time, Bush was running for president; in an early debate preceding the Republican primaries, he named Jesus (identifying him only by the religious title “Christ”) as the political philosopher he most identified with. He won the Republican nomination, picking Dick Cheney—his father’s secretary of defense—as his running mate.

Voting irregularities in Florida, where Jeb was still governor, made it difficult to determine whether Bush or Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, had won the state, and the electoral vote in the rest of the country was close enough that the Florida votes would be the tiebreakers. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent separated the two candidates, requiring a series of recounts both by hand and machine, and precipitating a national controversy over reports of vote tampering, problematic ballot designs and the handling of overseas ballots, and the coincidence of a Bush governing the state. The U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled that with no time remaining to require a thorough and uniform recount, the state’s then-official count—in favor of Bush—would be upheld. Gore conceded the election rather than fight the matter further.

More than any other president in recent memory, even in light of Ronald Reagan’s cold war rhetoric and its resemblance to “fire and brimstone” sermons, Bush has worn his faith on his sleeve, making frequent reference to God and Christian matters in his speeches. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush

George H. W. Bush and King Fahd (seated, right) meet in the Royal
Pavilion in Saudi Arabia to discuss the situation in Iraq in 1990.

In the 1992 election Bush lost to Governor Bill Clinton, an election notable for the involvement of Texas billionaire and third-party candidate Ross Perot, who won nearly a fifth of the popular vote despite frequent decisions not to run. Key to Bush’s loss were the recession, the perception that he was out of touch with the common man (particularly when compared with the genial Clinton), and the desire for change to reflect a new state of affairs in the wake of the cold war.

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