By Josh Yasmeh
As the nation mourns the death of former President George H.W. Bush many obituaries have focused on the man and his accomplishments. Yet, most of those tributes have overlooked how his iron character was forged – and how he often came close to political disaster.
Bush passed away this past week at the age of 94 – just seven months after the death of wife Barbara and following a lifetime of service to his country. He also has the last elected Republican president since Dwight Eisenhower who wasn’t universally reviled by the opposing party.
His valor was evident as a young man when he defied his parents’ wishes and joined the Navy the day he turned 18 to defend his country in World War II. As a combat pilot who carried out many successful missions, during one operation Bush’s plane was shot down once by the Japanese in; he was forced to bail out from his damaged warplane over open ocean and eventually saved by U.S. submarine.
His brothers in arms weren’t as lucky, and two crewmen on his plane were never seen again. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Bush would be haunted by the belief that he could have done something, anything to save their lives. Even after leaving office he would symbolically re-enact the jump with commercial parachute jumps. That loss in an otherwise stellar war career was just the beginning of the trials and tribulations he was destined to face during his long career in public service.
To shake the ghost of war and emerge from the shadows of his father – Wall Street banker and U.S. Senator Prescott Bush (R-CT) – Bush and his young wife Barbara moved to Texas to chase the American dream of black gold. At his core, Bush was an oil man. And while he could have headed his family’s east coast-based business, comfortably settling into an executive role, he was keen to shake the perception that he was the privileged son of one of America’s wealthiest family.
Bush chose to push back against being pigeon-holed and consequently named his oil company Zapata Oil after the Mexican revolutionary and outlaw.
Quiet and polished, Bush worked within the structures of his patrician world to leave a legacy that was neither conformist nor entirely radical and defined by resilience in the face of setbacks.
In Texas, Bush would experience another crippling loss when his daughter Robin died of leukemia just two months before her fourth birthday. Bush spent many a night comforting his wife as she cried herself to sleep.
But it was in these moments of hardship, of unimaginable despair that Bush gained the fortitude necessary to lead his beloved country out of the abyss of the Cold War. He was a product of what psychologists call post-traumatic growth, a man who wasn’t defined by trauma but harnessed the power of grief to propel him forward into the tumultuous world of American politics.
Bush’s political career began in 1960 when he won a congressional seat in Texas but, by the end of the decade, it has campaign had appeared to have stalled. Bush became a political pawn of President Nixon who urged him to run against Senator Ralph Yarborough – a strong Nixon critic. Bush lost the election to the popular Yarborough badly (53%-46%). Nixon who had urged Bush to relinquish his congressional seat to run for the senate sheepishly offered him a position as a special assistant to the president in 1970. However, Bush convinced Nixon that he was better suited as ambassador to the United Nations. Nixon came to put great stock in Bush. Eventually, Nixon tapped him to become the U.S. liaison to communist China – the U.S. still did not have formal ties with China then.
While serving in China, Bush decided to baptize his daughter Dorothy. She became the first person publicly baptized in the People’s Republic of China since 1949. Holding his baby in his arms, Bush couldn’t help think of the loss of Robin all those years ago. Dorothy would be the Bush’s last child.
Sandwiching his service Bush’s service in China (1974-75) was a series of other high profile jobs. These included Ambassador to the United Nations (1971-73); Chairman of the Republican National Committee (1973-74) and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (1976-77)
Perhaps as a result of the influence of his father, Senator Prescott Bush, a genteel senator from Connecticut, Bush was the last moderate Eisenhower Republican not afraid to develop a streak of bipartisanship. He even casually suggested to incoming President Carter that he stay on as CIA chief. After all, the Cold War was at its peak, and the national security establishment felt as though a steady hand was needed at the country’s top intelligence post.
But Carter passed on Bush, who soon set his eyes on the presidency. Bush had built a political career by maintaining a Rolodex of 10,000 important individuals and perhaps, more importantly, writing anyone who did him a favor a handwritten thank you. These connections and the establishment Republican view that his main opponent, Ronald Reagan, was too conservative, seemed to position him well for the 1980 primary.
Bush’s moderation, however, failed to win him many friends amongst the conservative right who he spent decades wooing. Many conservatives, never fully embraced him despite his aggressive courtship. In the early 1960s, this meant bringing controversial John Birch Society loyalists into the Republican mainstream. In the 1990s, it meant personally carrying the bag of Rush Limbaugh when the conservative radio personality was invited to spend a night at the White House. At times, he picked fights with the free-market wing of the party. While running for president in 1980, he characterized Ronald Reagan’s supply-side economic views as “Voodoo Economic Policy.” Such statements misjudged the national mood and after winning the Iowa caucus, his campaign fizzled with Bush winning only even states before dropping out in May.
His political career seemed over.
Ronald Reagan’s first choice for Vice-President was a “dream-ticket” with former President Gerald Ford. When negotiations broke down with Ford at the Republican convention, Bush was Reagan’s last minute choice. Once again, Bush had risen from defeat.
The two proved to be a great team. Bush wasn’t the great communicator that Reagan was, but he nobody worked harder to help Reagan develop and carry out his policies. No one was more loyal. He helped elevate the vice presidency, symbolized his weekly, one-on-one lunch with the president. Bush was the wonk of the Reagan administration, the man who checked his emotions in ways that made him both respected from a policy standpoint but somewhat unrelatable from a public relations perspective.
“Win this one for the Gipper,” Reagan told the Republican National Convention in 1988 in reference to Bush.
Bush had been called a “wimp” by Newsweek in 1987 but, this was largely a stage-managed act. Anyone who was the former head of the CIA and combat fighter pilot knew how to play hardball and Bush famously decided to “go negative” with the Willie Horton ads. These targeted his opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, as soft on crime after having given furlough to a prisoner who went on to a commit a murder. Indeed, Dukakis’ ineptitude was a boon for Bush. When Dukakis posed in a tank to make himself appear more macho, the Bush campaign was quick to remind people Bush was an actual combat veteran.
Powered by Reagan’s success, Bush won a landslide victory in 1988 to become the 41st president of the United States. In doing so, Bush became the first U.S. vice presidential candidate elected directly to the presidency since Martin Van Buren in 1836.
As president, Bush put his heart into foreign policy, perhaps more so than domestic politics. He watched as the Berlin Wall fell and Iran ended its in a gory war with Iraq. Though at the time Bush was criticized for failing to publicly display enthusiasm over the collapse of the Soviet Union, historians would later praise his prudence, crediting him with the relatively smooth reunification of Germany.
Despite being called a “wimp” by Newsweek in 1987, Bush didn’t hesitate to use American power in Panama, Iraq, and Somalia.
“Nobody should starve on Christmas,” Bush said in the closing days of his presidency when he committed some 20,000 U.S. troops to a U.N. mission in Somalia. It was the first large-scale deployment of U.S. troops to Africa since World War II.
While subsequent presidents ignored the chaos in the geopolitically important country, President Donald Trump has recently announced the re-opening of the U.S. embassy there and deployed the first regular U.S. combat troops there since the early 1990s.
The success of these military operations paved the way for more hubristic applications of American military power by the neoconservatives under his son George W. Bush.
“This cannot stand, this aggression against Kuwait,” Bush said in 1990 in an impromptu press conference with reporters on the White House Lawn following Saddam’s occupation of oil-rich Kuwait.
Bush hoped his foreign policy accomplishments, most notably his victory in the First Gulf War – the first major American military operation since the Vietnam War – would allow him the galvanize domestic support to pass a tax increase that contradicted his famous “Read My Lips” tax pledge – itself a homage to the film “Dirty Harry.” And though Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker managed to put together a remarkable international coalition to efficiently execute Operation Desert Storm, these victories in the global arena failed to win him adequate backing at home.
The 1992 election saw the emergence of Bill Clinton, a young, charming, saxophone playing Arkansas governor who outshined the older, more austere Bush. Clinton appeared hungrier. He was more ambitious and was ironically seen as the Democratic version of Bush’s old boss, Ronald Reagan. Despite a willingness to defy Republican orthodoxy, he fell short of realizing his long-term ambitions as many “Reagan Democrats” switched to support Clinton in the 1992 election. Riding the coattails of the Reagan presidency into office in 1988, Bush never received America’s full support outside of the shadow of his charismatic predecessor. Adding insult to injury, Ross Perot launched a third-party campaign to challenge Bush – an unorthodox, outsider challenge from a neophyte that would later influence Donald Trump’s presidential run in 2016.
Bush admitted that he had trouble with “The vision thing” and never gave voters a clear reason why he should be re-elected. The “Reagan Democrats” switched to support Bill Clinton in the 1992 election in part because the media had portrayed the economy is faltering when in fact GDP grew by 4% that year.
Given these dynamics, it perhaps wasn’t all too surprising that Clinton, a relative newcomer to the national stage and a former draft dodger defeated an experienced and established war hero by large margins. Bush won only 37 percent of the vote in the three-way race. It was another tough setback.
After leaving office, Bush settled into retirement but was still outspoken about what he saw as incompetence. He was critical of two former associates, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, who helped guide his son’s decision to go to war in Iraq following 9/11. Bush, ironically, may have influenced his son’s decision to fight when it was revealed that Saddam Hussein had launched a plan to assassinate the former president because of the Gulf War.
Besides his enduring service to his country, Bush’s greatest accomplishment was his family which he helped turn into a political dynasty. He fathered six children during his 73-year marriage with Barbara, Bush cultivated a political dynasty that continues to steer the course of the country’s fate. His eldest son and most famous son, George W. Bush was elected as president in 2000, narrowly defeating Bill Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, in what appeared to a classic example of poetic justice less than a decade after Bush Sr.’s electoral loss to Clinton. Bush’s second son, John Ellis, known to most as Jeb, lost a primary bid for the Republican presidential nomination to Donald Trump in 2016, but still managed to make his father proud during his long stint as the bilingual Governor of Florida.
Like all great figures, Bush will be remembered for victories. But was his response to tragedy and defeat that revealed the true measure of his character.
“There are times when the future seems thick as a fog; you sit and wait, hoping the mists will lift and reveal the right path. But this is a time when the future seems a door you can walk right through into a room called tomorrow,” Bush famously said in his inaugural address which might as well explain his political path as well.
Source: American Media Institute