George HW Bush, who has died aged 94, was the 41st president of the US (1989-93) and father of the 43rd president – the first instance of a father and son holding America’s highest elected office since John and John Quincy Adams almost two centuries earlier.
Bush could claim to have been one of the most successful foreign-policy presidents, in the same league as Harry Truman and the two Roosevelts, but he had a far shakier touch when it came to economic policy and domestic affairs. He steered the US and its allies successfully through the collapse of communism and coordinated support for the reunification of Germany. Then he organised a triumphant international response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, in marked contrast to his son’s invasion of Iraq, which was endorsed wholeheartedly by only a handful of governments.
He was also popular with the awkward squad of foreign leaders with whom he had to deal, including Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand. Although his performance on the domestic front was notably less assured, he won general trust as he steered the US into a position of unprecedented global dominance.
It was widely assumed that Bush was unenthusiastic about the rightwing tone of his son’s administration, but he remained discreet about such matters, and no one could be sure what he felt beyond family pride.
Despite Bush’s minimal experience of elected politics before he ran for president in 1980, limited to two terms in the House of Representatives, few modern presidents have been better prepared for the White House. He had served as chairman of the Republican national committee, as ambassador to China, and as Ronald Reagan’s slightly unlikely vice-president.
Although temperamentally conservative with a small C, Bush did not belong to the rightwing movement that propelled Reagan to the White House, and was treated with reserve and even suspicion by the ideologues of the new right. He was, rather, a traditional “country club” Republican, with family and business roots several generations deep in the Wall Street investment banking elite. His father, Prescott Bush, was a senator and a partner in the investment bank Brown Brothers Harriman, of which his grandfather, George Herbert Walker, was a founder.
If George W Bush, “Bush 43”, succeeded in coming across to his supporters as a downhome Texas boy, a born-again Christian at ease in cowboy boots and speaking with an authentic twang, his father, “Poppy Bush” or “41”, never sought to hide what he was, a great American gentleman in public life. He was so unconvincing as a man of the people that his aides urged him to be filmed buying something in a shop. Characteristically, he said he needed a pair of tennis socks, but seemed unfamiliar with the process of buying them.
Like his son, he received the traditional education of the American upper class. Both went to Phillips Andover Academy, Massachusetts, and then to Yale University, Connecticut, where both played on the college baseball team and both, like many of their relations, were members of the exclusive, ultra-secretive Yale senior society, Skull and Bones. Bush Sr played tennis well enough for him to briefly consider becoming a professional “tennis bum”. Both, too, instead of sliding easily into a privileged life of weekdays on Wall Street and sports-mad weekends in a plush Connecticut suburb, decided to try their luck in the booming oil business of the Permian Basin field in West Texas.
The Bushes claimed descent from the Pilgrim Fathers several times over, and earlier from Mary Tudor, Duchess of Brandon, sister of Henry VIII. In 1919 Prescott Bush, a big man on the Yale campus turned US senator, married Dorothy Walker, whose family ran a business in St Louis, Missouri, importing dry goods, largely from Britain. Their second son, born in Milton, Massachusetts, was named George Herbert Walker after her father.
Prescott was prospering as an investment banker, thanks to his connections with the Rockefeller, Morgan and Harriman business empires. In 1920 he became president of the newly established investment bank WA Harriman & Co (from 1931, Brown Brothers Harriman), which focused its business efforts on funding the recovering economy of Germany, continuing to issue bonds for the German government long after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933.
The bankers and their lawyers, however, including movers such as Henry L Stimson, were on the whole more pro-British than pro-German and were to become the “foreign policy establishment” who helped Franklin Roosevelt to overcome the isolationists and manoeuvre the US into giving Britain “all aid short of war”.
It was Stimson who played a part in one of the decisive moments in Bush’s life. In June 1940, after France fell, the Wall Street lawyer and former secretary of both war and state went to give a talk at Andover. He painted a dark picture of the situation in Europe, but portrayed it as an opportunity for young men to fight for freedom. Bush was supposed to enrol at Yale that autumn. Instead, he headed for a navy recruiting office. Helped by family contacts, because he was under age, he volunteered and became the youngest navy pilot in history.
After the US entered the second world war in December 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Bush flew 58 combat missions and was twice rescued from the Pacific ocean. In April 1944 he made a forced landing on water, and in September that year he bailed out after a successful attack and was rescued by a submarine. For this action he received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
While still at Andover, at a Christmas dance in South Carolina, Bush met Barbara Pierce, herself a Mayflower descendant, whose ancestor Franklin Pierce was the 14th president (1853-57). They were engaged before Bush departed for the South Pacific. When he returned, she dropped out of Smith College, Massachusetts, and in January 1945 they got married.
The demobilised Bush took an economics degree at Yale (1948) and then joined Dresser Industries, an Ohio firm with Yale and family connections (his father had been on the board since 1930). It was Dresser who sent him to work in Texas. In 1950 he moved down to Midland, a West Texas town full of well-connected Ivy League types.
Bush was no roustabout, still less a roughneck. His involvement in oil was primarily on the financial side. He began as a “landman”, seeking out owners of mineral rights and buying up promising properties, and went on to corporate finance.
He became a leading light in Zapata Petroleum, later a major oil company. There are scraps of evidence that suggest that he was already involved with the CIA, as his partner in Zapata, Thomas Devine, certainly was. It has even been suggested that Zapata itself was a CIA “proprietary”, or secretly owned company. He was also involved in CIA operations against Fidel Castro.
The Bushes moved to Houston, where he soon became involved in Republican politics. Houston was then still an overwhelmingly Democrat city, so Bush faced little competition in 1962 when he was elected chairman of the Harris county Republican party, where he was unprepared for the virulence of the John Birch Society’s rightwing opposition.
He was defeated when he ran for the Senate in 1964, and when in 1966 he ran for Congress, successfully, he assumed some Goldwater-style conservative positions, attacking the UN and calling for the overthrow of Castro.
In 1970, perhaps ambitious to match his father’s career, he quit the House and ran again for the Senate. He had hoped to win against the liberal Democrat Ralph Yarborough, but Yarborough, beaten in the Democratic primary by the relatively conservative Lloyd Bentsen, endorsed Bentsen for the general election, and the Democrat beat Bush easily.
At this point, Bush’s political career could have ended. He was saved by Richard Nixon. Keen to improve his relations with the establishment and moderate “Rockefeller Republicans”, Nixon appointed Bush as his ambassador to the UN in 1971. Although he was not a particularly effective ambassador, he began to become known and respected in Republican circles. When in 1974 Nixon was forced to resign over Watergate and was succeeded by Gerald Ford, Bush was given the choice of embassies in London or Paris.
Instead, aware of the long-term significance of Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s opening of relations with China, he asked to be sent to Beijing. He and Barbara loved the posting and bought bicycles to explore the city. Bush’s main political preoccupation there was to try to protect Taiwan’s interests in a “two Chinas” policy without forfeiting the friendship of the Chinese leaders. In fact, he had little contact with the leadership. He saw Mao Zedong only twice, on formal occasions, and Zhou Enlai not at all.
When Ford asked Bush to become director of Central Intelligence it seemed a surprise appointment, though many top CIA officials were Skull and Bonesmen. By far his most important achievement during his brief tenure (1976-77) was to set up what became known as Team B. This was a high-level panel, stuffed with fire-breathing military men and conservative scholars, who were asked to reassess the agency’s estimate of the Soviet Union. They concluded that the CIA’s Soviet experts had underestimated the size of the Soviet defence budget and therefore the Soviet threat.
Whether or not the new estimate was more accurate than the agency’s old assumptions, the Team B episode, soon leaked to the press, was an important moment in the shift of the political centre of gravity to the right in Washington in the mid-1970s. It advanced Bush’s credentials in conservative circles and led to his emergence as a serious candidate for the presidency, in competition with Reagan, in 1980.
Bush annoyed the Reagan camp during the nomination campaign, not least by characterising Reagan’s economic ideas as “voodoo economics”. But that did not stop the Reagan team offering Bush the vice-presidency, to balance Reagan’s reputation with a more traditional Republican appeal.
Once in the White House, Bush kept pretty quiet, protecting his chances of succeeding as the Republican presidential challenger in 1988. This was a less obvious possibility than might be supposed. For decades, no sitting vice-president had succeeded immediately, except in the event of a president’s death.
Bush did come under suspicion of involvement in at least two intelligence-related scandals under Reagan. The first, widely dismissed but still supported by persuasive evidence, was the so-called “October surprise”. This was the charge that Bush was involved in secret negotiations with the Iranian revolutionaries in the context of competition between the Jimmy Carter White House and the Reagan campaign to bring back the American hostages from Tehran on the eve of the 1980 presidential election.
There were also suggestions that he was implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which White House and CIA officials, some with previous connections to Bush, sought to finance illegal support for the rightwing Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua, forbidden by Congress, by means of an ingenious plot for selling arms to the rogue regime in Iran.
As a major public figure whose style exuded gentlemanly values, Bush had an unusual number of dubious or conspiratorial connections, some dating back to his involvement in Middle Eastern oil investment in his Texas days. There are plausible suggestions, for example, that he had business connections with the scandal-ridden Bank of Credit and Commerce International, and also with rich Saudi investors, including relatives of Osama bin Laden.
In spite of such rumours and indeed certain proven connections, Bush survived all threats to his position during the Reagan administration and emerged in 1988 as Reagan’s debonair heir apparent.
His campaign for the presidency was marred by some activities widely regarded as less than gentlemanly. Most controversial was the use of the case of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer freed under a Massachusetts furlough, or parole, programme, who went on to commit an attack that resulted in convictions for kidnapping, rape and attempted murder. This furlough scheme had been introduced by one of Michael Dukakis’s predecessors as governor of Massachusetts but was defended by Dukakis when he stood as the Democratic candidate. Ed Rollins, the chairman of Reagan’s 1984 presidential re-election campaign, stated that Bush’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater, “was no racist, but he played the race card with Willie Horton and George Bush looked the other way”.
The great events of 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and the communist empire in eastern Europe collapsed, showed Bush at his best. He had already established a friendly working relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev. This enabled him to avoid the mistrust that might have arisen with a less diplomatic president. Even more positive was Bush’s role in avoiding the potentially perilous consequences of German reunification. Kohl was keen to seize the historic opportunity to bring the two Germanies together, but Gorbachev, Mitterrand and – even more vehemently – Thatcher were all opposed.
With the help of his skilful national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and of his old friend from Texas and the Reagan White House, James Baker, now his secretary of state, Bush calmed their fears and nudged the diplomatic process along to a successful conclusion.
In the 1998 memoir he wrote jointly with Scowcroft, A World Transformed, Bush gave his opinion that “in less than a year we had accomplished the most profound change in European politics and security for many years, without confrontation, without a shot fired”. Much was certainly owed to Bush’s personal building of trust with Kohl and with Gorbachev.
On 1 August 1990, Bush was characteristically receiving heat treatment for hitting too many golf balls when Scowcroft arrived at the White House medical office and broke the news that Saddam was about to invade Kuwait. From then until after victory, the president did not put a foot wrong. Immediately after learning of Saddam’s attack, he met Thatcher, who stiffened his determination that “this will not stand”. But he did not need the British prime minister to tell him that.
Perhaps his most impressive achievement was the way in which he lined up the broadest possible international coalition against Iraq. Around 400,000 American troops were involved as well as a significant British force. The Saudis, whose borders and oilfields were directly threatened, contributed forces. So did Syria and Egypt. The Japanese were persuaded to pay substantial sums, and Bush received diplomatic support from Russia, France and Germany.
Indeed, although Saddam had been supported by the Soviet Union in the past, on 3 August – only 48 hours or so after the invasion of Kuwait – Baker and the Soviet foreign minster, Eduard Shevardnadze, signed a joint statement condemning the invasion. For the first time since the cold war began, the US and the Soviet Union were on the same side.
In truth, the relationship was difficult for both sides. The Soviet leaders were reluctant to send troops, and the Americans were not keen to see them involved either. And there was a wobble, just before the ground attacks began, when the Soviet diplomat Alexander Bessmertnykh suggested the action could be called off pending a negotiated settlement, which by then the Americans did not want.
The military campaign was over in a matter of days, and Bush’s most controversial decision was to end the war before the coalition’s forces could reach Baghdad and overthrow Saddam, as his son’s army did. Critics have suggested that his Saudi friends unduly influenced Bush, reluctant as they were to take a step that might end with putting Shia Muslims in power in Iraq. Bush himself merely pointed out that his congressional mandate was to liberate Kuwait, not to oust Saddam.
It is plain that he was already aware of the danger of incurring responsibility for Iraq in the way that his son did so disastrously. He remained staunchly supportive of his son’s policy in public. But one of the most intriguing questions about Bush Sr is what he really thought of his son’s policies. Given the strong sense of family solidarity, it is at least possible that he privately opposed the invasion of 2003 but decided not to say so. Certainly, both he and Scowcroft criticised an operation that would have led to the capture of Baghdad when they were in command. In view of what Bush Jr was to do a decade later, there is irony in Bush Sr and Scowcroft’s judgment that had the US occupied Baghdad and ruled Iraq, it would have violated its own principles and “could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land”.
After Bush’s masterly management of the first Iraq war, it might have been assumed that his re-election, for a second four-year term from 1993, would be assured. In fact, his popularity plummeted, from more than 90% by some poll measures to under 40%. One reason, as the victorious Bill Clinton put it, was obvious: “It’s the economy, stupid!”
Even if he had wanted to be more active than he actually was, he would have been constrained by the immense deficit he had inherited from Reagan. The only two pieces of domestic legislation of any significance he persuaded Congress to pass were the Disabilities Act of 1990, bringing disabled people, as he put it, “into the mainstream”, and the Clean Air Act of 1990, passed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In the end, as Clinton himself summed up the election in his own memoir: “I had won the debate over what the election was about.” That, along with Clinton’s very able campaign team, had been too much for Bush, a man who gave the impression that he did not like campaigning, and was not much good at it.
Bush was vulnerable to the suspicion that he was a patrician, sheltered from the troubles of most people’s lives. Although his personal demeanour remained at least superficially modest, he did everything to confirm this stereotype. The independent third party candidate, Ross Perot, one of the most successful in history, who eventually won 19% of the vote, made capital out of the Bush administration’s apparent indifference to middle-class insecurity. Even Pat Buchanan, the rightwing Republican challenger, made mileage out of calling Bush “King George”. It was an ugly campaign, featuring insinuations of adultery and other personal attacks on both candidates. Bush lost a campaign, one Clinton biographer wrote, “shaped as much by Bush’s feeble grip on power as by Clinton’s determined grasp for it”.
In the circumstances, Bush’s rejection by the electorate in a period of economic stagnation and fear is less remarkable than his rehabilitation in the court of public opinion. Conservatives never forgave Clinton for interrupting what they saw as their historically inevitable, if not divinely ordained, ascendancy. Bush himself won sympathy when an attempt was made to assassinate him during a visit to Kuwait.
Most striking of all was the way the conservative movement, and the Republican party with which it increasingly overlapped, allowed him to pass on a certain political charisma to his sons, first to John Ellis “Jeb” Bush and then, after Jeb’s defeat in his first run for governor of Florida, to George W. The two Georges, after all, were more than a little different: the father a well-mannered patrician, the son – well, something very different. “Poppy” was far too traditional a patriarch to allow the press any specific idea of what he thought of his two sons. When George W was criticised, his father and mother would say how proud they were of their son. In 2010, the two men jointly threw out the first ceremonial pitch in a World Series baseball game.
The Bushes remained, however, above all else a family, tightly bound by shared ambitions, attitudes and habits, and especially by a common passion for all forms of sport. Bush Sr wrote a moving letter to his sons about his own consciousness of the ageing process and, by implication, though he was too reticent to make much of it, of the approach of death. But the examples he cited were all taken from sports, the creaking of joints on the tennis court, and the shortening of his golf drive.
Nonetheless, Bush was an unconventional figure in turning his back on the easy life he might have had in business. He climbed, against most expectations, to the top of the greasy political pole, and made a real impact on international politics at a moment of dangerous transition.
Bush was better known for his simple expressions of personal taste and belief than for philosophical profundity. He disliked broccoli, he told the press, and had done so since he was a little kid. He was not the sort of guy, he said, who would ever apologise for the US, whatever the facts. Such moments led the sharp-tongued Texas governor Ann Richards to say: “Poor George, he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
Whatever the truth about his dabblings in the covert world, and for all his proven ability to hold his own with the subtleties of diplomacy, he remained at heart an unreconstructed Ivy League hero out of the pages of John O’Hara or John P Marquand, devoted to capitalism, family, honour and country. He was happiest when fishing from his speedboat, Fidelity, in the cold waters off Maine, or pitching horseshoes and greeting each of his own successful throws with his trademark cry of “Mr Smooth does it again!”
Barbara died in April this year. Bush is survived by their sons, George, Jeb, Neil and Marvin, and daughter Dorothy. Another daughter, Robin, died in childhood.
• George Herbert Walker Bush, politician, born 12 June 1924; died 30 November 2018