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Remembering George H.W. Bush, a calm hand in a turbulent time

Why We Wrote This

George Herbert Walker Bush, who died Friday, was a lanky Yale graduate and World War II hero whose résumé of public service made him perhaps the most experienced modern president. One of his signal achievements was skillfully navigating the end of the cold war.

Scott Applewhite/AP/File
President George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush walk across the South Lawn as they return to the White House in Washington Aug. 24, 1992. The last president to serve in World War II, Bush’s greatest accomplishment in office was to oversee a peaceful end to the cold war.

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When George H.W. Bush was elected president in 1988, he’d already been a party official, a member of Congress, an ambassador, a spy, and a veep. Detractors saw his presidency as detached and overly cautious; supporters lauded his humanity and prudence as just what the nation needed during a time of tremendous geopolitical change. President Bush lost his reelection bid in 1992, in part due to his decision to break a campaign pledge and raise taxes with a recession looming on the horizon. His own advisers admitted that domestic policy was not his strongest area, despite wide knowledge of issues gained during eight years of service as Ronald Reagan’s vice president. His great successes were his skillful handling of the Gulf War, which ousted Iraq’s Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, and his leadership of the noncommunist world through the tumult and danger of its final face-off with the Soviet empire. “We have only learned in recent years what an incredible job he did keeping the cold war from turning hot,” says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.

At approximately 3 o’clock in the afternoon of Nov. 9, 1989, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft walked into the Oval Office to tell President George H.W. Bush stunning news: The Berlin Wall was open. East Germans were joyfully entering the West, and vice versa. A long stasis enforced by cold war barriers was beginning to break down.

Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater pushed for Mr. Bush to talk to reporters, or at least issue a statement. It was too important a moment to keep quiet, he said. The White House press corps was screaming for a presidential comment. There wasn’t time for the US to wait and figure out exactly what was going on.

But Bush, backed by General Scowcroft, was reluctant. Was this a local event or something approved by the East German government? More importantly, how would the Soviet Union react? Would US gloating goad them into an armed response?

Eventually Bush allowed a press pool into the Oval. He talked for half an hour and basically said nothing. At the end, CBS reporter Leslie Stahl said, “You don’t seem very happy about this. Isn’t this the fundamental breakthrough in the cold war?”

“Well, I’m not an excitable kind of guy,” Bush replied.

George Herbert Walker Bush, who died Friday, was a lanky Yale graduate and World War II hero whose résumé of public service made him perhaps the most experienced candidate elected to the White House in the modern age. Detractors saw his presidency as detached and overly cautious; supporters lauded his humanity and prudence as just what the nation needed during a time of tremendous geopolitical change.

Bush lost his reelection bid in 1992, in part due to his decision to break a campaign pledge and raise taxes with a recession looming on the horizon. His own advisers admitted that domestic policy was not his strongest area, despite wide knowledge of issues gained during eight years of service as Ronald Reagan’s vice president.

His great successes were his skillful organization and handling of the Gulf War, which ousted Iraq’s Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, and his leadership of the noncommunist world through the tumult and danger of its final face-off with the Soviet empire.

“It was one of the most fundamental changes in world history, and the fact that it took place at all, and so rapidly and almost literally without a shot being fired, is an incredible epic,” Scowcroft said years later in an oral history collected by the Miller Center of the University of Virginia.

New England upbringing 

Bush was born in Milton, Mass., on June 12, 1924, into a wealthy New England family. He became the middle part of an American political dynasty, though the Bushes would probably reject that tag as self-aggrandizing.

His father, Prescott Bush, was a Wall Street banker who served as a US senator from Connecticut from 1952 to 1963. His eldest son, George W. Bush, was the 43rd president of the US. Second son Jeb was governor of Florida; Jeb’s son George P. Bush was elected Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office in 2014, extending the dynasty into a fourth generation.

“They are like the Kennedys in many ways,” says Barbara A. Perry, director of Presidential Studies at the Miller Center, of the Bush family.

Like the Kennedys, the Bushes sent their sons to Ivy League schools. Like the Kennedys, the sons of the World War II generation volunteered, not just for military service, but also for highly dangerous missions, such as John F. Kennedy’s PT boat command and George H.W. Bush’s piloting of Navy carrier aircraft.

Unlike the Kennedys, the Bushes were WASP establishment stock, and had been for generations. And, of course, all to this point have served as Republicans.

During World War II, Bush was in fact the youngest bomber pilot in the Navy. He enlisted upon graduation from Philips Andover Academy, and was commissioned an officer on June 9, 1943, three days prior to his 19th birthday. He flew torpedo bombers in the Pacific theater, reaching 58 combat missions. On Sept. 2, 1944, while attacking a Japanese radio site, his TBM Avenger was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. Bush bailed out over the ocean and was rescued by a US submarine. Two crew members were never found. The loss of his compatriots shaped Bush profoundly. “Why had I been spared and what did God have for me?” he later wrote.

Bush married Barbara Pierce on Jan. 6, 1945. He’d met her at a Christmas dance in 1941; she was wearing a pretty red-and-green dress lent by a friend of her mother’s, and he made sure to seek her out at a second dance the following evening. For both, that first meeting was all it took. They were married 73 years prior to her passing in April. It was the longest presidential marriage in US history.

Long story short, Bush graduated from Yale and moved his young family to Texas. He got an entry into the oil business via a reference from his father, and worked his way up. And he took his first step into politics, winning election as the Republican Party chairman in Harris County.

Political aspirations 

He ran for US Senate and lost, ran for Congress and won (twice), ran for Senate and lost again. In Bush’s big leap to the national stage, President Richard Nixon picked him as ambassador to the United Nations. Critics said he was unqualified – not enough foreign policy experience.

Nixon moved Bush to chairmanship of the Republican National Committee in 1973 due to the latter’s upstanding reputation, something Nixon needed as Watergate burned around him. President Gerald Ford appointed Bush chief US diplomat to China – a job in which Bush made many contacts useful in later diplomacy – and then head of the CIA.

In 1980, he ran for president himself. He won the Iowa caucuses, but lost the New Hampshire primary to former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who quickly gained the upper hand in the GOP nomination race. Bush hung on but eventually dropped out early enough to stay in Reagan’s good graces. Reagan picked him as VP, in part due to his international experience, in part due to his reputation as a moderate Republican. Bush was grateful, and always treated Reagan with respect.

When President Reagan was wounded in an assassination attempt a few months into his first term, Bush was in Texas. He hurried back to D.C. to demonstrate continuity of government. Aides suggested he helicopter from Andrews Air Force Base directly to the White House. He vetoed the idea.

“Only the president lands on the South Lawn,” he said.

Bush won the presidency in his own right in 1988. On Inauguration Day, 1989, he was waiting inside the US Capitol for the precise moment to be escorted to the swearing-in platform. It was the most important day of his life. And he noticed that outgoing president Reagan was wearing his overcoat.

The problem was, Bush wasn’t. Wearing his overcoat that is. The day was warm by Washington standards, but Bush was concerned about appearing more robust than his predecessor, according to his former personal aide Timothy McBride. Bush’s coat was locked in a limo four levels below. Mr. McBride lent him his own overcoat, which was about the right size.

“Even on that day, he’s worried about outshining President Reagan,” McBride said in his oral history of the Bush administration.

Critics called Bush Ronald Reagan’s “lapdog.”

By many measures, Bush was the most experienced person elected US president, at least in the modern age. He’d been a party official, an elected representative, an ambassador, a spy, and a veep.

His knowledge of policy was deep – certainly more detailed than his predecessor’s. At one point during the struggle over renewal of the Clear Air Act, Roger Smith, CEO of General Motors, arrived for discussions. It quickly became apparent to the White House staff that the president knew far more about the chemical components of auto emissions than did the car executive.

None of that information had been in White House briefing books prepared for the visit, according to Bobbie Greene Kilberg, the public liaison staffer who’d set the meeting up. She asked the president where the heck that stuff had come from.

“I have been vice president for eight years, thank you very much. I do read,” Bush said in reply.

Passage of amendments expanding the Clean Air Act to fight acid rain, ozone depletion, and other key atmospheric threats was one of the Bush administration’s major accomplishments in domestic policy. Another was passage of the 1990 budget deal, which prepared the way for the federal budget surpluses of the early 1990s, but may have sealed Bush’s 1992 reelection defeat. In signing it, Bush broke his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge made at the 1988 Republican National Convention.

A legacy of international leadership

But foreign policy was Bush’s main interest – and the country’s main need. The tectonic plates of geopolitics were moving. The Bush 41 (as in, “41st US president”) years constituted the most internationally complex presidency since that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in the opinion of Jeffrey A. Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University and author of “When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War.”

Today, the Gulf War seems as if it must have been Bush’s biggest challenge. Assembly and maintenance of a vast coalition required diplomatic deftness – within two days of the beginning of hostilities, Bush personally called 120 world leaders, many of whom he personally knew. The last World War II president felt a heavy responsibility sending US troops into combat. The speech announcing hostilities was the only address of his presidency that he wrote himself from start to finish.

But Dr. Engel and other experts – including Scowcroft and other top officials – believe that the management of the collapse of the Soviet Union was Bush’s most important test and greatest achievement.

“We have only learned in recent years what an incredible job he did keeping the cold war from turning hot,” says Engel.

Germany was the central issue (as it was for much of the 20th century). As Bush took office, the collapse of communist authority in much of Eastern Europe was beginning to threaten the Soviet Union itself. How to manage this decline without provoking Soviet hardliners, while keeping NATO united?

Initially Bush employed “Hippocratic diplomacy” – first, do no harm. This explains his hesitance to dance in victory at the fall of the Berlin Wall. History seemed to be moving in the West’s direction. No need to mess things up by attempting to speed it along.

He switched to action for the German question. Almost alone among non-Germanic Western leaders, Bush favored fast, total German reunification. The key was keeping a unified Germany in NATO. He sold this deal to France and Britain, pointing out it was the best way to keep US troops in Europe. Meanwhile, he promised the USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev economic aid, and restraint from NATO in pushing eastward toward his border. (Subsequent presidents have ignored the “restraint moving east” part of this pledge, to Vladimir Putin’s chagrin.)

At a summit meeting in June 1990, Mr. Gorbachev off-handedly indicated that a united Germany could remain in the Western military alliance. Top Soviet officials then began arguing among themselves. At that moment, recounted Scowcroft, he knew the US had won. He stopped crossing out the line “the cold war is over” from speechwriters’ drafts.

“You know, the cold war profoundly affected all of us,” Scowcroft said in his oral history. “It infused every part of our lives. It was a pattern of thinking. It was the world that we knew.”

'This is really something to see'

George H.W. Bush was not an eloquent man himself. Ronald Reagan could move the nation with his words in the wake of the explosion of the space shuttle “Challenger.” For Bush, that would have been a difficult enterprise.

Talking about troops could choke him up. Early in his administration Bush spoke at a memorial service for sailors from the USS Iowa who had died in a turret explosion. Aides, following along on their copies, could tell that he ended the address abruptly, leaving paragraphs unread. The reason? The president of the United States was starting to cry.

Before the Gulf War started, Bush traveled to Saudi Arabia to visit US service members on Thanksgiving. He’d stonily forced his speechwriters to delete “soft stuff” from his prepared remarks – parents writing to praise their kids in uniform, saying the US was doing the right thing, and so forth.

As the day went and his appearances piled up the speeches got shorter. It wasn’t just that Bush did not want to say much. He didn’t have to.

The last event was at a forward Marine base reached only by helicopter and flatbed truck. The sun was going down. Bush used maybe 10 percent of his speech, and then walked among the soldiers, who swarmed around him, reaching out for a touch. It was a vivid and emotional moment.

“It was very kind of, ‘Wow, this is really something to see’,” White House communications director David Demarest Jr. said in his oral history. “He got up to where he was going to speak and I realized that he doesn’t have to say anything. Just him being here is amazing, and that’s the story.”

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