George H.W. Bush birthday: five things about him you didn't know (or forgot)

President George H.W. Bush celebrated his 90th birthday on Thursday with a parachute jump. Here are a few tidbits you may have forgotten, or never known, about America's 41st president.

Kenneth Wasley/All Veteran Parachute Team/AP
Former President George H.W. Bush, right, is congratulated on his parachute jump by his son, former President George W. Bush, far left, his wife Barbara Bush and his tandem team partner Mike Elliott on his 90th birthday in Kennebunkport, Maine, Thursday, June 12, 2014.

President George H.W. Bush celebrated his 90th birthday on Thursday by jumping out of a helicopter near his summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine. Fulfilling a vow he made five years ago, Bush 41 made a tandem parachute jump from 6,000 feet with a retired member of the Army’s Golden Knights parachute team, Sgt. 1st Class Mike Elliott.

The pair floated to a gentle landing near Kennebunkport’s St. Ann’s Episcopal Church under a silk canopy of red, white, and blue. Mr. Bush, who now has little use of his legs, pitched forward upon hitting the ground. But he was unhurt and smiling afterward, according to Elliott.

“That’s what he wanted for his 90th birthday, and that’s what he got,” said Elliott, according to the Associated Press. “It’s a very good feeling to be involved and be able to turn back time. He’s probably feeling younger now than ever.”

Bush’s jump was kept secret until the last minute, in part to give him the flexibility to back out. But he’s now well known for his birthday sky diving, as he parachuted on his 75th, 80th, and 85th. The public also knows his penchant for colorful socks – a habit he’s shown off since using a wheelchair.

But as his presidency recedes into the past, there is a lot about Bush 41 that’s perhaps dimming in public memory. He’s much more than the father of George W. Bush, after all. Here are a few tidbits you may have forgotten, or never known.

He's the son of a senator. George H.W. Bush’s father was Prescott Bush, a wealthy businessman and banker who served as a US senator from Connecticut from 1952 until 1963. The elder Bush defined what today would be called a country club Republican, as he raised money for the party from his business and social contacts for decades and was a golf champion at Greenwich clubs.

Perhaps because of this, George H.W. early set his own sights on Senate service from his adopted home state of Texas. But he lost two Senate races, in 1964 and 1970. His only Capitol Hill experience was two terms representing Houston in the House.

He was a very young Navy aviator. Bush enlisted in the Navy in 1942 on his 18th birthday, shortly after graduation from Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. He’d been inspired to be a military pilot by the attack on Pearl Harbor. After 10 months of training, he was commissioned as an ensign on June 9, 1943, several days before his 19th birthday. At the time, he was the youngest flier in the service.

Bush flew 58 combat missions, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals. His unit suffered a 50 percent pilot casualty rate during its operations in the Pacific. Famously, the future president was shot down by antiaircraft fire on Sept. 2, 1944, after attacking Japanese installations on the island of Chi Chi Jima, and he was rescued by the sub USS Finback. It’s less well known that Bush had previously made a forced water landing after returning from a mission in the Marianas, so he crashed twice during the war.

His dangerous war experiences gave him a “sobering understanding of war and peace,” Bush said in later years.

Nixon boosted his career. Bush’s rise in politics might be said to be entwined with that of fellow World War II Navy vet Richard Nixon. In 1970, Bush gave up his safe House seat at the president's behest to run a Senate race against a Democrat who was a fierce Nixon foe. Bush lost, but earned Nixon’s gratitude. The president initially wanted Bush for a White House staff job, but Bush gave an impassioned plea to be ambassador to the United Nations, swaying Nixon’s decision.

“The P decided this was in fact a better use of Bush than having him at the White House, and we’ll go ahead and announce Bush on Friday,” wrote Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman in his diary entry from Dec. 9 of that year.

Under Nixon, Bush also served as chairman of the Republican National Committee. President Ford made him ambassador to China, and later director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

He wrote emotional letters to his kids. As vice president under Ronald Regan and as president himself, Bush’s public persona was of reticence – a typical, language-challenged, emotionally controlled establishment figure. But he wasn’t always that way on paper. Occasionally he would write a collective letter to his five living children (one daughter died in infancy) that bared his thoughts.

For instance, on Dec. 31, 1990, he addressed his children as he faced the prospect of ordering US forces to oust Iraq from Kuwait in the Gulf War.

“I guess what I want you to know as a father is this: Every human life is precious. When the question is asked ‘How many lives are you willing to sacrifice’ – it tears at my heart,” Bush wrote.

The Berlin Wall fell on his watch. While the Soviet Union began to totter under predecessor Reagan and finally dissolved at the beginning of successor Bill Clinton’s time in office, it was Bush 41 who presided over the most dramatic moments of the crumbling of the Soviet empire. The Berlin Wall came down during his presidency, for instance, in November 1989.

Though he initially reacted cautiously, Bush quickly came to see that reunification of Germany was in the best interests of the Germans themselves and NATO, and he pushed reluctant allies to ride with fast-moving events. In the end, Germany remained within the Western alliance and the Soviet Union accepted reunification – an outcome that was not foreordained.

“I was thinking of you as a friend,” he told West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in a phone call on Feb. 13, 1990. “It must have been an emotional moment for you. The German people certainly want to be together.”

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