Obituary:  George H W Bush

George H W Bush 41st President of US Dies

George H W 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 Roosevelt’s, 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 Francois 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 right-wing 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.

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 Regan’s slightly unlikely vice-president.

Although temperamentally conservative with a small C, Bush did not belong to the right-wing 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 down-home 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 Suffolk, 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 Franklyn 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 Harbour, 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 right-wing 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 Betsen, 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 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 right-wing 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 Mikail 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, Edourd Shavenadze, 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.

Source: Godfrey Hodgson – The Guardian – 01/12/2018