George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st President of the United States, passed into history last week at the age of 94, surrounded by family: there’s no doubt he lived an extraordinary life.
He was known as a competent, level-headed leader, articulate and calm, dedicated to conservative political principles, but like many leaders who came of age during World War II, he was capable of reaching across the aisle for bipartisan actions when the nation required it—a skill sorely lacking among today’s leaders.
Born a New England son in Milton Massachusetts (he would also summer in Kennebunkport Maine throughout his life,) he lived in an exemplary and unusually adventurous manner, traveling the world in both war and peace, accumulating a fortune as an oil industry executive during the golden age of American capitalism, and reaching the highest echelons of power in both business and politics.
He grew up loving baseball, and excelled academically. He answered the call of military service following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, postponing his university education to serve as one of the youngest naval aviators in U.S. History, achieving the rank of Lieutenant, and flying numerous combat missions. He was even shot down in action over the pacific, and forced to bail out, then rescued by a U.S. naval vessel, making for a dramatic story his biographers loved to tell over and over again.
In 1945 he married his beloved Barbara Pierce. They started a family, eventually counting a Governor and U.S. President among their six children.
Following the war he attended prestigious Yale University, graduating with a B.A. in 1948. He then moved to Texas to pursue a career in the oil industry, climbing the corporate ladder quickly, eventually founding his own oil company, and achieving enormous success and great wealth by 1964, at the age of 40.
Developing an interest in politics, the accomplished business man ran for the U.S. Senate, but lost. Undeterred, in 1966 he won a seat in the House of Representatives, for Texas’s 7th congressional district, winning re-election, but then losing another run for the senate in 1970.
President Nixon appointed him the ambassador to the United Nations in 1971, and he became the chair of the Republican national committee in 1973. President Ford continued to call on Bush for national service, ultimately appointing him to the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a formidable position of responsibility and prestige, though a challenging office in those turbulent times, when public trust in government was at an all-time low following the Watergate years and the debacle in Vietnam.
Running for President in 1980, He was defeated by Ronald Reagan. In a famous debate he slammed his future boss’s economic plan by referring to trickle down economics as “Voodoo Economics,” a phrase which has stood the test of time.
But despite their initial rivalry, the two leaders mended fences, and Reagan tapped him for the Vice Presidential slot after winning the Republican nomination.
Serving 8 years as Vice President, he championed deregulation and helped to administer Reagan’s War on Drugs. In 1988 he successfully defeated Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis in the general election to become the 41st President of the United States.
During an eventful 4-year term, President Bush conducted the first gulf war following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and also military activity in Panama. The Berlin Wall, a long-standing icon of Soviet Tyranny, fell and the Soviet Union dissolved two years later. He strongly advocated for private charities, a life-long interest—his famous “thousand points of light.” His highest approval rating in office was a whopping 89%.
However, he had to renege on a no tax pledge, and an economic recession challenged his administration. These factors, and the nearly electric charisma of his young political opponent, lead to his loss to former governor Bill Clinton.
In his later years, former President Bush was an exemplary ex President, championing numerous social causes and charities, and joining forces to work with former President Bill Clinton to promote these noble endeavors.
He also captured the imagination of the nation, inspiring millions of aging people around the globe, by sky diving well into his eighties, reminiscent of his early naval jump over the pacific.
As he’s laid to rest, we should remember how George H.W. Bush represents the best of his generation, and in this time of eroding public standards of decency, ethics and conduct among our leaders, he stands as a guiding light for all leaders, regardless of political affiliation, who aspire to greatness and ethical leadership.
Photo: Wikipedia Commons (U.S. Navy Photo – public domain)