(CNN) — Former US President George H.W. Bush has died at age 94 in Houston, according to his spokesperson Jim McGrath.
Born into privilege and a tradition of service, Bush was a son of a senator, celebrated World War II combat pilot, student athlete, Texas oilman, Republican congressman, national party chairman, pioneering diplomat and spy chief. After his own 1980 presidential campaign came up short, he served two terms as Ronald Reagan’s vice president before reaching the pinnacle of political power by winning the 1988 presidential election, soundly defeating Democrat Michael Dukakis.
After losing the White House in 1992, Bush became a widely admired political elder who leapt out of airplanes to mark birthday milestones. Emphasizing the generosity of his soul, he forged a close — and unlikely — friendship with Democrat Bill Clinton, the man who ended his presidency. When Parkinson’s disease mostly silenced him in public, Bush flashed his sense of humor by sporting colorful striped socks.
Bush’s death comes after his wife of 73 years, Barbara Bush, passed away on April 17 aged 92. Before her funeral, Bush was pictured in a wheelchair gazing at his wife’s flower-covered casket, in a moment that encapsulated their life-long love affair
The first sitting vice president to be elected to the presidency since 1836, Bush was also only the second person in US history to see his own son follow in his presidential footsteps when George W. Bush was elected in 2000.
In addition to the 43rd president, Bush is survived by his son Jeb, the former Florida governor and 2016 presidential candidate; sons Neil and Marvin; daughter Dorothy; and 17 grandchildren. His daughter Robin died of leukemia as a child, a tragedy that still moved Bush deeply late in his life. He will be buried alongside her and the former first lady at his presidential library in College Station, Texas.
When Bush left office in 1993, he joined the dubious club of presidents rejected by voters after only one term in office. A career filled with top jobs preparing him for the presidency was cut short in its prime.
He lost to Clinton after failing to shake off his image as a starchy Yankee oblivious to the struggles of heartland Americans during an economic downturn.
But as time passed, his foreign policy acumen has come to define his presidency, leaving a legacy of wise and sure-handed management of world affairs.
The first Persian Gulf War
Bush, alongside national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker, engineered a soft landing for the Cold War as the Soviet empire shattered and Germany unified and then prospered — despite widespread distrust at the time of its history and motives.
In another dangerous foreign policy test, Bush decided in 1990 to build a diverse international coalition, including more than 400,000 US troops, to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
“This will not stand. This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait,” Bush vowed before getting to work on a successful mission that united US allies in Europe and the Middle East in a lightning war.
Later, with Iraqi forces routed, Bush decided not to push on to Baghdad to oust Saddam Hussein. That instinct later came to look prescient, given the blood and resources expended by the United States in his son’s own war against Iraq.
The 1990s Gulf War was the first time the world learned of the huge leaps in precision weaponry used by US forces and ushered in a brief era of unchallenged American hegemony after the dented confidence of the post-Vietnam war era.
Earlier, Bush had also ordered US troops to invade Panama after an off-duty Marine was killed by forces loyal to dictator Manuel Noriega. The force quickly overwhelmed Noriega’s men and he was overthrown in just four days and was later sentenced to 40 years in US federal prison on drug charges.
Bush also had to walk a fine line with China, imposing sanctions after a 1989 government crackdown on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, but also seeking to prevent a permanent rupture in relations. Also on his watch, Washington backed early diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians, which led to the Oslo accords in the Clinton presidency.
Perception of being out of touch at home
But Bush’s success abroad became a cross to bear at home. Voters appeared to get the impression he was more interested in striding the world stage than their economic struggles.
His failure to connect was encapsulated by an incident in which his fascination with a supermarket scanner during his 1992 re-election campaign triggered widespread mockery.
Former aides to this day insist that Bush was maligned by a New York Times report on the incident, which they say resulted from a misinterpretation of a pool report.
But in another incident, Bush exacerbated the idea he was out of touch by looking at his watch in a town-hall style presidential debate, then waffled when a woman asked how he was personally affected by the bad economy.
Bush was often criticized for lacking an overarching political philosophy, a charge he testily decried by complaining about “the vision thing.”
‘Read my lips’
He managed to undermine himself with powerful GOP conservatives by breaking his famous 1988 GOP convention pledge: “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
On Election Day, with the right-of-center vote fragmented by third-party candidate and billionaire businessman Ross Perot, Bush carried only 18 states and just over 37% of the vote.
In many ways, Bush paid a price for ragged presentation skills. Even before his 1988 presidential campaign, there were questions about his political fortitude. Newsweek magazine, which in pre-social media days had immense power to set the political media narrative, published a cover story questioning whether the President was beset by the “wimp factor.”
In her 1988 Democratic convention keynote speech, then-Texas Treasurer Ann Richards had lampooned Bush’s upbringing and tongue-tied political style by joking Bush was “born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
Other incidents in Bush’s presidency entered popular culture. Once, he caused a brief panic when he collapsed at a state dinner in Japan. He blamed the embarrassment on a stomach illness. In 1990, he banned broccoli on Air Force One, saying he had hated it since he was a kid.
As elder statesman, he kept publicly quiet
Bush faded from view during the Clinton years, but was thrust back into the spotlight — and became the subject of a torrent of amateur psychology — when his son ran for president in 2000.
Once his son entered office, those expecting a restoration of the elder Bush’s ways were disappointed. The new president responded to the September 11, 2001, attacks by rejecting the internationalism of his father and embracing the neo-conservative doctrine of preemptive war.
There was much speculation about what Bush thought of his son’s actions in Iraq, especially after some of his foreign policy lieutenants went public with criticisms of US policy.
But the elder Bush kept quiet in public, though he was outraged when Democrats branded George W. Bush a “liar” during his 2004 re-election bid.
The attacks on his other son, Jeb, who endured a bruising primary battle in 2016 against Donald Trump, the eventual GOP nominee and 45th president, caused him deep personal pain.
Sources said the elder Bush voted for Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic rival.
Both former Bush presidents did call to congratulate Trump soon after the New York businessman’s win over Clinton. In one of his final political acts, Bush wrote to Trump to apologize for not being able to not attend his inauguration owing to his poor health.
But in many ways, the acerbic and bitterly divisive election of 2016 represented a final wrenching departure from the more courtly, old-fashioned politics practiced by George H.W. Bush, who until late in his life would pen handwritten notes to friends, former political allies and foes and even reporters who covered his presidency. He counted Democrats among his closest friends, and his death marks not only the passing of a president but a reminder of a bygone era of greater civility in Washington.
WWII hero became Texas oil prospector
Born in Massachusetts on June 12, 1924, George H. W. Bush was the son of wealthy Wall Street banker and future Connecticut Sen. Prescott Bush and Dorothy Bush.
He became the youngest naval pilot at age 18 following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and flew combat missions from the aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto. As a “flyboy” in the Pacific War, Bush flew 58 combat missions and won the Distinguished Flying Cross.
One mission in September 1944 was almost his last. Bush’s air wing attacked a radio installation on the tiny Japanese-held island of Chichi Jima. During the raid, his plane was hit and as flames licked around the cockpit, Bush gave the order to abandon the aircraft. The bodies of his crewmen, Ted White and John Delaney were never found. Bush, after desperately paddling his life raft away from the island and Japanese boats sent out to capture him, was miraculously rescued by a U.S. submarine.
It took decades before Bush was able to speak publicly about his experiences in the war.
“It was just part of my duty. People say, ‘war hero.’ How come a guy who gets his airplane shot down is a hero and a guy who’s good enough that he doesn’t get shot down is not?” Bush told CNN in 2003.
Late in his life, the former president’s heroism was recognized when the Navy named a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier after him.
After returning from the Pacific, Bush attended Yale University, where he was a noted athlete and then went west with his new wife, Barbara Pierce, to set himself up as an early Texas oil prospector.
By the mid-1960s, politics was calling and Bush ran for the US Senate, but lost. In 1966, however, he was on his way, winning a seat in the House of Representatives.
Chosen by President Richard Nixon to serve as envoy to the United Nations, Bush later served as the head of the Republican National Committee during the Watergate scandal.
Then, he became one of the few prominent Westerners to get into China, which had been closed to outsiders for decades. Bush headed the US Liaison Office in Beijing, the forerunner of the US Embassy. He later detailed his experiences, including trips into the Chinese countryside on bicycles, in diaries published in 2008.
In 1976, Bush became the head of the CIA. He only held the job for a year, but was so well remembered that the agency later named its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, after him, and he would later say it was his favorite job.
In 1980, Bush ran for the White House, challenging former California Gov. Ronald Reagan for the GOP nomination, slamming what he said was his foe’s “voodoo economic policy.”
After a sometimes rancorous campaign, Reagan won, and after briefly flirting with picking former president Gerald Ford as his running mate, handed Bush the vice presidential spot.
‘Nothing self-conscious in my love of country’
With Reagan set to leave office in 1989, with his popularity ratings on a high, Bush was in the ideal spot to claim the nomination and the presidency.
“I may not be the most eloquent, but I learned early that eloquence won’t draw oil from the ground,” Bush said in his 1988 convention speech.
“I may sometimes be a little awkward, but there’s nothing self-conscious in my love of country. I am a quiet man — but I hear the quiet people others don’t,” Bush said, vowing to fight for a “better America, for an endless enduring dream and a thousand points of light.”
It’s an irony that it was not until he was well-settled in retirement that many Americans began to get glimpses into the character traits that might have helped him win a second term.
Refusing to bow to advancing age, he marked his 75th, 80th, 85th and 90th birthdays by going skydiving, with the money going to charity. His primary causes included literacy, cancer research and volunteerism, and he and Barbara Bush would raise more than $1 billion for charity in their years after the White House.
He and Clinton became close friends after working together after the Asian tsunami disaster in 2004 and after Hurricane Katrina the following year.
“It was an amazing experience. This man who I had always liked and respected and ran against … I literally came to love,” Clinton said in 2011.
President Barack Obama awarded Bush the Presidential Medal of Freedom that same year.
Never completely got out of politics
Several bouts with illness and advanced age kept Bush out of the spotlight in recent years and he has rarely made public remarks.
But, in November 2014, he was in the audience in a wheelchair when George W. Bush published a biography entitled “41: A Portrait of My Father.”
The younger Bush poignantly said he “wanted Dad to be alive” when the book came out.
In 2017, several women accused Bush of inappropriately touching them during photo ops, prompting his spokesman to release a statement saying that “on occasion, (Bush) has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner” and apologizing to “anyone he has offended.”
The elder Bush revealed several years ago he suffered from a form of Parkinson’s disease which left him unable to walk. He used a wheelchair or a scooter to get around.
Bush suffered multiple health scares later in his life. In December 2014 he was hospitalized for what aides described as a precautionary measure after experiencing shortness of breath, and the following July fell at his home in Kennebunkport, Maine, breaking the C2 vertebrae in his neck. The injury did not result in any neurological problems, his spokesman said at the time.