A successful businessman, George Bush (born 1924) emerged as a national political leader during the 1970s. After holding several important foreign policy and administrative assignments in Republican politics, he served two terms as vice president (1980, 1984) under Ronald Reagan. In 1988, he was elected the 41st president of the United States.
George Herbert Walker Bush was born on June 12, 1924, in Milton, Massachusetts. His father, Prescott Bush, was a managing partner in the Wall Street investment firm of Brown Brothers, Harriman and also served as U.S. senator from Connecticut from 1952 to 1962. His mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, was the daughter of another prominent Wall Street investment banker, George Herbert Walker (George Bush's namesake), and the founder of the Walker Cup for international golfing competition. George Bush grew up in the affluent New York City suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut, vacationing in the summers in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he later maintained a home.
Bush attended the Greenwich Country Day School and Phillips Academy, exclusive private schools, where he excelled both in the classroom and on the athletic field. After graduating from Phillips in 1942, he enrolled in the U.S. Navy Reserve and was commissioned a navy flight pilot in 1943, serving in the Pacific for the duration of World War II. Secretly engaged to Barbara Pierce, Bush married this daughter of the publisher of Redbook and McCall's in Rye, New York, on January 6, 1945. The Bushes became the parents of six children (one of whom died of leukemia when three years old).
Following severance from the navy, Bush enrolled at Yale University in September 1945. An ambitious, highly competitive student, he earned a B.A. in economics within three years. Although a married military veteran, Bush was nonetheless active in campus social and athletic activities (playing three years of varsity baseball and captaining the team). Following graduation in 1948, Bush became an oilfield supply salesman for Dresser Industries in Odessa, Texas. Rising quickly in an industry then in the midst of a postwar boom, in 1953 Bush started his own oil and gas drilling firm. After merging with another firm in 1955, Bush eventually (in September 1958) moved the corporate headquarters to Houston, Texas.
In addition to having become a millionaire in his own right, Bush was also active in local Republican politics and served as Houston County party chairman. In 1964 he took a leave of absence from his firm, Zapata Petroleum, to challenge incumbent Democratic Senator Ralph Yarborough. Bush campaigned as a Goldwater Republican, opposing civil rights legislation, calling for U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations should the Peoples Republic of China be admitted, and demanding a cutback in foreign aid spending. The strategy of Goldwater Republicans had been to promote a conservative realignment, specifically leading to Republican congressional victories in the South and Southwest. This strategy failed, and Bush also lost decisively in what was a nationwide Democratic landslide.
Bush did not withdraw from politics, however, and in 1966 he won election to the House of Representatives from a Houston suburban district. A two-term congressman, serving from 1966 through 1970, Bush compiled a conservative voting record (earning a 77 percent approval rating from the conservative Americans for Constitutional Action), specifically championing "right to work" anti-labor union legislation and a "freedom of choice" alternative to school desegregation. In an exception to an otherwise conservative record, in 1968, despite opposition from his constituents, Bush voted for the open housing bill recommended by President Lyndon Johnson.
A loyal adherent of the Nixon administration during 1969 and 1970, Bush supported the president's major legislative initiatives, including the family assistance plan. In 1970 he again sought election to the Senate, campaigning as an outspoken Nixon supporter on a "law and order" theme. His election chances, however, were submarined when the more moderate Lloyd Bentsen defeated Yarborough in the Democratic primary. Although Bush's electoral support had increased since 1966 (from 43 to 47 percent), he was once again defeated.
As a reward for his loyalty, in February 1971 President Nixon appointed Bush U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Given the nominee's lack of foreign policy experience, this appointment was initially viewed as a political favor. Bush, however, proved to be an able and popular diplomat, particularly in his handling of the difficult, if ultimately unsuccessful, task of ensuring the continued seating of the Taiwan delegation when the United Nations in a dramatic reversal voted to seat the Peoples Republic of China.
In December 1972 Bush resigned his United Nations appointment to accept, again at Nixon's request, the post of chairman of the Republican National Committee. This largely administrative appointment proved to be a demanding assignment when the Senate, in the spring of 1973, initiated a highly publicized investigation into the so-called Watergate Affair and then, in the winter/spring of 1973, when the House debated whether to impeach President Nixon. Throughout this period Bush publicly championed the president, affirming Nixon's innocence and questioning the motives of the president's detractors. As the scandal unfolded, Bush sought to minimize its adverse consequences for the political fortunes of the Republican party. Following Nixon's forced resignation in August 1974 his successor, Gerald Ford, appointed Bush in September 1974 to head the U.S. liaison office in Peking, China.
Serving until December 1975, Bush proved again to be a popular and accessible "ambassador" (formal diplomatic relations with the People's Republic had not at this time been established). He left this post to accept appointment in January 1976 as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Bush served as a caretaker director, acting to restore morale within the agency and to deflect public and congressional criticisms of the agency's past role and authority. Resigning as CIA director in January 1977 following the election of Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, Bush returned to Houston to accept the chairmanship of the First National Bank of Houston.
Bush was an unannounced candidate for the Republican presidential nomination of 1980 starting in 1977. He sought to exploit the contacts he had made as Republican National Committee chairman and as a businessman in Texas with family and corporate interests in the East as well as his record of public service. Travelling to all 50 states and establishing his own fund-raising organization, the Fund for Limited Government, Bush formally announced his candidacy in May 1979. Modeling his campaign after Jimmy Carter's successful strategy of 1975-1976 of building a well-organized grass roots organization in the early primary/caucus states of lowa and New Hampshire, Bush quickly emerged as the principal opponent of former governor of California Ronald Reagan, the Republican frontrunner.
While as conservative as Reagan in his economic and foreign policy views, Bush nonetheless successfully projected the image of a moderate candidate. He lacked substantive programmatic differences from Reagan except for his support for the Equal Rights Amendment, his qualified stand on abortion, and his questioning of Reagan's proposed intention to increase defense spending sharply while reducing taxes and balancing the budget. His failure to find a major issue and his lackluster campaign style eventually forestalled his candidacy. Although recognizing that he did not have the needed delegate votes, Bush did not drop out of the race before the Republican National Convention. In a surprise decision, made on the eve of the balloting, Reagan announced his selection of Bush as his vice presidential running mate.
Becoming vice president with Reagan's decisive victory over incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter in 1980, Bush proved to be a loyal, hard working supporter of the president. Careful to demonstrate his loyalty and to accept the largely ceremonial public responsibilities of the vice presidency, Bush provided quiet counsel to the president and thereby gained his respect. Renominated in 1984, Bush retained the vice presidency with the resultant Reagan landslide. Bush's record of demonstrated loyalty and competence, and the series of important administrative offices he had held since 1971, nonetheless had not created for him a broad-based nationwide constituency. As such, he was not assured the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. Despite his nationwide campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, Bush remained an untested vote getter, his only electoral victory coming as a candidate from a safe Republican congressional district. Bush's other governmental positions were all attained through appointment. His career was thus marked by the ability to handle difficult administrative assignments, and yet a seeming failure to demonstrate the promise of leadership with the voters.
In 1988, Bush defeated Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis to become the 41st president of the United States. With this victory, many felt he had overcome his weak image and allegations that he had known more than he admitted about the Iran-Contra (arms-for-hostages trade with Iran) scandal. As chief executive he was widely viewed as a foreign policy president. He was in office when the Communist governments of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe fell. The Persian Gulf War of 1990 also boosted Bush's popularity to a point where many thought he would be unbeatable in the next election.
However, Bush also had his share of problems. Many historians believe that Bush ran a negative campaign in 1988 which affected his ability to govern the country. Congress refused to confirm his nomination of former Texas senator John Tower for secretary of defense. He inherited problems with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Other critics said he lacked vision and leadership. He also had a relatively inexperienced vice president in former Indiana Senator Dan Quayle. In 1992, in the midst of a recession, he lost his re-election bid in a three-way race to Democrat Bill Clinton.
In retirement, Bush kept a relatively low profile, preferring to travel and spend time with his grandchildren. He did make the news when, in March 1997, at the age of 72, he became (many believe) the first American President to jump out of an airplane. He also received a honorary doctorate from Hofstra University in April 1997.
Bush the politician will always be remembered. On November 30, 1994, the ground breaking ceremony for the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum was held. This facility was constructed on the campus of Texas A & M University, in College Station, Texas, and opened in November 1997. It is the tenth presidential library administered by National Archives and documents Bush's long public career, from ambassador to world leader. Located within the complex will be The Bush School of Government & Public Service, which will provide graduate education to those who wish to lead and manage organizations serving the public interest.
Further Reading on George Bush
Having been married for over 50 years, Barbara Bush's Barbara Bush: A Memoir (1994) will provide insight to the "real" George Bush. Michael Duffy's Marching in Place: The Status Quo Presidency of George Bush (1992) will also offer an interesting perspective. George Bush has also been profiled on the television show A&E Biography. Information on The George Bush Presidential Library and Museum can be accessed through the World Wide Web at <http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/bushlib/> (July 29, 1997). Readers also might profitably consult Eleanora Schoenebaum (editor), Political Profiles: The Nixon/Ford Years, Vol. 5 (1979); Roy Reed, "George Bush on the Move," New York Times Magazine (February 10, 1980); and Elizabeth Drew, "A Reporter at Large: Bush 1980," The New Yorker (March 3, 1980); New York Times (March 26, 1997 and April 20, 1997).