George Herbert Walker Bush, forty-first president of the United States, was born on June 12, 1924, in Milton, Massachusetts. He was the second of five children of Prescott Sheldon Bush and Dorothy (Walker) Bush. George Bush was named for his maternal grandfather, George Herbert Walker, and he had two middle names because his parents couldn’t decide whether to name him George Herbert Bush or George Walker Bush. Bush grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he attended Greenwich Country Day School. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He played baseball and soccer and was president of his senior class.
When the United States entered World War II following the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Bush was eager to enlist in the military. At the age of eighteen and just after graduation, he volunteered to join the United States Navy. He completed his preflight training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and in June 1943 was commissioned an ensign and thus became one of the youngest aviators in the U. S. Navy. He was assigned to Torpedo Squadron (VT 51) in the Pacific Theater and carried out missions as pilot of a TBM Avenger torpedo bomber off the aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto. On August 1, 1944, he was promoted to lieutenant junior grade. On September 2, 1944, over the Pacific island of Chichi Jima, Bush’s airplane was struck by anti-aircraft gunfire and caught fire. According to Bush’s account, he ordered his two crewmates, William “Ted” White and John Delaney, to put on their parachutes and bail out. Bush did the same and landed in the ocean. He kicked off his shoes to reduce his weight and inflated his life jacket. Then he swam to an uninflated life raft, which he inflated and climbed aboard. He was rescued by the submarine USS Finback. Both his crewmates were killed. The episode deeply affected Bush, who said he always wondered why he was spared. He returned to the USS San Jacinto in November 1944 and, in total, flew fifty-eight combat missions. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals, and the Presidential Unit Citation (awarded to USS San Jacinto). Upon his return to the United States, he was assigned to a training wing for new torpedo pilots in Norfolk, Virginia.
When Bush returned from the war, he married Barbara Pierce in Rye, New York, on January 6, 1945. The two had met at a Christmas dance in 1941. After his discharge from military service, George Bush went to Yale University, where he played varsity baseball, was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, joined the exclusive Skull and Bones society, and earned his degree in economics in 1948. After graduating from Yale, Bush decided not to follow his father into the investment banking business. He wanted to try something different. In 1948 George, Barbara, and their young son George Walker moved to Odessa, Texas, where he began his oil and gas career as a clerk with IDECO (for International Derrick and Equipment Company, a subsidiary of Dresser Industries), for a $375 per month salary. Bush worked his way up in the business.
In 1950 the Bush family moved to Midland and grew to include John Ellis (Jeb) Bush, Neil Mallon Bush, Marvin Pierce Bush, and Dorothy Walker Bush. Another daughter, Pauline Robinson (Robin) Bush, died at the age of three of leukemia in 1953. With partner John Overbey, George H. W. Bush founded an oil exploration company, Bush-Overbey Oil Development, Inc., that later merged with another enterprise to form Zapata Petroleum in 1953 and Zapata Offshore Company in 1954 (seePENNZOIL). In 1959 the family moved to Houston, where Bush continued his oil and gas career. He eventually resigned as chief executive officer of Zapata in 1966.
Inspired by his father, who by this time was a Republican U.S. senator from Connecticut, Bush wanted to go into politics himself. He began his political career when he was elected Harris County Republican Party chairman. In 1964 he ran for the United States Senate but lost to incumbent Texas senator Ralph Yarborough. Two years later, Bush was elected to the first of two terms as U.S. representative from West Houston. In 1970 President Richard M. Nixon persuaded Bush to try again for the Senate against Yarborough. Bush decided to run, but the more conservative Lloyd Bentsen upset Yarborough in the Democratic primary and defeated Bush in the general election.
Nixon nominated Bush for U. S. ambassador to the United Nations, and he was confirmed in 1971. This was the first of several appointed positions that Bush would hold over the next few years. Nixon in 1973 named him Republican National Committee chairman, and Bush defended Nixon during the Watergate crisis. When it was disclosed that Nixon did in fact know about the Watergate cover-up, Bush wrote Nixon on August 7, 1974, urging him to resign. Nixon announced the next day his intention to do.
Upon succeeding Nixon as president, Gerald Ford asked Bush at which foreign post he wanted to serve. Bush chose China and served as head of the U.S. Liaison Office there. In 1976 Ford appointed Bush director of the Central Intelligence Agency. When Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, Bush offered to remain as director but left the office in 1977 when Carter named his own appointee. Bush returned to Houston.
George H. W. Bush sought the 1980 Republican presidential nomination but lost to former California governor Ronald Reagan, who asked Bush to be his vice-presidential running mate. Bush accepted, and the Reagan-Bush ticket won the general election and handily won reelection in 1984. As vice president, Bush oversaw a number of task forces to address the reduction of federal regulations and to assess drug policies, and he traveled the world as a representative foreign dignitary.
In 1988 Vice President George Bush was eager to succeed Reagan, who left under term limits. The odds against Bush were long, as no sitting vice president had been directly elected to the presidency since Martin Van Buren in 1836. Bush won the Republican nomination, and in November he defeated the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, to win the presidency.
Some historians have suggested that Bush’s presidency, from 1989 to 1993, focused on foreign policy. The Cold War, which had divided the United States and its allies against the Soviet Union and its allies, had been going on since the end of World War II. Bush worked closely with other Western leaders to manage the process as the Soviet Union and its allies were collapsing politically. Of particular interest was the reunification of Germany, which had been divided since the end of World War II. He believed that bringing East Germany and West Germany together would mark the true end of World War II. “German reunification had a very personal meaning to me,” Bush said. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989.
In late 1989 Bush authorized the U. S. Army to spearhead Operation Just Cause, in which troops were sent to Panama to apprehend its dictator Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega on narcotics trafficking charges. This marked the largest U. S. combat operation since the Vietnam War.
In 1990 the Iraqi army, on the orders of dictator Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait, a small, neighboring nation to the southeast. Hussein’s intention was to turn Iraq, and by extension himself, into a more significant player on the regional and world stage because Iraq under Hussein would control 20 percent of the world’s oil reserves. Bush assembled a coalition of nations to send their military forces to the Middle East. Operation Desert Storm, launched in January 1991, successfully drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait.
He also signed with the Soviet Union the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to reduce nuclear arsenals in 1991, and he negotiated a second treaty with Russia in 1992 and signed it in early 1993. While his actions in the arena of foreign policy generally won praise, his cautious response to the killing of pro-democracy student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, in the spring of 1989 drew some criticism in that he did not push for severe sanctions against the Communist regime.
Despite his triumphs on the world stage and the passage of the civil rights legislation Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, Bush faced increased instability and critical scrutiny on the domestic front. The U.S. economy was in recession, and his political opponents were quick to seize the opportunity. They accused him of being out of touch and projecting a “patrician image.” A Bush gaffe helped. In his 1988 nomination acceptance speech, Bush vowed, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Dukakis recalled in the post-election courtesy meeting, Bush said there was no way that he (Bush) could raise taxes in the first year. Dukakis said he realized then that the “read my lips” promise was only a temporary one. Bush wanted to reduce the federal budget deficit. The 1990 budget deal Bush brokered with Congress did that through both spending cuts and a tax increase. But his critics were upset that he broke his word and raised taxes.
During the Republican primary race for the 1992 presidential nomination, the politically-moderate Bush faced a strong primary opponent in conservative Patrick Buchanan. After winning his party’s nomination for a second term, Bush found himself in a three-way race with Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, the Democratic nominee, and Dallas businessman Ross Perot, who was running as an independent. Clinton won the race—the first Democrat to be elected president since Carter in 1976.
In 1993 Bush left the White House; he retired to Houston and also spent time at the family home at Kennebunkport, Maine. He was disappointed over his loss, but his setback set the stage for his sons to serve in public office. Son George W. Bush in 1994 was elected Texas governor, defeating incumbent governor Ann Richards. George W. Bush was reelected in 1998 and in 2000 defeated Vice President Al Gore to become the forty-third president of the United States. George H. W. and George W. Bush became the first father and son to serve as president since John and John Quincy Adams in the nineteenth century. Bush became known, informally, as “Bush 41,” while his son was known as “Bush 43.” The elder Adams died while his son was in office. George H.W. Bush lived through all eight years of his son’s presidency. Bush’s second son, Jeb, served two terms as Florida governor, from 1999 to 2007, and unsuccessfully sought the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
In retirement George H. W. Bush enjoyed golfing and speedboating and famously made parachute jumps to celebrate his seventy-fifth, eightieth, eighty-fifth, and ninetieth birthdays. The George Bush Presidential Library and Museum opened on the campus of Texas A&M University in 1997. He authored (or co-authored) several books, including A World Transformed (1998), All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings (1999), and The China Diary of George H. W. Bush: The Making of a Global President (2008). He partnered with former president Bill Clinton to raise money for the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2005 Hurricane Katrina victims on the Gulf Coast and also participated in other disaster relief efforts.
Bush received numerous honors from countries throughout the world. Houston’s Intercontinental Airport was renamed George Bush Intercontinental Airport in 1997. The headquarters for the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia, was officially named for him in 1999. A new Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, USS George H. W. Bush, was commissioned by the U. S. Navy on January 10, 2009. President George H. W. Bush received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony on February 15, 2011.
When Robin Bush died in 1953, George and Barbara Bush buried her in a family plot in Greenwich, Connecticut. After attending former President Nixon’s funeral in 1994, George and Barbara decided that they should be buried at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Texas A&M University. They created a small family cemetery on the library grounds and had Robin’s remains relocated there in May 2000. Barbara Bush died April 17, 2018. George H.W. Bush died at his home in Houston on November 30, 2018. After a state funeral at Washington National Cathedral on December 5, he was transported to College Station and, in a private ceremony, buried in the family cemetery on the library grounds on December 6, 2018.
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Barbara Bush, Reflections: Life After the White House (New York: Scribner, 2003). George Bush Collection, George H. W. Bush Presidential Library & Museum. George W. Bush, 41: A Portrait of My Father (New York: Crown Publishers, 2014). George H. W. Bush Biography, George H. W. Bush Presidential Library & Museum (https://www.bush41.org/bush/biography), accessed May 23, 2019. “George H. W. Bush: A Resource Guide,” Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/presidents/bush/external.html), accessed May 23, 2019. “George H. W. Bush,” The White House (https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/george-h-w-bush/), accessed May 22, 2019. “George Herbert Walker Bush 12 June 1924-30 November 2018,” Naval History and Heritage Command, U. S. Navy (https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/biographies-list/bios-b/bush-george-h-w.html), accessed May 22, 2019. Jon Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (New York: Random House, 2015). New York Times, December 1, 2018. “President George H. W. Bush Buried At Texas A&M University,” Texas A&M Today, December 7, 2018 (https://today.tamu.edu/2018/12/07/president-george-h-w-bush-buried-at-texas-am-university/), accessed May 23, 2019.
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Bush, George Herbert Walker,”
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