News World A long life well lived: George H. W. Bush dead at 94

A long life well lived: George H. W. Bush dead at 94

GEorge H W bush dies
George H. W. Bush was US President from 1988 to 1992. Photo: Getty
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George Bush, the 41st president of the United States and the father of the 43rd president, died on Friday (US time) aged 94.

Mr Bush steered the nation through a tumultuous period in world affairs but was denied a second term after support for his presidency collapsed under the weight of an economic downturn and his seeming inattention to domestic affairs.

His death, which was announced by his office, came less than eight months after that of his wife Barbara Bush. Married for 73 years, theirs was the longest political union in US history.

Barbara and George Bush were Washington’s model couple. Photo: AP

He was US president from 1988 to 1992, and visited Australia in 1991 when Bob Hawke was prime minister.

“George Bush was a good friend of mine whom I admired as a man of decency and charm, an outstanding President in a difficult era,” Mr Hawke said on Saturday.

His son George W Bush was president from 2001 to 2009, and another son, Jeb, was Florida governor.

Among the many tributes for the former president, his welcome letter to Bill Clinton after his loss in the 1992 presidential election was being remembered as one of his finest gestures.

The dignified hand-written note left for Mr Clinton read: “When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.

“I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.

“There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.

“You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.

“Your success is now our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”

A foil to the hard-right of Reaganism

George Herbert Walker Bush, a patrician New Englander was the son of a senator and father of a president, rose through the political ranks: from congressman to UN ambassador, Republican Party chairman to envoy to China, CIA director to two-term vice-president under the hugely popular Ronald Reagan.

It was an unexpectedly solid partnership which began in the smoke-filled rooms at the Republicans’ 1980 Detroit convention. Fearing that Mr Reagan was too far to the right, moderate Republicans brokered a deal to put Mr Bush on the ticket as a brake on what they saw as the lead candidate’s worst impulses.

As it unfolded, however, Mr Bush proved himself a loyal and supportive deputy whose disagreements with Mr Reagan were few and kept behind closed doors when they arose.

Once elected to the presidency, the 1991 Gulf War stoked his popularity, in part because his own service record testified to a man who knew the horrors of war first-hand and would not lightly send others into combat.

The pilot of a US Navy torpedo-bomber, he was the only survivor of nine airman when their three planes were shot down while making an attack on the Japanese-held island of Chichi Jima.

His comrades were captured, tortured and executed, with subsequent war crimes trials finding that at least one of the captured Americans was beheaded and eaten by the defenders. Five Japanese officers were convicted of war crimes and hanged.

Floating alone in a tiny rubber raft, his life was saved by a US submarine which surfaced in sight of shore to pluck him from the water – an event memorably captured by one of the rescuing sailors in a few seconds of shaky footage.

As president, Mr Bush would acknowledge that he had trouble articulating what he memorably called “the vision thing,” and he was haunted by his decision to break a stern, solemn vow he made to voters: “Read my lips. No new taxes.”

He lost his bid for re-election to Mr Clinton in a campaign in which businessman H. Ross Perot took almost 19 per cent of the vote as an independent candidate.

Still, he lived to see his son, George W., twice elected to the presidency – only the second father-and-son chief executives, following John Adams and John Quincy Adams.

Bob Hawke confers with George Bush during his 1991 visit to Australia. Photo: Australian National Archives

Once out of office, Mr Bush was content to remain on the sidelines, except for an occasional speech or paid appearance and visits abroad.

He later teamed with Mr Clinton, his political nemesis, to raise tens of millions of dollars for victims of a 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean and Hurricane Katrina, which swamped New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005.

George and Barbara Bush were a tight team from his first run for Congress. Photo: Getty

Mr Bush entered the White House in January 1989 with a reputation as a man of indecision and indeterminate views. One news magazine suggested he was a “wimp”.

But his work-hard, play-hard approach to the presidency won broad public approval. He held more news conferences in most months than Mr Reagan did in most years.

The Iraq crisis of 1990-91 brought out all the skills Mr Bush had honed in a quarter-century of politics and public service.

The other battles he fought as president, including a war on drugs and a crusade to make American children the best educated in the world, were not so decisively won.

Ronald Reagan broke the Soviet Union, but it was Mr Bush who officially buried the hatchet with Mikhail Gorbachev. Photo: Getty

Communism began to crumble on his watch, with the Berlin Wall coming down, the Warsaw Pact disintegrating and the Soviet satellite states falling out of Moscow’s orbit.

Mr Bush said the pain of losing in 1992 was eased by the warm reception he received after leaving office.

Before the onset of Parkinson’s disease which saw him confined to a wheelchair in his later years, Mr Bush approached old age with gusto. He celebrated his 75th and 80th birthdays by skydiving over College Station, Texas, the home of his presidential library. He did it again on his 85th birthday in 2009, parachuting near his oceanfront home in Kennebunkport, Maine.

A former WWII US Navy pilot, George Bush’s lust for life made skydiving to celebrate key birthdays the most natural thing in the world Photo: AAP.

He became the patriarch of one of the US’s most prominent political families. In addition to George W. becoming president, another son, Jeb, was elected Florida governor in 1998 and made an unsuccessful run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

The other Bush children are sons Neil and Marvin and daughter Dorothy Bush LeBlond. Another daughter, Robin, died of leukaemia in 1953, a few weeks before her fourth birthday.

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