HOUSTON -- George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States and the father of the 43rd, who 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, died Friday. He was 94.
The last World War II veteran to serve as president, who also presided during the collapse of the Soviet Union and the final months of the Cold War, died late Friday at his Houston home, said family spokesman Jim McGrath. His wife of more than 70 years, Barbara Bush, died in April.
Bush had a form of Parkinson's disease that forced him to use a wheelchair or motorized scooter in recent years, and he had been in and out of hospitals during that time as his health declined. In April, a day after attending Barbara Bush's funeral, he was treated for an infection that had spread to his blood. In 2013, he was in dire enough shape with bronchitis that former President George W. Bush, his son, solicited ideas for a eulogy.
But he proved resilient each time. In 2013, he told well-wishers, through an aide, to "put the harps back in the closet."
The son of a senator and father of a president, Bush rose through the political ranks: from congressman to U.N. ambassador, Republican Party chairman to envoy to China, CIA director to two-term vice president under Ronald Reagan. The 1991 Gulf War stoked his popularity. But Bush would acknowledge that he had trouble articulating "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 Bill Clinton in a campaign in which businessman H. Ross Perot took almost 19 percent 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, after John Adams and John Quincy Adams.Gallery: George H.W. Bush through the years
The 43rd president issued a statement Friday after his father's death, saying the elder Bush "was a man of the highest character."
"The entire Bush family is deeply grateful for 41's life and love, for the compassion of those who have cared and prayed for Dad," the statement read.
After his 1992 defeat, Bush complained that media-created "myths" gave voters a mistaken impression that he did not identify with the lives of ordinary Americans. He decided he lost because he "just wasn't a good enough communicator."
Once out of office, Bush was content to remain on the sidelines, except for an occasional speech or paid appearance and visits abroad.
He backed Clinton on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which had its genesis during his own presidency.
He visited the Middle East, where he was revered for his defense of Kuwait. And he returned to China, where he was welcomed as "an old friend" from his days as the U.S. ambassador there.
He later teamed with Clinton to raise tens of millions of dollars for victims of a 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean and of Hurricane Katrina, which swamped New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005. During their wide-ranging travels, the political odd couple grew close.
"Who would have thought that I would be working with Bill Clinton, of all people?" Bush quipped in October 2005.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Bush quickly began building an international military coalition that included other Arab states. After liberating Kuwait, he rejected suggestions that the U.S. carry the offensive to Baghdad, choosing to end the hostilities a mere 100 hours after the start of the ground war.
"That wasn't our objective," he told The Associated Press in 2011 from his office just a few blocks from his Houston home. "The good thing about it is there was so much less loss of human life than had been predicted and indeed than we might have feared."
But the decisive military defeat did not lead to the regime's downfall, as many in the administration had hoped.
"I miscalculated," acknowledged Bush. His legacy was dogged for years by doubts about the decision not to remove Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi leader was eventually ousted in 2003, in the war led by Bush's son that was followed by a long, bloody insurgency.
Bush entered the White House in 1989 with a reputation as a man of indecision and indeterminate views. One newsmagazine suggested he was a "wimp."
He rode into office pledging to make the United States a "kinder, gentler" nation and calling on Americans to volunteer their time for good causes -- an effort he said would create "a thousand points of light."
Bush sought to safeguard the environment and signed the first improvements to the Clean Air Act in more than a decade.
It was activism with a Republican cast, allowing polluters to buy others' clean-air credits and giving industry flexibility on how to meet tougher goals on smog.
He also signed the Americans with Disabilities Act to ban workplace discrimination against people with disabilities and require improved access to public places and transportation.
Bush failed to rein in the deficit, which had tripled to $3 trillion under Reagan and galloped ahead by as much as $300 billion a year under Bush, who put his finger on it in his inauguration speech: "We have more will than wallet."
Seven years of economic growth ended in mid-1990, just as the Persian Gulf crisis began to unfold. Bush insisted the recession would be "short and shallow," and lawmakers did not even try to pass a jobs bill or other relief measures.
Bush's true interests lay elsewhere, outside the realm of domestic politics. "I love coping with the problems in foreign affairs," he told a child who asked what he liked best about being president.
Bush was a skilled bureaucratic and diplomatic player who helped end four decades of Cold War and the threat of nuclear engagement with a nuanced handling of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberation of Eastern Europe.
Yet for all his success in the international arena, his presidency faltered as voters seemed to perceive him as detached from their everyday lives.
Bush said the pain of losing in 1992 was eased by the warm reception he received after leaving office.
"I lost in '92 because people still thought the economy was in the tank, that I was out of touch and I didn't understand that," he said in an AP interview shortly before the dedication of his presidential library in 1997. "The economy wasn't in the tank, and I wasn't out of touch, but I lost. I couldn't get through this hue and cry for 'change, change, change' and 'The economy is horrible, still in recession.'"
WAR AND LOVE
George Herbert Walker Bush was born June 12, 1924, in Milton, Mass., into the New England elite, a world of prep schools, mansions and servants seemingly untouched by the Great Depression.
His father, Prescott Bush, the son of an Ohio steel magnate, made his fortune as an investment banker and later served 10 years as a senator from Connecticut.
George H.W. Bush enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday in 1942, right out of prep school. He returned home to marry his 19-year-old sweetheart, Barbara Pierce, daughter of the publisher of McCall's magazine, in January 1945. They were the longest-married presidential couple in U.S. history. She died on April 17.
Bush became a war hero while still a teenager. One of the youngest pilots in the Navy, he flew 58 missions off the carrier USS San Jacinto.
He had to ditch one plane in the Pacific and was shot down on Sept. 2, 1944, while completing a bombing run against a Japanese radio tower.
An American submarine rescued Bush. His two crewmates perished. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery.
After the war, Bush took just 2½ years to graduate from Yale, then headed west in 1948 to the oil fields of west Texas. Bush and partners helped found Zapata Petroleum Corp. in 1953. Six years later, he moved to Houston and became active in the Republican Party.
Bush made his first bid for president in 1980 and won the Iowa caucuses, but Reagan went on to win the nomination.
In the 1988 presidential race, Bush trailed the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, by as many as 17 points that summer.
But Bush soon became an aggressor, stressing patriotic themes and flailing Dukakis as an out-of-touch liberal. He carried 40 states, becoming the first sitting vice president to be elected president since Martin Van Buren in 1836.
He took office with the humility that was his hallmark.
"Some see leadership as high drama, and the sound of trumpets calling, and sometimes it is that," he said at his inauguration.
"But I see history as a book with many pages, and each day we fill a page with acts of hopefulness and meaning. The new breeze blows, a page turns, the story unfolds."
He became the patriarch of one of the nation'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.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael Graczyk of The Associated Press and by Adam Nagourney of The New York Times.
A Section on 12/01/2018
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