The 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, died at his home in Houston on Friday at 94 years of age following years of declining health. His demise may well signal the symbolic end of one of America’s most notable political dynasties.
Bush lived a life most would consider a vivid, Walter Mitty-like fantasy. He would be born a scion of the bluest of blue bloods, steeped in the comforts of wealth and privilege, attending Andover and Yale, spending summers in his beloved family estate in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Noblesse oblige would compel him dutifully to dedicate his life in service to his country. Fate would render him a war hero and would then assure his dignified ascent to the heights of leadership in the most important American institutions and ultimately, the Oval Office.
Best and Brightest?
This fantasy was indeed the life and times of “Poppy” Bush, a man of boundless energy, a restless spirit, irrepressible even when illness struck late in life. Before succumbing to the ravages of time, he would live 94 of the fullest years one could imagine. He would build a curriculum vitae for the ages, and be widely admired in the corridors of power, and among those deemed the best and brightest. One suspects he possessed as deep a Rolodex – and collection of friends – as any living person.
He was the embodiment of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant ethic, drawn from the biblical exhortation: to whom much is given, much is expected.
His passing represents more than the death of a former president. It may well mark the end of the road for a family dynasty that stretches back more than half a century to 1952 when George’s father Prescott Bush was first elected to the U.S. Senate and continued through two terms of a second George Bush. Consider that a Bush was on the ballot in every presidential election but one from 1980 to 2004. Bush 41 and 43 joined John and John Quincy Adams as the only father-son combinations to serve as President.
But the last flicker of hope for reviving the fading family legacy was extinguished when Bush’s son Jeb was mocked and beaten about badly in the 2016 GOP presidential primary by Donald Trump, a man not admired in the Bush household.
How ironic it is that the Bush dynasty would be toppled in the same year – and by the same man – as that of the Clintons, who somehow befriended the Bushes in recent years. Some have opined that George P. Bush – son of Jeb and his Mexican wife and one of the “little brown ones,” as Bush once labeled his grandchildren – might manage to carry forward the family torch, but the resounding defeat of their oldest son might well have taken its toll on both George and his recently deceased wife, Barbara Pierce Bush. And it seems unsurprising that the widower would die shortly after his soul mate of 73 years passed on in April.
A Full Life
The political career of George H.W. Bush included appointments as Ambassador to the UN and later to China, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and CIA Director. But his legacy is not without its contradictions.
Bush was a Navy pilot shot out of the sky, a genuine hero of World War II, and yet his seemingly obeisant personality led him to once be mocked in a prominent comic strip for “placing his manhood in a blind trust.”
A classic east coast Rockefeller Republican at heart, he often spoke of honor and decency, and yet in 1988 unleashed one of the most vicious negative ad campaigns in political history, centered on the infamous Willie Horton.
He was the candidate whose mantra was “read my lips, no new taxes,” but the president who then raised taxes. And largely because of that, he was both the candidate who vanquished Michael Dukakis in 1988 and the president who handed the White House over to Bill Clinton four years later.
He was a politician who soared to the highest of highs with a resounding victory in the 1991 Gulf War – and yet squandered his hard-won political capital and descended to the lowest of lows, a most unexpected defeat as a sitting president at the hands of a much-maligned upstart.
Bush, who was twice defeated in Senate races and once elected to the House in Texas after a successful career in the oil industry there, failed in his bid for the 1980 GOP presidential nomination, but rode into the vice-presidency on the coattails of Ronald Reagan, the man he maligned during the campaign for his “voodoo economics.” Eight years later, Bush was swept into the oval office for a virtual third term of one of the most consequential presidencies in modern times. And yet, he believed that the nation was looking for a change. He almost immediately separated himself from his benefactor Reagan, calling for a “kinder, gentler nation” – to which Nancy Reagan was famously said to reply, “kinder and gentler than what?”
Bush’s domestic legacy was centered around his signature “thousand points of light” initiative that recognized the heroic accomplishments of little-known Americans. His style and malapropisms, famously and hilariously impersonated by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live, were the stuff of lore:
“You cannot be president of the United States if you don’t have faith. Remember Lincoln, going to his knees in times of trial and the Civil War and all that stuff. You can’t be. And we are blessed. So don’t feel sorry for — don’t cry for me, Argentina.”
Bush seems certain to be viewed by historians primarily as the president whose stewardship of the spoils of victory in the 70-year cold war – accomplished through the unshakable leadership of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul – was restrained and orderly. Though some critics blamed him for refusing to declare victory for our way of life, and celebrate the demise of an evil empire, Bush stood resolutely in the shadows of the trio of giants who preceded him and commenced the shaping of what he called a “new world order.”
Ironically, it was on the watch of Bush’s son that this global order was seriously jeopardized just over a decade later when 9/11 changed everything and gave rise to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As Bush approached the end of his life, after Trump had ridiculed his son Jeb as “low energy” and accused his other son George W. of being a failed president who lied to get us into the Iraq War, enough was apparently enough. Bush reportedly pulled the lever for his friend Hillary Clinton.
Indeed, the world envisioned by the 41st president threatens to fray under the challenge of a president whose brash, bombastic style is the polar opposite to that of the dignified, patrician Bush, and whose attention is focused on America first. But George Herbert Walker Bush can rest assured that when the history of the late 20th and early 21st century is written over the decades to come, his name – and that of his family – will figure prominently in its annals.