George H.W. Bush was one of the best-prepared men in history to hold the presidency and forged a reputation as a master of the world stage while in office — but he was also a trailblazing pioneer afterward, as an ex-president who showed life after the White House could be fun.
From skydiving on his 75th birthday — and again at 80, 85 and finally four years ago, at 90 — to serving as chairman of the National Constitution Center, to opening the Bush School for public service at Texas A&M, to forging a stunning partnership with the man who ousted him, Mr. Bush’s retirement was filled well beyond the confines of politics.
The 94-year-old ex-president’s death late Friday has drawn renewed attention to the last president to be described across party lines as a “hero” and “statesman.”
Flags have been dropped to half-staff across the country, and Mr. Bush will lie in state at the Capitol on Monday night through Wednesday morning, then will be celebrated at a service at the Washington National Cathedral, his family and congressional leaders said.
A week of commemorations is also likely to push back work in Congress, where lawmakers had faced a Friday deadline for funding part of the government for fiscal year 2019. Both sides of the aisle have signaled that they are interested in a short-term extension, pushing off a nasty fight over border security so it doesn’t intrude on Mr. Bush’s time.
“His accomplishments were great from beginning to end. He was a truly wonderful man and will be missed by all!” President Trump tweeted over the weekend, adding to praise for a man the nation remembers for relentless public service and personal decency.
No. 41, as he was dubbed by his son George W. Bush, himself president No. 43, was the youngest naval aviator when he joined up in World War II. He made his money as a Texas oilman before serving as a congressman, CIA director, vice president and one term as president, helping the world move from a Cold War footing to the more complex challenges that followed.
He was dubbed one of the most-prepared men in history to win the White House.
He also lived one of the fullest lives afterward, with his academic work, service to charities and ability to stay out of the spotlight — save for when he wanted to make a splash, such as his skydiving birthdays.
But it was the partnership he forged with Bill Clinton, the man who unseated him in the White House, that became iconic. Together, they raised money and encouraged aid to victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in 2008.
“Few Americans have been — or will ever be — able to match President Bush’s record of service to the United States and the joy he took every day from it,” Mr. Clinton said over the weekend. “He never stopped serving. I saw it up close, working with him on tsunami relief in Asia and here at home after Hurricane Katrina. His remarkable leadership and great heart were always on full display.”
That partnership was forged despite what one scholar said was Mr. Bush’s lasting bitterness over the defeat.
Stephen F. Knott, a professor of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College, was teaching at the Air Force Academy when Mr. Bush came to speak in 1995, three years after the loss, “and the wounds were still fresh.”
“It was essentially an extended diatribe against the media, not that he didn’t have the right to feel that way. But I left somewhat shocked, since he spoke to the entire cadet body, many of whom were already inclined to distrust the media,” Mr. Knott said. “I didn’t think it was a healthy thing to fuel such cynicism with a young group of people. But it struck me as beneath him and excessively self-pitying.”
Later, Mr. Knott would be tasked with oral history interviews for Mr. Bush’s presidential library. But the former president kept finding excuses not to sit for it.
“His heart was never in it — I think in part due to his Brahmin upbringing that it was impolite to talk about oneself,” said Mr. Knott, a previous co-chair of the presidential oral history program at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. “To merely talk about oneself is to show a kind of hubris that is not permitted in New England Yankee circles.”
Jim Pinkerton, who would become Mr. Bush’s domestic policy adviser in the White House, saw that New England reserve surface in another context in 1987 while giving an issues brief for the candidate at his Kennebunkport home in Maine.
“We were all sitting in his den, on sofas and chairs. I was in a chair, and I sort of leaned back. All of a sudden, the chair cracked, and I was WHOOM! on my behind on the floor, amidst splintered wood,” Mr. Pinkerton recalled to The Washington Times several years ago.
“I wasn’t hurt or anything, just embarrassed. Nobody knew what to say, most of all me. But the VP called out in a good-humored voice, ‘That’s OK, Pinks, that chair had only been in the family for 300 years. No harm done. Nothing to worry about.’”
He helped usher the Soviet Union into history, including a sorting-out of nuclear forces, and led the unprecedented 32-nation military coalition that won the 1991 Gulf War, ousting Iraqi troops from neighboring Kuwait.
Back home, Mr. Bush crafted a humble atmosphere inside the White House. He is fondly remembered as a president who relished in self-deprecation to the point that he once invited Dana Carvey, the New York comedian who had built a career out of impersonating Mr. Bush, to sleep over in the Lincoln Bedroom.
Mr. Bush’s reputation as a coalition builder also extended into his dealings with Washington despite his having been only the second American president to serve a full term without party control in either chamber of Congress.
He signed a bill allowing for increases in taxes. While he later said he regretted the move and it scarred him politically in his unsuccessful 1992 run for re-election, the development set a tone of bipartisan deals that, by the end of the century, had resulted in balanced budgets.
Mr. Bush also signed landmark civil rights and environmental legislation in the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Clean Air Act. He also fought for and negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement — though it was Mr. Clinton who won its passage in Congress.
Mr. Bush’s real pioneering came after office, when he was the first president to see two of his children bid for the same office — and just the second, following John Adams, to see a son win.
Throughout, he kept a relatively low profile, allowing his children to run their campaigns on their own — a different approach from that taken by Mr. Clinton, who was chief surrogate as his wife, Hillary, ran for the White House twice.
“Whatever he said and did would be under a far greater microscope than usual for an ex-president. Choosing to keep quiet even when another ex-president, Carter, attacked his son’s policies while traveling abroad, the first time that’s ever happened, must have been remarkably difficult,” Mr. Knott said.
This weekend’s tributes lauded Mr. Bush as one of the best of the World War II generation that dominated U.S. politics for 40 years.
Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Republican from Maine, where Mr. Bush made his home much of the time in Kennebunkport, cast the former president’s dedication to public service in biblical proportions, recalling the Parable of the Talents.
“The master, leaving on a journey, entrusts a servant with a portion of his treasure. Upon his return, the master is delighted to find that his wealth was wisely invested and multiplied,” she said in a statement. “George Herbert Walker Bush was entrusted with the great treasure of principles, determination and courage. He invested that treasure wisely and multiplied it to the benefit of all. Like the master in the New Testament, to him we say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”
Some Democrats, even as they commemorated Mr. Bush, contrasted him with what they saw as the ills of politics today.
“He was a fine man, and even when he opposed your views, you knew he was doing what he thought was best for America,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, Democrats’ floor leader in the Senate. “His yearning for a kinder and gentler nation seems more needed now than when he first called for it.”
President Obama called Mr. Bush “a patriot and humble servant,” counting among his accomplishments a peaceful end to the Soviet Union, ousting Iraqi forces from Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War and “expanding America’s promise to new immigrants and people with disabilities.”
“After 73 years of marriage, George and Barbara Bush are together again now, two points of light that never dimmed, two points of light that ignited countless others with their example — the example of a man who, even after commanding the world’s mightiest military, once said ‘I got more of a kick out of being one of the founders of the YMCA in Midland, Texas, back in 1952 than almost anything I’ve done,’” Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, said in a statement.
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