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October 11th, 2019

Ranking the Presidents: George H. W. Bush

On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being best), how would you grade George H. W. Bush, based on the performance of his duties as President? You can go to this link to vote. When George H. W. Bush died last fall, he was eulogized both for his many accomplishments, and for his gentlemanly disposition. There was much to admire about the man's life. He served his country honorably, joining the Navy at age 18 during the second world war, and surviving the downing of his aircraft. The man seemed to be gracious under all circumstances: victory, defeat, and even with the man who did a mocking imitation of him on Saturday Night Live. The first President Bush always took the high road, often literally, as evidenced by his skydiving several times in his retirement, the last being a tandem jump on his 90th birthday. George Herbert Walker Bush lived a remarkable life. He served as the 41st President of the United States from 1989 to 1993 and the 43rd Vice-President of the United States from 1981 to 1989. He had also been a congressman, an ambassador, and Director of the CIA. He and John Adams share the distinction of being the only Presidents who were also the father of a President. George H. W. Bush joined this exclusive club when his son George W. Bush became the 43rd president in 2001.

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George H. W. Bush was born in 1924, the son of Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush. He interrupted his university studies after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday in June of 1942. Bush became one of the Navy's youngest aviators and he remained in the Navy until September 1945. He piloted one of the four Grumman TBM Avengers that attacked the Japanese installations on Chichijima on September 2, 1944. His plane was hit by flak during the attack, but Bush successfully released bombs and scored several hits, before flying several miles with his engine on fire. He and one other crew member bailed out, but the other man's parachute did not open. Bush spent four hours in his inflated liferaft, protected by fighter aircraft circling above, until the submarine USS Finback came to his rescue. He remained in Finback for the next month and helped in the rescue of other aviators.

When he returned home from the war, Bush attended Yale University, graduating in 1948. He was captain of the Yale baseball team and played in the first two College World Series (both times on the losing side). After graduation, he moved his family to West Texas where he became active in the oil business and became a millionaire by the age of 40. He founded his own oil company, and made his first run for office, losing a bid to be elected to the United States Senate in 1964. Undaunted, he was elected to the House of Representatives from Texas's 7th congressional district in 1966 and was reelected in 1968. He made a second unsuccessful run for the senate in 1970.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon appointed Bush as Ambassador to the United Nations, and two years later Bush became Chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1973. In that role he had a rather awkward conversation with Nixon, asking for the President's resignation. The following year, President Gerald Ford appointed him Chief of the Liaison Office in China and later made him the director of Central Intelligence. He offered to remain in the job after Ford's defeat in 1976, but was soon replaced.

Bush ran for president in 1980. He finished second in the race for the Republican nomination, but was defeated by Ronald Reagan. During the race, Bush had referred to Reagan's fiscal policies as "voodoo economics", but Reagan did not hold a grudge. He selected the experienced former Texas Congressman as his running mate. Bush became vice-president after the ticket won the Presidential election in 1980. During his eight-year tenure as vice president, Bush headed task forces on deregulation and the war on drugs. In 1988 Bush was chosen as the Republican Party's nominee for President. He defeated his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis in the election, making him the first incumbent vice president to be elected president in 152 years.

Bush's Presidency was largely concerned with foreign policy. On his watch, military operations were conducted in Panama and in the Persian Gulf. After organizing a coalition of supportive nations, these allies were successful in the First Gulf War in removing Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. The victory was quick and decisive and Bush enjoyed unprecedented approval ratings, though some criticized Bush for not carrying on into Baghdad and deposing Hussein. Years later, many would appreciate the wisdom of the decision. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the Soviet Union dissolved two years later. Bush also signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which created a trade bloc consisting of the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Bush Troops

But Bush's downfall came as the result of domestic issues. In a battle with Congress he was forced to renege on a 1988 campaign promise in which he famously said "read my lips, no new taxes." But he did sign a bill to increase taxes just ahead of the 1992 presidential election. As an economic recession was occurring and the voters seemed less concerned about foreign policy in a post–Cold War political climate, the President who had once enjoyed sky-high approval ratings lost his bid for re-election in 1992 to Democrat Bill Clinton, whose mocking campaign mantra was "it's the economy stupid!"

After leaving office in 1993, Bush was stung by his defeat, but soon recovered his gracious disposition. He became active in humanitarian pursuits, often alongside Clinton, his former opponent. When George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election, the Bushes became the second father–son pair to serve as President, following John Adams and John Quincy Adams. At the time of his death, he was the longest-lived president in U.S. history (a record surpassed by Jimmy Carter on March 22, 2019). He enjoyed an active retirement as his health allowed for. Later in life, he suffered from vascular parkinsonism, a form of Parkinson's disease which had forced him to use a motorized scooter or wheelchair from and after 2012. In July 2015, he suffered a severe neck injury, but by October he had recovered enough to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Houston Astros. Bush wrote a letter to president-elect Donald Trump in January 2017 to inform him that because of his poor health, he would not be able to attend Trump's inauguration on January 20. On January 18, he was admitted to the intensive care unit at Houston Methodist Hospital, where he was sedated for a procedure to treat an acute respiratory problem. His wife Barbara Bush died in April of 2018 and on April 22, 2018, the day after his wife's funeral Bush was hospitalized with a blood infection. He continued to have health issues and on November 30, 2018, he died at the age of 94 years, 171 days, at his home in Houston.

Tributes for the former President poured in from members of both parties, as well as from many past and present international leaders. Former President Barack Obama released a lengthy statement in which he wrote, "America has lost a patriot and humble servant in George Herbert Walker Bush. While our hearts are heavy today, they are also filled with gratitude. Our thoughts are with the entire Bush family tonight – and all who were inspired by George and Barbara’s example." Former First Lady Michelle Obama cancelled her book tour in order to attend Bush's funeral. Former President Bill Clinton said. "I am profoundly grateful for every minute I spent with President Bush and will always hold our friendship as one of my life's greatest gifts." His wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Bush "a class act. In my experiences with him, I always valued his desire to listen, look at evidence and ask for ideas, even from people with different beliefs." Former President Jimmy Carter, said Bush's administration "was marked by grace, civility and social conscience."

Even Saturday Night Live paid tribute to the late President in its news segment, with segment anchor Colin Jost saying, "President Bush was famously a warm and gracious man who always understood the power of being able to laugh at yourself". The show then cut to a series of clips of Dana Carvey's impersonation of the President. Carvey himself also released a statement remembering the President saying, ""It was an honor and a privileged to know and spend time with George H.W. Bush for over 25 years. When I think of those times what I remember most is how hard we would laugh. I will miss my friend." Senator Bernie Sanders said of Bush, "Of course I disagreed with him, but he was an honest man, he was a decent man, he loved his country very much."

Bush's biographer Timothy Naftali credits Bush with successfully navigating the end of the Cold War, stating that Bush's "low-key approach avoided inflaming communist hard-liners and allowed for the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union." Presidential historian Jon Meacham summarized Bush's life as one of "great privilege but who believed and embodied the idea that to whom much is given, much is expected". Barack Obama has also commented on Bush's legacy, crediting Bush with "expanding America’s promise to new immigrants and people with disabilities. Reducing the scourge of nuclear weapons and building a broad international coalition to expel a dictator from Kuwait. And when democratic revolutions bloomed across Eastern Europe, it was his steady, diplomatic hand that made possible an achievement once thought anything but - ending the Cold War without firing a shot, It’s a legacy of service that may never be matched, even though he’d want all of us to try."

Bush famously continued the tradition of presidents leaving behind letters of support for their successors on the Resolute Desk. Ronald Reagan is believed to be the first to do so in 1989, but Bush's letter was more significant because it was addressed to the man to whom Bush had just lost the election. Clinton later said in a 60 Minutes interview, "This letter is a statement of who he is. That's why he's a world-class human being in my book. And our friendship just got better. And in a world where everybody's just gutting each other all the time I thought it was a good thing to show. It's been one of the great joys of my life, my friendship with him. Our arguments were good-natured and open, and — we continue to debate things all the way up until recently."

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In Presidential rankings, Bush is usually in the middle of the pack, with an average ranking of 22nd. A 2017 C-Span ranking has him in 20th place, a 2018 APSA ranking puts him at number 17 and a 2018 Siena ranking has him at 21st. USA Today summarized the legacy of Bush's presidency as defined by his victory over Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait, and for his presiding over the collapse of the USSR and unification of Germany. Today, in an age where social media is used by many people as a forum for insults and criticism, where people confuse put-downs with wit, George H. W. Bush's example of civility and of putting principles above personalities creates an appreciation of their value and significance, at a time when they seem to be in short supply.

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