George H.W. Bush dead at 94

Updated 8:13 AM EST, Sat December 1, 2018
Former US president George H. W. Bush introduces his son US President George W. Bush (not pictured) during the dedication ceremony of the new US embassy on August 8, 2008 in Beijing. US President George W. Bush on August 8 made a new plea for freedom of expression in China as he prepared to attend the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games later in the day.   AFP PHOTO / Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Former US president George H. W. Bush introduces his son US President George W. Bush (not pictured) during the dedication ceremony of the new US embassy on August 8, 2008 in Beijing. US President George W. Bush on August 8 made a new plea for freedom of expression in China as he prepared to attend the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games later in the day. AFP PHOTO / Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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CNN Special Report “Remembering 41: President George H.W. Bush” airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET.

(CNN) —  

George H.W. Bush, the 41st President, whose steady hand and foreign policy vision led the nation through a period of sweeping global change, has died at the age of 94.

Bush’s death, late Friday at his home in Houston, was announced by his son and fellow Republican, former President George W. Bush, who praised his father as “a man of the highest character.”

Born into privilege and a tradition of service, Bush was a son of a senator, celebrated World War II combat pilot, student athlete, Texas oilman, Republican congressman, national party chairman, pioneering diplomat and spy chief. After his own 1980 presidential campaign came up short, he served two terms as Ronald Reagan’s vice president before reaching the pinnacle of political power by winning the 1988 presidential election, soundly defeating Democrat Michael Dukakis.

After losing the White House in 1992, Bush became a widely admired political elder who leapt out of airplanes to mark birthday milestones. Emphasizing the generosity of his soul, he forged a close – and unlikely – friendship with Democrat Bill Clinton, the man who ended his presidency. When Parkinson’s disease mostly silenced him in public, Bush flashed his sense of humor by sporting colorful striped socks.

Bush’s death comes after his wife of 73 years, Barbara Bush, passed away on April 17 at age 92. Before her funeral, Bush was pictured in a wheelchair gazing at his wife’s flower-covered casket, in a moment that encapsulated their life-long love affair.

On his final day, Bush was asked, according to a source, whether he wanted to go to the hospital. The former president said no, and that he was ready to go and be with Barbara and Robin, who died of leukemia as a child.

A source familiar with Bush’s final hours told CNN that Bush spoke his final words to his son, George W., during a phone call. In the conversation, the son told the senior George Bush that he had been a “wonderful father.”

“I love you, too,” his father replied.

The elder Bush’s final words were first reported by the New York Times.

The first sitting vice president to be elected to the presidency since 1836, Bush was also only the second person in US history to see his own son follow in his presidential footsteps when George W. Bush was elected in 2000.

In addition to the 43rd president, Bush is survived by his son Jeb, the former Florida governor and 2016 presidential candidate; sons Neil and Marvin; daughter Dorothy; and 17 grandchildren. His daughter Robin died of leukemia as a child, a tragedy that still moved Bush deeply late in his life. He will be buried alongside her and the former first lady at his presidential library in College Station, Texas.

Bush will lie in state at the US Capitol before a memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, with a second memorial service to follow at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston. He will then be taken by a motorcade procession to the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, where he will be laid to rest. Specific times and more details will be announced at a later time, according to the statement released by Bush’s spokesman Jim McGrath.

President Donald Trump will designate December 5 as a national day of mourning, according to a White House statement, and the President and first lady Melania Trump will attend the funeral at the National Cathedral.

When Bush left office in 1993, he joined the dubious club of presidents rejected by voters after only one term in office. A career filled with top jobs preparing him for the presidency was cut short in its prime.

He lost to Clinton after failing to shake off his image as a starchy Yankee oblivious to the struggles of heartland Americans during an economic downturn.

But as time passed, his foreign policy acumen has come to define his presidency, leaving a legacy of wise and sure-handed management of world affairs.

The first Persian Gulf War

Bush, alongside national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker, engineered a soft landing for the Cold War as the Soviet empire shattered and Germany unified and then prospered – despite widespread distrust at the time of its history and motives.

In another dangerous foreign policy test, Bush decided in 1990 to build a diverse international coalition, including more than 400,000 US troops, to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

“This will not stand. This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait,” Bush vowed before getting to work on a successful mission that united US allies in Europe and the Middle East in a lightning war.

Later, with Iraqi forces routed, Bush decided not to push on to Baghdad to oust Saddam Hussein. That instinct later came to look prescient, given the blood and resources expended by the United States in his son’s own war against Iraq.

The 1990s Gulf War was the first time the world learned of the huge leaps in precision weaponry used by US forces and ushered in a brief era of unchallenged American hegemony after the dented confidence of the post-Vietnam war era.

Earlier, Bush had also ordered US troops to invade Panama after an off-duty Marine was killed by forces loyal to dictator Manuel Noriega. The force quickly overwhelmed Noriega’s men and he was overthrown in just four days and was later sentenced to 40 years in US federal prison on drug charges.

Bush also had to walk a fine line with China, imposing sanctions after a 1989 government crackdown on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, but also seeking to prevent a permanent rupture in relations. Also on his watch, Washington backed early diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians, which led to the Oslo accords in the Clinton presidency.

Perception of being out of touch at home

But Bush’s success abroad became a cross to bear at home. Voters appeared to get the impression he was more interested in striding the world stage than their economic struggles.

His failure to connect was encapsulated by an incident in which his fascination with a supermarket scanner during his 1992 re-election campaign triggered widespread mockery.

Former aides to this day insist that Bush was maligned by a New York Times report on the incident, which they say resulted from a misinterpretation of a pool report.

But in another incident, Bush exacerbated the idea he was out of touch by looking at his watch in a town-hall style presidential debate, then waffled when a woman asked how he was personally affected by the bad economy.

Bush was often criticized for lacking an overarching political philosophy, a charge he testily decried by complaining about “the vision thing.”

’Read my lips’

He managed to undermine himself with powerful GOP conservatives by breaking his famous 1988 GOP convention pledge: “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

On Election Day, with the right-of-center vote fragmented by third-party candidate and billionaire businessman Ross Perot, Bush carried only 18 states and just over 37% of the vote.

In many ways, Bush paid a price for ragged presentation skills. Even before his 1988 presidential campaign, there were questions about his political fortitude. Newsweek magazine, which in pre-social media days had immense power to set the political media narrative, published a cover story questioning whether the President was beset by the “wimp factor.”

In her 1988 Democratic convention keynote speech, then-Texas Treasurer Ann Richards had lampooned Bush’s upbringing and tongue-tied political style by joking Bush was “born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

Other incidents in Bush’s presidency entered popular culture. Once, he caused a brief panic when he collapsed at a state dinner in Japan. He blamed the embarrassment on a stomach illness. In 1990, he banned broccoli on Air Force One, saying he had hated it since he was a kid.

As elder statesman, he kept publicly quiet

Bush faded from view during the Clinton years, but was thrust back into the spotlight – and became the subject of a torrent of amateur psychology – when his son ran for president in 2000.

Once his son entered office, those expecting a restoration of the elder Bush’s ways were disappointed. The new president responded to the September 11, 2001, attacks by rejecting the internationalism of his father and embracing the neo-conservative doctrine of preemptive war.

There was much speculation about what Bush thought of his son’s actions in Iraq, especially after some of his foreign policy lieutenants went public with criticisms of US policy.

But the elder Bush kept quiet in public, though he was outraged when Democrats branded George W. Bush a “liar” during his 2004 re-election bid.

The attacks on his other son, Jeb, who endured a bruising primary battle in 2016 against Donald Trump, the eventual GOP nominee and 45th president, caused him deep personal pain.

Sources said the elder Bush voted for Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic rival.

Both former Bush presidents did call to congratulate Trump soon after the New York businessman’s win over Clinton. In one of his final political acts, Bush wrote to Trump to apologize for not being able to not attend his inauguration owing to his poor health.

But in many ways, the acerbic and bitterly divisive election of 2016 represented a final wrenching departure from the more courtly, old-fashioned politics practiced by George H.W. Bush, who until late in his life would pen handwritten notes to friends, former political allies and foes and even reporters who covered his presidency. He counted Democrats among his closest friends, and his death marks not only the passing of a president but a reminder of a bygone era of greater civility in Washington.

WWII hero became Texas oil prospector

Born in Massachusetts on June 12, 1924, George H. W. Bush was the son of wealthy Wall Street banker and future Connecticut Sen. Prescott Bush and Dorothy Bush.

He became the youngest naval pilot at age 18 following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and flew combat missions from the aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto. As a “flyboy” in the Pacific War, Bush flew 58 combat missions and won the Distinguished Flying Cross.

One mission in September 1944 was almost his last. Bush’s air wing attacked a radio installation on the tiny Japanese-held island of Chichi Jima. During the raid, his plane was hit and as flames licked around the cockpit, Bush gave the order to abandon the aircraft. The bodies of his crewmen, Ted White and John Delaney were never found. Bush, after desperately paddling his life raft away from the island and Japanese boats sent out to capture him, was miraculously rescued by a U.S. submarine.

It took decades before Bush was able to speak publicly about his experiences in the war.

“It was just part of my duty. People say, ‘war hero.’ How come a guy who gets his airplane shot down is a hero and a guy who’s good enough that he doesn’t get shot down is not?” Bush told CNN in 2003.

Late in his life, the former president’s heroism was recognized when the Navy named a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier after him.

After returning from the Pacific, Bush attended Yale University, where he was a noted athlete and then went west with his new wife, Barbara Pierce, to set himself up as an early Texas oil prospector.