Obituary: A former US president who triumphed in Iraq before election defeat
George H W Bush no longer feared death before his passing and hoped to be reunited with the daughter he lost to leukemia, his granddaughter revealed on Saturday as tributes to America’s 41st president poured in from across the political spectrum.
Mr Bush, who died at his home in Texas aged 94 on Friday, recently discussed his views on the afterlife with Jenna Bush Hager, one of his twin granddaughters, who posted a moving message about the conversation on Instagram.
“Yes, I think about it. I used to be afraid. I used to be scared of dying. I used to worry about death. But now in some ways I look forward to it,” Mr Bush is quoted as saying by Ms Hager.
“When I die I’m going to be reunited with these people that I’ve lost,” he added. Asked who he was thinking about, Mr Bush said his mother and Robin, their daughter who died aged just three.
“I haven’t yet figured out if it will be Robin as the three-year-old that she was this kind of chubby, vivacious child or if she’ll come as a middle-aged woman, an older woman,” Mr Bush said according to Ms Hager, adding: “I hope she’s the three-year-old.”
Life of President George H.W. Bush, in pictures
The comments provide an intimate insight into the final chapter of Mr Bush’s life on a day when world leaders and US politicians of all stripes, including former rivals, united to praise his service to American public life.
The nation’s 41st president, who lived longer than any of his predecessors, served from 1989 to 1993, and eight years later watched his son George W Bush become the 43rd president.
Another son tried to follow their footsteps into the White House but former Florida governor Jeb Bush was unable to clinch the 2016 Republican nomination for president.
The elder Bush saw his popularity swell with the United States’ success in the Gulf War in 1991, only to watch it fade quickly in a brief but deep recession that saw him defeated in his bid for a second term by Democrat Bill Clinton.
Mr Bush had also been a World War II hero, Texas congressman, CIA director and Ronald Reagan’s vice president. Only one other U.S. president, John Adams, had a son who also became president.
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This brought me such comfort this morning. I had the opportunity to talk with my grandpa about the afterlife. This is what he said: He answered without any hesitation. “Yes, I think about it. I used to be afraid. I used to be scared of dying. I used to worry about death. But now in some ways I look forward to it.” And I started crying. I managed to choke out, “Well, why? What do you look forward to?” And he said, “Well, when I die, I’m going to be reunited with these people that I’ve lost.” And I asked who he hoped to see. He replied, I hope I see Robin, and I hope I see my mom. I haven’t yet figured it out if it will be Robin as the three year old that she was, this kind of chubby, vivacious child or if she’ll come as a middle-aged woman, an older woman. And then he said, “I hope she’s the three-year-old.” Robin was the daughter this giant of a man lost years before to leukemia. The little girl he held tightly: who spoke the phrase I have heard Gampy repeat for my entire life, forever knitting Robin’s voice into the tightly woven fabric of our family: “I love you more than tongue can tell.”
A post shared by jennabhager (@jennabhager) on
How the US reacted
Donald Trump cancelled a press conference he was due to give at the G20 summit in Argentina in a mark of respect for Mr Bush, whose health had been failing in recent months and was being treated for a form of Parkinson’s disease.
“President George HW Bush led a long, successful and beautiful life. Whenever I was with him I saw his absolute joy for life and true pride in his family,” Mr Trump said.
“His accomplishments were great from beginning to end. He was a truly wonderful man and will be missed by all!”
Mr Trump declared a national day of mourning for Mr Bush would be held on December 5, this Wednesday. The US president will attend Mr Bush’s funeral at the Washington National Cathedral that day with his wife Melania.
Mr Bush’s son, former president George W Bush, paid tribute to his father.
"Jeb, Neil, Marvin, Doro and I are saddened to announce that after 94 remarkable years, our dear Dad has died," Mr Bush said in a statement.
"George H W Bushwas a man of the highest character and the best dad a son or daughter could ask for.
"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.
Statement from President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump on the Passing of Former President George H.W. Bush pic.twitter.com/qxPsp4Ggs7
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 1, 2018
Former US president Barack Obama and wife Michelle said Mr Bush’s life was "a testament to the notion that public service is a noble, joyous calling. And he did tremendous good along the journey."
The Obamas credited him 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."
They said: "It’s a legacy of service that may never be matched, even though he’d want all of us to try."
Bill and Hillary Clinton said in a statement that Mr Bush had "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.”
Greg Abbott, the Texas Governor, said the state joined the nation in mourning "the passing of one of our greatest Presidents."
In a brief statement, the Republican said "George H.W. Bush was an American hero and icon. He was a friend to all he met. He embodied class and dignity." Abbott added that "Texans are genuinely honored that he called the Lone Star State home and we collectively grieve this monumental loss."
How the world reacted
Prime Minister Theresa May said: “President George H. W. Bush’s ethos of public service was the guiding thread of his life and an example to us all.
“It took him from service in World War II, to his stewardship of the CIA and his direction of the Gulf War as Commander-in-Chief. And in navigating a peaceful end to the Cold War he made the world a safer place for generations to come.
“Today Britain remembers a great statesman and a true friend of our country. We send our deepest condolences to the American people and to the family he leaves behind.”
Sir John Major paid tribute to the former president, saying: "George HW Bush was above all else a family man and, for him, the American people were part of that family.
"In public office he served as he lived, with compassion, courage, dignity and grace. As president, he saw America’s obligation to the world and honoured it – and he remained committed to public service until the day he died.
"I feel privileged to have worked with him, and even more privileged that he became a lifelong friend. He was, quite simply, one of the most deep down decent people I have ever known."
Former prime minister Tony Blair said: "President Bush was an extraordinary and exemplary public servant, a man dedicated to his country, the values it stands for at its best and to making the world better, more stable and more peaceful."
Jeremy Hunt, Foreign Secretary, tweeted: "Deeply sorry to hear of death of President George HW span class"red" Bush. A true friend of the UK and a deeply wise man whose leadership made the world more safe and more free. Sincerest condolences to the span class"red"Bush family and the American people from your friends in Britain."
Iran has noted the death of President George H.W. Bush. A scrolling news bar on state television described Bush as being "like other US presidents who wished to see the collapse of the Islamic Republic."
Iran remained suspicious of Bush despite his pledge of "good will begets good will." Iran leaned on Lebanon’s Shia militants to help win the release American hostages like Terry Anderson, but relations went no further.
Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet premier who worked closely with Bush to bring an end to the Cold War in the late 1980s and 1990s, lauded the former president for his abilities as a politician and his personal character.
Mr Gorbachev said that he and his wife, Raisa, "deeply appreciated the attention, kindness and simplicity typical of George and Barbara Bush, as well as the rest of their large, friendly family."
Contrast to Trump
A foreign policy realist, Mr Bush’s approach was markedly different to the current White House incumbent. His preference for stability and international consensus stood in sharp contrast to the provocative bluster of fellow Republican Mr Trump.
Bush did not endorse fellow Republican Trump, the eventual winner of the 2016 presidential election, who attacked both Jeb and George W. Bush during his campaign.
He did not publicly say whom he voted for in the election, but a source told CNN he went for Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Mr Bush did send Mr Trump a letter in January 2017 saying he would not be able to attend his inauguration because of health concerns, but wishing him the best.
The decorated war pilot and former CIA chief suffered the ignominy of being a one-term president, denied a second term over a weak economy when he lost the 1992 election to upstart Democrat Bill Clinton.
Presiding over economic malaise at home, he infuriated his fellow Republicans during a budget battle with rival Democrats by famously breaking his vow: "Read my Lips: No new taxes."
But he was the respected patriarch of a blue-blood political dynasty – the son of Prescott Bush, a successful banker and US senator for Connecticut.
He had a pampered upbringing and attended the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, but delayed his acceptance to Yale in order to enlist in the US Navy on his 18th birthday and head off to war.
He flew 58 combat missions during World War II. Shot down over the Pacific by Japanese anti-aircraft fire, he parachuted out and was rescued by a submarine after huddling in a life raft for four hours while enemy forces circled.
Bush married Barbara Pierce in January 1945, shortly before the war ended, and the couple went on to have six children, including one, Robin, who died as a child.
Instead of joining his father in banking upon graduation from Yale University, Bush headed to bleak west Texas to break into the rough-and-tumble oil business. He surprised many with his success, and by 1958 had settled in Houston as president of an offshore drilling company.
In the 1960s, Bush, now independently wealthy, turned to politics.
He was a local Republican Party chairman, and in 1966 won a seat in the US House of Representatives. He served there until 1970, when he lost a bid for the Senate.
Over the next decade, he held several high-level posts that took him and Barbara around the world: head of the Republican National Committee, US ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to China and director of the Central Intelligence Agency, where he was praised for restoring morale after revelations of widespread illegal activity.
End of the Cold War
He served as vice president to Ronald Reagan after losing to him in the 1980 Republican primary, an eight-year period of hands-on training for the top post he would go on to win by a solid margin in 1988, as the Cold War was coming to an end.
In a major test of the post-Cold War order, Saddam’s million-man army invaded Kuwait in 1990 and looked set to roll into Saudi Arabia, which would have given the Iraqi strongman more than 40 percent of the world’s oil reserves.
Bush famously vowed: "This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait."
He assembled a coalition of 32 nations to drive Iraqi forces out in a matter of weeks with a lightning air and ground assault.
Some 425,000 US troops backed by 118,000 allied soldiers took part in Operation Desert Storm, decimating Saddam’s military machine without ousting him from power – a task that would be accomplished 12 years later by Bush’s son.
Buoyed by his victory in the Gulf, Bush and his hard-nosed and widely respected secretary of state James Baker cobbled together the 1991 Madrid Conference to launch the Arab-Israeli peace process.
The conference was mainly symbolic, but it set the stage for the Oslo Accords two years later.
In late 1989, Bush sent US troops to Panama to oust strongman Manuel Noriega. He also set the groundwork for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Domestically, however, the economy stalled and Bush broke his pledge not to raise taxes in order to reach a budget deal with Democrats – a cardinal sin in the eyes of Republicans.
In 1992, Bush lost his re-election bid to Clinton – whose aide coined the now famous slogan "It’s the economy, stupid" – as eccentric third-party candidate Ross Perot syphoned off conservative votes.
After the presidency
The elder Bush’s cautious realpolitik would later be contrasted to his son’s far more costly ambition to transform the Middle East, but "Bush 41" refused to weigh in on the debate, insisting he was proud of the presidency of "Bush 43."
After retiring from public life, Bush fulfilled a wartime pledge to one day jump out of a plane for fun and famously went skydiving on his 75th, 80th, 85th and 90th birthdays.
He joined Clinton to raise funds for victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. In 2011, Obama awarded Bush the highest US civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom.
He worked with Carter, Clinton, Obama and son George to raise money for hurricane victims in Texas in 2017.
The Bushes had been regular fixtures in their adopted hometown of Houston after his presidency, but public appearances became more rare because of health problems as they reached their 90s.
However, Bush was on the field in November 2017 as his eldest son, who served as the nation’s 43rd president, tossed out the first ball at one of the Houston Astros’ World Series games against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
He also had been joined by Barbara for the ceremonial coin toss when Houston hosted the Super Bowl in February 2017.