George Bush was a New England patrician partially transplanted to Texas, where he entered politics after almost two decades in the oil business. He was born on 12 June 1924 in Milton, Massachusetts, and grew up in the affluent New York suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut. His father, Prescott Bush, was a successful investment banker, a friend of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's, and a Republican senator from Connecticut from 1952 to 1963. His mother, Dorothy Walker, was from a prominent family that had migrated in the nineteenth century from New England to St. Louis, Missouri. George Herbert Walker, George's grandfather, established the Walker Cup competition between American and British amateur golfers. George Bush spent summers at Walker's Point, the family's spacious oceanfront compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Later, Bush would use the residence as his presidential retreat.
In 1942, six months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Bush graduated from Phillips Academy, in Andover, Massachusetts, a boarding school with a reputation for preparing boys for future leadership. He rejected the advice of commencement speaker Henry L. Stimson, secretary of war and former secretary of state, to continue his education before rushing off to war. On his eighteenth birthday he joined the navy and soon earned his wings as the country's youngest combat aviation officer. Bush flew fifty-eight combat missions in the Pacific as a torpedo bomber pilot based on the carrier San Jacinto. After being shot down by the Japanese in 1944 and rescued by an American submarine (his two crew members died), Bush received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In December 1941 George, age seventeen, met Barbara Pierce, age sixteen, at a country club dance. She was the daughter of a magazine publisher and lived in Rye, New York. In 1943, on the eve of George's combat tour in the Pacific, they became secretly engaged. Barbara briefly attended Smith College but dropped out in her sophomore year. She and George were married in January 1945 and in the next decade and a half had six children: George (elected president of the United States in 2000), Jeb (elected governor of Florida in 1998), Neil, Marvin, Dorothy, and Robin (who died of leukemia before her fourth birthday). Barbara Bush devoted her life to nurturing the close-knit family and to helping her husband's career. As First Lady she chose to avoid the limelight, unlike Eleanor Roosevelt and her successor Hillary Rodham Clinton. She was proud and unapologetic about embracing a traditional lifestyle as helpmate to her husband. In a much publicized address to the women graduating from Wellesley College in 1990 she said: "As important as your obligations as a doctor, a lawyer, a business leader will be, you are a human being first, and those human connections with spouses, with children, and with friends are the most important investment you will ever make."
When World War II ended George Bush followed the tradition of both sides of his family by going to Yale. He graduated in less than three years, in 1948, with a degree in economics, a Phi Beta Kappa key, and membership in the fashionable Delta Kappa Epsilon ("Deke") fraternity and Skull and Bones, the most famous of Yale's secret societies. Tall, gangly, and nicknamed Poppy, he was first baseman (considered a good fielder and a mediocre hitter) and captain of the team that twice went to the finals of the national collegiate baseball championship. He also played soccer. As president he was an avid fisherman, boater, tennis and golf player, and pitcher of horseshoes.
After Yale, Bush turned down a chance for a comfortable career in New York investment banking and moved with his growing family to Texas and an apprenticeship with Dresser Industries, a large oil firm on whose board of directors his father served. Soon he and a partner formed an independent oil exploration company, Bush-Overbey. He and additional partners in 1953 formed Zapata Petroleum and in 1954 Zapata Off-Shore for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Bush followed his father's example in switching from financial success in business to politics. He was an unsuccessful Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Texas in 1964 and 1970, losing to Democrats Ralph Yarborough and Lloyd M. Bentsen, Jr., respectively. Bush was elected to the House of Representatives in 1966 and again in 1968. Although in 1964 he had followed GOP presidential candidate Barry M. Goldwater in denouncing President Lyndon B. Johnson's civil rights program, in 1968 he voted for open, nondiscriminatory federal housing—thereby alienating conservatives. This was not the first time Bush would be confronted with a contradiction between his own moderate inclinations on social issues and the need for support on the far right.
After losing the race for the Senate in 1970, Bush was appointed by Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford to a succession of important positions: U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, 1971–1973; chairman of the Republican National Committee, 1973–1974; liaison (equivalent of ambassador) to the People's Republic of China, 1974–1975; and director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), 1976–1977. At the United Nations he dueled verbally with the tough old Soviet diplomat Jacob Malik on many issues, but was sad to observe the expulsion, in October 1971, of the Republic of China (Taiwan) as a UN member and the seating of the People's Republic (Beijing) in its place.
His stint as chairman of the Republican National Committee coincided with the Watergate scandal and President Nixon's August 1974 resignation in the face of certain impeachment. The scandal originated with a 1972 break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters by people working for Nixon's personal campaign, the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CREEP). Neither Bush nor the Republican National Committee had any involvement in Watergate. Bush could only watch, lament, and in the end add his voice to those urging Nixon to resign.
Vice President Gerald Ford became president upon Nixon's resignation on 9 August 1974. Under the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution it was Ford's responsibility to nominate a new vice president for confirmation by a majority vote of both houses of Congress. Bush hoped he would be selected and was disappointed when Ford picked Nelson A. Rockefeller. As a consolation, Ford offered Bush his choice of diplomatic assignments. Bush chose China.
A quarter century of mutual hostility and isolation between the United States and the Communist People's Republic of China had ended two years before with President Nixon's trip to Beijing, but relations were awkward and not yet "normalized" by the establishment of full-fledged embassies. Bush's assignment was to head the U.S. Liaison Office. During his thirteen months in Beijing he tried to break through the formidable barriers to communication with a regime not yet ready for major reforms, listened to lectures from Chinese officials about the Soviet threat, and created a minor sensation by bicycling around the city with his wife. The position provided more frustration than influence. As he commented afterward, "It was a submarine environment, very restricted. We were engaged in people-watching, watching changing political relationships, analyzing visits, analyzing toasts and the order of protocol, asking other ambassadors what they thought."
Next, President Ford asked Bush to head the Central Intelligence Agency, an institution demoralized by congressional investigations of assassination plots and other dubious practices. The Senate confirmed Bush's nomination by a vote of 64 to 27. The opposition argued that an ambitious politician should not head the nonpartisan intelligence agency. President Ford answered the critics by declaring he would not consider Bush as his vice presidential running mate in 1976. Again Bush was disappointed.
As head of the CIA, Bush was skeptical of optimistic assessments of the Soviet Union. He commissioned the famous Team B report of hard-line anti-Soviet analysts from outside the CIA. Team B warned that Soviet leaders still sought world domination and that under certain circumstances were prepared to wage nuclear war. In January 1977 Bush resigned as head of the CIA so that incoming Democratic president Jimmy Carter, victor over Ford in the 1976 election, could nominate his own choice.
Bush returned to Texas, decided that Carter would be a one-term president, and in 1978 began campaigning for the job himself, with a formal announcement in 1979. He lost the nomination to the more glamorous and conservative Ronald Reagan. Bush's comment that Reagan's proposal to increase federal revenue by lowering taxes was "voodoo economics" earned headlines and years later came back to haunt him.
Reagan, however, picked Bush to be the vice presidential candidate in a traditional gesture of political unity between wings of the Republican party. The Reagan-Bush ticket easily defeated Carter and running mate Walter F. Mondale in the 1980 election and won even more easily in 1984 against Mondale and vice presidential candidate Geraldine A. Ferraro. When President Reagan was shot and seriously wounded by John Hinckley, Jr., in March 1981, Vice President Bush performed the duties of the president with dignity and quiet competence until the president recovered. With a staff of sixty-eight, he kept informed on international issues, maintained his political friendships, and prepared for 1988, when he would again seek the presidency. He headed a task force on the interdiction of the illegal drug trade and another on simplifying and reducing federal regulations. Neither was very successful. Bush also traveled tirelessly at home and abroad, sometimes on substantive missions, more often as a ceremonial representative. He set an attendance record at the funerals of foreign leaders—including three Soviet chiefs of state: Leonid Brezhnev (1982), Yuri Andropov (1984), and Konstantin Chernenko (1985). At Chernenko's funeral Bush met the new, youthful, and energetic leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Vice President Bush attended many high-level policy meetings in the White House, including those of the National Security Council, of which he was a member. The degree of his knowledge of the illegal sale of arms to Iran and the funding (via profits made from this sale) of rebel soldiers fighting a Marxist government in Nicaragua, in violation of congressional restrictions—the linked scandals known as the Iran-Contra affair of the mid-1980s—remains a matter of dispute. But since he was not a policy maker he suffered no personal political harm from the scandals.
Bush in 1988 was a youthful sixty-four-year-old eastern aristocrat—soft-spoken, courteous, conscientious, considerate (famous for his thank-you letters), cautious, hardworking, better on details than on the big picture, and rather bland. But with Texas as his home base and a need to appeal to anti-eastern elements in the Republican party he affected a fondness for slang and country food. Experience was his strong suit. Ideas were not. His name was associated with no particular program or blueprint for the future. He was first to admit that he was not much for "the vision thing."