George Herbert Walker Bush was the 41st president of the United States (1989–93). Bush was born in Milton, Massachusetts, on June 12, 1924, to a prominent New England family. He was the son of Prescott Bush, a United States senator from Connecticut.
Coming from a family with a tradition of public service, Bush felt the responsibility to make his contribution both in time of war and in peace.
On his 18th birthday he enlisted in the armed forces. The youngest pilot in the Navy when he received his wings, he flew 58 combat missions during World War II. On one mission over the Pacific as a torpedo bomber pilot he was shot down by Japanese antiaircraft fire and was rescued from the water by a U. S. submarine. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in action.
Bush next turned his energies toward completing his education and raising a family. In January 1945, he married Barbara Pierce. They had six children – George, Robin (who died as a child), John (known as Jeb), Neil, Marvin, and Dorothy.
Bush attended Yale University where he excelled both in sports and in his studies; he was captain of the baseball team and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After graduation Bush embarked on a career in the oil industry of West Texas.
Like his father, Bush became interested in public service and politics. After losing a bid for the Senate in 1964, he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1966 and 1968. He ran again for the Senate in 1970 and was again defeated.
Bush was subsequently appointed to a series of high-level positions. He served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (1971–72), chairman of the Republican National Committee (1973–74); chair of the Liaison Office in Beijing (1974–76) and director of the CIA (1976–77).
In 1980, he ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination and then accepted Ronald Reagan’s offer of the GOP vice presidential nomination. He served two terms as vice president (1980–88) during which he played a key role in assisting Israel in the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry.
Bush won the presidency in 1988, soundly defeating Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis by carrying 54% of the vote. The Jewish community supported Dukakis by a margin of 64%-35%.
Bush’s relations with Israel and the American Jewish community were often tense. In March 1990, he expressed objection to “new settlements in the West Bank or in East Jerusalem.” His reference to eastern Jerusalem and his suggestion that it was not a sovereign part of Israel created a furor and added to strained feelings between Israel and the U.S.
For many in the Jewish community, Bush’s presidency could be encapsulated in his offhand quip to reporters in September 1991 during an AIPAC lobbying effort on Capitol Hill in support of a proposal to provide Israel $10 billion in loan guarantees: “I’m one lonely little guy” up against “some powerful political forces” made up of “a thousand lobbyists on the Hill.” The comment triggered a spate of anti-Semitic letters and comments for which the president later apologized.
Bush opposed the loan guarantees because of his objections to the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. He had a very testy relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir who refused to change Israel’s policy and argued there should be no linkage between the loan guarantees meant to help resettle Soviet and Ethiopian Jews in Israel and the settlements.
After the election of Yitzhak Rabin, who ran in part on the promise of improving relations with the United States, and agreed not to expand settlements, the president approved the loan guarantee package in August 1992. Israel was required to use the funds within the pre-1967 borders and the amount of the guarantees could be reduced by an amount equal to Israel's expenditures on settlements in the territories.
Just as he had helped Israel rescue Ethiopian Jews as Vice President, he intervened again in 1991 to facilitate Operation Solomon, which brought 14,000 more Ethiopian Jews to Israel. That same year, the Bush administration led the successful campaign to repeal the infamous UN resolution that equated Zionism with racism.
Bush faced a dramatically changing world when he became president, as the Cold War ended after 40 bitter years, the Communist empire broke up, and the Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Union ceased to exist; and reformist President Mikhail Gorbachev, whom Bush had supported, resigned. While Bush hailed the march of democracy, he insisted on restraint in U. S. policy toward the group of new nations.
In other areas of foreign policy, President Bush sent American troops into Panama to overthrow the corrupt regime of General Manuel Noriega, who was threatening the security of the canal and the Americans living there. Noriega was brought to the United States for trial as a drug trafficker.
Bush’s greatest test came when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, then threatened to move into Saudi Arabia. Vowing to free Kuwait, Bush rallied the United Nations, the American public, and Congress to support combat operations. He sent 425,000 American troops, who were joined by 118,000 troops from allied nations. After weeks of air and missile bombardment, the 100-hour land battle dubbed Desert Storm routed Iraq’s million-man army.
Bush was determined to keep Israel from entering the Gulf War, despite the expectation that Iraq would retaliate against Israel. This put the U.S. in the role of Israel’s protector from an irate Iraq. Patriot anti-missile batteries were sent to Israel to provide protective cover, but they proved ineffective and Israel ultimately was hit by 39 Scud missiles. A total of 74 people died as a consequence of Scud attacks, which also caused extensive property damage, and cost Israel’s economy billions of dollars. Bush had assured Israel it would destroy the missile launchers but failed. Some Israelis and their American supporters thought Israel should have been allowed to attack them, but Bush was convinced the Arab partners of his coalition would object and withdraw their support for the war.
Following the war U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation was strengthened. Intelligence sharing, joint exercises, access to military equipment, and personal relationships among military personnel reached new levels. The Bush administration also agreed to finance much of the Arrow anti-missile program and the prepositioning of U.S. arms in Israel.
Like his predecessors, Bush also was determined to be a Middle East peacemaker and organized the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. Bringing all the parties to the table in Madrid was a triumph for Secretary of State James Baker, who alternatively applied carrots and sticks to cajole the parties to sign on. Shamir was reluctant to participate and the pressure Baker applied on Israel did not help their relationship or the image of the administration within the pro-Israel community.
The loan guarantee controversy, and the perception that Bush was more sympathetic toward the Arabs than Israel, lost him support in the Jewish community. Baker’s widely reported statement (which he later denied making), “Fuck the Jews; they didn’t vote for us anyway,” did little to help.
Despite unprecedented popularity from this military and diplomatic triumph, Bush was unable to withstand discontent at home from a faltering economy, rising violence in inner cities, and continued high deficit spending. In the 1992 election, he won only 11% of the Jewish vote compared to 35% in 1988. Bill Clinton won the presidency and 80% of the Jewish vote.
Bush died on November 30, 2018, at the age of 94.
Photo: Public Domain.