President George H.W. Bush died on Friday at the age of 94. Here are five facts you should know about one of the most respected statesmen in modern American history:
1. Prior to being elected vice-president in 1980 and president in 1988, Bush had garnered one of the most impressive resumes in modern American presidential history. After becoming a highly decorated war hero, he went on to earn a degree in economics from Yale in two-and-a-half years. From there he went to work in the oilfields in West Texas, where he started two successful companies. He lost two U.S. Senate races in Texas, but was twice elected to the U.S. House. He then served as an Ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, head of the U.S. Liaison Office in China (at a time when there was no ambassador to mainland China), and director of Central Intelligence. After leaving the CIA, he became chairman on the Executive Committee of the First International Bank in Houston, a part-time professor of Administrative Science at Rice University’s Jones School of Business, and director of the Council on Foreign Relations.
2. World War II broke out while Bush was in high school, and he joined the U.S. Navy immediately after graduation. At age 18, he was one of the youngest pilots in the Navy, flying bombing missions from aircraft carriers in the Pacific. Bush was shot down in 1944 and survived four hours on a raft in the ocean before being rescued by an American submarine. (All of the other eight men who were shot down and survived were captured, tortured, and killed by the Japanese. Four of the captured Americans were eaten by Japanese military officers.) He returned to flying and flew 58 combat missions. During his service he received numerous awards, including three Air Medals, a Presidential Unit Citation, and Distinguished Flying Cross for his mission in which he was shot down. “I finished the bombing run, which was no ‘heroic’ thing,” he would later say. “They wrote it up as heroism, but it wasn’t—it was just doing your job.”
3. Bush was considered a contender to be vice president for three different presidents. In 1968, the Southern Baptist evangelist Billy Graham reportedly recommended that Nixon choose Bush, who at the time was serving as a U.S. Congressman from Texas. Bush was on a short-list that included California Gov. Ronald Reagan, Texas Senator John Tower, and Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew (Nixon chose Agnew). President Ford also considered Bush, along with NATO Ambassador Donald Rumsfeld and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, as his choice for vice-president (Ford chose Rockefeller). In 1980, Ronald Reagan initially preferred Gerald Ford to be his running mate. But when questions arose about a “co-presidency,” Reagan chose Bush, his contender in the GOP primary who had come in second in the popular vote.
4. Reagan was initially skeptical about choosing Bush, in part because of his views on abortion. Although Bush opposed abortion, he initially refused to support a pro-life constitutional amendment. After 1980, though, Bush supported the pro-life amendment and became more strongly pro-life. According to biographer John Meacham, this was due to his discussions with religious leaders and his watching the anti-abortion film Silent Scream. “As important, perhaps, was his deep love for several grandchildren who had been adopted from their birth mothers,” says Meacham. “What if the woman who’d been pregnant with one of these babies he adored had chosen to terminate her pregnancy? His conversion to a pro-life position was politically convenient, but it was also heartfelt.”
5. At the age of 20, while still in the Navy, Bush married Barbara Pierce (1925–2018). Their 73-year marriage was the longest presidential marriage in American history. The couple had six children: George W. (b. 1946), Robin (1949–1953), Jeb (b. 1953), Neil (b. 1955), Marvin (b. 1956), and Doro (b. 1959). Two sons would become governors and one would follow in his footsteps to become U.S. President. But those achievements were eclipsed in part by the death of Robin, who died of leukemia at the age of three. “It taught me that life is unpredictable and fragile,” said Bush. “It taught me the importance of close family and friends, because of Lud and several other friends that rallied around. It taught me that no matter how innocent or perfect a child, she can still be taken away from you by horrible illness. That gets into ‘the Lord works in strange ways,’ if you believe in that. I’ve never gotten a real answer to that one. But I learned a lot from it. Keep going, charging ahead.”