Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Life Before the Presidency

George Herbert Walker Bush was born in Milton, Massachusetts, on June 12, 1924. His parents, Prescott Sheldon Bush and Dorothy Walker Bush, moved the family to Greenwich, Connecticut, when George was a young boy. His family was wealthy but his parents raised their children to be modest, stressing the importance of public service and giving back to society. An investment banker, Prescott Bush later became a Republican senator from Connecticut, serving from 1952 until 1963.

Bush left home as a teenager to attend Phillips Academy Andover, an exclusive boarding school in Massachusetts. At Andover, Bush was captain of the baseball and soccer teams, and the senior class president. He graduated on his eighteenth birthday in 1942. That same day, he enlisted in the United States Navy.

He served in the Navy during World War II from 1942 until September 1945. When he became a pilot in July 1943, he was the youngest pilot in the Navy. He flew torpedo bombers in the Pacific theater and went on fifty-eight combat missions during the war. On September 2, 1944, while flying a mission to bomb an enemy radio site, his plane was shot down by Japanese fire; Bush bailed out over the ocean. He was rescued by a submarine a short time later and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism under fire.

While still in the Navy, Bush married Barbara Pierce on January 6, 1945, in Rye, New York. He met her in 1941 during the Christmas holidays at a country club dance in Greenwich. They went on to have six children: George Walker (1946- ); Robin, who was born in 1949 and died in 1953 of leukemia; John Ellis "Jeb" (1953- ); Neil (1955- ); Marvin (1956- ); and Dorothy "Doro" (1959- ).

Bush was discharged from the Navy in September 1945 and enrolled at Yale University. He was part of a surge of World War II veterans who flooded colleges and universities after the war. He completed an undergraduate degree in economics on an accelerated program that allowed him to graduate by 1948. At Yale, he was active and involved on campus, playing baseball and eventually becoming captain of the team. He was also a member of the Skull and Bones society, an exclusive secret society on campus.

After graduation, Bush chose to go out on his own. Rather than stay in the Northeast, Bush moved with his wife and young son to Midland, Texas, where he began working in the oil industry as a salesperson for Dresser Industries, which was owned by an old family friend. In 1950, Bush and a friend formed an oil development company in Midland. Three years later, they merged with another company to create Zapata Petroleum. In 1954, Bush became president of a subsidiary, Zapata Off-Shore Company, which developed offshore drilling equipment. He soon relocated the company and his family to Houston, Texas.

Early Political Career

Bush began his political career when he became the Republican Party chairman in Harris County, Texas. He developed grassroots connections as chairman and worked hard to strengthen his image as a conservative. Bush had always been good with people, and as chairman he was able to cultivate relationships in the Republican Party that helped him throughout his political career. In 1964, Bush ran for a U.S. Senate seat against incumbent Democratic Senator Ralph Yarborough. Bush ran a hard campaign but struggled against charges of being a carpetbagger from the North. He also faced an uphill battle running as a Republican in Texas because of the strength of the local Democratic Party. In November, Democrat Lyndon Johnson of Texas was overwhelmingly elected President, and Yarborough defeated Bush by a margin of 1,463,958 to 1,134,337.

In 1966, Bush ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Houston's Seventh district. Running as a moderate Republican, he won the election with more than fifty percent of the vote. He was reelected in 1968. In Congress, Bush gained a seat on the coveted Ways and Means Committee, which was rare for a freshman congressman. He supported the Vietnam War and voted for parts of President Johnson's Great Society program, including the Civil Rights Bill of 1968 to outlaw discrimination in housing, a courageous vote for a congressman from Texas.

After serving two terms in the House, Bush eyed another run for the Senate in 1970. Ralph Yarborough, who had defeated Bush in 1964, was a liberal Democrat from Texas at a time when the state was becoming increasingly conservative. Bush believed that he could defeat Yarborough in the 1970 election. But Yarborough did not win the Democratic primary. Instead, Bush ran against Lloyd Bentsen, a conservative Democrat. Since the Democratic Party was still very strong in Texas and Bush and Bentsen did not differ greatly on the issues, Bush again lost the election.

In December 1970, President Richard Nixon nominated Bush as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Critics opposed the nomination because Bush lacked foreign policy experience but the Senate confirmed him. Bush was not part of the Nixon administration's inner circle, which undercut his effectiveness at the United Nations. Nonetheless, he used his tenure to continue to make influential friends within the U.S. government and throughout the foreign policy establishment. The ambassador relished his person-to-person contacts with foreign envoys and began assembling his legendary rolodex that would serve him well in the years to come.

President Nixon removed Bush from the United Nations in 1973 and asked him to serve instead as chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC). The administration turned to Bush to head the RNC because of his reputation for respectability and integrity. During the Watergate scandal, Bush was a tireless supporter of President Nixon until the release of the White House tapes. Bush then informed the President that he had lost the support of the Republican Party. After listening to key Republican congressional leaders who told him that he would be impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate, Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974.

Bush stepped down as head of the RNC after Gerald Ford became President. The new President appointed Bush as the U.S. envoy to the People's Republic of China. Because the United States did not yet have full diplomatic relations with China, Bush served as chief of the U.S. Liaison's Office instead of as ambassador. China offered the Bushes a respite from Washington, but they stayed only two years. They returned to the United States in 1975 when President Ford asked Bush to serve as the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The CIA was emerging from a controversial period in its history and needed a strong, effective leader to improve morale and reform the agency. By most accounts, Bush was a popular director and able administrator. After Ford lost the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter, Bush offered to stay on as director of the CIA but Carter declined his offer. The Bushes left Washington, D.C., and returned to Houston.

Campaign of 1980

Bush rejoined the corporate world back in Houston and started planning for the 1980 presidential campaign soon after he returned. He began with reestablishing his Texas contacts and fundraising. On May 1, 1979, Bush announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for President.

During the Republican primaries in the 1980 campaign, the conservative wing of the party was drawn to Ronald Reagan, the former actor and governor of California. Bush was considered more moderate and less dogmatic than Reagan, who was anointed as the frontrunner early on. The other Republican candidates included Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, Representative John Anderson of Illinois, Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, Representative Philip Crane of Illinois, and John Connally, former governor of Texas.

Bush surprised most observers when he won the Iowa caucus. He campaigned throughout the state with great determination and energy, and raised concerns about Reagan's economic plan to lower taxes and increase military spending while balancing the federal budget. Bush derisively labeled Reagan's plan "voodoo economics".

Once the campaign turned to New Hampshire, Bush became embroiled in an incident that has become part of the lore of American political history. The Telegraph newspaper in Nashua proposed a debate between just Reagan and Bush. When Senator Dole complained about his exclusion, Reagan's campaign agreed to fund the debate and invited the other candidates, unbeknownst to Bush. Bush was caught by surprise when he arrived at the debate and saw the other candidates on the stage with Reagan. As the candidates argued about the debate's format, the moderator of the debate ordered Reagan's microphone turned off, and Reagan responded, "I paid for this microphone!" The incident seemed to highlight Reagan's strength and stature and reflected badly on Bush, who seemed bewildered.

After Bush lost to Reagan in New Hampshire, he was no match for the Reagan juggernaut. Reagan clinched the nomination and moved to consolidate the Republican Party behind a popular ticket., Reagan initially considered selecting former President Gerald Ford as his running mate in a "co-presidency" arrangement, but that unusual proposal went nowhere. Ultimately, Bush emerged as the consensus choice for the second spot, in part due to his appeal to the more moderate wing of the party. After accepting Reagan's offer, Bush was criticized by some for changing his previous positions on issues such as abortion and the economy to become more consistent with Reagan's conservative views.

Bush worked hard during the campaign of 1980, traveling throughout the country promoting the Reagan-Bush ticket and attacking their Democratic opponents, incumbent President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale. On election day, Reagan and Bush won the election with 51 percent of the vote, and Reagan won 489 Electoral College votes to Carter's 49. As an added bonus, the Republican Party took control of the United States Senate for the first time since 1954. The Reagan-Bush ticket swept into the White House with a mandate for changing the direction of the country. Many conservative Republicans touted the "Reagan Revolution" as an opportunity to limit government intrusion into the lives of Americans, reduce taxes, and turn the country toward more traditional social values, such as supporting prayer in school and opposing abortion.

Vice President of the United States

As vice president, Bush worked hard to win the trust of Reagan's advisers in the administration by proving his loyalty and devotion to the President. Reagan loyalists were suspicious of Bush's New England upbringing and his upper-class background, which stood in stark contrast with Reagan's humble beginnings and his ability to connect with the average American. They also suspected that Bush was too moderate and not a true devotee of Reagan's conservatism. However, Reagan and Bush seemed to grow genuinely fond of each other during their two terms in office. They met for lunch on a weekly basis and enjoyed each other's company, although according to some reports the Bushes resented the fact that they were never invited as guests to the President's private quarters.

Bush chaired a number of task forces for the administration, including one on regulatory reform and one on drugs and drug smuggling. He traveled widely as vice president and frequently represented the administration in international affairs, making many contacts that would become useful when he became President. The vice president was often involved in the administration's foreign policy discussions and occasionally influenced its decisions.

However, his ties to the administration's foreign policy almost damaged his career irreversibly. In November 1986, the Iran-Contra affair broke. The scandal involved the administration selling arms to Iran to free hostages held by a terrorist organization in Lebanon and then using some of the money from the arms sales to buy weapons for the Contras, a rebel group fighting against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Selling arms to Iran violated U.S. policy, and buying weapons for the Contras was against the law. A number of officials in Reagan's administration resigned over the scandal. Bush was hit hard by speculation of his involvement in the whole affair. Did he knowingly support the plan? Or was he "out of the loop" as he claimed? Although questions still remain about the Iran-Contra affair, most sources believe that Bush was neither involved in crafting the policy nor knowledgeable about its implementation.