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Looking Back At George H.W. Bush's Legacy


President George Herbert Walker Bush has died at his home in Houston. He was 94. The 41st president of the United States led the country through turbulent times, including the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War. His life exemplified service to his country. NPR's Scott Horsley has this remembrance.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: George H.W. Bush was the definition of establishment success - Yale graduate, prosperous business career, 41st president of the United States. But one admittedly biased observer, George W. Bush, told NPR his father has always been short-changed.


GEORGE W BUSH: I think he's if not the, one of the greatest one-term presidents in the nation's history. And as a result of him being a one-term president, historians hadn't paid much attention to him.

HORSLEY: The elder George Bush had a lifetime of public service before he became president as a young Navy pilot in World War II, a Texas congressman, CIA director and faithful vice president to Ronald Reagan.

TIMOTHY NAFTALI: His loyalty to Ronald Reagan was legendary.

HORSLEY: Timothy Naftali is a historian who wrote a biography of Bush.

NAFTALI: He did not always agree with Ronald Reagan. And he was so secretive about those moments where he disagreed that we don't even have good documentation - at least not available yet - on when he disagreed.

HORSLEY: Bush famously disagreed with Reagan when he ran against him in the Republican primary of 1980, especially Reagan's supply-side faith that the government can slash tax rates without losing revenue.


GEORGE HW BUSH: What I call a voodoo economic policy.

HORSLEY: Reagan later had to reverse some of his tax cuts in the face of mounting deficits. But by the time Bush ran to succeed Reagan in 1988, he knew what it took to win the confidence of conservative Republicans.


GEORGE HW BUSH: Read my lips.


GEORGE HW BUSH: No new taxes.

HORSLEY: Bush trounced Democrat Michael Dukakis to win the White House that year. But he ultimately backtracked on his lip-reading pledge. During 1990 budget negotiations with Democratic congressional leaders, Bush, like Reagan, agreed to a tax increase. Marlin Fitzwater was the president's press secretary.

MARLIN FITZWATER: I remember they called me into the budget meeting. And President Bush gave me this statement of about three sentences that said, we have agreed that we will do the following things - increase tax revenues, cut spending and so forth. And the minute I saw it, I looked up to the - looked around the table. And the Democrats looked like the cat had ate the canary. They knew they had negotiated a winner.

HORSLEY: The tax hike cut the deficit, but it cost Bush dearly with conservatives. Years later, Bush would receive a Profile in Courage Award from John F. Kennedy's grandson who said America's gain was President Bush's loss. Bush's most notable accomplishments in the White House came in the area of foreign policy. While Ronald Reagan is often credited with winning the Cold War, biographer Naftali says it was Bush who successfully navigated the aftermath. His low-key approach avoided inflaming communist hard-liners and allowed for the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union.

NAFTALI: The soft landing that occurred, which was not inevitable, is in large measure due to George H.W. Bush's diplomacy.

HORSLEY: Bush, who'd been U.S. envoy to China as well as a globetrotting vice president, had a thick Rolodex and plenty of experience working the phones. His lifetime of contacts came in handy in 1990 when Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait. Bush methodically assembled an international coalition to push them back.


GEORGE HW BUSH: Just two hours ago, allied air forces began an attack on military targets in Iraq and Kuwait.

HORSLEY: A five-week bombing campaign was followed by a 100-hour ground assault that routed the Iraqis from Kuwait. Some wanted allied troops to push on to Baghdad and topple Saddam Hussein. But as the late state department official Lawrence Eagleburger recalled, Bush said no.


LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER: The president's decision was, we are not going on to Baghdad. If we do, we will have violated the agreement we have with our allies, which was to bring Saddam out of Kuwait. It was not to bring Saddam down. And in addition, it will tie us into an area where we cannot be sure how soon it is we could withdraw.

HORSLEY: Bush's son would revisit that decision a dozen years later with costly results. But the first Gulf War was a clear victory for U.S. forces. And as commander in chief, George H.W. Bush saw his approval ratings soar to nearly 90 percent. His lock on a second term seemed so solid many national Democrats opted to sit out the 1992 election, leaving it to the governor of a small Southern state to challenge Bush.

Bill Clinton had one big advantage, though - the economy, stupid. As the country sank into recession, Bush's popularity sank with it. There was no parachute or soft landing this time. Bush lost a three-way race in the '92 election with just 38 percent of the vote. More than two decades later, George W. Bush, who experienced his own roller coaster ride in the polls, wrote an affectionate portrait of his father titled "41."


GEORGE W BUSH: I wanted people to better appreciate George Bush as not only a great person but a very successful president.

HORSLEY: The elder Bush was also the linchpin of a political dynasty that now spans four generations. Whatever his political shortcomings, hindsight has cast his presidency in a kinder, gentler light. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

SIMON: And Scott Horsley's obituary of former President George Herbert Walker Bush was produced with help of Marcus Rosenbaum. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.