A Distinguished Life of Service, George H. W. Bush

6 min read

| By Mark Mikula |

Considered the patriarch of one of the most influential conservative families coming into power in the twentieth century, George H(erbert) W(alker) Bush died on November 30, 2018. His life was celebrated at his funeral by dignitaries, including the current president, Donald J. Trump, and former presidents Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, and his son George W. Bush. In a eulogy delivered at National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the younger Bush said of his father, “Dad taught us that public service is noble and necessary; that one can serve with integrity and hold true to the important values, like faith and family. He strongly believed that it was important to give back to the community and country in which one lived. He recognized that serving others enriched the giver’s soul. To us, his was the brightest of a thousand points of light.”

The reference at the end of the sentiment was to a phrase first used by George H. W. Bush at the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans, Louisiana, upon accepting the nomination for president. Bush appealed to the attendees at the convention in a speech written by Peggy Noonan and Craig R. Smith. According to Noonan, the phrase “thousand points of light” was intended to speak to Bush’s own philosophy of conservatism, which emphasized the participation of individuals in the success of a nation. It followed that, in Bush’s view, the role of government was less important in a country where Americans were willing to support fellow Americans through sacrifice and volunteerism. Indeed, Bush’s own service to the country, as a naval pilot during World War II, began at an early age. He was 18 when he volunteered to enter military service and was honorably discharged after Japan surrendered to the Allies. During the war, Bush flew 58 combat missions for which he received the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals.

When Bush was elected, after years as a Texas oilman and a political career culminating in eight years as vice president under Ronald Reagan, he repeated the “thousand points of light” phrase in his inaugural speech and throughout his presidency. It served as a call for people to recognize their power to aid their fellow citizens. This perception of individual Americans helping one another has its roots in the early years of the country. According to Bush, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville’s historic 1835 account of his travels across the country, documented in Democracy in America, provides a number of examples of people being so-called points of light for one another in nineteenth-century America.

As it happens, while one of Bush’s most famous phrases served as a through-line during his time as president, it was a different phrase in the same speech that might have doomed his chance at being re-elected in 1992. In front of those nominating him, he announced: “And my opponent won’t rule out raising taxes. But I will. And the Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push again. And I’ll say to them: Read my lips. No new taxes.” It was a rare moment of fiery rhetoric from someone whose public expression was usually more understated.

In 1990, President Bush, dealing with a Democratic-controlled Congress, compromised with the House and the Senate and agreed to raise some existing taxes in service of balancing the budget. This decision was exploited by people in his own party as well as by Democratic candidate Bill Clinton, who reminded the voting public of Bush’s promise to take a hard stance on taxes. Clinton was elected president in 1992.

Still, Bush had a number of successes during his presidency. Arguably, his most notable accomplishment domestically was championing the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law in 1990. The legislation reduced discrimination and formally extended rights to differently abled Americans. Internationally, he led the effort to prevent Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from extending his reach into Kuwait. In terms of missed opportunities, critics reflect on Bush’s failure to remove Hussein completely from power, on his limited response to human rights abuses in China after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, and on his lack of initiative in recognizing the AIDS crisis, especially in his home country.

Losing the 1992 presidential election to Clinton was difficult for Bush. However, the two political rivals became friends after their presidencies concluded. The former presidents teamed up to raise money for recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005 and after earthquakes hit Haiti in 2010. Additionally, the election of his son George W. Bush to the presidency in 2000 and his son’s re-election in 2004 kept the senior Bush in the public eye through the early part of the twenty-first century.

Bush’s 73-year marriage to Barbara Bush, who also died in 2018, and his commitment to his family—especially their six children—were points of pride for him. Late in life, the senior Bush began a tradition of skydiving on milestone birthdays, jumping from an airplane every five years from the age of 75 to the age of 90. The interest in parachute jumping was sparked after a more-than-50-year gap between the harrowing experience of ejecting from a plane on one occasion during wartime service to the less fraught instances of skydiving as a celebration of life.

For an overview of the Americans with Disabilities Act, see “Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990” from Social Policy: Essential Primary Sources in U.S. History In Context.

For a speech delivered by Bush regarding the dangers of dictatorship in Iraq, see “George Bush Comments on Saddam Hussein” from U.S. History In Context.

For an overview of Bush’s life and political career with a focus on the War in the Persian Gulf, see “Bush, George H. W.” from War in the Persian Gulf Reference Library in GVRL.


About the Author

Mark Mikula is a senior content developer for several of Gale’s history databases. In his travels, he has attended numerous film and theater festivals; the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut; and the oldest consecutively held Fourth of July celebration in Bristol, Rhode Island.


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