George Herbert Walker Bush served just one term as US president, but few occupants of the Oval Office could have felt history shifting so sharply under their feet.
Relations between Washington and Moscow were already thawing fast by the time Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan, under whom he had been vice president, into the White House in 1989 after the Republican Party’s third successive electoral landslide.
By the end of that year, the Berlin Wall had fallen, revolutions had toppled Communist regimes across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union had started to fragment, leading to its eventual disintegration in 1991.
At a summit meeting in Malta in December 1989, Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, his Soviet counterpart, declared an end to the Cold War and talked of a new era of “lasting peace”.
Yet by the time Bush left office in 1993, he had sent US forces to war against Iraq, successfully reversing Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, but prompting the beginning of an unprecedented era of US military adventurism in the Middle East.
Elsewhere, the 1989 US invasion of Panama, the outbreak of war in the Balkans and the killing of Chinese protesters in Tiananmen Square pointed to a world rendered more complicated and unpredictable by the sudden end to the decades-long standoff between east and west.
Ultimately, however, Bush’s political career would flounder for reasons closer to home, with his failure to lift the US out of the economic malaise that had followed the 1987 Wall Street Crash.
Even his most famous soundbite – “Read my lips: No new taxes,” Bush had promised during his 1988 election campaign – came back to haunt him as the pledge was broken, prompting rebellion among the Republicans’ conservative base and a haemorrhaging of the popular support he had enjoyed in the aftermath of the Gulf War against Iraq.
In the 1992 election, a beleaguered Bush appeared helpless against the challenge of the younger, more charismatic Bill Clinton.
Clinton’s triumph marked a generational shift in US politics away from those, like Bush, forged by the struggle of World War II. Born in 1924 into a wealthy New England family, he had joined the Navy in 1942 at the age of 18, training as a torpedo bomber pilot.
In 1944 Bush was the only survivor among his crew when their plane was shot down over the Pacific during a bombing raid. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “courage and devotion to duty” and would go on to fly 58 combat missions.
After the war, Bush studied economics at Yale, graduating in 1948 before embarking on a lucrative career in the oil industry in Texas, the state that became his adopted political home. In 1945 he married Barbara Pierce and the couple went on to have six children, though their daughter, Robin, died in 1953 of leukaemia when she was four years old.
Following a failed run for the Senate in 1964, Bush entered the US House of Representatives in 1967, serving two terms, until a second bid for the Senate in 1970 again ended in failure. By then though, Bush had a reputation within Republican ranks as a capable and loyal political operator.
He was appointed by President Richard Nixon as ambassador to the United Nations and then, with Nixon embroiled in the Watergate scandal that would lead to his resignation, as chairman of the Republican National Committee, tasked with limiting the damage to the party.
Under Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor, Bush served as an envoy to China before becoming director of the CIA in 1976, stepping down from the role after less than a year when Jimmy Carter took the White House for the Democrats.
Bush was outshone by Reagan in the 1980 Republican presidential primaries, denouncing the former Hollywood actor’s neoliberal recipe of tax cuts and free markets as “voodoo economics”.
Yet, chosen as Reagan’s running mate, he added moderate appeal and foreign affairs experience to the conservative idol’s star quality, helping the Republicans to dominate US politics for a decade.
Though Bush lacked his predecessor’s populist touch and gift for a glib phrase, in leadership he favoured behind-the-scenes consensus building and careful and considered preparation.
In the run-up to Operation Desert Storm against Iraq, Bush deftly built a broad coalition based in Saudi Arabia for the task of removing Iraqi forces from Kuwait, secured United Nations backing for the mission, and, in a sign of his ability to adapt to the changing world, issued a joint declaration with the Soviets condemning Saddam’s invasion.
“We have before us the opportunity to forge for ourselves and for future generations a new world order – a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations,” he said in January 1991.
“When we are successful – and we will be – we have a real chance at this new world order, an order in which a credible United Nations can use its peacekeeping role to fulfil the promise and vision of the UN’s founders.”
After leaving office in 1993, Bush divided his time between family homes in Houston, Texas, and Kennebunkport on the coast of Maine. In 2005 he joined forces with Bill Clinton to tour and raise funds for regions devastated by the Asian tsunami and, closer to home in Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina, forming a close friendship with his former adversary.
“Just because you run against someone in an election, it doesn’t mean you hate the guy,” said Bush.
By then, Bush’s son, George W Bush, was in his second term in the White House, having taken the US to war against Iraq for a second time in 2003, and eclipsing his father’s record by winning re-election in 2004.
At Bush clan gatherings, the two reputedly referred to each other as “Forty-one” and “Forty-three”, referencing their respective numbers in the sequence of US presidents.
Remarkably, Bush developed a late passion for skydiving, jumping to celebrate his 85th birthday in 2009 and the opening of his presidential library in 2007.
Yet, in politics and international affairs, Bush was instinctively cautious and a natural pragmatist.
Asked at a press conference in November 1989 what he made of the scenes of East Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall, he replied: “I’m very pleased.”
Pressed further by reporters over his apparent lack of enthusiasm, he added: “I am not an emotional kind of guy.”