George H.W. Bush: An almost accidental president

President George H.W. Bush, who died last Friday at 94, came to the Oval Office by a circuitous route. He first served eight years as vice president, a job he never wanted.

As President Ronald Reagan’s steadfastly loyal stand-in, he was nominated to succeed him in 1988 in part amid Republican hopes that his election might extend the Reagan era.

Instead, it produced a foreign policy president who maintained a collective security of his own design, as seen in the Gulf War he led. Bush reversed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and quietly saw without boast the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The senior George Bush made mistakes, including raising taxes after crowing at the GOP convention, “Read my lips: No new taxes.” This breach of Republican orthodoxy that well may have cost him re-election in 1992, but in most matters he followed his heart and patriotic intentions without bombast.

When he first sought the Republican presidential nomination in challenging Reagan in 1980, Bush made crystal-clear he didn’t want to be vice president. He famously invoked the words of a previous prudential prospect, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who flatly had declared, “If nominated I will not accept; if elected I will not serve.” Bush, whenever asked whether he would settle for the vice presidency, would heatedly reply: “Take Sherman and cube it!”

Actually, Bush was far from Reagan’s preference as his running mate. Upon his own nomination, he conferred with former President Gerald Ford on offering him the vice presidential nomination, in what pundits pondered as a “co-presidency.”

But mutual reservations about how the arrangement would work out finally led them to drop the idea. Reagan then turned reluctantly to Bush, whose opposition to him in the GOP primaries had greatly irritated the usually placid Californian.

When Bush was finally nominated for president at the 1988 convention, he made the startling decision to choose as his own running mate the little-known and boyish Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana. At age 41, Quayle was an apparent bid to appeal to younger voters.

An ebullient Quayle, himself surprised at the choice, joyfully hugged Bush as if he were still the schoolboy he resembled. The selection proved to be a major embarrassment as Quayle frequently gaffed his way into the headlines through the campaign and thereafter.

What was so remarkable about Bush’s choice was that in the first month of his own vice presidency, President Reagan was shot and narrowly escaped death. The event should have educated Bush on the imperative of choosing a running mate more qualified to take over the presidency in any similar situation.

Subsequent vice presidents — Democrat Al Gore, Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat Joe Biden — all proved to be effective and well-regarded presidential stand-ins. As for current Vice President Mike Pence, the jury is still out, although he has been a loyal helpmate to President Donald Trump.

The heartfelt public sentiment that greeted the death of the senior George Bush was above all a tribute to his steady foreign policy hand. It saw us through the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union and a pointedly limited Gulf War that drove Iraq out of Kuwait and then stopped there.


Jules Witcover’s latest book is

“The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.