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George H.W. Bush: Before he was president


George Herbert Walker Bush was born on June 12, 1924 in Milton, Massachusetts.

He was one of five children born to Prescott Sheldon Bush, an investment banker and U.S. senator from Connecticut from 1952 to 1963, and Dorothy Walker Bush, daughter of a prominent St. Louis, Missouri family.

He was named after Dorothy’s father George Herbert Walker, who was called “Pop” by the children. Thus, Bush earned the nickname “Poppy.”

Bush was raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he was a student at Greenwich Country Day School before attending Phillips Academy, an exclusive boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts, from 1936 to 1942.

At Andover, he was involved in baseball, basketball, and soccer teams, and held the role of senior class president.

Bush had already been admitted to Yale University upon graduation from Phillips Academy in 1942. At that time, the United States had entered World War II.


On his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the United States Navy’s Aviation Cadet Program.

He was designated a Naval Aviator on June 9, 1943 and after completing additional training, he was assigned as a TBM Avenger pilot with Torpedo Squadron 51 in September 1943.

He earned recognition as the youngest pilot in the Navy when he received his wings.

He served from 1942 to 1944 as a torpedo bomber pilot on aircraft carriers in the Pacific during WWII, flying missions over Wake Island, Guam, and Saipan.

In September 1944, Bush was shot down by Japanese anti-aircraft fire while on a mission over Chi Chi Jima Island in the Pacific. Two of his crewmen were killed, while Bush was rescued from the water by a U.S. submarine.

Bush flew a total 58 combat missions during World War I before he was ordered home in December 1944.

He won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service. His Distinguished Flying Cross Citation reads in part, “For heroism and extraordinary achievement in aerial flight as Pilot of a Torpedo Plane in Torpedo Squadron FIFTY ONE… Although his plane was hit and set afire at the beginning of his dive, he continued his plunge toward the target and succeeded in scoring damaging bomb hits before bailing out of the craft. His courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Reserve.”

Bush also was awarded three Air Medals and the Presidential Unit Citation, which was awarded while he served aboard the San Jacinto.

He was later reassigned to Norfolk Navy Base, where he helped install a training wing for new torpedo pilots, then moved on as a naval aviator in a new torpedo squadron.


Bush met his future wife, then Barbara Pierce, in 1941 at a Christmas dance in Greenwich.

The two began a long-distance courtship and were engaged in 1943.

Two years later, the couple married in Barbara’s hometown of Rye, New York while Bush was on leave from the Navy.

In letters later written from Bush to Barbara, he wrote on their anniversary in 1994:

“I was very happy on that day in 1945, but I’m even happier today. You have given me joy that few men know.. I have climbed perhaps the highest mountain in the world, but even that cannot hold a candle to being Barbara’s husband.”

Together the couple had six children — George, Robin (who died of leukemia in 1953), John (known as Jeb), Neil, Marvin, and Dorothy.

At the time of Barbara’s death in 2018, the two had been married for 73 years, making them the longest married couple in presidential history.


Bush was released from active duty on September 18, 1945 and was part of a surge of World War II veterans who enrolled in college after the war.

He went on to attend Yale University, where he was president of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, and captain of the baseball team. He played in the first two College World Series in 1947 and 1948.

While captain of the baseball team, Bush had the rare opportunity to meet Babe Ruth. The two were photographed together several months before Ruth’s death.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Bush was also a member of the Skulls and Bones Society, one of the university’s most famous secret societies.

In 1948, Bush graduated with a degree in economics.


Upon graduation, Bush decided to forge his own path and moved with Barbara and his eldest son George W. to Texas, where he became a salesman of oil field supplies.

He started as a salesperson for Dresser Industries, which was owned by a family friend.

In 1951, he co-founded a small royalty firm, the Bush-Overbey Oil Development Company, then two years later the Zapata Petroleum Corporation in 1953.

By the time he was 30-years-old, he became co-founder and president of the Zapata Off-Shore Company, which specialized in experimental offshore drilling equipment.

At this time he relocated the company and his family to Houston, Texas.


Bush first became active in politics in 1959 with the Republican Party in Houston.

He became chairman of the Harris County (Texas) Republican Party in 1963.

In 1964, he won the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat from Texas but lost in the general election to Democrat Ralph Yarborough.

Two years later in 1966, Bush was elected to a Republican seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served two terms.

Bush gave up his seat in 1970 to run for the Senate again but was defeated in the general election by Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, Jr.

From 1971 to 1972, Bush was appointed by President Richard M. Nixon to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

He then went on to become chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1973 but stepped down as head of the RNC after Gerald Ford became President.

Bush was appointed in 1974 by President Gerald Ford as the head of the U.S. Liaison Office in the People’s Republic of China, where he served in this role until he became director of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1976.

He resigned from the CIA in January 1977 when Jimmy Carter was elected president.

In 1979, Bush logged more than 250,000 miles to attend 850 political events.

Additionally, during the administration of Carter, Bush also taught college classes and worked with the Council on Foreign Relations.

In 1980, Bush ran for the Republican presidential nomination, but lost to Ronald Reagan.


Reagan selected Bush as his vice presidential running mate, and the pair defeated Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale in the general election in May 1980.

Reagan and Bush were re-elected in 1984 for a second term.

During his second term as vice president, Bush became the first vice president to become acting president when President Reagan underwent surgery on July 13, 1985. He served as acting president for around eight hours.

Bush also devoted his attention to two special projects assigned to him by the President. One was to chair a special task force on federal deregulation and another task force on international drug smuggling to coordinate federal efforts to stem the flow of drugs into the United States.

He also headed the Reagan administration’s effort to combat terrorism, and led a trip to Western Europe capitals to bolster U.S. allies and promote the Reagan administration’s plan to deploy medium-range nuclear missiles.

Among Bush’s other notable contributions, he visited Beijing on several instances to reinforce bilateral relations and address concerns about U.S. support for Taiwan.

In 1988, Bush became the Republican presidential nominee after serving two terms as vice president under Reagan.

He secured the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency in 1988 and with his running mate Dan Quayle, defeated the Democratic Candidate, Michael Dukakis in the general election.

The following year in 1989, Bush became the first sitting vice president to win a presidential election since Martin Van Buren in 1836.