George Herbert Walker Bush, the son of a Senator and the father of our President, succeeded Ronald Reagan in 1989. During World War II, Bush served as a navy pilot, the youngest then in the navy. He flew 58 combat missions, being shot down several times. He was one of only four members of his original torpedo-bomber squadron to survive the war.
After the war, Bush moved to Texas to learn the oil business. He started sweeping floors and painting oil rigs for $375 a month. He worked his way up in the company, and later started his own company. As he moved up in the oil business in Texas, he became active in Republican politics. He campaigned for Eisenhower and served as county chairman of the Republican Party. In 1964, he won a tough primary race for Senator, and ran against Democratic Senator Ralph Yarborough who was running for re-election. Although he lost, Bush ran well ahead of other Republican candidates in the state, including Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
In 1966, he ran for a seat in the House of Representatives from the newly formed 7th District. Two future Presidents came into his district to campaign for him, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He won this race, and was re-elected without opposition in 1968. Bush became only the third freshman member to win a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, largely through the influence of his father. In the House, Bush supported the Vietnam War effort, favored lowering the voting age to 18, established a conservative fiscal record, and headed a Republican task force on the environment. He also supported legislation requiring all congressmen to disclose their personal finances, which never passed.
His most courageous act was to vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1968 prohibiting discrimination in the sale and rental of housing. This act was very unpopular in Texas, and Bush even received death threats as a result of his vote. Several days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he appeared at a rally at Memorial High School in Houston. An angry, hostile crowd greeted him. He called for an end to discrimination and bigotry, and challenged the people in the crowd to justify denying equal housing to black soldiers returning from Vietnam. His impassioned plea on behalf of soldiers won the crowd over, and he left to a standing ovation.
In 1970, Bush had to choose between his safe seat in the House and building his seniority, and the chance to run again against Senator Yarborough in a state-wide race. The Nixon administration, wanting the liberal Yarborough defeated, encouraged Bush to make the run. Former President Johnson, a family friend although of a different party, also encouraged Bush to run, saying “The difference between being a member of the Senate and a member of the House is the difference between chicken salad and chicken shit.” With support and resources promised by the Nixon administration, Bush gave up his safe seat in the House to run for the Senate.
In a surprise upset, Yarborough was defeated in the Democratic primary by former Representative Lloyd Bentsen. With Yarborough out of the race, the Nixon administration diverted its resources to other races. That and a strong Democratic turnout led to Bush’s second defeat for the Senate. Discouraged, Bush almost decided to leave politics. He went on to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Chief U.S. Liaison in China and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He had become the Republican Party’s trouble shooter, taking difficult jobs when there was a problem. In 1980, after running second to Ronald Reagan for the Presidential nomination, he accepted the second spot on the ticket and was elected Vice President. In 1988, he succeeded Reagan as President, but served only one term.
Our recent Presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, never served in Congress, although both of them lost a race for the House of Representatives earlier in their careers. In modern times, service in Congress has provided valuable experience for those Presidents who served there. Lack of experience may or may not have been a liability. Such lack of experience seemed to be a liability for Carter but not for Reagan.