George H.W. Bush in the Movies

Yesterday, former president George H.W. Bush passed away at the age of 94. In the clip above, the 41st president is interviewed by David Frost 20 years ago. He’s talking about his eventful experiences from serving in World War II as well as his successful political career. Barbara Bush also contributes her memories. She passed away earlier this year. I guess they are reunited now. 

Born in Milton, Massachusetts, George Herbert Walker Bush had an extraordinary life. On his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the Navy and fought in the war as a pilot; I remember visiting the Intrepid museum in New York City years ago where you can see the plane that Bush flew. In 1944, he had a close call during a mission but survived and was rescued by a submarine. He received several medals after having flown 58 missions that year. After the war, he married Barbara, a union that lasted 73 years. Like his father Prescott, Bush became a businessman in the late 1940s and Texas oil made him rich.

His political career began in earnest in the 1960s. As a wealthy businessman he had a fair chance at making himself a name in Texas politics, even if the state was dominated by Democrats at the time. He was a conservative Republican from the start, sadly campaigning against civil rights, but after winning an election to Congress in 1966 he did vote in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Bush came to be a somewhat independent Republican, supporting Nixon’s Vietnam policies but also birth control. After failing to become a senator (the ad above shows an early attempt back in 1964), President Nixon appointed him U.N. ambassador in 1971 and he served two years. His stint as RNC chairman became a challenge since it coincided with the Watergate affair and Nixon’s resignation, but Bush did his best to try and protect the party.

In the mid-70s, Bush was clearly a prominent Republican figure. He was twice considered by President Ford to become his vice president and he also served as an envoy to China at a time when Nixon had opened up U.S. relations with that country. In 1976, Ford appointed him director of the CIA. He served there during a tumultuous year, but left when Jimmy Carter was elected president.

In 1980, Bush ran for president representing the center of the Republican Party; the campaign ad above emphasizes his broad experience in government. He attacked his primary colleague, former California Governor Ronald Reagan, of going too far to the right and called his supply-side plan “voodoo economics”. Bush started out successfully, winning the Iowa caucus, but Reagan came back and eventually Bush had to drop out. He accepted Reagan’s offer to become his vice-presidential candidate. After winning the election, Bush served eight years as Vice President, enjoying a good relationship with Reagan.

The 1988 ad above emphasizes family, just like the one from the 1960s. That year, Bush defeated Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis for the U.S. presidency. The election had its dirty moments, including the infamous Willie Horton ad, a racist and unfair attempt to paint the Governor as “soft on crime”. This was also the election where Bush said “Read my lips, no new taxes”, which inevitably was remembered when he had to raise taxes as president. Bush’s time in the White House was marked by the fall of the Soviet Union, which he handled wisely, using his considerable diplomatic skills. He appointed two Supreme Court justices, David Souter and Clarence Thomas (the latter leading to an intense #metoo discussion, long before #metoo was a thing).

President Bush had two controversial military adventures, invading Panama in 1989 in order to remove its leader, Manuel Noriega (who subsequently did time in the U.S. on racketeering and drug trafficking charges), and pushing back Iraq from Kuwait during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. The latter conflict made Bush very popular at home, but his efforts to improve the economy after the negative effects of Reagan’s policies were disappointing enough to make him lose the 1992 election against Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. 

In the years after Bush’s presidency, he and Clinton became close friends. He lived to see two of his sons have successful careers in politics as well – George W. becoming Governor of Texas and then a two-term president; Jeb serving as Governor of Florida.

This is above all a movie and television blog, so obviously we should remember when Bush has been portrayed onscreen. It has usually been as president and often as a supporting character. On Saturday Night Live, Dana Carvey played him during his years in the White House, and Carvey has often reappeared on the show in that role. The clip above shows him together with his “son” (Will Ferrell) in an episode from 2000 when Dubya was running for president.

When I was a kid, I saw The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear (1991) in a movie theater. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) was at the White House as a guest (for some mysterious reason), wreaking complete havoc. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard. It’s still a childishly funny scene. John Roarke played Bush.

And then there was Oliver Stone’s W. (2008) which focused quite a bit on the tempestuous relationship between father and son. James Cromwell was very good as Bush, memorably telling Dubya (Josh Brolin), “Who do you think you are… a Kennedy? You’re a Bush. Act like one.”

Maybe one day we’ll have a movie about George H.W. Bush that doesn’t primarily focus on laughs?

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