No living American has been at the center of more history than George Herbert Walker Bush. A navy pilot in World War II, Bush was a successful oilman before embarking on his extraordinary political career. Elected as a Republican congressman in Lyndon Baines Johnson–era Texas, he would go on to serve as United Nations ambassador, run the Republican Party, act as a special envoy to China, lead the CIA under Gerald R. Ford, become a two-term vice president to Ronald Reagan, and be elected president himself in 1988. Then, improbably, eight years after losing a reelection bid to Bill Clinton, he watched his oldest son, George W., emerge as the nation’s 43rd president. Along the way, Bush’s upright character turned acquaintances into lifetime friends and political enemies into admirers.
Which is why, nearly 20 years after it ended, the first Bush presidency is getting a second look. Historians increasingly praise Bush 41’s restraint at the end of the cold war, his Gulf War coalition, and his willingness to defy his party’s policies and raise taxes to ease a ballooning deficit (an action that probably cost him reelection). But the former president, 88, spends little time thinking about the light that history will eventually cast on his legacy, content that “history will get it right.” Rather, he and his still vibrant wife of 67 years, Barbara, 87, are busy celebrating the arrival of the USS George H. W. Bush off the coast of Kennebunkport, Maine, where Bush has spent almost every summer of his life. The excitement surrounding the ship is second only to the joy brought by visits from what the couple consider their greatest legacy—their 17 grandchildren and first great-grandchild, 11-month-old Georgia Helena Walker Bush, the child of Jeb Jr. and his wife, Sandra. During an interview and a simple lunch of clam chowder (with a shot of Tabasco—he is a Texan, after all), mini-muffins made with fresh Maine blueberries, and Klondike bars for dessert, the president and Mrs. Bush spoke to presidential historian Mark Updegrove about their extraordinary journey and their take on today’s politics.