Former President George H.W. Bush died Friday night. He was 94. The nation’s 41st president helped build the Republican Party in Texas.
When Bush landed in Odessa, Texas, in the late 1940s, it wasn’t his first time navigating a vast ocean of blue.
He’d fallen into the Pacific Ocean after being shot down by the Japanese.
In World War II, he fought to knock down a foreign enemy. At home, he fought to pump up the GOP.
“Bush was a pioneer in building the Republican Party in Texas,” said SMU professor Carolyn Barta, who covered Bush’s campaigns and presidency as a reporter. “Back in the ‘50s when he was in Midland, he was a precinct chairman and the Republicans used to joke back then there were so few of them back then they could meet in a phone booth!”
Bush moved his family to West Texas in 1948 to get into the oil business, not public life. The Yale graduate bought a little house in Midland in 1950 in a development nicknamed Easter Egg Row. Back then, Midland was a small, close-knit community. Hank Williams was No. 1 on the country charts.
Bush built a network in the oil fields, started his own oil company, and raised six children. One of them was a future president. After becoming a millionaire, Bush turned to public life.
“He came in at a time when the Republican Party was the minority party in the state,” said Jonathan Neerman, a former chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party.
Neerman says it was after Bush moved from Midland to Houston that his political career picked up speed.
In 1962, Bush became chairman of Harris County. And his role as a party builder began.
Building a coalition
First, Neerman says, he embraced the radical right. Then, he picked off Democrats angry about integration.
“Blending them in with the traditional moderate Republican base was a very difficult thing,” Neerman said. “And that echoes today’s Republican Party and it is the same issues party chairmen are facing today.”
At the end of the day, Bush understood a political party is a medley of different groups.
“And you have to find enough issues that will build a coalition that will allow you to not only win on the local level but on the statewide and national level as well,” Neerman said.
In 1964, Bush jumped into a U.S. Senate race against incumbent Democratic Senator Ralph Yarborough. Although he ran tough, the Connecticut native couldn’t overcome charges of being a carpetbagger. Next came a successful run for Congress, and then another Senate loss in 1970.
“In running both of those races, what Bush did was he built an organization across the state,” Barta said.
She says Bush also helped redirect the party.
“The backbone of the Republican Party then were the Republican women volunteers, they were housewives looking for something to do, they got involved in Republican politics,” she said.
These women, known as Bush Belles, would show up at campaign events in red white and blue silk-like scarves. Even after Bush left for Washington, the Belles – many of whom came from Dallas – continued to rally for Republican candidates.
Bush also knew how to court reporters, Barta said.
“He was really accessible to the Texas press, in whatever job he had,” Barta said. “I think he recognized that one way to grow the party was to get more coverage for Republicans, because there weren’t a lot of Republicans out there doing things then. And he was just a very genuine person. He was who he was, a New Englander who became a Texan by choice. But he was always who he was.”
‘So much fun and lighthearted’
Long before she was senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison got to know Bush as a reporter for the NBC station in Houston.
“George Bush became such a favorite of the press because he was so much fun and lighthearted, Hutchison said. “He would tell a lot of jokes. And say what he thought but in a very articulate, nice way.”
Hutchison took careful notes, and during her two decades in office she followed Bush’s lead as a consensus builder herself.
Meanwhile, Bush would serve as ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee and CIA director. In 1980, after losing the Presidential bid to Ronald Reagan, he finally landed a White House office as vice president.
Neerman says that’s when he put together an extensive Rolodex.
“The vice president often times has to attend ceremonial events, whether it’s the opening of this embassy overseas or this foreign leader’s funeral, you go to so many of those you naturally have to build relationships overseas,” Neerman said. “You naturally come into the White House as president with the built-in advantage of knowing who these people are. And that’s something that we lose when we elect governors or one-term senators who run as outsiders, they may have wonderful qualities but they can’t come close to that international experience that President Bush had.”
And Neerman says Bush’s presidential legacy is defined by his overseas’ achievements.
Shortly after he took office the Berlin Wall fell, and two years later, his bombers struck the Persian Gulf. After the coalition victory in the Gulf, Bush addressed a joint session of Congress in 1991. He thought he could finally turn to domestic policy.
“If our forces could win the ground war in 100 hours, then surely the Congress can pass this legislation in 100 days,” Bush said.
At home though, a recession intruded. In 1992, he lost the job to Bill Clinton.
The ultimate insider
He returned to Texas, mostly staying out of politics, at least until his son, George W. Bush, ran for governor, and ultimately for president.
Neerman says there’s been a transformation in Republican candidates since George H.W. Bush. Today, they embrace the label outsider. Bush 41 was the ultimate insider.
”He had already been a World War II war hero, a U.S. congressman, a failed Senate candidate, CIA director, RNC chairman, U.N. ambassador and ambassador to China,” Neerman said. “This was a man who had a tremendous amount of public experience. So I don’t know if we’ll see another man or woman like him in the Republican Party for years to come.”
By building relationships and uniting a disparate Republican Party, Bush showed how to create lasting coalitions – and helped turn Texas ruby red.