7 things you might not know about the George HW Bush administration

  • Former President George H.W. Bush, who died at 94 last Friday, was a one-term president with a consequential legacy both abroad and in the US.
  • As president from 1989 to 1993, Bush built a reputation as a gentle and charming leader with a penchant for wacky socks and endearing love letters.
  • He also led controversial invasions in Central America and the Middle East that left lasting impacts on the regions and oversaw a growing AIDS epidemic and a crack down on drugs in the US.

Former President George H.W. Bush, who died at 94 last Friday, was a one-term president with a consequential legacy both abroad and in the US.

As president from 1989 to 1993, Bush built a reputation as a gentle and charming leader with a penchant for wacky socks and endearing love letters. A decorated Navy pilot, he played an outsized role in world affairs – leading a controversial invasion into Panama in 1989 and authorizing the Persian Gulf war in 1991. He also oversaw the heightening crisis of the AIDS epidemic and fought a War on Drugs and a steep increase in incarceration.

Here are 7 things you might not know about the 41st president’s time in office:

The notorious Willie Horton ads


Bush’s legacy is tainted in the view of many Americans by his association with a series of deeply controversial campaign ads that attempted to paint his Democratic opponent, then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, as soft on crime during the 1988 presidential election by blaming the governor for crimes committed by a black prisoner.

At the time, rising crime was at the forefront of American voter’s minds, as drug-related violence was a common occurrence in major American cities.

Willie Horton was a convicted murderer serving a life sentence who was permitted to leave prison in June 1986 via a weekend furlough program in Massachusetts that Dukakis supported as governor. Horton absconded during his time out of prison and in April 1987 raped a white woman and stabbed her white fiancé, according to The Washington Post.

Supporters of Bush seized on these sentiments by creating ads, produced by Bush’s campaign manager Lee Atwater and Fox News founder Roger Ailes, that either alluded to or directly referenced Horton’s story, while Bush regularly referred to Horton on the campaign trail.

John Haltiwanger contributed reporting.

Vomiting on the Japanese Prime Minister

Screenshot/ABC YouTube

During a 1992 state banquet in Tokyo, Bush became ill between courses of salmon, caviar, and grilled beef, and vomited into the lap of Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa before passing out and falling backwards.

First Lady Barbara Bush rushed over as did the president’s Secret Service agents – one even leapt over the long dinner table. Bush was quickly revived, stood up, smiled, and shook Miyazawa’s hand before excusing himself.

The incident was later mercilessly parodied on Saturday Night Live.

Cutting ties with the NRA

Bush severed ties with the National Rifle Association in 1995 after the gun advocacy group’s Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre called law enforcement and Secret Service agents “jack-booted thugs” who were stripping Americans of their constitutional rights.

Bush condemned LaPierre’s statement, which the organisation did not retract after criticism, calling it a “broadside against Federal agents.”

“You have not repudiated Mr. LaPierre’s unwarranted attack,” Bush wrote. “Therefore, I resign as a Life Member of NRA, said resignation to be effective upon your receipt of this letter. Please remove my name from your membership list.”

Sending a black teen to prison for 8 years for a political stunt


In an effort to illustrate the urgency of the drug epidemic in America, Bush had undercover drug enforcement agents lure a 19-year-old African-American teenager, Keith Jackson, to a park across the street from the White House where the agents bought a bag of crack cocaine from him for $US2,400.

Bush held up that bag of drugs, which he falsely said was “seized” from Jackson, during his first nationally televised address from the Oval Office in Sept. 1989 as evidence that no neighbourhood was safe from drugs and crime.

“It’s as innocent-looking as candy, but it’s turning our cities into battle zones,” he said of the drugs.

The judge who sentenced Jackson to ten years in prison (following mandatory minimum sentencing laws) urged the young man to appeal to Bush to commute his sentence.

“He used you, in the sense of making a big drug speech,” the federal district judge, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, told Jackson. “But he’s a decent man, a man of great compassion. Maybe he can find a way to reduce at least some of that sentence.”

Bush refused to reduce Jackson’s sentence and the teenager was ultimately locked up for nearly eight years.

Bush secretly sent top advisers to China shortly after Tiananmen Square massacre

In July 1989, the month after Chinese government officials fired into a crowd of pro-democracy protesters – murdering hundreds (mostly students) – Bush secretly sent his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and a deputy secretary of state to China to meet with top government officials to assure the country’s leaders of the American government’s

The move, which only became public months after the fact, was widely denounced, in large part because it came after Bush had publicly suspended top-level meetings with the Chinese government as a form of protest against the authoritarian regime’s human rights violations.

Critics felt the surreptitious meeting undermined the US’s international reputation and moral position.

Checking his watch during a debate with Bill Clinton

Screenshot/CBS News YouTube

During a 1992 presidential debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, Bush checked his watch during an audience member’s question about how the national debt personally affected him.

He then went on to answer the question with seeming impatience. The moment became one of the most notorious gaffes of his losing re-election campaign.

The invasion of Panama

In December 1989, Bush sent 25,000 troops to Panama to overthrow Panamaian strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, a former paid CIA informant.

Facing pressure on the political right, Bush justified the attack by characterising Noriega as a threat to US national security. The invasion was controversial among US military leaders, some of whom resigned rather than carry out the mission.

Twenty US soldiers and three civilians died in the two-week period, but it remains unclear how many Panamanians were killed – the US Army estimates 1,000, while others say the number was closer to 3,000.

Noriega was prosecuted in the US on drug trafficking and conspiracy charges and ultimately spent 20 years in prison.

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