Dec. 1, 2018 -- George Herbert Walker Bush, the nation's oldest living former president, has died at the age of 94.
“George H.W. Bush was a man of the highest character and the best dad a son or daughter could ask for,” said his son, former president George W. Bush, in a statement.
Bush, the nation’s 41st president (1989-1993), had vascular parkinsonism, a condition caused by one or more small strokes. He was often seen in a wheelchair during the last few years of his life, but he kept a positive attitude. He will be laid to rest later this week at the George Bush Presidential Library & Museum in College Station, TX, following memorial and funeral ceremonies in Washington and Houston.
He was admitted to Houston Methodist Hospital in April, a day after his wife Barbara Bush’s funeral, “after contracting an infection that spread to his blood,” a family spokesman told The Washington Post.
Before that, Bush had a few other health setbacks. He was hospitalized for shortness of breath in December 2014. He also was hospitalized in Maine in 2015 after he fell at his summer home and broke a bone in his neck. In 2012, he spent Christmas in intensive care, reportedly for a bronchitis-related cough, among other issues.
Although his public appearances were rare as he grew older, he marked the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 2016 at a ceremony at his library at Texas A&M University in College Station. In 2015, he threw out the first pitch at the Houston Astros’ playoff game against the Kansas City Royals, appearing in a wheelchair with a brace on his neck.
To celebrate his 90th birthday, Bush did a tandem parachute jump near his Kennebunkport, ME, home. Skydiving was a passion of his.
About Vascular Parkinsonism
Vascular parkinsonism typically affects adults over age 60.
Though scientists are still working to define exactly what the disease is, it's thought to be the result of mini-strokes affecting a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. The gradual loss of nerve cells causes classic Parkinson’s disease.
The strokes may not even be noticeable, except by MRI or CT scan, says neurologist Joseph Jankovic, MD, director of the Parkinson’s Disease Center and Movement Disorders Clinic at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Symptoms -- including an unstable lower body, rigid muscles, a shuffling gait, and a broad-based stand -- may appear over time or suddenly. People with parkinsonism usually do not have tremors, which characterize Parkinson’s disease.
Jankovic says many older people with parkinsonism mistakenly believe that their trouble walking and standing are an inevitable result of aging.
“People say, ‘Well, I’m getting old,’ but if they require assistance walking, that should be a signal to them that this is not just aging; there’s something else going on,” says Jankovic, a Bush acquaintance. He did not treat Bush.
“It’s probably much more common than we think,” he says. “I see patients on the street with a shuffling, broad-based gait, and I wonder if they’ve ever been evaluated. Most have been told they’ll have to live with it.”
Another reason people with vascular parkinsonism may not attribute symptoms to a disease is that it tends not to affect their thinking skills as much.
Getting a correct diagnosis is important to begin treatment and cut the chance of having more strokes, says Jankovic.
The dopamine-enhancing medication levodopa, used to treat Parkinson’s, is not all that effective for vascular parkinsonism. About half of VP patients see improvement in their symptoms when they take it, says Jankovic.
The treatment is focused on cutting the odds of more strokes, so patients adopt a low-salt, low-fat diet, quit smoking, take an aspirin a day (if recommended by a doctor), and control diabetes and hypertension.
Regular exercise also is especially important for vascular parkinsonism patients.
“Many patients with vascular parkinsonism can go for years without a significant progression of symptoms, especially if stroke risk factors are minimized,” Jankovic says. While it doesn’t affect a person’s lifespan, “it’s clearly a disabling condition,” he says. “Patients may require ambulatory assistance, like a walker or sometimes a wheelchair.”
When asked about his medical condition in the Parade interview, Bush said the vascular parkinsonism “just affects the legs. It’s not painful. You tell your legs to move and they don’t move.” He said he missed being active, “but you just face the reality and make the best of it.”
Born on June 12, 1924, in Milton, MA, Bush was a decorated naval pilot during World War II and a Yale man who graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He became a Texas oilman and two-term congressman before he was picked to be Ronald Reagan’s running mate in 1980.
Before serving as vice president from 1981 to 1989, Bush was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in China, and director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Bush was the first president since 1837 to ascend from the vice presidency to the presidency. He also was one of only two presidents with a son who also served as commander in chief. (The other was John Adams, whose son John Quincy Adams became the nation’s sixth president). George W. Bush is the oldest of the Bush children and served two terms (2001-2009) as the nation’s 43rd president; another son, Jeb Bush, was Florida governor from 1999 to 2007. He announced a run for the presidency in 2015 but dropped out in 2016. The Bushes all are Republicans.
George H.W. Bush told the Parade magazine interviewer that he was proud his administration was “scandal free” and said one of his greatest accomplishments was “the liberation of Kuwait.” He had put together a coalition of more than 30 countries to push former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of the Arab state in the Gulf War, from 1990 to 1991.
Bush also signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act and amendments to the Clean Air Act, and he negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Bush's Humanitarian Work
After leaving office, Bush helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars for charity. Among his causes were the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center; the Points of Light Institute; and C-Change, a coalition of cancer organizations.
President Bill Clinton, who succeeded Bush in the White House, later came to regard Bush as a father figure, according to Barbara Bush. The two men joined forces in fundraising after the tsunami in Southeast Asia and Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast. In 2008, they formed the Bush-Clinton Gulf Coast Recovery Fund to help reconstruction after Hurricane Ike.
In 1994, the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum opened on the campus of Texas A&M University as part of the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation, Bush School of Government and Public Service, and the Annenberg Presidential Conference Center. Bush remained active in the organizations bearing his name.
President Barack Obama awarded Bush the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for his commitment to service and ability to inspire volunteerism throughout the country, encouraging citizens to be “a thousand points of light.”
He and Barbara divided their time between Houston and Kennebunkport.