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President George H.W. Bush, free-trade proponent, ethanol supporter, dies at 94

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Vice President George H.W. Bush gives his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans on August 18, 1988. “I am a man who sees life in terms of missions — missions defined and missions completed,” he told delegates in the Louisiana Superdome. Bush said he would “keep America moving forward” and strive “for a better America.” He defeated Michael Dukakis in the general election that fall but was denied a second term by voters in 1992. Photo credit: REUTERS

UPDATED: 12/1/2018 11:12 am ET – adds details

President George H. W. Bush, a key proponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement who also faced pressure from U.S. automakers to ease Japanese imports in the late 1980s and early 1990s, died on Friday. He was 94.

Bush suffered from a form of Parkinson’s disease that required him to use a wheelchair, and he had been hospitalized several times in recent years as his health slowly worsened, including in April, shortly after the death of his wife, Barbara.

A skilled bureaucrat and diplomat, President Bush helped bring the end of four decades of Cold War and the threat of nuclear engagement with his handling of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany and the liberation of Eastern Europe, which over time attracted a wave of factory investments from global automakers, suppliers and other industries.

Bush, the nation’s 41st president, also championed wider use of ethanol in cars and light trucks to lower the nation’s reliance on foreign oil and supported safety advances such as airbags in light trucks.

Detroit 3 squeezed

U.S. automakers were being squeezed as they faced slowing U.S. sales from the 1990-91 recession in a market increasingly dominated by Japanese competition.

Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca wrote a letter to Bush in March of 1991 asking the president to put a limit on Japan’s imports.


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“There would be an immediate boost to the industry and to the economy if Japan would temporarily back off from their relentless pursuit of increased U.S. market share,” Iacocca wrote the president.

But Bush, largely opposed to government-imposed quotas, said he wasn’t going to help on the trade front. Instead, he accompanied Iacocca, General Motors Chairman Robert Stempel and Ford Motor Co.’s Harold Poling to Japan to meet with Japanese executives from Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mitsubishi and Mazda in January 1992.

During the trip, Bush also raised the concerns of the Detroit 3 during a meeting with the Japanese prime minister, Kiichi Miyazawa. A joint statement released by the two leaders after the meeting laid out purchasing goals that Japanese car companies should strive to meet.

The automakers left the trip just as dissatisfied as they arrived. U.S. executives still viewed Japan as a closed country that would not help cultivate open global trade, while Japanese officials said American government officials still were not grasping that they needed to transform their auto industry to compete, not manipulate trade through legislation or deals.

The trip to Japan also included the unfortunate but memorable scene in which Bush vomited into the Japanese prime minister’s lap.

NAFTA role

In December 1992, Bush signed into law the North American Free Trade Act, later renegotiated by President Bill Clinton and passed by legislators during his presidency.

Bush had long advocated for a trade agreement among the three North American countries. Critics of the deal said U.S. jobs would go to Mexico, where workers would be paid less and labor laws were much more lenient. But Bush disagreed.

The Trump administration this year struck a deal with Mexico and Canada to retool NAFTA and drive more U.S. manufacturing jobs and higher U.S. content for light-vehicles produced in the region.

Bush said NAFTA would strengthen Mexico and create a thriving economy where Mexican consumers would want U.S. goods, such as cars and light trucks.

“If democracy is to be consolidated, the gulfs that separate the few who are very rich from the many who are very poor, that divide civilian from military institutions, that split citizens of European heritage from indigenous peoples, these gulfs must be bridged, and economic reform must ensure upward mobility and new opportunities for a better life for all citizens of the Americas,” Bush said after signing a deal to create NAFTA.

Former Presidents George H.W. Bush, middle, and Bill Clinton, right, appeared at the NADA convention in 2009. They were joined by outgoing NADA Chairman Annette Sykora, left, at a general session and spoke about the importance of community service. Dealers “took community service up a notch in New Orleans after [Hurricane] Katrina,” Bush said. Photo credit: JOE WILSSENS

Early years

Bush was born in Milton, Mass., on June 12, 1924. He enrolled as a pilot in the Navy when he was 18 and fought in World War II. He attended Yale University, where he earned an economics degree and made Phi Beta Kappa, and then moved to Odessa, Texas, to join an oil field-supply firm that was a subsidiary of Dresser Industries, on whose board his father sat. Dresser was acquired in 1998 by its competitor, Halliburton Co. After his apprenticeship Bush settled in Midland, Texas, and helped start a new business buying and developing oil leases.

With two partners, brothers Hugh and William Liedtke, Bush founded Zapata Petroleum Co. in 1953, the name inspired by the 1952 Marlon Brando film “Viva Zapata!” By the end of the 1950s, Bush had moved his family to Houston and was running an offshoot of Zapata that churned out profits from high-risk offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

He launched his political career in 1967 and served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas.

After an unsuccessful campaign for a U.S. Senate seat representing Texas, President Richard Nixon appointed Bush ambassador to the United Nations in 1971. He later served as the chairman of the Republican National Committee.

President Gerald Ford then appointed Bush as Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office of the People’s Republic of China in 1974. In his last position before running for president, Bush became the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Although Bush lost the 1980 Republican nomination to Ronald Reagan, he was chosen by Reagan to join the national ticket as vice president.

Bush became president in early 1989 after defeating Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 general election. Administration officials declared the White House under Bush would herald a new balance for the auto industry, between a barrage of new safety and emissions standards during the 1970s and the deregulation and lack of government access by consumer and environmental activists during the Reagan years.

Longtime safety advocate Ralph Nader was again allowed access to government data and information.

The late Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety at the time, told Automotive News in 1989 he sensed something different under the Bush White House.

The Regan administration consisted of those who were “true ideologues who campaigned on deregulation and did not care about public opinion,” Ditlow said. “Bush does not come from the same ideological bent. He is responsive to public opinion; you see it with the environment and with the management of the Exxon oil spill (which occurred in 1989).”

Bush proposed reauthorizing the Clean Air Act in April of 1989 with an amendment that would require automakers to sell 1 million “clean-fuel” vehicles each year by 1997. It was the first presidential plan for a clean-air bill in 10 years.

CAFE raised

Under Bush, the nation’s corporate average fuel economy standard was raised from 26.5 mpg to 27.5 mpg. Bush worked to develop safety mandates, such as passive restraints for light trucks. He refused to name Japan as an unfair trading partner, as many in the automotive industry requested, even though Japanese automakers were dominating the U.S. market.

However, in 1992, Bush did scale back some environmental proposals, such as a requirement that light vehicles be designed and equipped with fuel vapor recovery canisters to lessen pollution when refueling.

In late 1992, seeking re-election, Bush faced Democrat Bill Clinton, a governor of Arkansas, but also Ross Perot, the billionaire founder of Electronic Data Systems Corp. and a former General Motors director who was running as an independent.

On Election Day, Clinton captured 43 percent of the vote to Bush’s 37 percent, with Perot winning almost 19 percent. Of Perot, Bush would later say: “I think he cost me the election, and I don’t like him.” Others doubt that Perot had a decisive impact on the result.

Bloomberg contributed to this report. Stephanie Hernandez McGavin is a free-lance reporter for Automotive News.

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