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The election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 made Mr. Bush’s CIA period a brief one, and in 1979 he began his first run for the presidency. His positions tended to be centrist by Republican standards; he was pro-choice and supported the equal rights amendment. His resume was sufficiently impressive that he ended up as Ronald Reagan’s running mate. This entailed supporting Reagan’s prolife, antitax platform, but Mr. Bush reinvented himself and was sufficiently involved in policy matters to become tarred to a degree by the Iran-Contra scandal.

Mr. Bush, though a plodding campaigner, was a logical successor to Reagan, and in 1988 he defeated a Democratic ticket led by Michael Dukakis to reach the White House. There he dealt with a series of foreign policy crises: the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, the collapse of the Soviet Union and, finally, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Convinced that only U.S. engagement with Soviet reformers could assure the end of the Soviet threat, Bush supported Gorbachev in his failed attempts to reform the Soviet system. At the same time he helped persuade Moscow to accept the reunification of Germany and the concept of self-determination for Moscow’s erstwhile satellites in Eastern Europe.

But the signature event of Mr. Bush’s term was the first war against Iraq. Three days after Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, Mr. Bush announced that the Iraqi conquest would not be allowed to stand. His administration rallied an impressive international coalition against Saddam Hussein, and in 1991 Operation Desert Storm evicted the Iraqis from Kuwait and all but destroyed Saddam’s army.

But Mr. Bush halted the U.S.-led offensive short of Baghdad, and Saddam remained in power. The president later remarked, “I was wrong, as was every other leader, in thinking that Saddam Hussein would be gone.”

Just after Desert Storm, Mr. Bush’s approval rating touched an unprecedented 89 percent. But he had neglected his domestic priorities, and this was to prove fatal. The economy was stagnant, unemployment hovered around 7 percent, and conservatives resented that Mr. Bush had reneged on his pledge of no new taxes. The Democrats nominated a ticket headed by Bill Clinton and campaigned on the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Never a charismatic campaigner, Mr. Bush fared poorly in a series of TV debates against the treacly Mr. Clinton.

Resoundingly defeated, Mr. Bush returned to Houston to plot his revenge. It would take the form of his son, George W.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.