Former United States President George H. W. Bush is returning to Washington as a revered political statesman, hailed by leaders across the political spectrum and around the world as a man not only of greatness but also of uncommon decency and kindness.

Bush died on Saturday at his Houston home at age 94. He had struggled from Parkinson's disease that had restricted his speech and mobility in his last years. But when the end came, said James A. Baker III, Bush's friend and confidant of 40 years, "it was a very gentle and peaceful and easy passing".

His last words came barely an hour before he died, in a telephone conversation with his son, former President George W. Bush. The 43rd President had expressed his love for his father. "I love you, too," the 41st President replied.

Bush's crowning achievement as President was assembling the international military coalition that liberated the tiny, oil-rich nation of Kuwait from invading neighbour Iraq in 1991 in a war that lasted only 100 hours. He also presided over the end of the Cold War between the US and the former Soviet Union.

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"We didn't agree much on domestic policy, but when it came to the international side of things, he was a very wise and thoughtful man," said former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, a Democrat who lost the presidency to Bush in 1988. He credited Bush's ability to negotiate with former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev as playing a key role.

"It was a time of great change, demanding great responsibility from everyone," Gorbachev said.

"The result was the end of the Cold War and nuclear arms race." During that time and after, Gorbachev said, he always appreciated the kindness Bush and his family showed him.

In Washington, the former Republican President won praise from leaders of both parties.

Pictured here in 1984, flag-wavers greet Vice President George Bush after he was re-elected to the post of vice president.
Pictured here in 1984, flag-wavers greet Vice President George Bush after he was re-elected to the post of vice president.

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan said he led the nation with "decency and integrity," while Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi said it was a "privilege to work with him".

Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee said Bush "befriended political foes, reminding Americans that there is always more that unites us than divides us".

At the G20 summit in Argentina, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was raised in then-divided East Germany, said she likely would never have become her country's leader had Bush not pressed for the nation's reunification in 1990.

A humble hero of World War II, Bush was just 20 when he survived being shot down during a bombing run over Japan. He had enlisted in the US Navy on his 18th birthday.

Shortly before leaving the service, he married his 19-year-old sweetheart, Barbara Pierce, a union that lasted until her death this year. After military service, Bush became a scholar-athlete at Yale University, captaining the baseball team to two College World Series before graduating Phi Beta Kappa after 2½ years.

After moving to Texas to work in the oil business, Bush turned his attention to politics in the 1960s, being elected to his first of two terms in Congress in 1967. He would go on to serve as ambassador to the United Nations and China, head of the CIA and chairman of the Republican National Committee before being elected to two terms as Ronald Reagan's Vice-President.

Soon after he reached the zenith of his political popularity following the liberation of Kuwait, the US economy began to sour, however, and voters began to believe that Bush, never a great orator, was out of touch with ordinary people.

Former President George H.W. Bush on the South Lawn of White House in Washington in 2008. Photo / AP
Former President George H.W. Bush on the South Lawn of White House in Washington in 2008. Photo / AP

He lost his bid for re-election to then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, who would later become a close friend. The pair worked together to raise tens of millions of dollars for victims of a 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, which swamped New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Clinton said he would be "forever grateful" for that friendship.

Like father, like son

George W. Bush said that in his two terms in office, he rarely sought his father's counsel. But there were exceptions, intersections where the personal drifted into the presidential.

A look at some of those times as cited by Bush in his 2014 book A Portrait of My Father.

Former President George H. W. Bush, left, walks with his wife, former first lady Barbara Bush, followed by their son, President George W. Bush at the White House in 2009. Photo / File
Former President George H. W. Bush, left, walks with his wife, former first lady Barbara Bush, followed by their son, President George W. Bush at the White House in 2009. Photo / File

•The younger Bush asked his dad what he thought about making Dick Cheney his vice-presidential choice, and his father approved. Cheney was the elder Bush's defence chief and the most influential of the people who served the 41st president to work for the 43rd.

•The elder Bush confessed to "uncontrollable sobs" when he watched on TV as his son reacted to the Supreme Court decision settling the 2000 election in his favour.

•The new and former presidents stood together in the Oval Office on the younger Bush's first day in office, when he invited his parents to stay at the White House anytime.

•On September 11, 2001, a day after his parents stayed at the White House, the closing of air space to commercial traffic after the terrorist attacks stranded his parents in a Wisconsin motel on their way to Minnesota. Barbara Bush joked about the indignity in a chat with her son, in what he called a bit of levity that sad day.

•The younger Bush did not use email during his presidency; his dad would send corny jokes to aides, who passed them on.

•The younger Bush also sought his father's opinion on making Colin Powell secretary of state and Bob Gates defence chief. The senior Bush liked the choice of both.

•After the 2004 tsunami, Bush asked his dad and the man who beat him in 1992, Bill Clinton, to lead a private fund-raising mission to the stricken region. Thus began an unlikely friendship between old rivals.

•Bush asked his dad in 2007 if he should invite Vladimir Putin to the family's summer home in Maine. The father approved and joined them. The dad, then 83, took them on a speedboat at top speed. "Putin loved the ride," said Bush the son. They fished, but only Putin caught any.

- AP, Washington Post