updated 1/24/2010 3:20:08 PM ET 2010-01-24T20:20:08

Robert Mosbacher Sr., a Houston oil multimillionaire who served as U.S. Commerce secretary under his close friend, President George H.W. Bush, died Sunday at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. He was 82.

Mosbacher died after a yearlong battle with pancreatic cancer, family spokesman Jim McGrath.

The Texan was a powerful Republican fundraiser who served at the top echelons of Bush's presidential campaigns and most recently served as a general campaign chairman for 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain.

As commerce secretary, Mosbacher helped lay the foundation for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"Together we shared a journey that led to the presidency, the mountaintop of American politics, and there we worked together to help America more fully embrace the world around us and compete in the newly emerging global markets that the waning Cold War made accessible," Bush said in a statement. "No doubt, he will be remembered as one the most effective commerce secretaries in our nation's history."

Mosbacher was born in Mount Vernon, N.Y. and grew up in White Plains. He graduated from the Choate School and earned his bachelor's degree in business administration from Washington and Lee University in 1947.

The following year, he moved to Houston and built a highly successful oil and gas company that would have interests in U.S. and international markets. Bush described Mosbacher as "an honorable and a first-rate businessman, and perhaps the shrewdest dealmaker I ever knew."

Mosbacher got into politics in the early 1960s, working as a fundraiser for various Republican candidates in southeast Texas and also managing then Vice President Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign in Harris County, which includes Houston.

Mosbacher was chief fundraiser of Bush's 1988 presidential campaign, and after Bush's victory, was appointed commerce secretary. He was the main official responsible for promoting NAFTA, which was later signed into law during the Clinton administration.

In 1995, Mosbacher supported efforts to eliminate the Commerce Department, saying it was no longer necessary and a "prime example of how the federal bureaucracy has gotten too big and too expensive."

In his political career, Mosbacher managed the national fundraising operations of five different GOP presidential campaigns — from Gerald Ford in 1976 to McCain.

Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker worked with Mosbacher on several campaigns and in Bush's cabinet and was a friend.

"He always provided candor, intelligence, and a special sense of joy for life that was Texas-sized in its grandness," Baker said in a statement. "My wife Susan and I are saddened by his death. We have lost a special friend, and our prayers are with his family."

Mosbacher was also an accomplished sailor, amassing numerous titles in New York and Texas. He was involved in charitable projects, helping start the Odyssey Academy Charter School in Galveston and supporting the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, said Bush, who borrowed a phrase from his 1989 inaugural address in describing Mosbacher as "a true Point of Light."

Mosbacher was married four times, including to Georgette Mosbacher, a flashy socialite and cosmetics entrepreneur whose animated personality and red hair made her a popular subject of gossip columnists when the couple was in Washington, D.C. The couple divorced in 1998.

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