It feels as though Barbara Bush was born to be America's grandma. This is something of a cliché, and yet it seems fitting. Her fake pearls were legendary. She adored her pet spaniel. We are unsurprised to learn that her hair began graying in the 1950's, when she was not yet 30 years old. Shrewd and plainspoken, she always looked older than her presidential husband, but she projected gravitas, not decrepitude. This week saw the passing of one of our nation's true grand dames.
Born in New York state to well-to-do WASPS, young Barbara Pierce (a descendant of Franklin, our 14th president) married a patrician Navy pilot at 19, and began the ascent to the heights of American aristocracy. If the Kennedy family represents America's "Camelot," the Bushes are the Darcys of Pemberly. They are restrained, dignified, gracious, and keenly conscious of the obligations of noblesse oblige. As a grandmotherly figure, Barbara somehow managed to be sharp-tongued while still exuding old-fashioned propriety. (Even when calling Geraldine Ferraro an unladylike name, she wasn't quite willing to say the word. But she still apologized.)
Her maternity was so evident that there was no need for heavy-handedness. Despite her traditional background and six children, she was never much entangled in the mommy wars, and she even managed to cheer the expanding range of options available to women, without raising conservative hackles. Even so, her own life was spent modeling the magnificence that could be attained in the role of the matron.
Her early adult life was marked with tragedy, as she mourned the death of her mother and a young daughter within a few short years. Through it all though, her devotion to family was never in question. When she told CNN in 2013 that America had "had enough Bushes," we still knew that she would campaign for Jeb should he decide to run. (She did.) That fierce devotion seemed to flow over naturally into other benevolent pursuits. Her daughter's leukemia inspired her to support childhood cancer research. Her son Neil struggled with dyslexia, and the experience of helping him spurred her into lifelong advocacy for literacy programs. Civil rights, the plight of the homeless, and AIDS treatment were all of great interest to her in periods when others (including her own menfolk) were inclined to neglect them. White House staffers feared her infamous cocked eyebrow, but there was obviously plenty of room in her heart for compassion.
Grandmothers help us to feel safe, and Bush certainly did her part to anchor her elite family. Self-deprecating and down-to-earth, she never competed with her husband or sons for the national spotlight, but she seemed quite unfazed when it found her. Her interviews were peppered with wry insights and witty remarks. Standing in the maelstrom that is our national politics, she gave the impression of being rooted in something deeper and more lasting than electoral politics. She didn't start feuds, but neither did she bend and weave with the vicissitudes of public opinion. Across the tumultuous decades, Bush was widely recognized as a woman who knew her own mind.
In a debased political moment, we naturally feel a sting of nostalgia at the passing of such a stately figure. Bush reminded us of the benefits that an unelected public official can bring to the nation, simply by embracing the role of a national figurehead. In many European countries, these benefits are captured deliberately through the appointment of a head of state (such as a monarch) who is explicitly separate from the head of government. Precisely because she is not entrusted with managing affairs of state, Queen Elizabeth is able to be a unifying and widely beloved figure in British politics, reminding people across the political spectrum of the importance of civility, decency, and mutual respect. We don't have monarchs here in America, but Bush played a relevantly similar role (as did Michelle Obama to a great extent). It is not per se necessary for such figures to be women, but as we can see, matriarchs are often very well suited to the task. Bush used to say that she didn't interfere with her husband's office, and in return, "he doesn't fool around with my household." Unsurprisingly, she was the more popular Bush.
In her final days, Bush chose to forego extraordinary interventions to prolong her life, instead opting for comfort care. It was a dignified end for a dignified person. She now joins Abigail Adams as only the second person ever to be both wife and mother to an American president. The two are well paired: strong, intelligent, and utterly unintimidated by the powerful men who sat regularly at their dinner tables. In life they commanded widespread admiration, and now have both earned their places in the pantheon of great American women. RIP, Mrs. Bush.