Barbara Bush, 1925–2018
The formidable first lady who raised a president
With her brilliant white hair and trademark fake pearls, Barbara Bush was viewed by many Americans as the nation’s kindly grandmother. But within the Bush family, she was known as The Enforcer. As the matriarch of one of the nation’s most powerful families, Bush employed her own considerable political skills to help her husband, George H.W. Bush, and her eldest son, George W. Bush, rise to the presidency. Throughout her husband’s career, Bush meticulously maintained an index-card library detailing the family’s social and fundraising contacts. When George H.W. finally reached the White House in 1989, their Christmas card list had grown to more than 10,000 names. She was an equally adept campaigner, winning over crowds with her down-to-earth manner and self-deprecating humor. After becoming first lady at age 63, she noted that she had become a role model for a particular cohort of American women. “My mail,” she said, “tells me a lot of fat, white-haired, wrinkled ladies are tickled pink.”
The daughter of a publishing executive father, Barbara Pierce “grew up in the tony New York City bedroom community of Rye,” said USA Today. She had a difficult relationship with her domineering mother, whose barbed comments about her youthful chubbiness left the future first lady with a lasting sensitivity about her weight. At 16, she caught sight of George H.W. during a Christmas dance at a Connecticut country club, said The Washington Post. “She later called him her first love and said he was the only boy she ever kissed.” The following year, George enlisted in the Navy and trained as a pilot; he named the torpedo bomber that he flew in the South Pacific “Barbara.” The couple married in 1945, and the bride, not yet 20, dropped out of Smith College. “The truth is, I just wasn’t interested,” she said in interviews. “I was just interested in George.”
“After World War II, the Bushes moved to the Texas oil patch to seek their fortune,” said the Associated Press. Barbara was often left to manage their five children on her own—a sixth child, Robin, died in 1953 of leukemia at age 3—as George’s ambitions carried him from business to the highest levels of politics, including appointments as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, CIA director, and Ronald Reagan’s vice president. “This was a period, for me, of long days and short years,” she said, “of diapers, runny noses, earaches, more Little League games than you could believe possible.” Bush made more sacrifices as first lady, staying quiet about contentious issues—including her rumored support for abortion rights—“when her opinion was said to differ from her husband’s,” said The New York Times. “She was vocal, however, in championing causes of her choosing.” She was a passionate supporter of literacy campaigns, having seen her son, Neil, struggle with dyslexia, and promoted AIDS awareness when the disease was still highly stigmatized.
“After her husband lost his bid for re-election to Bill Clinton in 1992, the Bushes built a home in Houston, and she delighted in being away from politics,” said Los Angeles Times. Still, George W. “repeatedly called on his mother” for advice while campaigning for and serving in the White House. When another son, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, prepared to run in 2016, she appeared more reluctant, telling an interviewer with characteristic bluntness: “We’ve had enough Bushes.” Nevertheless, she supported his decision once it was made and attacked rival Republican candidate Donald Trump as a hate-monger, demonstrating an aggressiveness that many wished to see from Jeb. She stayed smitten with George H.W. until the end, and their 73-year marriage is the longest in presidential history. Sixty years after their wedding, she described her husband as “that 80-year-old whirlwind who makes my life sing.” ■