Barbara Bush was one of the most popular and respected First Ladies in recent times. She was known for her complete lack of pretense, glamor and vanity. For example, she made no effort to color her hair or wear fancy designer clothes. Moreover, she freely admitted her passions were gardening, the church and her family. I never heard anyone utter a negative comment about her. She brought dignity to the office of First Lady. To me, she was everyone’s grandma (and I mean that in the nicest, most respectful way). What you saw was what you got. At times, it appeared that she was more popular than George.
Barbara Pierce was born on June 8, 1925 in New York City. She was raised in the affluent suburban town of Rye in Westchester County, which is just north of the City. Her father was the president of McCall Corporation, which published the popular women’s magazines McCall’s and Redbook. Barbara was a distant cousin of Franklyn Pierce, the 14th president of the US, and the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
She met George at a dance when she was but 16. They had a whirlwind romance, not uncommon in wartime. Just 18 months later they were engaged and he was off to war as a navy bomber pilot. They were married on January 6, 1945 while George was on “leave.”
Bush family members readily identify Barbara as the glue of the family. Like most husbands of that generation George was busy with his careers – Navy pilot, oilman, corporate executive and, of course, politician. Meanwhile, Barbara raised the family. Apparently, their respective areas of responsibility and authority were well defined. “I don’t fool around with his office,” she once said, “and he doesn’t fool around with my household.”
It seemed like the family was never in one place long enough to establish roots. They moved some 30 times during their 73 years of marriage. Through it all, Barbara raised their six children. The family also included 14 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
George entered politics in 1963 as Harris County (TX) Republican Party Chairman. As he worked his way up the political ladder over the next 30 years Barbara had to adjust to life as a public figure. She did so with aplomb, immersing herself in various charities and women’s groups.
At times, her political views diverged from those of her husband’s and many of his key supporters. For example, She was pro-choice on abortion, opposed the sale of assault weapons, and supported the Equal Rights Amendment. On one occasion her forthright manner did get her into some difficulty. During the 1984 campaign she referred to Geraldine Ferraro, VP candidate on the Dem ticket against George, as “that $4 million – I can’t say it, but it rhymes with ‘rich.’ ” She apologized to Ferraro, and the matter blew over.
As Second Lady she adopted the cause of literacy. Using the power and influence of her office, she worked tirelessly with various literacy organizations giving speeches, researching the causes and publicizing the issue. To her, literacy was “the most important issue we have.” Probably, she was influenced, in part, by the fact that her son, Neil, was struggling with dyslexia.
Barbara did not seek the limelight, but she could be a very effective speaker, and she was not afraid to speak her own mind. For example, when George announced his candidacy for president in 1988 Barbara became only the second candidate’s wife to address the convention. [Can you guess who was the first? See below.] One of the highlights of her speech came when she forthrightly told the assembled delegates “what you see with me is what you get. I’m not running for president – George is.” In addition, when she gave the commencement speech for Wellesley College’s graduating class of 1990 “American Rhetoric” ranked it as number 45 on its list of the Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century.
The Bushes 73 years of marriage was the longest of any presidential couple. Furthermore, Barbara was only the second First Lady to bear a son who was also elected president. [Can you name the other one?]
Barbara was the recipient of several awards and honorariums. For example, she was a longstanding member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the recipient of the DAR Medal of Honor. In addition, she was the recipient of honorary degrees from some 30 colleges and universities.
In recent years Barbara was in ill health. In 2008 she was hospitalized for abdominal pains and underwent surgery on her small intestine. In 2009 she had an aortic valve replacement. In 2013 she was hospitalized for pneumonia. In addition, she was suffering from congestive heart failure, pulmonary disease and Graves’ disease.
Finally, on April 15 she chose to cease further treatment, except for “comfort care.” She passed away on April 17. Barbara was one of those few people who truly made a difference.
Rest in peace Barbara. You will be sorely missed.
Quiz answers: (1) Eleanor Roosevelt (1940). (2) Abigail Adams (husband of John; mother of John Quincy)