Barbara Bush was everybody’s grandmother. White haired, a tad overweight, and unafraid to speak truth to power, she made no pretense to glamour, and the American people loved her for it.
She died Tuesday at age 92, closing the book on the longest marriage of a president and first lady in U.S. history.
Barbara Pierce was 16 when she met her future husband, then a handsome naval aviator, at a Christmas dance. He was 17 and soon off to fight in World War II, where he would name three of the planes he flew after her: Barbara, Barbara II, Barbara III.
They married in 1945. She was 20, he was 21. They moved a dozen times in the first six years of their marriage as George built his career, and when their second child, a daughter, Robin, fell ill with leukemia, Barbara of necessity shouldered most of the burden of caring for her.
Robin died at age 3, and everyone marveled at Barbara’s strength. She said that’s when her hair turned white. In photos then, her reed-thin, gangly husband looks like a college boy. She looks like she could be his mother.
That unflattering contrast persisted through the years, and when George Bush launched his presidential campaign in 1988, after serving as vice president for eight years, Barbara’s matronly appearance became a topic of discussion. “I’m not going to turn into a glamorous princess,” she said with her signature candor. “I’m not going to worry about it. I have plenty of self-confidence, not in how I look but in how I feel and I feel good about my husband, my children, and my life.”
Coming after the Reagan years, with the glitz and glitter of Hollywood and Nancy Reagan’s love of designer clothes, Barbara Bush brought a refreshing New England flintiness to the White House. She came from old money, where people who had money didn’t flaunt it. Her family’s ancestry dated back to the colonies.
During the Inaugural festivities in 1989, she urged the media, “Please notice—hairdo, makeup, designer dress. Look at me good this week, because it’s the only week.”
In the White House as First Lady, she adopted a cause close to her heart, literacy, an interest spurred in part by her son Neil’s dyslexia, heightening her awareness of the importance of reading and writing and comprehending.
Nancy Reagan’s press secretary, Sheila Tate, who had painstakingly helped Nancy soften her image with a “Just say No” to drugs campaign, told Vanity Fair that Nancy’s successor conveyed such a winning persona with such ease that, “Short of axe murder, I think she could get away with anything. She’s so benign.”
That was the image Barbara Bush projected, but she was anything but the avuncular grandmother. Nicknamed “Silver Fox” by her children, she was the enforcer in the Bush family, the sometimes sarcastic, tart-tongued parent her eldest son, George W. Bush, says he most resembles.
When asked what she thought of Geraldine Ferraro after the Democratic vice-presidential nominee debated her husband in the ’84 campaign, Bush famously said, “It rhymes with rich.” She later apologized.
Asked about Sarah Palin in a 2010 interview, Bush said, “I sat next to her once, thought she was beautiful, and I think she’s very happy in Alaska, and I hope she’ll stay.” It was vintage Bush, the perfect putdown.
In the White House, she was no Nancy Reagan, meddling in personnel, but she was feared for her well-placed zingers. Watching then Vice President Bush’s chief of staff Craig Fuller sort through a stack of phone messages aboard Air Force Two, she said loud enough for her husband to hear, “When you get to the bottom of that pile, you might find a few from me.” Fuller did not continue as President Bush’s chief of staff.
She assured voters she would be a “traditional” First Lady, and in 1990, when Wellesley College invited her to speak at its commencement, 150 students at the all women’s school signed a petition opposing her selection on the grounds that her life story did not exemplify the kind of career woman that Wellesley seeks to instill in its graduates.
“To honor Barbara Bush as a commencement speaker is to honor a woman who has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband, which contravenes what we have been taught over the last four years at Wellesley,” read the petition, which kicked off a national debate over the meaning of feminism, and whether it was anti-family.
Bush had dropped out of Smith College to marry and have a family, a decision she never regretted. In 1974, when the women’s movement was in full swing, her post in the Smith Alumnae Quarterly said, “I play tennis, do vol. work and admire George Bush!”
The First Lady did not take offense at the students raising questions about her life as an extension of her husband’s, telling reporters, “They’re 21 years old and they’re looking at life from that perspective.” Then she added, “I don’t think they understand where I’m coming from. I chose to live the life I’ve lived, and I think it’s been a fabulously exciting, interesting, involved life. In my day, they probably would have been considered different. In their day, I’m considered different. Vive la difference.”
As an old-line, blue blood Republican, Bush’s views on social issues put her out of step with the party’s increasingly hard-line stances. When her son, Jeb, who had been governor of Florida, first talked of running for president in 2016, she tried to discourage him, saying, “We’ve had enough Bushes” in the White House.
Then, when the time came, she braved the snows of New Hampshire in a wheelchair to campaign for her son. Rival candidate Donald Trump mocked Bush for bringing in “mommy to take a slap at me.”
“My mother is the strongest woman I know,” Bush countered in a debate.
“She should be running,” Trump said. That was never the aspiration of this proud, fiercely loyal matriarch. The wife of a president and the mother of a president, she made her mark as she should, as a woman of her time.