Barbara Bush redefined the role of first lady, not with her signature issue (which was literacy), but with the warmth and humility that distinguished her time in the White House. The wife of George H.W. Bush understood that first ladies can wield enormous power, often with a single image, and she used her visibility and influence to encourage other Americans to empathize beyond their own experiences.
She was a contradiction: a soft-hearted woman devoted to her family, and the matriarch of the most powerful Republican dynasty in modern history — who would sometimes speak so bluntly that she was embarrassed when she was reminded of what she had said. She was self-effacing on the eve of her husband’s inauguration. Then 63, she told reporters, “My mail tells me that a lot of fat, white-haired, wrinkled ladies are tickled pink. I mean, look at me — if I can be a success, so can they.” The disarmingly blunt statement was quintessentially Barbara Bush.
In 1989, she famously visited Grandma’s House, one of the first homes created to care for infants infected with HIV. She spent nearly an hour at the facility near the White House and held babies infected with the HIV virus, which causes AIDS — at a time when that disease carried a crippling stigma and stoked widespread fear. Through this simple act she helped disprove the myth that the disease could be caught simply through physical contact. “You can hug and pick up AIDS babies and people who have the HIV virus” without hurting yourself, she said during the visit. “There is a need for compassion,” she said as she cradled a baby. That one visit helped change public perception and likely spared an untold number of people infected with the virus from further pain.
Barbara Bush was the last person to want anyone to feel sorry for her. She had a blessed life and a loving family, but her loss will be felt by those who miss the decorum and public decency of the Bush/Reagan era. She loved her years in the White House and told me in an interview, “I’d like to go back and live there and not have the responsibility.”
It’s noteworthy that while Barbara Bush could relate to people from different backgrounds, she came from one of great privilege. Raised in a wealthy New York suburb and educated at boarding school, she met her future husband, George H.W. Bush, in 1941 at a country club Christmas dance in Greenwich, Connecticut. She was just 16 and he was 17. They became engaged before he went off to fight in World War II as a Navy torpedo pilot. “I married the first man I ever kissed,” she said, adding with her usual dry sense of humor, “when I tell my children that, they just about throw up.” She and her husband had six children, including former President George W. Bush and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
She was wealthy but she was not pretentious. She wore $29 shoes to fourteen inaugural balls because she knew she would be wearing them “only once.” As first lady she requested a smaller car, rather than the traditional big black limousine (permission granted), and to travel commercially (permission denied). She was told by the head of her Secret Service detail that she “really could not travel commercially since the number of threats against the first lady is higher than that for the Vice President.”
Barbara Bush was one of only two first ladies who was also the mother of a president, a distinction she shared with John Adams’ wife Abigail, who was the mother of John Quincy Adams. The stress of watching her sons endure the disappointments that accompany political life weighed on her. She and her husband were shocked when their second son, Jeb, who seemed like his father’s heir apparent to the presidency, lost his first run for governor in Florida in 1994 — the same year his brother, George W., won the governorship in Texas. A stunned George H.W. Bush told the press, “The joy is in Texas, but our hearts are in Florida.”.
The Bushes were married for 73 years, the longest presidential marriage in American history. She called him “Poppy,” he called her “Bar.” “I am still old and still in love with the man I married 72 years ago,” she wrote in a short post for her alma mater Smith College’s alumnae magazine.
They endured devastating loss together when their third child, three-year-old daughter Robin, was diagnosed with leukemia in 1953. Barbara was at her daughter’s bedside while she was aggressively treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. She befriended other parents who were keeping vigil for their children, exposing her to people from different walks of life, like one woman who commuted every day from the Bronx on the bus in her bedroom slippers to be by her son Joey’s bedside, unlike Barbara who stayed at her in-laws’ apartment on Sutton Place. “I loved that courageous lady, and I loved Joey. God bless him,” Barbara wrote in her memoir.
It was Barbara who bore the brunt of this heartache. While her husband was busy starting a new business, she was by Robin’s side, holding her hands, combing her hair. She never cried in front of her daughter and she told anyone who came to visit, including her husband and her mother-in-law, that they weren’t allowed to cry in front of Robin, either. “George and his mother are so softhearted, I had to order them out of the hospital room most of the time,” she said. Robin died two months before her fourth birthday. Barbara went through a serious depression in middle age, while raising her children often alone as her husband was building his resume. “George was the only one in the family who knew about it,” she said in her memoir. “He was working such incredible long hours at his job, and I swore to myself I would not burden him.”
Even amid such turmoil, she maintained a biting sense of humor. She had such a difficult relationship with Nancy Reagan, who was first lady when George H.W. Bush was Vice President, that she eagerly snapped up a scathing biography of Nancy and replaced the book jacket so that no one would know what she was really reading. Most first ladies campaign hard for their husbands, but Barbara was especially committed. She was, as I note in my book “First Women,” on the campaign trail for 27 days in September 1980 and visited 37 cities in 16 states. And that was just when her husband was Reagan’s running mate.
The Bushes enjoyed life at the White House more than any modern presidential family. They set up a horseshoe pit next to the White House swimming pool. The President and his son Marvin sometimes played as often as two or three times a week in tournaments against residence staffers. They took the game very seriously and even had tryouts that Barbara described as “practically like primaries.” She said, “You could hear the cling, cling, cling of the horseshoes at lunchtime. … It was a wonderful place to live as a home.”
The residence staff at the White House loved working for the Bushes and most I’ve spoken to say they were their favorite family to serve. “She was like your grandmother,” said former Operations Manager Tony Savoy. “If you were in the elevator, she would get in the elevator with you and she’d say, ‘Oh no, boys, don’t get off the elevator, I’m going upstairs too.'” The affection was mutual. “We loved them (the residence staff) all, truthfully loved them all for a lot of reasons. They were like family, no question about it,” Barbara Bush told me. She said she appreciated that the staff never spoke to the press or divulged secrets of the first families they served. “In fact, they probably gossip less than one gossips normally. It’s a rule that they had among themselves. I felt very comfortable with them,” she said, and added, “I’ve got to say that we do have the perfect family.”
When asked how she was liking her first 100 days as first lady, Bush told a reporter, “It’s been wonderful. You can’t believe it — I have really loved every minute of it. Of course, I have always been one to think that you should love your life.” And she certainly did.