Barbara Bush, wife and mother of presidents, dies at 92


April 17, 2018

Barbara Pierce Bush, the fiercely loyal wife of one U.S. president and mother of another who was a champion of literacy and admired public figure in her own right, died Tuesday  surrounded by her family at her west Houston home. She was 92.

Her husband, George Herbert Walker Bush, and their son George Walker Bush were among those of her cherished family members at her side.

April 17, 2018

Barbara Pierce Bush, the fiercely loyal wife of one U.S. president and mother of another who was a champion of literacy and admired public figure in her own right, died Tuesday  surrounded by her family at her west Houston home. She was 92.

Her husband, George Herbert Walker Bush, and their son George Walker Bush were among those of her cherished family members at her side.

Relatives said she died of complications from congenital heart disease and chronic cbstructive culmonary disease.

Bush was known for a no-nonsense style that pulled no punches and told it like it is — graciously. The Texas matriarch was a strong, steadfast partner in her husband’s political life, who both privately offered her own opinions and stood dutifully by her husband’s side as they moved around the country and world in pursuit of his political ambitions.

The couple together exemplified a certain Texas grace: showing politeness, kindness and respect with a steady sense of humor. They ushered in an era of political prominence for the state and their family that would span decades, drawing both ire and praise.

When another son, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, explored a 2016 run for the White House, Barbara Bush famously said the nation might have had “enough Bushes.” She later changed her mind, though she never did cotton to the word “dynasty.”

An old-line Republican who hewed to a more civil time, she made no secret of her contempt for President Donald Trump’s treatment of women, once saying in a television interview, “I don’t know how women can vote [for him.]”

Bush played the obliging spouse over 73 years of marriage to the man she met at age 16. With a string of pearls around her neck and her white hair elegantly coiffed, she accompanied him on frequent outings to the theater and to cheer on the Astros. The two could often be spotted dining out in Houston or among the pews at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church.

Her enduring passion, however, was helping children learn to read – and giving their families the tools to help.

She supported literacy both during her time in the White House and after her husband's presidency. She championed the National Literacy Act, which was signed into law in 1991, drawing widespread attention to the cause. A namesake national foundation, which she launched, and a local one continued to further this work.

The First Lady believed everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed in life — something that would not be possible without the ability to read and write, said Julie Finck, president of the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation. Bush's son Neil, who started the local foundation with his wife in 2013, had dyslexia. She was an avid reader herself, listening more recently to audio books.

“She has lived a life of service to others,” Finck said. "She has used her stature across our country to get more people behind the literacy cause and to roll up their sleeves and make a difference."

Barbara Pierce was born June 8, 1925, to Pauline and Marvin Pierce in New York City. She grew up with three siblings in nearby Rye, N.Y. Her father was a publishing executive who became president of McCall Corp. According to a biographer’s research, she was not especially close to her mother, described as cool and distant.

She met George H.W. Bush at a holiday party when she was 16. She was then on break from boarding school at Ashley Hall in South Carolina, and he was a senior at the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

The couple became engaged a year and a half later, as Bush prepared to ship out as a Navy torpedo bomber pilot. She dropped out of Smith College, and they married on Jan. 6, 1945 while George Bush was on leave from the Navy.

When he returned from decorated service in the Pacific, Bush attended Yale University. After his graduation, the couple headed for Midland, where he worked as an oil field supplies salesman for Dresser Industries. His father, an investment banker, sat on the company’s board.

The Bushes soon had their first child, George W. Bush, who as an adult also worked in the oil business and as the managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. After twice being elected governor of Texas, he would follow his father to the White House.

They had five more children: daughters Robin and Dorothy, and sons Jeb, Neil and Marvin. Robin died as a child in 1953 of leukemia. The mother planned to be buried at her daughter’s side at the family plot by the presidential library in College Station.

“I was combing her hair and holding her hand,” Bush said in an interview on the Today show. “I saw that little body, I saw her spirit go.”

Through the years, the Bushes became viewed as what family biographer Peter Schweizer called “the most successful political dynasty in American history.” That legacy continues: their grandson George P. Bush, one of Jeb’s sons, is now seeking a second four-year term as Texas Land Commissioner.

Barbara Bush maintained a strong, guiding hand. She was the second woman in U.S. history to be both a wife and mother of a U.S. president. (The first was Abigail Adams.) She was witty and unafraid to be herself.

Known for her intuition, she became “the classic example of what a First Lady should be,” said John H. Sununu, a former governor of New Hampshire and chief of staff to George H.W. Bush.

The matriarch only later shared publicly that she struggled for a time with depression. She told also of key policy disagreements with her husband.

Critics maintained Bush held a penchant for hauteur. They found fodder when, visiting evacuees from Hurricane Katrina in September 2005 in the Astrodome, she said: “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”

Although often living in what appeared to be the reflected glory of her office-holding kin, Bush skillfully established a distinct personality. She frequently landed on lists of the nation's most admired women.

The potential of the platform as First Lady was not lost on her. She had been well prepared for the role, having been by her husband's side as he served four years as congressman, three years as ambassador to the United Nations and then eight years as vice president. She could exhibit grace as needed — a quality that served the presidency well.

“She was at ease with anybody in terms of the hierarchy around the world, and worked hard to make them feel at ease in her presence and the president’s presence,” Sununu said.

Bush pushed boundaries: in one example, she held a baby diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in front of the press, helping to fight the stigma of the disease. She also revived the White House endowment trust for the upkeep and preservation of the building for which she and her husband held great respect. And she promoted her work on literacy.

As the story goes, her commitment to literacy had sprouted during a jog around Memorial Park in Houston in 1978. She thought then that issues in society all seemed like they could be improved if more people could read. She launched her national foundation in 1989 — and her name grew synonymous with the cause.

“She felt the responsibility of doing something to help people every single day,” said Anita McBride, director of personnel for the president. “She was effortlessly able to be herself and bring all of her experience to this position.”

Barbara Bush strongly denied any electoral or governmental skills but had what was repeatedly shown to be a long, exacting memory about what amounted to the Bush family business: politics. She mentally cataloged both devoted service to the family and what she saw as slights by outsiders, sometimes startling staff and relatives when she would recall these details years later.

In almost any race involving a family member, including Jeb Bush’s, she was an indefatigable campaigner. Her president-son even used his well-known mother in his attempt to semi-privatize Social Security.

In the 1990 midterm elections campaign, she made 42 appearances as first lady on behalf of 39 Republican candidates for Congress, governor and other offices.

“She doesn't back off for a second,” Judd Gregg, then governor of New Hampshire, said as Barbara Bush finished an appearance for her husband in the state's 1992 Republican presidential primary.

She began learning early. Her husband entered the political arena as chair of the Harris County Republican Party in 1962. In 1964, he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate. In 1966, he earned his first term in the U.S. House, followed by a second and then another losing run for Senate.

Numerous appointments followed in the 1970’s: ambassador to the United Nations, chair of the Republican National Committee, U.S. envoy to the People’s Republic of China and, finally, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a position he vacated with President Gerald Ford’s loss in 1976.

He campaigned first for president in 1980. All along, Barbara Bush was by his side.

Andy Card, a top White House aide to both Bush presidents, met Bush in 1979 during that first run for president, when her husband challenged (and lost to) Ronald Reagan before becoming his running mate.

“She was a force then, and I saw that force multiply,” Card said.

For decades, Bush’s white hair added to her image as a sort of kindly national grandmother, but her critical judgment and sharp tongue occasionally surfaced.

Her blunt remarks, Card said, not only reflected her conscience, but also “frequently foretold a kind of reality.” Card said she inspired the term “a thousand points of light,” which was popularized by her husband as an invitation to volunteerism for people around the world.

Acknowledging his mother's wiliness, her president-son, George W. Bush, sometimes referred to her as “the silver fox.” Before his own successful political career, the eldest son was also seen by family friends as being an emissary for his mother when she wanted to keep her own fingerprints off backstage political maneuvering.

She could be brutally forthright, such as when a CNN reporter amid the 1992 campaign asked the president if he had extramarital affairs, as had been alleged about his Democratic challenger, Bill Clinton.

“An absolute outrage,” she said the next day in a Houston Chronicle interview. “Sick.”

She could also be unforgiving, especially with fellow Republicans whom she thought had damaged her husband’s chances at re-election.

In her memoirs, she took on Newt Gingrich, who as a voluble Republican dissident in the U.S. House disrupted 1990 budget negotiations between the White House and then-majority congressional Democrats in which her husband finally agreed to a tax increase that broke a key 1988 campaign pledge.

But perhaps most memorable of all was her droll, sometimes approaching wicked, sense of humor, especially when it came to protocol. Every now and then, she had to remind herself not to be amusingly flip.

On a visit to Britain early in her husband’s presidency, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's husband, Dennis Thatcher, greeted her with a kiss on the hand. Photographers who missed the shot asked for a repeat. She grabbed Thatcher’s hand and kissed it.

During a 1991 visit to London, after Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev whispered something in her ear, she told reporters that he wanted to take her to a nightclub — which was not the case. Later she said: “I’ve got to learn. I’m never going to speak off-the-cuff again. I’m going to behave myself from now on.”

She wrote in her 1994 memoir that she regretted likening the 1984 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, then-U.S. Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro, to a word that “rhymes with rich.” Bush later said publicly that she was talking about “witch,” but her intimates knew well she had in mind a word in the “b” section of the dictionary.

Usually Bush appeared more politic on the stump, such as in the 1992 campaign when, facing the challenge of Clinton, she was asked if character was a proper issue.

“Yes, if you're talking about mine,”' she said in New Hampshire as yet another woman claimed a relationship with the Democratic contender. “I have nothing to say about anyone else’s. Who am I to judge another candidate, for heaven’s sake?”

With her platform came the tedious, imposed requirements of a politician’s wife. According to an official biography, she oversaw more than 30 residential moves of the family.

Her husband’s career, not always a steady ascent, took them from Midland and Houston and on to Washington, New York, Beijing and back to the nation’s capital. The couple eventually resided, sequentially, at the city’s two best addresses: the vice president’s house on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory and the White House, where maids and butlers recalled them as their favorite family to serve.

The Bushes not only knew the names of those who worked in the White House, but also where they were from and who their family members were, said Kate Andersen Brower, author of the book “First Women.”

Bush seemed happy in her surroundings, Brower said. She would swim in the mornings in the White House pool, poke her head in the pastry chef’s kitchen in her bathrobe and admire the arrangements in the flower shop.

“She really enjoyed the food, the lifestyle,” Brower said. “All of it.”

There were also, through most of their years together, the summers spent at the family’s cherished seaside retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine.

The couple’s final Houston home, in the Tanglewood area, was largely her doing, with the former president once faking indignation that plans for the house on a long, narrow lot had been “drawn up behind my back.”'

The self-effacing charm wasn’t an act.

“She was the same in front of the camera or behind closed doors,” said Peggy White, her personal assistant from her White House years. “She is what she is.”

The Bushes found friends in each phase of their life, and they invited people over constantly, perhaps to drink cocktails or play tennis. Staff marveled at their ability to maintain a close family life amid busy schedules.

Peter Roussel, who became Bush's press secretary in 1969, remained a friend, if not a part of the family. He described the Bushes as “non-big shot big shots.”

Explained Roussel: “Are they big shots? Sure. Do they act like it? Heck no.”

When as a young man Roussel first talked to her, addressing her as Mrs. Bush, she stopped him and told him to call her “Bar,” he recalled. “That was her being Bar. She was just down to earth.”

Another time, Bush asked him for a ride after an event, and he told her he was driving a ’66 Mustang without air conditioning. Did she still want to ride with him? “Why not?” she replied.

Only after her husband’s defeat for re-election in 1992 did Barbara Bush detail policy disagreements with her spouse, which had been guessed at for years. In her memoir, Barbara Bush: A Memoir, she made clear that she held more liberal views than the men in her family on abortion and gun control.

But she shared her husband’s disbelief that he could be unseated by Clinton. She blamed both the press and her husband’s shambling political operation.

“I am flabbergasted by this campaign,”' she reported from an entry in her diary about six weeks before the 1992 election. “We are allowing the Clinton campaign to walk all over us.”

She also told in the book of her six-month struggle with depression in the 1970s when her husband was director of the Central Intelligence Agency. She said it was caused by hormonal imbalance associated with menopause and that, despite her husband’s urging, she did not seek psychiatric help.

“I almost wonder why he didn't leave me,” she wrote. “I knew it was wrong, but couldn’t pull out of it.”

The memoir was aided by diaries she kept for years. She made scrapbooks, too, documenting the decades that passed.

In addition to her memoirs, Bush wrote two imaginative books about family dogs, C. Fred’s Story and Millie’s Book, the profits from which went to literacy causes, including the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. And she was heard on a national radio program, Mrs. Bush's Story Time, designed to show the importance of reading to children.

But always Bush walked the line between pioneering woman and loyal wife. Students at Wellesley protested her planned commencement speech in 1990, believing she hadn’t earned her place. She showed up anyway — along with Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa — and stood her ground, bolstered by her typical humor and charm.

“Now I know your first choice today was Alice Walker… known for The Color Purple,” she told the crowd. “Instead you got me, known for the color of my hair.”

She encouraged the students to be involved in something bigger than themselves, as she had chosen literacy. But she had made another choice too, she said, which was to enjoy herself and cherish her family and friends.

“At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal,” she said. “You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent.”

It was a mantra Bush embodied until the end.

Bush is survived by her husband, George H. W Bush; her sons George W. Bush, Jeb Bush, Marvin Bush and Neil Bush; her duaghter Dorothy Bush Koch; and numerous grand children and great-grandchildren.

Courtesy/Source: Houston Chronicle