Barbara Bush, matriarch of American political dynasty, dies at 92
(Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)
The office of her husband, former president George H.W. Bush, issued a statement Tuesday evening announcing her death but did not disclose the cause. Mrs. Bush was reportedly battling chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and congestive heart failure. Her family announced two days earlier that she had “decided not to seek additional medical treatment” after recent hospitalizations amid her “failing health.”
As the matriarch of one of America’s political dynasties, Mrs. Bush spent a half century in the public eye. She was portrayed as the consummate wife and homemaker as her husband rose from Texas oilman to commander in chief. They had six children, the eldest of whom, George W. Bush, became president. Their eldest daughter, Robin, died at age 3 of leukemia, a tragedy that had a profound impact on the family.
[Photo gallery: Barbara Bush through the years]
Her husband served two terms as vice president under Ronald Reagan and then one as president, from 1989 to 1993. On his watch, the Cold War ended, and the nation and its allies achieved a swift and crushing victory over Iraq in the Persian Gulf War — before a faltering economy largely doomed his reelection prospects.
George W. Bush, a former governor of Texas, was president from 2001 to 2009, and after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he led the country into long-lasting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the rumblings of the Great Recession.
“Barbara Bush was a fabulous First Lady and a woman unlike any other who brought levity, love, and literacy to millions,” her eldest son said in a statement. “To us, she was so much more. Mom kept us on our toes and kept us laughing until the end.”
Only Abigail Adams, whose husband, John Adams, and son John Quincy Adams served as the second and sixth presidents, respectively, of the United States, shared Mrs. Bush’s distinction of being the wife and mother of commanders in chief.
Another Bush son, Jeb, served two terms as Florida governor before unsuccessfully seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2016.
Mrs. Bush was proud of her family’s achievements but expressed reservations — especially as Jeb Bush mounted his White House bid — about whether it was healthy in a democracy for one family to accumulate so much power.
In a “Today” show interview, she called Jeb Bush “by far the best-qualified man.” But “there are a lot of great families, and it’s not just four families or whatever. There are other people out there that are very qualified,” she remarked, adding — with her characteristic bluntness — that “we’ve had enough Bushes.”
But once her son entered the race, she was 100 percent in — and she did not mince words about her distaste for his primary opponent, businessman Donald Trump. In a joint interview with Jeb before the New Hampshire primary, she unflinchingly stated that it was “incomprehensible” to her that anyone would vote for Trump, particularly women, in light of his abusive comments about them.
Instinctively understanding how Trump’s apparent fondness for Russian leader Vladimir Putin might not sit well with voters, she further noted: “Putin has endorsed him, for heaven’s sakes. Putin the killer, Putin the worst. That’s an endorsement you don’t want.”
Trump issued a statement Tuesday evening, praising Mrs. Bush as “an advocate of the American family” and highlighting her focus on literacy as one of her greatest achievements.
A relatively unknown national figure until her husband became vice president, Mrs. Bush was comfortable as a backstage force, maintaining stability during her family’s more than two dozen moves before entering the vice president’s official residence in 1981.
Within the Bush clan, she was known as “the enforcer.”
“She may be a lot of people’s grandmother,” Jeb Bush told Newsday in 1990 when asked about his mother’s soothing, even matronly persona as first lady, “but she was our drill sergeant when we were growing up.”
By her account, she had evolved from a shy, socially “square” 16-year-old schoolgirl smitten at the sight of her 17-year-old future husband at a Christmas dance in Greenwich, Conn. At 19, she left her elite women’s college — Smith — to marry him.
Within a few years, they would leave behind their lives of wealth and privilege in the Northeast as George H.W. Bush sought his fortune as a Texas oilman before winning a congressional seat in 1966. Mrs. Bush accompanied him across the country and around the world as he served as U.N. ambassador, leader of the Republican National Committee, U.S. envoy to China and director of the CIA before becoming Reagan’s running mate.
According to Peter and Rochelle Schweizer’s 2004 book, “The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty,” Mrs. Bush for years maintained and meticulously curated a network of tens of thousands of contacts and friends that she saved on index cards for social and fundraising reasons. By the time the Bushes got to the White House and automated the card file, they had a Christmas card list in excess of 10,000 names.
The political spouse
As a political spouse, she contrasted sharply with her predecessor as first lady, Nancy Reagan, who had at times generated unwanted attention with her lavish spending, designer clothes and intrusions into her husband’s administration. Mrs. Bush presented herself as the antithesis of glamour and excess. She endeared herself to many with her droll frankness, boasting about her trademark triple-strand faux pearls and joking about her prematurely white hair.
The two wives were formidable women, protective of their husbands, and their relationship during the Reagan administration was noticeably icy. The Bushes were seldom invited to the Reagan White House’s family quarters.
As first lady, Mrs. Bush established the nonprofit Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, to which she donated nearly $800,000 in after-tax proceeds from her best-selling “Millie’s Book” (1990), which channeled the voice of her pet dog.
She also encouraged people to volunteer at homeless shelters and Head Start projects, and she promoted AIDS awareness when the disease was still highly stigmatized and misunderstood.
In 1989, she made front-page headlines when she visited Grandma’s House, a pediatric AIDS care center in the District, and cradled an infant patient at a time when many people mistakenly believed the disease could be contracted through mere proximity to the virus.
She attended in 1990 the funeral of Ryan White, the teenager who had fought to return to public school in Indiana after he contracted the AIDS virus through a blood transfusion. (Her husband signed into law what is now the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program to help provide services for people with the disease, but AIDS advocates have regarded the program as inadequately funded for years.)
Mrs. Bush sat on the board of the historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta and was reported to have played a role in the selection of her friend Louis W. Sullivan, the president of Morehouse’s medical school, to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.
Despite her preferences for staying behind the scenes, Mrs. Bush wasn’t shy about expressing her own views. At times, Mrs. Bush made public statements that seemed to conflict with her husband’s policies, including his opposition to abortion rights and gun-control measures. But she adamantly resisted being pulled into discussions about personal and controversial topics, dispatching unwanted questions with salty humor or a sharp, “Next question.”
In a rare misstep while joking with reporters, she referred to Geraldine Ferraro, her husband’s vice-presidential opponent in 1984, as “that $4 million — I can’t say it, but it rhymes with ‘rich.’ ” She quickly apologized.
The White House staff adopted a nickname bestowed on her by her children — the “Silver Fox” — and took care not to cross her. She was known to stare down aides she thought were not performing up to task for her husband.
In one incident, Mrs. Bush put Craig Fuller, chief of staff to then-Vice President Bush, on notice after friends and supporters complained that he was not returning their calls. As she watched him sift through a stack of messages, she snapped, within her husband’s earshot, “Keep looking. . . . You’ll find a couple from me.”
During four years as first lady, Mrs. Bush consistently ranked among the nation’s most-admired women, with high poll numbers that contrasted with her husband’s tumbling ratings. During the 1992 election, she was often deployed by the Bush campaign as a surrogate to humanize a president not known for charisma or the common touch.
She was, many commentators agreed, his most valuable asset in a race against then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, an agile campaigner who pounded Bush on the economy, and wild card candidate H. Ross Perot, a Texas billionaire running as an independent.
“She had grit and grace, brains and beauty,” Clinton said in a statement after her death, noting that he sometimes visited the Bushes at their family retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine. “Barbara joked that George and I spent so much time together I had become almost a member of the family, the ‘black sheep’ that had gone astray.”
Mrs. Bush generally managed to avoid the sorts of intrigues and uproars that perturbed her predecessor as first lady and her successor, Hillary Clinton, a lawyer, activist and herself an eventual presidential nominee. Clinton promised to be a partner in her husband’s public life and memorably defended her career by remarking, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas.”
In her no-nonsense way, Mrs. Bush rejected the idea of the election being a referendum on dramatic generational change and pushed back against polls that said she was better liked by the electorate than her husband.
“Nobody is jealous of me,” she told The Washington Post. “I mean, look at me. Who would be? It’s easy to like me. They like George, and they respect him. But he has to say no to people because he has to do what’s right for the country, and that’s hard.”
‘Interested in George’
Barbara Pierce was born in New York City on June 8, 1925, and raised in the tony suburb of Rye, N.Y. She was one of four children of the former Pauline Robinson, the daughter of an Ohio Supreme Court justice, and Marvin Pierce, a top executive of McCall Corp., which published Redbook and McCall’s magazines.
As a child, Barbara stood out physically, having reached 5 foot 8 and 148 pounds by age 12. She once described her younger self as “a very happy, fat child who spent all my life with my mother saying, ‘Eat up, Martha,’ to my older sister and, ‘Not you, Barbara.’ ” She would later talk about her mother as a humorless, unapproachable taskmaster.
She was 16 and a student at the private Ashley Hall school in Charleston, S.C., when she met George Herbert Walker Bush, who was then attending the private Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. A romance sparked at the 1941 Christmas dance and continued mostly through letters.
She later called him her first love and said he was the only boy she ever kissed. She entered Smith College in 1943, but, as she told United Press International years later, “didn’t like to study very much. . . . The truth is, I just wasn’t very interested. I was just interested in George.”
She withdrew from Smith in 1944 after their engagement was announced. Her fiance, a handsome Navy pilot, was serving in the South Pacific on Sept. 2, 1944, when his plane was hit by enemy fire. He was rescued in the water. They married on Jan. 6, 1945, while George was home on leave. He had named his bomber plane “Barbara.”
After the war, she went with him to New Haven, Conn., where he graduated from Yale University, and then to West Texas.
Many years afterward, she told The Post that her early experiences in Texas helped toughen her for public life. “When you become a couple, all grown up, nobody’s son or daughter, nobody’s shadow, you are you,” she said. “For me, it was a very healthy thing. I grew up after I left the shadow of my mother.”
In 1953, the Bush family was devastated by the prolonged suffering and eventual death of daughter Robin, whose full name was Pauline Robinson Bush. Decades later, Barbara Bush would still choke up when speaking of her.
“I was combing her hair and holding her hand,” she told the “Today” show. “I saw that little body, I saw her spirit go.”
[Barbara Bush had already faced a death more painful than her own]
Barbara was thrust into despair by the ordeal and its aftermath. But The Post reported that Robin’s death deepened Mrs. Bush’s bond with her son George, who was 7 at the time. He would tell friends he could not go out to play because his mother needed him, and he worked hard to cheer her up — shaping, as it happened, his ebullient personality.
Mrs. Bush gradually regained her equilibrium. With her husband, she started a foundation that raised money for leukemia research and awareness. She also spent considerable time helping guide her son Neil through his struggles with dyslexia. She said her son’s reading disorder contributed to her devotion to literacy as second lady and then as first lady.
George H.W. Bush’s careers in the oil business and public service often kept him away from home, leaving Mrs. Bush as the authority figure. She drove the car pools and stuffed five kids in the car for the annual summertime cross-country trips to the family retreat in Kennebunkport.
She acknowledged that once her youngest child left the house, she fell into depression. She attributed her feelings, at least in part, to the lack of purpose she felt as her children — and the women’s movement — came of age. “Suddenly women’s lib had made me feel my life had been wasted,” she told USA Today in 1989.
She said that her husband helped her overcome her doubts and that she also began to take satisfaction in seeing her children develop into self-sufficient adults, even if some — particularly the one who would become president — showed fiercely independent sides.
By his own admission, George W. Bush drank too much in his youth and gave his parents many headaches before a newfound religious fervor in his 40s changed his life. Mrs. Bush simply called her son “a late bloomer.”
Neil, the fourth child, was a director of the Denver-based Silverado Savings & Loan and was enmeshed in its collapse in 1988, which cost taxpayers more than $1 billion. He and other directors settled the case, and Neil Bush paid a $50,000 fine.
Besides her husband, survivors include five children, George, Jeb, Marvin, who co-founded an investment firm, Neil Bush and Dorothy “Doro” Bush Koch, who has worked in fundraising and philanthropy; a brother; 17 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
‘A great life’
Mrs. Bush generated a flash of controversy when Wellesley College, the women’s school in Massachusetts, invited her to speak at its 1990 commencement. Some students protested, saying the first lady, who had dropped out of college to marry and who had risen to prominence through the accomplishments of her husband, did not represent the type of career woman the college sought to educate.
At the commencement, Mrs. Bush told the graduates to “cherish your human connections: your relationships with family and friends.” She memorably added: “Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse, and I wish him well.”
She had abandoned some of the reserve she cultivated as first lady by the time her son was elected president in 2000. When George W. Bush’s administration was criticized for its slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, she told the public radio program “Marketplace” that the Gulf Coast evacuees being housed at Houston’s Astrodome “were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”
A White House press secretary tried to play down the remark, saying Mrs. Bush was making a strictly “personal observation.”
In her final years, Barbara Bush lived in the home she and her husband built in Houston and largely stayed out of the spotlight. In 2009, she sat for an interview with Fox News on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Tex.
“Well, it was a wonderful life that he’s had and I’ve shared,” Mrs. Bush said wistfully, recalling her time with her husband in Washington and China and even the car that first took them to West Texas. “We’ve had a great life.”