She was America’s First Lady and first mother. And it is doubtful the United States will ever see her like again.
Barbara Pierce Bush died on April 17th at the age of 92. She did it on her own terms and in her own home, holding onto her husband’s hand as her life slipped away.
She could have undergone invasive care for her weak heart and failing lungs. But she refused, opting instead to face death with dignity, surrounded by those she loved.
One would have expected no less from her. She died as she lived… on her own terms.
Her husband, George Herbert Walker Bush, was the 41st president of the United States… Her son, George W. Bush, was the 43rd. Barbara Bush was a guiding presence in both their lives —- feisty, strong and oh so very human.
Jon Meacham, George H. W. Bush’s biographer described her this way:
“Barbara Bush was the first lady of the Greatest Generation — a woman who came of age at midcentury, endured a world war, built a life in Texas, raised her family, lost a daughter to leukemia, and promoted first her husband’s rise in politics, and then that of her sons.”
In all, Mrs. Bush once said, “it was a very good life.”
I remember my first meeting with her well. I was a young reporter on her husband’s 1988 presidential campaign. It was a brand new assignment and I was, well, a little unsure of myself.
That is until the day Barbara Bush decided to forego a ride on then Vice-President Bush’s official military jet and fly instead on the plane chartered for the campaign press corps. She chose the seat next to me.
She pulled a book out of a well-worn tote bag but never read a page. Instead, we talked. We talked about books, about our families and even a bit about the changing roles of women. As we were about to land, I said to her “Mrs. Bush you remind me so much of my mom!”
I was not surprised by her response. She smiled knowingly as she finally put her book away and said “Dear, everybody says that!”
In truth, they were alike in many ways. Born months apart, Barbara Bush and Irene Wolfson were strong, loving, outspoken, and devoted to their families. One was born into privilege and rose to national prominence… The other was a woman of far more modest means. Neither was especially glamorous, but both had an aura that drew people to them.
I think of my mom a lot these days. She too, died in peace on an April day after announcing she would forgo any extraordinary measures to extend her life. And I am about to say something I never thought I would say — I applaud the eloquence of George W. Bush. The words he wrote on the passing of his mother remind me so much of my thoughts the day I lost mine:
“Laura, Barbara, Jenna, and I are sad, but our souls are settled because we know hers was.”
Americans didn’t know much about Barbara Bush before her husband became Ronald Reagan’s vice-president in 1981. As a political wife, she was almost the opposite of Nancy Reagan, the glamorous Hollywood actress — boasting from time to time about her white hair and faux pearls.
The two were not particularly close but they did have a few traits in common. Both were formidable women who were devoted to their husbands.
Nancy Reagan had her “just say no” campaign against drug abuse. Barbara Bush championed literacy. She also was a force for what I will call “goodness.”
One example tells it all. In 1989, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, she visited a center for children with AIDS in D.C. She cradled an infant patient in her arms at a time when many people mistakenly thought you could catch the disease simply by getting close to someone with the virus. It was her way of sending a message to the nation.
During her four years as first lady, Mrs. Bush was constantly ranked in polls among the nation’s most admired women. And when her husband’s ratings began to plummet in the final years of his term, hers remained high.
He called her “The Silver Fox” — a nickname that stuck with many on the White House staff. Her children had another name for her. They referred to their mother as “the Enforcer”— the woman who kept her boisterous children in line and was the core of her extended family. It was an “endearment” that George H, W, Bush picked up on in a statement after her death:
“I always knew Barbara was the most beloved woman in the world, and in fact I used to tease her that I had a complex about that fact. But the truth is the outpouring of love and friendship being directed at The Enforcer is lifting us all up. We have faith that she is in heaven, and we know life will go on — as she would have it. So cross the Bushes off your worry list.”
It is almost as if he was channeling his late wife when he wrote those words. Mrs. Bush knew who she was… what mattered to her… and how to gauge a life well-lived.
In 1990, in a commencement address at Wellesley College, then-first lady Barbara Bush summed it all up. She won over a skeptical audience of young women — who had argued against a speaker who they felt was being recognized for her husband’s accomplishments— by talking about life’s choices:
“At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child, or a parent.”
And then she added: “Your success as a family, our success as a society, depends not on what happens in the White House, but on what happens inside your house.”
It is worth noting that Barbara Bush may have been the last First Lady of the pre-partisan era in Washington — before we began to regress into all-out political warfare between the national parties and public skepticism of Washington shifted into high gear. We had our debates during George H. W. Bush’s presidency. But there was also a sense of public decency.
Mrs. Bush’s public legacy may well be that she helped set that tone.
“I want to be known as a wife, a mother, a grandmother,” she wrote in 1988 as her husband prepared to assume the presidency.
But Barbara Pierce Bush was so much more.
As my own mom would say: “May her memory be for a blessing.”