World

Barbara Bush, an all-real plainspoken lady

Former first lady Barbara Bush (C) waves to fans as she walks on the field with former U.S. presidents George Bush (L) and Bill Clinton (2nd R) before Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville February 6, 2005. REUTERS/Marc Serota

HOUSTON: Barbara Bush didn’t hesitate to tell people that her trademark pearl necklaces were fake. Americans liked that everything else about the snowy-haired first lady was real. The wife of the nation’s 41st president and mother of the 43rd brought a plainspoken, grandmotherly style to buttoned-down Washington, displaying an utter lack of vanity about her white hair and wrinkles.

“What you see with me is what you get. I’m not running for president – George Bush is,” she said at the 1988 Republican National Convention, where her husband, then vice president, was nominated to succeed Ronald Reagan.

Mrs. Bush died Tuesday, family spokesman Jim McGrath said. She was 92.

A funeral is planned Saturday at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, which Mrs. Bush and her husband, former President George H.W. Bush, regularly attended. Mrs. Bush will lie in repose Friday at the church for members of the public who want to pay respects. Saturday’s service will be by invitation only, according to the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation.

The Bushes, who were married on Jan. 6, 1945, had the longest marriage of any presidential couple in American history. And Mrs. Bush was one of only two first ladies who had a child who was elected president. The other was Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams and mother of John Quincy Adams.

“I had the best job in America,” she wrote in a 1994 memoir describing her time in the White House. “Every single day was interesting, rewarding, and sometimes just plain fun,” she said.

The publisher’s daughter and oilman’s wife could be caustic in private, but her public image was that of a self-sacrificing, supportive spouse who referred to her husband as her “hero.”

In the White House, “you need a friend, someone who loves you, who’s going to say, ‘You are great,’” Mrs. Bush remarked in a 1992 television interview.

Her uncoiffed, matronly appearance often provoked jokes that she looked more like the boyish president’s mother than his wife. Late-night comedians quipped that her bright white hair and pale features also imparted an uncanny resemblance to George Washington.

Eight years after leaving the nation’s capital, Mrs. Bush stood with her husband as their son George W. was sworn in as president.

Mrs. Bush insisted she did not try to influence her husband’s politics.

“I don’t fool around with his office,” she said, “and he doesn’t fool around with my household.”

Daughter-in-law Laura Bush, another first lady, said Mrs. Bush was “ferociously tart-tongued” from the start.

“She’s never shied away from saying what she thinks. ... She’s managed to insult nearly all of my friends with one or another perfectly timed acerbic comment,” Laura Bush said in her 2010 book, “Spoken from the Heart.”

In her 1994 autobiography, “Barbara Bush: A Memoir,” she said she did her best to keep her opinions from the public while her husband was in office. But she revealed that she disagreed with him on two issues: She supported legal abortion and opposed the sale of assault weapons.

“I honestly felt, and still feel, the elected person’s opinion is the one the public has the right to know,” Mrs. Bush wrote.

Mrs. Bush raised five children: George W., Jeb, Neil, Marvin and Dorothy. A sixth child, 3-year-old daughter Robin, died in 1953.

In a speech in 1985, she recalled the stress of raising a family while married to a man whose ambitions carried him from the Texas oil fields to Congress and then into influential political positions that included ambassador to the United Nations, GOP chairman and CIA director.

“This was a period, for me, of long days and short years,” she said.

Along the way, she said, there were also “bumpy moments – not many, but a few – of feeling that I’d never, ever be able to have fun again and coping with the feeling that George Bush, in his excitement of starting a small company and traveling around the world, was having a lot of fun.”

The 43rd president was not the only Bush son to seek office in the 1990s. In 1994, when George W. was elected governor of Texas, son Jeb narrowly lost to incumbent Lawton Chiles in Florida. Four years later, Jeb was victorious in his second try in Florida.

In 1990, Barbara Bush gave the commencement address at all-women Wellesley College, though some had protested her selection because she was prominent only through the achievements of her husband. Her speech that day was rated by a survey of scholars in 1999 as one of the top 100 speeches of the twentieth century.

“Cherish your human connections,” Mrs. Bush told graduates. “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. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 19, 2018, on page 11.

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