Barbara Bush, the former first lady of the United States, died April 17, 2018, at the age of 92.
Her death, which came shortly after Bush decided not to undergo further medical treatments for congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, was announced in a statement from the office of her husband, former President George H. W. Bush.
One of the world’s most recognizable women in the 1980s and ’90s, Barbara Bush presented a grandmotherly image that hid an iron will and strong determination to help her family succeed. And succeed they did — all the way to the top, more than once.
Born Barbara Pierce June 8, 1925, she grew up in Rye, New York, the daughter of a magazine magnate, granddaughter of an Ohio Supreme Court justice, and a distant cousin of 14th President Franklin Pierce.
She met her future husband, George Bush, when she was a 16-year-old boarding school student and he was a 17-year-old prep school boy preparing for a career in the U.S. Navy. An intense courtship led to marriage when she was just 19 and George was home on leave from his service in World War II. She dropped out of Smith College after two years of study in order to devote herself full-time to her new husband and the family they dreamed of.
That family was one that rarely settled down. They moved 29 times, all told, as George pursued business and political opportunities and Barbara made a career of caring for her husband and the six children they would have over the course of 13 years. Eleven of those moves happened in just the first six years of their marriage, and even as they settled into each new home, George frequently traveled on business.
It was not always an easy life for a young wife and mother. Daughter Doro later recalled to author Ann Grimes: “I remember Mom saying she spent so many lonely, lonely hours with us kids. I can understand how she felt. She did it all. She brought us up.”
But Barbara’s ambitions took her beyond raising children and into the public eye in the form of charitable work. Volunteerism was a keystone of her life. Among her earliest causes was volunteering in hospitals, and over the years, her charitable work grew to encompass board terms for organizations including Ronald McDonald House and the Morehouse College School of Medicine.
To the White House
As George’s political ambitions ramped up, Barbara was by his side, supporting him in each campaign he mounted, from his first as Republican Party county chairman in Harris County, Texas, to his final winning bid for president of the United States.
It was when George was elected vice president under President Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Barbara became second lady, that she first became an internationally known figure.
As second lady, Bush quickly made it clear that her personal cause would be family literacy. It was a cause that had deep roots in her own life. Her son Neil, her fourth child, had been diagnosed with dyslexia, and she devoted much time to helping him overcome his difficulties with reading.
With a national stage at her disposal, Bush spent much of her energy researching the causes of illiteracy and supporting efforts to combat it. Among her projects as second lady was a children’s book she wrote from the point of view of the family dog — “C. Fred’s Story” — the proceeds of which were donated to literacy charities.
Bush’s term as second lady wasn’t without its missteps. Perhaps the most famous came during the 1984 presidential campaign, when Geraldine Ferraro was George’s competition for vice president. Asked about Ferraro, Barbara famously described her as “that $4 million — I can’t say it, but it rhymes with ‘rich.'” Bush later called Ferraro to apologize, having explained that she thought the remark was off the record.
It was a rare political comment from a second lady who more typically preferred to remain behind the scenes and work on her own charities rather than dip a hand into her husband’s affairs. She was supportive, always, but rarely strove to be an influencer. It was a trait that would remain when she became first lady upon George’s election as president in 1988.
As first lady, Bush came on the heels of a predecessor who could easily have been a very hard act to follow: Nancy Reagan. The glamorous and outspoken Reagan was known for her designer clothing and opulent redecoration of the White House, as well as her highly visible “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. Bush’s more down-to-earth style was quite the opposite of Reagan’s, but rather than try to downplay the difference, she embraced it, positioning herself as a practical woman who cared more about getting things done than looking good.
Bush took this tack from her earliest days as first lady. As her husband’s inauguration approached, she gave a self-deprecating dig at her own appearance that ended with a bit of self-promotion: “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.” Soon after, she pointed out at one inaugural event that her stylish appearance was exclusive to the festivities: “Please notice — hairdo, makeup, designer dress. Look at me good this week, because it’s the only week.” Yet the first lady didn’t entirely shun designer wear. She was known to prefer Arnold Scaasi, who designed her inaugural gown, and Bill Blass.
As far as establishing her charitable self in contrast to Reagan’s “Just Say No,” Bush had long laid the groundwork for her literacy work, and it only grew when she became first lady. Soon she established the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, supporting literacy programs that involve parents as well as children. She wrote a second children’s book while in the White House, again from the point of view of a family pet: “Millie’s Book.”
Bush was also active with the White House Historical Association and raised $25 million toward the White House Endowment Trust, which funds ongoing efforts at restoration of the White House.
Her charity work in the medical world also continued, and she made a statement that was bold for its time when, in 1989, she visited “Grandma’s House,” a home for children with HIV and AIDS. In a time when most still mistakenly believed that AIDS could be spread by casual contact, Bush held and hugged several of the children, as well as an adult with AIDS. It was a powerful gesture that was one of the influential moments leading to greater understanding and acceptance of the disease, and she continued to work toward that goal throughout her time in the White House.
Bush’s homey ways made it hard for her to accept the heightened levels of security expected of the first family. She advocated a lower-key way of life for herself and her husband than what the Secret Service preferred, arguing that she should ride in a small car rather than a limousine and travel on commercial flights. Yet she wasn’t all smiles and friendly hugs. Her family half-jokingly called her “the enforcer,” she told the Today show. “Because I enforce,” she explained. “If you do something bad, I point it out to you.”
Bush rarely spoke out about political issues. When she did, they weren’t always in line with the values of her husband’s party. Most notable was her support for reproductive freedom. In her 2010 book, “Barbara Bush: A Memoir,” she stated, “I hate abortions, but just could not make that choice for someone else.” In the same book, she expressed her distaste for “gay bashing” and her belief that both abortion and sexuality are personal matters that the party should not take a specific stand on.
The latter was an opinion she had expressed much earlier, during her husband’s 1992 campaign for reelection. That campaign was an unsuccessful one, and the Bushes left the White House as the Clintons entered in 1993.
In the years following the first Bush presidency, Barbara was honored with the dedication of the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine, and several schools and libraries were named after her. She and her husband founded the George and Barbara Bush Center at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, housing the Bush Legacy Collection of memorabilia.
Bush saw her family’s political ambitions reach great heights once again when her eldest son, George W. Bush, was elected president in 2000 and reelected in 2004 — making Barbara Bush only the second American, two centuries after Abigail Adams, to have been married to one president and mother of another.
Her third child, Jeb, was among the candidates for the Republican nomination in the 2016 election, and Barbara famously flip-flopped on her support for him. In 2013, she told the Today show that though Jeb was well-qualified to be president, she didn’t want to see him run: “I think it’s a great country, 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, and we’ve had enough Bushes.” Yet when he launched his presidential bid, she reversed, supporting his ambitions and campaigning for him in New Hampshire before he ended his candidacy early in the primary season.
Bush was honored in 1995 with the Jefferson Award for Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged. In 1997, she was recognized for her work toward literacy with The Miss America Woman of Achievement Award. After Nancy Reagan’s death in 2016, Bush was the oldest living former first lady.
In addition to her husband, Bush is survived by her children, former President George W. Bush, Jeb Bush, Neil Bush, Marvin Bush and Dorothy Bush Koch, as well as a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She was preceded in death by her daughter, Robin Bush, who died of leukemia in childhood.
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