'A real rock:' The one-of-a-kind warmth and steel of Barbara Bush

Mrs. Bush, who died yesterday, was one of the most popular first ladies in US history. She straddled a time when wives of presidents were evolving from a helpmeet model of the past to a more engaged, issue-oriented spouse.

Jason Reed/Reuters/File
Former US first lady Barbara Bush listens to her son, President George W. Bush, as he speaks at an event on social security reform in Orlando, Fla., on March 18, 2005.

The first time Colin Powell met Barbara Bush, they were seated next to each other at a French Embassy luncheon. General Powell was an Army corps commander at the time – not yet a top Washington insider – and he was intimidated, a bit, by the formality of the situation. So he turned and said, “How do you do, Mrs. Bush? I’m very pleased to be with you.” 

“Call me Barbara,” she replied.

“No, I can’t do that... you’re the Vice President’s wife,” Powell said, as he recounts the story in an oral history recorded by the University of Virginia.

“Call me Barbara,” insisted Mrs. Bush.

“My mother would kill me,” said Powell.

“If you don’t call me Barbara, I’ll kill you,” Mrs. Bush said.

Dennis Cook/AP/FILE
First lady Barbara Bush poses with chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell, during a reception in Washington, Sept. 18, 1990.

Barbara Bush, wife of one president, mother of another, distant relative of a third (Franklin Pierce), combined warmth and steel in a genuine manner that made her one of the most popular first ladies in American history. She passed away on Tuesday at her home in Houston, according to a Bush family announcement.

Mrs. Bush was capable of moving displays of empathy, as when she cuddled an AIDS baby, at a time when the illness was not well understood, to show it could not be transmitted by contact. Her many appearances for literacy programs were legendary. White House butlers, maids, cooks, Secret Service agents, and, yes, reporters, could all attest to her thoughtfulness and insistence on treating them as people, not props.

Colin Powell said they grew to become great friends. Many other officials felt the same way.

At the same time, her family sometimes called her “the Enforcer.” Woe to anyone she saw as undermining George H. W. Bush. She said what she thought – including, when son Jeb was thinking of running for president in 2016, that maybe the White House had seen enough Bushes for now.

In 2013, a C-SPAN interviewer asked her what advice she would give to the nation’s first first husband. “Same thing I’d give the first wife, which is to be yourself,” she said. “And see if you can watch your mouth. I had trouble with that.”

The teenage Barbara Pierce met young George Bush at a Christmas dance in Greenwich, Conn. She thought maybe the pretty red and green dress loaned by a friend of her mother caught his eye. They saw each other the next night at a dance in Rye, N.Y. (the two tony suburbs exchanged holiday dances in those days), and that was that.

Long story short, they married in Rye on Jan. 6, 1945, with George on leave from the Navy. He went to Yale, they started a family, he graduated, they moved to Texas, he went into the oil business, made some money, got into Republican politics, won and lost Senate and House races. He moved into higher GOP circles, served as chair of the Republican National Committee, Ambassador to China, Director of Central Intelligence, then Vice President to President Ronald Reagan. He won the Oval Office outright in November, 1988.

Along the way they moved 27 times. It was Barbara who oversaw the packing, Barbara who sat every day with their young daughter Robin as she passed away from leukemia, Barbara who raised the five other children, Barbara who organized the food and the games when her husband filled the house with guests for dinner, as he loved to do.

Timothy McBride, George H. W. Bush’s personal assistant, says his boss filled their schedule with people and activity to Barbara’s “great annoyance.”  At one point, Mr. McBride told the University of Virginia, the then-president came to him and said: “I have an idea for entertainment. There’s this chainsaw juggler who’s really fantastic.”

In Barbara Bush’s White House, the chainsaw juggler never appeared.

As first lady, Mrs. Bush always emphasized the beauty and history of the White House. During a 1989 interview with The Monitor’s Charlotte Saikowski, she extolled the building’s family quarters and even the place settings.

“Today, I had lunch off [Woodrow] Wilson’s plates, sometimes I have lunch off Lincoln’s plates,” Bush said.

Pressed on several matters of policy, the first lady answered politely, but not at length. Yes, she supported her husband’s nominee for Defense secretary, former Sen. John Tower (he was eventually rejected by the Senate due to concerns about personal behavior). What about Lt. Col. Oliver North, charged with various offenses related to the Iran/Contra affair?

“I think he’s innocent until proven guilty,” said Mrs. Bush, tersely. (North was convicted, but the judgment was vacated and overturned and the charges later dismissed.)

At the time, the nation’s expectations for a modern first lady were changing, from the helpmeet model of the past to a more engaged, issue-oriented spouse. Mrs. Bush was determined to not be Nancy Reagan, a first lady criticized for alleged meddling in staff affairs, as well as her taste for expensive clothes, and general icy reserve. At the same time, she did not have an advanced degree like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama (law) or Laura Bush (library sciences).

“I think people don’t feel threatened by me ... I think people think it is nice that you really love your husband and your children and your dog,” she told Ms. Saikowski.

“I don’t even mind cats,” she added. In many of her remarks, there was that touch of wry at the end.

Literacy was Mrs. Bush’s biggest domestic focus. She made many appearances for reading programs and Head Start around the country. It was a private as well as a public interest. One Bush White House aide with a child who had learning differences remembers her interest in his problem, and how she walked him through all options, discussing what might be best for his family.

Another remembers the evident closeness between the first couple. Taping a public service announcement together, they kept making each other laugh, leading to reels of outtakes, he said.

Mrs. Bush always emphasized that her pearls were fake, but her white hair was real. It was this self-deprecation, combined with obvious strength, which made her one of the most popular first ladies ever, according to former Bush officials.

Sigmund Rogich, a former assistant to President Bush and Ambassador to Iceland, contrasted Barbara Bush with another popular first lady, Jackie Kennedy.

Mrs. Kennedy was all about glamour. The Kennedy-Camelot aura was one of superstardom, almost as if it were a movie set, Mr. Rogich told the University of Virginia Presidential Oral History Project.

“Barbara Bush was a shoulder to put a head on,” Rogich said. “She provided strength and character. Not that Jackie Kennedy didn’t, but she did in a different kind of way. I thought Barbara was a real rock.” 

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