She was in­te­gral to 2 pres­i­dents

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Susan Page

Bar­bara Pierce Bush, the for­mer first lady whose cloud of white hair and strands of fake pearls be­came her sig­na­ture, died at her Houston home Tues­day af­ter a long strug­gle with con­ges­tive heart fail­ure and pul­monary dis­ease. The down-to-earth ma­tri­arch, who could trace her ances­try to the Mayflower and saw both her hus­band and son win the White House, was 92.

“I’m not sure God will rec­og­nize me; I have so many new body parts!”

Bar­bara Bush, in a piece pub­lished this month in Smith Col­lege’s alum­nae mag­a­zine

“I am still old and still in love with the man I mar­ried 72 years ago,” the for­mer first lady wrote in a note pub­lished this month in Smith Col­lege’s alum­nae mag­a­zine, still show­ing her char­ac­ter­is­tic hu­mor. “I have had great med­i­cal care and more op­er­a­tions than you would be­lieve. I’m not sure God will rec­og­nize me; I have so many new body parts!”

Her death was an­nounced by Jim McGrath, spokesman for for­mer pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush.

A memo­rial ser­vice is to be held at St. Martin’s Epis­co­pal Church, a few blocks from the home she and Ge­orge H.W. Bush built af­ter he

was de­feated for re-elec­tion in 1992. A pro­ces­sional is planned to carry her body to the Ge­orge Bush Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary Cen­ter in Col­lege Sta­tion, on the cam­pus of Texas A&M, where she will be laid to rest near the grave of a daugh­ter, Robin.

Her hus­band, the na­tion’s 41st pres­i­dent, is 93 years old and strug­gling with a Parkin­son’s-like dis­ease that put him in a wheel­chair and made it dif­fi­cult for him to speak. Son Jeb Bush, the for­mer gov­er­nor of Flor­ida, is slated to de­liver his mother’s eu­logy.

Bar­bara Bush dropped out of Smith dur­ing her sopho­more year to marry Ge­orge Bush, the first boy she had ever kissed and a young Navy pilot in World War II. Af­ter the war ended and he grad­u­ated from Yale, she and their tod­dler son, Ge­orgie, fol­lowed him from the com­forts of Con­necti­cut to the wilds of Texas, where he was de­ter­mined to make his for­tune in the boom­ing oil busi­ness.

Over the years, she es­tab­lished more than two dozen homes in their peri­patetic life, served as “the en­forcer” rear­ing their five sur­viv­ing chil­dren, and emerged as one of her hus­band’s most trusted ad­vis­ers and big­gest po­lit­i­cal as­sets. She had a sharp eye for phonies and a blunt-spo­ken will­ing­ness to speak her mind, in­clud­ing to her son, Ge­orge W. Bush, when he be­came the na­tion’s 43rd pres­i­dent.

New England roots

Bar­bara Pierce was born June 8, 1925, the third of four chil­dren, and grew up in the tony New York City bed­room com­mu­nity of Rye. Her fa­ther, Marvin, was a gifted col­lege ath­lete who was trained as an en­gi­neer and rose to head the McCall pub­lish­ing em­pire.

Her mother, Pauline, was an avid gar­dener. Her jibes about Bar­bara’s child­hood chub­bi­ness left her with a life­long sen­si­tiv­ity about her weight. In her me­moir, Bar­bara Bush re­called her mother’s din­ner-time en­treaties. “Eat up, Martha,” she would say. “Not you, Bar­bara.”

At a Christ­mas dance at the Green­wich Coun­try Club in 1941, Ge­orge Bush asked a mu­tual friend to in­tro­duce him to the pretty girl across the room. Bar­bara was 16. He was 17 and ready to en­list in the Navy as soon as he grad­u­ated from Phillips Acad­emy An­dover. When they mar­ried, she was 19 and he was 20. Their union, stretch­ing more than seven decades, is the long­est of any pres­i­den­tial cou­ple in U.S. his­tory.

They had a large and bois­ter­ous fam­ily: Ge­orge, Robin, Jeb, Neil, Marvin and Doro. Liv­ing in Odessa, then Mid­land, Bush made his money in the Texas oil busi­ness. He moved the fam­ily to Houston and launched a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer — first be­com­ing Har­ris County Repub­li­can chair­man, then los­ing a bid for the U.S. Se­nate and fi­nally win­ning one for the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

Pres­i­dent Nixon named him U.N. am­bas­sador, then se­lected him to chair the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee dur­ing the Water­gate scan­dal. Pres­i­dent Ford ap­pointed him as the U.S. en­voy to China, then as di­rec­tor of the CIA.

He ran for pres­i­dent in 1980, los­ing the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion but be­ing se­lected at the last minute by Ron­ald Rea­gan as his run­ning mate. Af­ter two terms as vice pres­i­dent, Bush was elected pres­i­dent in 1988.

At each step, Bar­bara Bush was his in­dis­pens­able part­ner — or­ga­nized, dis­ci­plined, fo­cused and flex­i­ble. She built sprawl­ing net­works of friends, sent out thou­sands of Christ­mas cards and eas­ily so­cial­ized with strangers, from for­eign am­bas­sadors at state dinners to fac­tory work­ers on the cam­paign trial. She wasn’t flum­moxed by abrupt changes in cir­cum­stance and lo­cale.

As first lady, she be­came enor­mously pop­u­lar — scor­ing higher fa­vor­able rat­ings than her hus­band or her son. Amer­i­cans em­braced her as an ap­proach­able, no-non­sense ma­tron.

The years also had their share of pain and sor­row. Daugh­ter Robin died of leukemia at age 3 in 1953. Bar­bara Bush suf­fered from a spate of de­pres­sion in 1975 so se­ri­ous that she con­tem­plated sui­cide, she dis­closed in her mem­oirs. At age 28, son Marvin was di­ag­nosed with ul­cer­a­tive col­i­tis, an in­cur­able dis­ease that forced surgery to re­move his colon. Son Neil be­came en­meshed in the sav­ings-and-loan scan­dals of the 1980s for his ties to a Den­ver bank. Neil and daugh­ter Doro had messy di­vorces.

Bar­bara Bush flinched at quips that she looked more like Bush’s mother than his wife. Soon af­ter be­com­ing first lady, she was di­ag­nosed with Graves’ dis­ease. The thy­roid dis­or­der gave her dou­ble vi­sion and led to painful com­pli­ca­tions that she shielded from pub­lic view but that plagued her for the rest of her life.

She is sur­vived by 17 grand­chil­dren, sev­eral in­volved in pub­lic ser­vice, and seven great-grand­chil­dren. Her grand­chil­dren in­clude Ge­orge P. Bush, run­ning for re-elec­tion as Texas land com­mis­sioner; Lau­ren Bush, a for­mer model who founded a global food pro­gram called the FEED Project; and Pierce Bush, CEO of Big Broth­ers Big Sis­ters Lone Star.

Feared by some

Bar­bara Bush was warm, but she could be tough. She didn’t suf­fer fools gladly. White House staffers some­times avoided her for fear of be­ing the tar­get of a cut­ting re­mark or of get­ting on her bad side.

She was born five years af­ter women won the right to vote and lived to see a woman nom­i­nated for pres­i­dent (not that she voted for Hil­lary Clin­ton; in the 2016 elec­tion, she wrote in son Jeb’s name).

At a com­mence­ment ad­dress at Welles­ley Col­lege in 1990, about 150 stu­dents signed a pe­ti­tion protest­ing her ap­pear­ance, ar­gu­ing that her life choices made her a poor role model for in­de­pen­dent and ca­reer-minded women. She showed up any­way.

In a com­ment that brought laugh­ter and ap­plause, she said that some­day, some­one in the au­di­ence might fol­low in her foot­steps as the pres­i­dent’s spouse. “And I wish him well,” she said.



Bar­bara Bush sits with her hus­band Ge­orge H.W. Bush and her chil­dren, clock­wise from left, Neil, Jeb, Ge­orge, Marvin and Dorothy in 1964.

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