TART TONGUE, SWEET SPIRIT
She was integral to 2 presidents
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.