Barbara Bush dropped out of Smith during her sophomore year to marry George Bush, the first boy she had ever kissed and then a young Navy pilot in World War II. After the war had ended and he had 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.
Only Abigail Adams can also claim such close relationships with a pair of presidents. But the founding mother and wife of John Adams, the nation's second president, passed away six years before son John Quincy Adams was elected to the White House in 1824. She played an important part in her husband's presidency but not that of her son.
Barbara Bush loomed as a force in both.
NEW ENGLAND ROOTS
Barbara Pierce was a distant cousin of yet another president, the forgettable 14th, Franklin Pierce, and she could trace her direct family lineage to the Mayflower. She was born on 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 who was said to favor Barbara's striking older sister, Martha. Her mother's 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 and 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 Richard Nixon named him UN ambassador, then selected him to chair the Republican National Committee during the Watergate scandal. President Gerald 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 — over time, scoring higher favorable ratings than her husband or her son. Americans embraced her as an approachable, no-nonsense matron who benefited from the contrast with her designer-clad predecessor as first lady, Nancy Reagan.
But 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. And she had to deal with rumors of her husband's infidelity, which he denied. 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 was an avid needle-pointer — a hobby she picked up to survive endless political meetings when her husband was running for Harris County chairman — and an inveterate reader. For decades, from the time her husband became vice president, she made her cause battling adult literacy. The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, founded in 1989, stands as part of her legacy.
She is survived by 17 grandchildren, several of them involved in public service, and seven great-grandchildren. Her grandchildren include George P. Bush, now 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. Her namesake, Barbara Pierce Bush, is co-founder and president of the non-profit Global Health Corps.
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 rarely offered her advice in public, but the impact of her private assessments to both presidents named Bush were the subject of considerable speculation.
During the 1984 campaign, when Reagan and Bush were running for re-election against Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro, Barbara Bush told reporters aboard Air Force Two that she and her husband weren't hiding the finances, "not like that four-million-dollar — I can't say it, but it rhymes with 'rich.' "
Afterward, she insisted that she thought the comment was off the record, but reporters filed stories about it, creating a furor and prompting an apology in public and in a phone call to Ferraro. (She said the rhyming word she had in mind was "witch," persuading no one.)
Barbara Pierce Bush 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, though, or Donald Trump. In the 2016 election, she wrote in son Jeb's name.) During her lifetime, she stood on one side of a cultural divide riven by the women's movement. She had chosen to be a wife, mother and homemaker, albeit one with out-sized political influence. She seemed to be the most traditional of first ladies, succeeded by Hillary Rodham Clinton, the least traditional.
Barbara Bush tackled some of the complicated friction that divide created in a commencement address at Wellesley College in 1990. About 150 of the school's students had 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 and brought along Raisa Gorbachev, then visiting Washington with her husband, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
"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," she told the graduating class and a national television audience in her speech. "You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend, or a parent."
In a closing comment that brought laughter and applause, she added that someday, someone in this audience just might follow in her footsteps as the president's spouse. "And I wish him well," she said.
Washington Bureau chief Susan Page's biography of Barbara Bush, The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty, is being published by Twelve next spring.