On April 17, Barbara Bush passed away at the age of 92 after a battle with lung and heart diseases. She was the wife of a president, George H.W. Bush, and the mother of another, George W. She was the second woman in American history to hold this honor, following only Abigail Adams. Barbara was a much-loved first lady and public figure, and her legacy for America is long and influential.
Barbara was the mother of six children, one of whom preceded her in death due to childhood leukemia. This loss profoundly shaped her and George’s marriage, and their charitable endeavors throughout her life.
Pauline, known to the family as Robin, was diagnosed with cancer at the age of three. In her biography, Barbara wrote extensively about the lasting effects of Robin’s illness and death, and that her own death wasn’t something she feared after losing her daughter.
For seven months, Barbara and her husband sat in a New York hospital as doctors struggled to treat a cancer that at the time was poorly understood. Robin passed away with her mother and father by her side. It’s during this time that Barbara’s hair turned white, and she became known for her bright white hair. Barbara will be buried by Robin’s side in the family cemetery.
Barbara was a constant support and vocal fixture at the side of her husband throughout his lengthy political career. She left college to support her husband’s political journey. George H.W. began as a U.S. representative for Texas, where the family was from, and later became a United Nations ambassador, then the Republican Party chairman, as well as an ambassador to China.
In 1976 he became the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, appointed to the position by President Gerald Ford. He was a professor at Rice University’s Jones School of Business. He then served as a director for the Council on Foreign Relations. He was President Ronald Reagan’s vice president for both terms, then he became president and Barbara became first lady in 1988.
Barbara was known for a quick wit and a sharp temper. She kept most of her sarcastic remarks contained in public, but her son discussed her temper in his book, and occasionally the press recorded an off the cuff remark. She was a strong defender of her husband and son, and never shy about expressing her ideas. She was a well-loved first lady, however, and kind to White House staff. She was careful to keep controversy to a minimum, and focused her efforts on positions that would bring people together, like her work in promoting literacy.
The foundation she started while her husband was in the White House still funds literacy programs across America. The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy has worked to help families increase reading rates and literacy in America for more than 25 years, with more than $40 million in grants so far. Also during her time in the White House, she worked to maintain and preserve it, including raising money for the White House Endowment Trust.
She was the first recipient of an award fund for first ladies, the Henry G. Freeman Jr. Pin Money Fund, and gave the award to charity. Estimates place the total at more than $1 billion what she and her husband have raised for cancer and literacy.
She and H.W. moved back to Houston after they left the White House, and they were open in later years about their difficulty in re-acclimating to life outside the presidency. Her struggles and willingness to share them are a large part of what made her so endearing and likable.
Barbara recounted that she had not cooked in 12 years. She had to work to regain her skill and comfort with driving a car. We don’t always think about the intimate details of the presidents and their families after their time of public service is over, but her anecdotes reminded Americans how much she had in common with them.
Barbara and H.W. were married for 73 years, the longest marriage of any American presidential couple. She met H.W. at a Christmas party when she was 15. He was her first love, and the first man she kissed. “When I tell this to my children, they just about throw up,” was how she described their reactions to this part of their love story. They got engaged and he served in World War II, then they married.
By all accounts, she was a vibrant and lively woman, full of love and life, loved by her family and those who surrounded her. She was a long-time Astros fan, known for often keeping a scorecard during games. She started following baseball when her husband played the game in college, and would at times sign her scorecards and hand them out to fans.
Her son, George W. said, “Barbara Bush was a fabulous First Lady and a woman unlike any other who brought levity, love, and literacy to millions. To us, she was so much more. Mom kept us on our toes and kept us laughing until the end.”
Barbara is survived by her husband, five of her children, and 17 grandchildren. She will go down in history as a wonderful first lady, and a powerful example for Americans. She brought humor and grace to difficult situations, and owned her faults. Our country was richer for her service.