Remembering the Formidable Matriarch, Barbara Bush

Remembering the Formidable Matriarch, Barbara Bush

I first came to her attention after a 1982 event in Minneapolis at which George H.W. Bush, then vice president, delivered a speech I had written. Aboard Air Force II, Barbara Bush came back to speak to the staff. “Who wrote that speech?” she asked.

I shrank into my seat. A member of the staff for only a couple of weeks, I was just 25. It was my first full-time job. When the press secretary explained that I was the new speechwriter, I forced myself to stand. Mrs. Bush held me in her gaze a good long while. Then she smiled. “It was a good speech,” she said. “Write more like it.”

That encounter lasted only a moment, but it summed up a lot about the lady. Warmth, good humor — but always a formidable presence.

Months later in Ottawa, some last-minute changes forced me to rewrite a toast the vice president would be delivering at a state dinner. In the vice president’s suite, I found myself face to face with Mrs. Bush. Already dressed for dinner, she was wearing a black silk taffeta dress. I was in gym shorts and a t-shirt.

“George is still getting dressed,” she said. She patted the chair next to hers, having me sit down. Then she mothered me, asking me questions about myself. “If it’s serious,” she said, when I admitted I had a girlfriend, “I can name two people who are in favor of early marriages: George and Barbara Bush.” Then she took a long look at my sweaty clothes. “That’s quite an act,” she said tartly. Standards — even at her sweetest, Mrs. Bush insisted on standards.

In some ways Barbara Bush was a great deal like Nancy Reagan. Both felt an intense and protective love for their husbands. Since the men they had married saw only the best in people, both believed, it fell to them to watch out for the users and wheedlers who would always try to take advantage of them. Yet of the roles the two women played, Barbara Bush’s proved the more complicated. Nancy Reagan only had to manage Ronald Reagan, who was a fundamentally solitary man. Barbara Bush had to manage George H.W. Bush, their six children, a couple of dozen in-laws and cousins and the thousands of others whom her gregarious, big-hearted husband invited into their lives. Mrs. Bush kept an eye on everyone. She proved gracious, funny and warm — but also shrewd.

When my wife and I took our five children to Kennebunkport to meet the Bushes a dozen years ago, for instance, no one seems to have told Mrs. Bush we were coming. President Bush took the kids to the pool, then returned to his office for a call. At that moment Mrs. Bush appeared. Dressed in a terrycloth robe, she took in the scene, then clapped her hands and shouted, having the children, who ranged in age from 12 to 2, gather around her. “I’m old,” she said, “and the doctor tells me to swim every day.” Then she told the children to choose one side of the pool, explaining that she would swim on the other. “Do we have a deal?” The children nodded solemnly. Mrs. Bush climbed in, put on a snorkel and spent 20 minutes swimming slow laps on her side of the pool while five children she had just met splashed and giggled and played Marco Polo on the other. Barbara Bush always found a way.

As she showed once again not quite a decade later. On the morning when Dartmouth College, my alma mater, was to award her husband an honorary degree, the weather turned cold and wet, prompting a small crisis that I followed in text messages from the former president’s chief of staff. Mrs. Bush wanted her husband, who was already confined to a wheelchair, to protect his health by canceling the trip. President Bush insisted on going. He got his way. When the Bushes reached the Dartmouth campus, Mrs. Bush had every right to appear anxious or tense. Instead she could scarcely have proven more charming. Once her husband had made up his mind, she had done what she always did. She supported him.

Barbara Bush fell in love at 16, married at 20, and devoted herself to her husband and family until her death yesterday. Call her life old-fashioned, if you wish, but do not suggest it went unfulfilled. She stood in a tradition that includes Abigail Adams, the only other woman in our history to have married one man who became president and given birth to another; of the pioneer women who, like Mrs. Bush, joined their husbands in leaving behind the settled patterns of life back East for new lives in the West; and the hundreds of thousands of women of Mrs. Bush’s own generation who endured the Depression and the Second World War, then married and raised families and helped make this country good and great.

Warmth. Good humor. But always a formidable presence. Barbara Bush was a great American.

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