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Barbara Bush: A first lady and first mother

The late wife of George H. W. Bush and mother of George W. Bush was like everybody’s favourite grandaunt

I met Nancy Reagan once, a long time ago, and shared some pleasantries with her. When I tell people of our meeting, at an event when she and her husband came to Ireland so Ronald could get in touch with his Irish roots, they always ask “What was she like?”

Nancy was as cold as a fish.

Ronald was warm and charming — and they are the same two words that I would apply to Barbara Bush, even though I never met her. She always reminded me of a that grandaunt that you meet at weddings and funerals. In Ireland, the only difference between funerals and weddings is that there’s one less drunk there, but that grandaunt is always at a corner table surrounded by relatives, beaming about her family and their accomplishments.

And Bush, who died on Tuesday aged 92, had every reason to be proud — the only woman to see her husband and son both sworn in as President of the United States — wife of George H.W. Bush and mother of George W. According to some media reports, she had been battling obstructive pulmonary disease and congestive heart problems for years. And as they say in Ireland at those funerals, something is going to get us all in the end. It always does.

“Barbara Bush was a fabulous First Lady and a woman unlike any other who brought levity, love and literacy to millions,” George W. Bush said in a statement after his mother’s passing. “To us, she was so much more. Mum kept us on our toes and kept us laughing until the end.”

She was first lady when her husband was in the White House from 1989 to 1993. Her son, Republican George Walker Bush, triumphed in the disputed 2000 US election and was president from 2001 to 2009. The father-and-son presidents were sometimes referred to as “Bush 41” and “Bush 43”. She was just dubbed “The Silver Fox” by her husband and children, Bush was known for her snow-white hair and for being fiercely protective of her family.

Bush had an independent streak and could be sharp-tongued. As first lady, she promoted literacy and reading but said she was more interested in running a household than helping her husband run the country.

She discouraged speculation that she wielded political influence with the president like her predecessors Nancy Reagan and Rosalynn Carter.

“I don’t fool around with his office and he doesn’t fool around with my household,” she once said.

And neither did the Bushes fool around in their family life either — in January, the couple celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary, and for that feat alone, she deserves considerable credit.

In her 1994 memoir, Barbara Bush describes her and her husband as “the two luckiest people in the world, and when all the dust is settled and all the crowds are gone, the things that matter are faith, family and friends. We have been inordinately blessed, and we know that”.

The former president was a naval aviator in training when they met. “I’m not much at recalling what people wear, but that particular occasion stands out in my memory,” he says in his autobiography. The band was playing Glenn Miller tunes and he asked a friend from Rye, New York, if he knew the girl across the room in the green and red holiday dress. The friend introduced him to Barbara Pierce, a publisher’s daughter from Rye who was going to school in South Carolina.

The next song was a waltz.

“Since I didn’t waltz, we sat the dance out. And several more after that, talking and getting to know each other,” George H.W. Bush said. “It was a storybook meeting.” Within eight months, they’d met each other’s families, were engaged in August 1943 and married January 6, 1945, four months after Bush was shot down over the Pacific. He’d been the Navy’s youngest aviator when he got his wings and carried the name “Barbara” on his Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber.

After the war, he attended Yale and they moved to Texas. Her husband made his mark in the oil business as the couple grew their family and turned to politics, a journey that would take them around the world and into the White House.

She always said she didn’t fear death, in all likelihood because she had faced in the hardest way imaginable. Mothers are not supposed to bury their children, after all.

In 1953, soon after George H.W. Bush had moved his family to Midland, Texas, to get into the oil business, the couple’s three-year-old daughter complained about feeling tired. Usually, Pauline Robinson “Robin” Bush, the much-doted-on only girl of the Bush children, was as rowdy and healthy as her older brother George W. and baby brother Jeb. Barbara decided to take her to a paediatrician. The diagnosis was shockingly abrupt. The doctor called the Bushes a few days later with a word neither had ever heard before: Leukaemia. The complaint had been fatigue; the prescription was to take their child home to die.

“Her advice was to tell no one, go home, forget that Robin was sick, make her as comfortable as we could, love her — and let her gently slip away,” Bush recalled in her memoir. “She said this would happen very quickly.”

But the Bushes had means and determination, and they fought the death-sentence diagnosis, beginning a months-long ordeal that would have life-long impact on a family that would come to include two presidents.

USA Today reporter Susan Page, who is writing a new biography of Barbara Bush, spoke to the former first lady about the episode last autumn, 64 years to the month after Robin’s death. Sitting in her Houston living room, facing a portrait of her forever-young daughter, the tears were fresh.

“I think this was a very powerful tragedy in their lives,” Page said. “No mother would ever forget a child, but Robin has remained a real presence for them.”

Now, mother and daughter will rest together in the same cemetery plot deep in the heart of Texas. That, to me, says the most about the former first lady.

— With inputs from agencies

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