My Recollections of Former First Lady Barbara Bush As The World Says Farewell to A Family Matriarch
When I first heard that Former First Lady Barbara Bush – the matriarch of the Bush family — had passed away my mind immediately focused on my personal experiences with this extraordinary woman.
It was with great sorrow that I took the news, along with the nation and the rest of the world, that Mrs. Bush passed away on Tuesday, April 17, at her home in Houston. She was 92. Her Texas funeral will take place on Saturday, April 21, and be widely covered on national television.
Mrs. Bush, best known for her shocking white hair and string of pearls, was often called the nation’s grandmother; and it was a moniker she wore with tremendous pride. She has the rare distinction of being the wife of the 41st U.S. President and the mother of the 43rd U.S. President. Although she did not seek the spotlight for herself, she clearly strongly believed in public service and giving back to others.
I was working as a reporter for newspapers in South Florida in the late 1980’s and early ‘90s when I first had the opportunity to cover the national political conventions, followed by covering several U.S. Presidents, including George H.W. Bush.
In August 1988, I was in New Orleans working as a political reporter and feature writer for Scripps Howard Newspapers, including the daily South Florida Stuart News, and was part of a pool of reporters covering Mrs. Bush, whose husband then Vice President George H.W. Bush was running for president.
I vividly remember the day that Mrs. Bush visited a New Orleans pre-school and requested that just a few reporters accompany her inside so the throngs of media wouldn’t scare the children.
At age 29, this was my first time I had been given the opportunity to have a front row seat to history and I was even more unnerved when I was chosen with just a handful of other writers to represent the “pool” and give her remarks to those members of the national and international media waiting outside.
I was struck by how thoughtful, genuine and attentive Mrs. Bush was with each child. She sat with them, read to them, and played with them, stalling just a bit so that she could stay a little longer, despite her jam-packed schedule that day.
It was clear to me that day, especially when she introduced her husband at the Republican National Convention, that Mrs. Bush was a political asset.
In December 1988, my proposal to Family Circle for a story entitled My Father: The President was accepted, and shortly before Christmas I flew to Maine to spend the weekend with Dorothy “Doro” Walker Bush, the daughter of President-elect H.W. Bush and Mrs. Bush.
I ate homemade tuna fish sandwiches with Doro Bush and her two young children, and after hours and hours of interviews I got to understand the family dynamics. I walked away knowing how lucky the Bush children and grandchildren were to have such close family ties.
I also interviewed President-elect Bush via telephone for the same story; I was in my apartment in Stuart, Florida, getting ready to move to start working at the Fort LauderdaleSun-Sentinel and Bush was in his office in Washington, D.C.After my feature article and Bush family photos were published in Family Circle for Father’s Day 1989, a story read by millions, I was told that this daughter’s love for her parents and my ability to capture them as loving parents and grandparents, truly softened the image of The President, who, after all, was the former Director of the CIA.
It was clear to me from my trip to Maine, near the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, and subsequent visits with various family members including her son Jeb Bush, the former Florida Governor, that Mrs. Bush and the former President had a rare love story. They celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary this January, and it was with great sadness I have watched the former President, with daughter Doro at his side, prepare for the funeral of his wife.
Mrs. Bush was born Barbara Pierce on June 8, 1925 in New York City, the third child of Pauline Robinson Pierce and Marvin Pierce. Her father was a publisher who became president of McCall Publishing Company, best known for McCall’s Magazine, which I also proudly wrote for in the 1990’s.
Mrs. Bush’s mother, the daughter of an Ohio Supreme Court justice, was active in civic affairs, where she grew up in the tony suburb of Rye, New York. The family was affluent, and she attended Rye Country Day School, where she was required to take dance lessons/ This turned out to be an extremely smart move since it was at a dance she met her one true love.Mrs. Bush met her future husband at a Christmas dance in 1941, when he was a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Mr. Bush enlisted in the U.S. Navy after graduating in 1942, and Mrs. Bush enrolled in Smith College. While on leave from the Navy, they married in Rye, New York, on Jan. 6, 1945, before her 20th birthday, after she decided to drop out of Smith at the start of her sophomore year. She said in later interviews: “I was just interested in George.”
The couple had six children; their first son, George, daughter Pauline (known as Robin), who died of leukemia before her fourth birthday; Jeb (John Ellis), Neil, Marvin, and the youngest, daughter Dorothy “Doro” Walker Koch.George and Jeb followed their father into politics; Neil and Marvin are businessmen, and Dorothy Bush Koch is a philanthropist.
Mrs. Bush clearly enjoyed a favorable public image while she was First Lady from Jan. 1989 to Jan. 1993, and she appeared to be unpretentious, walking the dog in her bathrobe, poking fun at herself. With her white hair and matronly figure she fit the nation’s view of an old-fashioned grandmother, and that was fine by her.
It seems that part of her appeal was her self-deprecating humor. She said early on that she would do anything and everything to help the Bush Administration, but drew the line when it came to a few key personal issues. “I won’t dye my hair, change my wardrobe or lose weight,” she said. But while watching her return to South Florida several times for various events, it was clear that she began to wear designer clothes and have her hair styled.
Literacy was vitally important to Mrs. Bush, and in her eight years as the wife of then Vice President Bush, she attended some 500 events that were related to literacy, and as First Lady she founded the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. Proceeds from two books she wrote on the family dogs were donated to various literacy causes that were near and dear to her heart.
She wanted to be known as someone who truly cared about others, especially her family, and worked extremely hard to make Americans more literate.
A champion of AIDS awareness, Mrs. Bush came to South Florida for many events while First Lady, including a visit to a bustling clinic where infants and toddlers were being treated for AIDS.
At a time when nearly everyone was skittish about being around those with AIDS, then First Lady Barbara Bush picked up, cuddled and spent time with several ill infants, and by doing so surrounded by a large world press corps, she helped put the nation at ease in caring for these ailing youngsters.
The message was clear: “If First Lady Barbara Bush was not afraid of catching HIV or AIDS from these children, then the medical professionals, family members and the extended community should not be either.”
So, it is that day at that clinic where a fearless Mrs. Bush held and cuddled these children in need that remains my most vivid memory. As the Bush family matriarch and a dedicated mother, she touched so many lives, and for her humanity and loving heart she will certainly be missed.
Mrs. Bush is survived by Former President George Bush, her children, brother, Scott Pierce, as well as 17 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.