Former first lady Barbara Bush dead at 92
Former first lady Barbara Bush — one of only two women to be both the wife and mother of a US president — died on Tuesday at her home in Houston, the office of former president George H.W. Bush said.
She was 92.
“A former First Lady of the United States of America and relentless proponent of family literacy, Barbara Pierce Bush passed away,” according to a statement from the Bush office.
Bush was born on June 8, 1925 at Booth Memorial Hospital in Manhattan. The daughter of magazine publishing titan Marvin Pierce, she was raised in the lap of luxury in Rye, New York.
On Christmas vacation in 1941 the 16-year-old Barbara Pierce went to a dance and met the man with whom she would start a political dynasty — George H.W. Bush, then a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.
Barbara and George — the son of US Sen. Prescott Bush, a Republican from Connecticut — kept a long- distance romance while he served as a Navy pilot through World War II and married on Jan. 6, 1945.
Once George graduated from Yale University in 1948, they moved to Texas where he worked in the oil industry.
They had six children, George, Dorothy, Jeb, Neil, Marvin and Robin, who died from leukemia when she was just 3.
The tragedy left a permanent hole in the couple’s hearts, Barbara said.
“Because of Robin, George and I love every living human more,” she once said.
After founding his own oil company, George won a Texas Congressional seat in 1966 — and the family was off to Washington, DC.
Just five years later, George’s burgeoning political career brought he and Barbara back to New York City, where George served as Richard Nixon’s UN ambassador.
The family lived at the Waldorf Towers, in apartment 42A at 50th Street and Park Avenue, for his 2-year UN stint.
George went on to be Ronald Reagan’s vice president for two terms before becoming America’s 41st president, blowing out Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Unlike her predecessor Nancy Reagan and successor Hillary Clinton, Bush largely stayed out of her husband’s day job.
“I don’t fool around with his office, and he doesn’t fool around with my household,” Barbara Bush said of her presidential husband.
As first lady, Bush’s driving goal was to raise America’s literacy rate.
Bush penned “Millie’s Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush.” It was a look at White House life as seen through the eyes of her springer spaniel Millie and raised $1 million for literacy programs.
She went on to form the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.
“Putting your arms around your child and reading to them is maybe one of the most satisfactory, happy moments of my life,” she said, in an interview posted on her foundation’s website.
The first lady did occasionally step outside her husband’s shadow to make waves – like she did by simply acknowledging the AIDS crisis.
In 1989, she toured Grandma’s House in Washington, DC, one of the country’s first centers to care for infant AIDS victims.
“You can hug and pick up AIDS babies and people who have the HIV virus” without fear, Bush said as she cradled a stricken baby. “There is a need for compassion.”
Only four years earlier, actor Rock Hudson – dying of AIDS in France – pleaded with the White House and close friend Nancy Reagan, to help him gain entry to a French military hospital. The first lady turned down the request.
Jim Graham, the first executive director of Whitman-Walker Health in Washington, DC, and early AIDS activist, said Barbara Bush’s visit to Grandma’s House was a crucial public moment.
“You can’t imagine what one hug from the first lady is worth,” Graham said at the time. “We’ve had so much trouble with all the talk about the dangers of personal contact. Here, the first lady isn’t afraid – and that’s worth more than a thousand public service announcements.”
Still, Barbara Bush – with her trademark, shock of white hair, was seen as an old-fashioned first lady.
There were student protests at Hillary Clinton’s alma mater Wellesley College when Bush – best known for marrying well – was chosen as commencement speaker in 1990.
Bush didn’t back down, and even feminists rallied to her side, saying she had every right to pick family over career.
“At the end of your life,” Bush told Wellesley grads, “you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child or a parent.”
After her husband was defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992, the Bush family returned to the White House eight years later.
That’s when Barbara’s oldest son, George W., scored a razor-thin Electoral College victory over Democratic Vice President Al Gore.
Barbara Bush is the only woman to have attended both her husband and son’s inaugural, as Abigail Adams, wife of second president John Adams, died more than six years before her son John Quincy Adams was sworn into office.
In a 2014 interview with C-SPAN, Barbara Bush almost seemed embarrassed by the rare spot she occupies in history books, saying it’s “silly” there are dynasties in American politics.
“This is a great American country, a great country. And if we can’t find more than two or three families to run for high office, that’s silly,” she said.
“Because there are great governors and great eligible people to run. And I think the Kennedys, Clintons, Bushes, there are just more families than that.”
Nevertheless, Barbara Bush campaigned for her son Jeb — the former governor of Florida — when he sought the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
And she was no pushover, ripping then-candidate Donald Trump as a tool of Russia.
“Putin endorsed him, for heaven sakes. Putin, the killer. Putin, the worst,” Barbara told CBS News while on the trail for her son in New Hampshire. “That’s an endorsement you don’t want.”
Of course, Trump struck back — but had the good sense to attack Jeb and not his mom.
“Poor, poor, poor Jeb Bush, who brings out his mother because he needed help,” Trump said at a campaign rally. Jeb eventually dropped out of the primary, despite being a heavy favorite before Trump’s arrival.
Barbara and her husband later skipped out on attending Trump’s 2017 inauguration with other living presidents, citing health issues — though weeks later they showed up as George flipped the coin at that year’s Super Bowl.
When Barbara Bush turned 92 this past June, her husband tweeted a picture of them with the sweet message: “Happiest of birthdays to Barbara Pierce of Rye, NY. I’m still the luckiest guy in the world.”
Barbara Bush was asked in 2016 how she and her husband have kept their sanity over all these years filled with all the politics and moving around.
She joked, “bad hearing.”
“At our age, we find that poor memory and bad hearing help this process tremendously,” she told the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. “The truth is: We are both lucky, and we know it. Maybe that is the key.”