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Remembering Barbara Bush, a beloved first lady of strength and purpose

"If there is a theme that weaves through my recollections ... it is how deeply invested Barbara was in political strategy for her husband and sons."

News analysis

HOUSTON — While watching women of all ages, many wearing Barbara Bush-style pearls, join more than 6,000 people paying tribute to the former first lady on Friday, I thought about the unique role she played: the last first lady of the Greatest Generation, only the second in American history to be the wife of one president and the mother of another, and a traditional spouse who was also the best political strategist for three generations of Bush men.

As former George W. Bush White House Communications Director Nicolle Wallace told me, “She was the strongest Bush I ever knew. And while she wasn’t elected president like her husband or her son, it was her approval and her standard that everyone who served them sought to look up to.”

Image: George H.W. Bush, Barbara Bush
Former President George H.W. Bush, embraces former first lady Barbara Bush after she introduced the former president at the Genesis Women's Shelter Mother's Day Luncheon in Dallas, on May 3, 2006.Tony Gutierrez / AP file

If there is a theme that weaves through my recollections, along with reminiscences of campaign staff and White House aides, it is how deeply invested Barbara was in political strategy for her husband and sons — and how that melded with her role as cheerleader, and occasional drill sergeant, for Team Bush.

It is no accident that they called her, affectionately, “The Enforcer.”

In Jon Meacham's definitive biography of Bush '41, “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush,” he draws upon Barbara's diaries during critical moments in the 1980 GOP primaries. Bush had won Iowa, but lost to an insurgent Ronald Reagan in New Hampshire, and with former President Jerry Ford flirting with joining the race, never regained that “Big Mo.”

On March 10, 1980, Barbara wrote in her diary: "I am discouraged," adding on March 11: "It is bad to be on the road when your husband is losing … I feel we are very near the end of this long quest. Will I be able to cope with the letdown George will feel? Will I be enough? It has to really hurt."

After an even more devastating loss following the defeat to Bill Clinton in 1992, Bush ’41 was despondent, but Meacham notes he was buoyed by his wife’s resilience. Bush wrote in his diary that Barbara "was that same restless wonderful wife that holds onto the seams like in 1976 shifting gears, rushing down to buy that house, buy a nest" — which she had done more than 27 times in their 73 years of marriage.

And on their last day in the White House, he wrote: "Barbara is wonderful. She's strong, and what a First Lady she's been — popular and wonderful."

For the Bushes, the generational shift to a couple young enough to be their children was difficult:

"Suddenly eclipsed by the new wave, the lawyer, the wife with the office in the White House; but time will tell and history will show that [Barbara] was beloved because she was real, because she cared, because she gave of herself. She has been fantastic in every way, and my, how the people around her love her, my how that staff rejoices in the fact she came their way."

It strikes me that Barbara Bush was a bridge between two very different First Ladies I had covered: Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton.

Barbara Bush holds the Bible as George Bush is sworn in as the new director of the CIA by Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on Jan. 30, 1976. President Gerald Ford stands at right.AP file

During the Reagan years, Barbara had an uneasy relationship with Nancy. Initially, Nancy preferred her own tight circle of California friends and didn't invite the Bushes to private social events. Their husbands had been political rivals. Nancy, an astute judge of talent, was smart enough to bring Jim Baker into the fold as chief of staff. But for the most part, the rest of the White House staff and cabinet came from the Reagan wing of the party. Personal rivalries between the two became apparent during the transition: When the Bushes won, Nancy did not invite Barbara to tour the living quarters until January 11 — much later than was traditional.

Interestingly, before moving to the White House on Inauguration Day 1989, the Bushes had spent more time in the vice president’s residence at the Naval Observatory than in any of their homes — in 45 years of marriage! Such was the nomadic life of their early Texas wildcatting years, their time in Congress, then China, New York for the United Nations — all the career moves Barbara managed so gracefully.

As important as Houston was in their lives, no place captured the heart and soul of either Bush like Kennebunkport. They loved Walker's Point. She had hoped to regain enough strength to spend her last days there, planning a move in May. I’d heard tales of the summer retreat from my colleagues who’d been treated to wild rides on the vice president’s cigarette boat, with ’41 at the helm.

My introduction to the Maine coast was during their first visit after winning the presidency, over Thanksgiving weekend in 1988.

When he wasn’t playing “aerobic” golf, the president-elect wanted to run errands, preferably without being trailed by 100 reporters and camera crews. At first, the Bushes resisted accepting the new reality that they would be covered 24/7 by a pool of reporters and photographers. As a result, every time the president-elect went out, we all gave chase — individually in a disorganized scramble of rental cars.

It was an impossible challenge, and unwelcome intrusion, in the small Maine town. Finally, on the day before Thanksgiving '88, Bush came out of a hardware store, put up his hands and told all of us waiting outside that he was giving up. In fact, he was heading into the wine and cheese shop to buy provisions because “Bar” wanted to invite us all over to Walker’s Point for a tour.

Adjusting to the “job” as first lady — a job with no description — was challenging. After some unwelcome criticism from a fellow Texan, Lady Bird Johnson’s former Press Secretary Liz Carpenter, Barbara was hurt and wrote a letter to Liz, a letter she never mailed but included in her 2015 autobiography, “Barbara Bush: A Memoir.”

She had written, “Long ago, I decided in life that I had to have priorities. I put my children and my husband at the top of the list. That’s a choice that I never regretted.”

It’s a theme she expanded on at Wellesley College in her 1990 Commencement speech, bringing Raisa Gorbachev, wife of the Soviet leader, with her.

I was there, and it was clear that the graduates were not all behind her. In fact, 150 of the senior class members had petitioned against her being their speaker, writing “Barbara Bush has gained recognition through the achievement of her husband.”

Her message to the class of 1990 was clear: “At the end of your life, 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 child, a friend, or a parent.” She concluded that “Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse. I wish him well.”

Her researcher for the speech, Peggy Dooley, a Wellesley graduate, wrote this week that she brought down the house. And so she did.

Bush quietly embraced other issues, including AIDS, but really found her voice as First Lady in her advocacy for literacy, writing in her memoir that she realized “… a more literate America would benefit every single thing I worry about: crime, unemployment, pollution, teenage pregnancy, school drop-outs, women who are trapped into welfare, and therefore poverty, etc. You name it, I worried about it.”

At her funeral, her husband of 73 years paid tribute to that passion by wearing what he calls his “book socks.” Tan socks figured with wildly covered books. Barbara’s books. A traditional first lady who carved out her own territory, and did it her way.