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Barbara Bush, wife and mother of presidents, dies at 92

"I hope people will say, 'She cared; she worked hard for lots of causes.'"

by Daniella Silva and Alex Johnson /  / Updated 
Image: Barbara Bush
Former President George W. Bush said his mother, pictured during a visit to the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital in Portland, Maine, in 2013, "brought levity, love, and literacy to millions."Robert F. Bukaty / AP file

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Barbara Bush, the matriarch of an American dynasty spanning decades who was the second woman to be both the first lady and the mother of a president, died Tuesday. She was 92.

Her death was confirmed by Jim McGrath, a spokesman for the Bush family. The family said two days ago that Bush wouldn't seek any further medical treatment after a series of recent hospitalizations.

Bush was married for 73 years to the nation's 41st president, George H.W. Bush, and was the mother of the 43rd, George W. Bush; another son, Jeb, is a former governor of Florida. She was considered an asset on the campaign trail, known for her wit and her emphasis on family.

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The former president, who is 93, "of course is broken-hearted to lose his beloved Barbara, his wife of 73 years," McGrath said Tuesday night. "He held her hand all day today and was at her side when she left this good earth."

"Obviously, this is a very challenging time," McGrath said. "But it will not surprise all of you who know and love him that he also is being stoic and strong, and is being lifted up by his large and supportive family."

The only other woman to have been the wife and mother of presidents was Abigail Adams, whose husband, John Adams, was the nation's second president, and whose son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth.

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In a statement, George W. Bush called his mother "a fabulous First Lady and a woman unlike any other who brought levity, love, and literacy to millions."

"I'm a lucky man that Barbara Bush was my mother," the former president said. "Our family will miss her dearly, and we thank you all for your prayers and good wishes."

Jeb Bush said in a statement: "I'm exceptionally privileged to be the son of George Bush and the exceptionally gracious, gregarious, fun, funny, loving, tough, smart, graceful woman who was the force of nature known as Barbara Bush."

President Donald Trump said in a statement that Bush "will be long remembered for her strong devotion to country and family, both of which she served unfailingly well." Trump ordered flags to be flown at half-staff until Saturday, when Bush is scheduled to be buried.

Former President Bill Clinton, who defeated George H.W. Bush in 1992, later became close with the Bushes after he left the White House in 2001. He said in a statement that he would always "treasure my summer visits to Kennebunkport," referring to the Bush family compound in Maine.

"Barbara joked that George and I spent so much time together I had become almost a member of the family, the 'black sheep' that had gone astray, Clinton said.

Clinton said Bush "had grit and grace, brains and beauty."

"She was fierce and feisty in support of her family and friends, her country and her causes," Clinton said. "She showed us what an honest, vibrant, full life looks like. Hillary and I mourn her passing and bless her memory."

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In the White House, beginning when her husband was vice president under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, she championed a push to raise national literacy. She expanded her efforts as first lady and supported the cause for the rest of her life.

Bush described her literacy work as "the most important issue we have" and often said literacy was tied to other struggles families faced. She became the honorary chairwoman of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and helped to promote literacy events across the country.

Bush was an energetic advocate for volunteerism, including causes such as homelessness, AIDS, the elderly and school volunteering programs.

"I hope people will say, 'She cared; she worked hard for lots of causes,'" she told The Christian Science Monitor in 1989.

Image: George Bush and Barbara Bush in 1964
George H.W. Bush, then a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, and his wife, Barbara, at his campaign headquarters in Houston in June 1964. Ed Kolenovsky / AP file

She is survived by her husband of 73 years, five children, 17 grandchildren, seven great grandchildren and her brother, Scott Pierce. The funeral will be Saturday morning at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, the Bushes' longtime parish. Burial will be at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.

Barbara Pierce Bush, born in New York in 1925 in Flushing, New York, was the third of four children of Marvin Pierce, later the publisher of Redbook and McCall's, and Pauline Robinson Pierce. She was a distant cousin of President Franklin Pierce and the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

She was 16 when she met George H.W. Bush at a dance, according to her White House biography. The pair were engaged a year and a half later, right as the future president was sent to war as a Navy torpedo bomber pilot. When he returned, the two married in 1945, two months after she dropped out of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

The Bushes were the longest-married couple in presidential history (Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were married one year later), and they had six children: George, Robin, Jeb, Neil, Marvin and Dorothy.

Robin died young, succumbing to leukemia before her fourth birthday.

"Because of Robin, George and I love every living human more," Barbara Bush said, according to the White House.

Bush disclosed that she was suffering from an overactive thyroid ailment called Graves' disease during her time at the White House. Her husband developed the disease not long after, prompting a Secret Service investigation into the water at the White House and other locations that the two had frequented.

Bush was often described as "everybody's grandmother" for her sharp but comforting demeanor and her prematurely gray hair.

"I think people don't feel threatened by me," she told The Christian Science Monitor. "Nobody is going to hold me up to their wife or their husband, or I think people know I'm fair and I like children and I adore my husband. ... I think people think it's nice to think you really love your husband and your children and your dog.''

"I am still old and still in love with the man I married 72 years ago."

"I am still old and still in love with the man I married 72 years ago."

Her tart side emerged during the 1984 campaign, when Reagan and her husband were running for re-election. Criticizing attempts by Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice presidential nominee from Queens, New York, to cast herself as a champion of the working class, Bush memorably said she and her husband were proud of being financially successful, "not like that $4 million — I can't say it, but it rhymes with rich." Bush later apologized.

Earlier this month, Bush updated her college classmates in the Smith College alumnae magazine.

"I am still old and still in love with the man I married 72 years ago," she wrote, adding: "All of our children are working and serving others in their own way, along with my 17 grandchildren. I am very proud of them,” she wrote.

But in 2013, when NBC News asked her about the prospect of whether Jeb Bush should again run for president, Bush replied: "We've had enough Bushes" in the White House.

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