Reprinted from the April 18 Chicago Tribune.
Presidents’ wives are expected to be an asset to their administrations without being daring or controversial. They may be disliked because of whom they married or because they fail to live up to some unattainable ideal. There are many ways a first lady can go wrong, and no misstep goes unnoticed.
Barbara Bush, who died Tuesday at age 92, walked through that thicket and emerged almost universally beloved. The wife of the 41st president — and mother of the 43rd — she retained her popularity even when theirs eroded. A 2014 Gallup poll found that 77 percent of Americans regarded her favorably. Edward Rollins, who ran the 1984 Reagan-Bush re-election campaign, called her “far and away the greatest political spouse I’ve seen.”
That’s not because she was glamorous, inspiring or groundbreaking. More than anything else, it was because people perceived her as real. She didn’t try to be something she was not.
Bush, who succeeded the famously fashionable Nancy Reagan, once joked, “There is a myth around I don’t dress well. I dress very well – I just don’t look so good.” Plenty of people could identify.
Her children knew their father as the indulgent parent and their mother as the disciplinarian. A flinty quality was evident beneath her grandmotherly aura. She embraced a traditional role of a political wife, tirelessly campaigning and listening attentively to speeches she had heard over and over. Yet she was known as someone with a mind of her own who brooked no nonsense.
Texas Monthly writer Skip Hollandsworth said that son George inherited her “tart tongue and free spirit.” She was privately in favor of abortion rights and gun control, putting her at odds with most of her fellow Republicans. Her tongue occasionally got her in trouble. In 1984, she said she couldn’t reveal what term she would use for Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro, “but it rhymes with rich.”
If you knew only the minimum about Bush, you might think she had a led a charmed life. Born into comfortable circumstances in Manhattan, she attended private schools and married a decorated naval aviator who was the son of a U.S. senator. Her husband made his fortune in the oil business before embarking on a long and fruitful political career. Their marriage lasted 73 years. They and their family often repaired to their 11-acre oceanfront estate in Maine.
But she knew pain and hardship. She lost a 3-year-old daughter to leukemia in 1953, and George’s frequent travel forced her to raise her five other children largely by herself. So nomadic was his career that by the time they reached the White House, she had lived in 29 homes, from Midland, Texas, to Beijing. In the 1970s, she suffered such dark depression that she feared she might decide to drive her car into a tree.
But the despair eventually lifted, and as first lady, she made her mark by embracing the cause of literacy. She continued that work after leaving the White House with her Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, which has raised millions of dollars in an effort to make sure that everyone can read.
She was an indispensable part of the Bush family’s tradition of public service. And for many Americans, she will long remain the picture of what a first lady should be.