A Look Back at Barbara Bush, America’s Down-to-Earth First Lady

Former first lady Barbara Bush, widely known for her sharp wit, unpretentious demeanor, and compassion for families across the United States, died on Tuesday at age 92.

Known by many as “America’s grandmother,” Bush’s life was a myriad of complex and seemingly contradictory moments that showed her ability to be both a woman of the Greatest Generation and a successful contemporary leader in her own right.

Let’s take a look back at the life of a woman whose no-nonsense attitude, fierce loyalty, and three-strand pearls at times made her more popular than her husband, former president George H.W. Bush.

“I am still old and still in love with the man I married 72 years ago”

With a romance that spanned seven decades, few love stories will compare to that of George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, the longest-married presidential couple in American history.

The two first met in 1941 at a Christmas dance in Connecticut. They corresponded by letter while Barbara, then Barbara Pierce, attended school at Smith College. George graduated in 1942 and enlisted in the Navy. They continued to send letters back and forth while he trained as a pilot and later, in 1945, were married.

In her memoir, Barbara wrote about the night she met George and how she stayed up all night talking to her roommate about him.

“Sweet sixteen and never been kissed, has been written about me and it was true,” she wrote. “I floated into my room and kept the poor girl I was rooming with awake all night, while I made her listen to how Poppy Bush was the greatest living human on the face of the earth.”

Their love story made headlines in 2011 when the couple read excerpts of their love letters to one another out loud in an interview with their granddaughter and “Today Show” correspondent, Jenna Bush Hager.

The former president became teary-eyed as he read a letter he wrote to his wife in 1994 on their 49th anniversary: “Momma used to tell me, ‘Now George, don’t walk ahead.’ Little did she know, I was only trying to keep up with Barbara Pierce.”

“You could be Speaker of the House,” Barbara quipped in true, witty form as her husband held back tears.

Barbara Bush
CNN/YouTube

“I want equal rights for women, men, everybody”

Though Barbara rarely spoke out publicly about her own political beliefs, choosing instead to support her husband’s stances and work on her own causes privately, her support of the civil rights movement is clear.

“I’m not against it or for it,” she said of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1989, according to The New York Times. “I’m not talking about it. I want equal rights for women, men, everybody.”

Private actions taken long before the Bush family entered the White House prove that this statement was a true reflection of her personal beliefs.

When her children were young, Bush would take them on summer trips to the Bush family compound in Maine. On their first summer trip north, a hotel refused to honor reservations Bush had made for two black family employees who had joined the family on their trip. Rather than allowing her employees to find other accommodations on their own, which they offered to do, she packed up the children and found another place for the family to stay together.

After her husband became president, she made history for selecting Anna Perez to serve as her press secretary — the first black woman in history to hold the position.

Compassion and care for the sick

Thirty years before her death, Barbara visited one of America’s first residences established to provide care for infants with HIV and AIDS. While visiting, she hugged and played with young children diagnosed with the diseases. Such an action might not be seen as groundbreaking today but, in 1989, it sent a powerful message of acceptance and love.

Jim Graham, an administrator at a D.C.-based clinic with special expertise in HIV/AIDS healthcare, told The Washington Post that her hug was “worth more than a thousand public service announcements” at a time when people still believed the illnesses could be contracted through human contact.

Bush reportedly played a game of catch with the children at the home and told the press that she wished more people showed compassion toward the ill.

“You can hug and pick up AIDS babies and people who have the HIV virus’ without hurting yourself,” she said at the time.

George Bush Presidential Library and Museum/Wikimedia

“And I wish him well”

In 1990, Barbara Bush was asked to give the commencement address at Wellesley College — the same institution where Hillary Clinton attended school — and receive an honorary degree. Some of the students graduating from the women’s college spoke out against allowing Bush to speak because they felt she had “gained recognition through the achievements of her husband,” rather than on her own merit.

Instead of speaking out against her detractors directly, Bush told graduates that she was proud of her achievements as a wife and mother and encouraged them to join in celebrating the achievements of those who put their children first. “Your success as a family, our success as a society, depends not on what happens in the White House, but on what happens inside your house,” she said.

As her address came to a close, she commented that there could be someone in the audience who would one day live and work in the White House as the wife of a president: “And I wish him well.”

Sharp-tongued and unafraid

George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States and son of Barbara Bush, often claimed during his election that he had inherited “daddy’s eyes and my mother’s mouth,” hinting at Barbara’s quick wit and unabashed tendency to share her thoughts honestly, even when it might not be in her best interests to do so.

One of the most well-known examples of Bush’s quips came in 1984 when her husband was campaigning against Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic nominee for vice president.

When giving a description of Ferraro, she described the woman as a word that “rhymes with rich.” She later said that she hadn’t meant any offense and had been inferring Ferraro was a “witch.”

After her death on Tuesday, former president George H.W. Bush said that he knew his wife was in heaven and asked the public to “cross the Bushes off your worry list.”

“I always knew Barbara was the most beloved woman in the world, and in fact I used to tease her that I had a complex about that fact,” he said in the statement. “But the truth is the outpouring of love and friendship being directed at The Enforcer is lifting us all up.”

Her funeral will be held privately at St. Martin’s Church in Houston on Saturday.

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