With her double-strand costume pearl necklace and what-you-see-is-what-you-get style, Barbara Bush, who died Tuesday at age 92, was a straight-shooter from start to finish.
Born Barbara Pierce in New York City, Bush served as the 37th first lady, as well as the country’s second lady from 1981 to 1989. In addition to being part of the longest presidential marriage — 73 years — Bush also had the unlikely distinction of having one son, George W., become the 43rd president and another son, Jeb, run unsuccessfully in 2016. Having served as second lady during the Reagan administration’s two terms and lived all over the world during her own husband’s ascending political career, Barbara Bush made it clear that literacy — not fashion — was her priority.
The Rye, N.Y.-bred future first lady was only 16 when she met George H.W. Bush at a dance over Christmas break, and they were engaged less than two years later before he shipped out for World War II as a Navy torpedo bomber pilot. Home on leave, the couple were married and Barbara Bush dropped out of Smith College. Over time they moved to Midland, Tex., where they raised six children including Pauline “Robin”, who died at the age of 3 of leukemia. George H.W. Bush also started his political career leading to posts in Congress, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. chairman of the Republican National Committee and director Central Intelligence among others.
With her snowy white mane, sturdy frame and primarily non-designer wardrobe, Bush appeared to be the antithesis style-wise of her Adolfo-loving predecessor, Nancy Reagan. “My mail tells me that a lot of fat, white-haired, wrinkled ladies are tickled pink,” Bush said with a laugh in a 1989 interview with WWD. Fashion slave, she was not. The Arnold Scaasi gown she wore to the 1989 inaugural balls was the first gown she had bought in about two years. From the beginning, Bush said she would pay for all her clothes (unlike Nancy Reagan, who created a minor scandal when it was discovered that many of her designer outfits were gifts from the designers themselves). During one of her inaugural appearances, Bush said, “Please notice — hairdo, makeup, designer dress. Look at me good this week, because it’s only the week.”
In fact, Bush wore several Scaasi gowns during the inaugural festivities. As the designer himself put it at the time, “Clothes are not by any means her main priority, but I think she likes getting dressed up.” Scaasi had sold a handful of dresses in that style and after the first lady decided to wear one to the ball, he reportedly called the other owners to make sure none of them wore theirs there, too. Then, he discontinued the style.
Partial to vivid colors, Bush, who in the Seventies struggled with depression, said they just made her feel better. She also impressed that advice on her daughter-in-law Laura before she became first lady. The elder Bush’s fondness for size 14 daytime and evening suits prompted labels like Oleg Cassini, Liz Claiborne, Adrienne Vittadini and Jones New York to play up larger options. As Vittadini’s president Richard Catalano said at that time, “The biggest influence from Barbara Bush will be that it’s OK to be who you are.”
That applied to running the White House. Bush told WWD how she planned to maintain the couple’s off-hours routines, including 7:30 a.m. coffee-in-bed with her husband and “getting out of the house to visit people,” which she viewed as essential.
“I told Nancy this and it’s true. I’m going to say to the White House staff, ‘Ditto. Do just what she did. It’s perfect.’” (Of course, there were some personal points of differences. Bush made it known her style of entertaining would include lots of “generational groups” including her own sprawling family, as well as her friends’ families.) Twenty-eight family members spent the night at the White House for the 1989 inaugural. Eunice Shriver had advised her to take a camera to the White House, telling Bush how the first night Jack Kennedy was in office, the Kennedy kin took turns jumping on the Lincoln bed and having their pictures taken. “I’ve got to get film in the camera,” the then-63-year-old Bush told WWD.
The two first wives witnessed a lot of history together in the eight years that George H. W. Bush served as vice president to Ronald Reagan before being elected president in 1988. During those years, Barbara Bush dedicated herself to strengthening family literacy at a time when 35 million U.S. adults could not read above the eighth-grade level.
One thing that Bush was not high on was the frequent comparisons to Eleanor Roosevelt, another New York-born first lady. “Because I grew up in a household that really detested her, [adding that partisan politics had nothing to do with it]. My mother really didn’t like her, she was just one of those people.” Bush conceded that years later her mother met Roosevelt in Washington and changed her mind. “But it was too late. We’d grown up.”
But Bush was more of a do-er than a talker. “I’m never going to sit around and talk on issues. So don’t sit under the bushes waiting for it, ’cause I’m not going to do it.” Shortly before her husband’s inaugural, Bush noted “the enormous downsides to being first lady,” adding that she had “enormous worries” about the effect the presidency would have on her family. “It puts a lot of pressure on them,” she told WWD.
As second lady, she unveiled billboards, visited Head Start and Even Start classes, supported alternative school programs for at-risk students like Cities in Schools, and got behind media programs to help raise awareness of the basic need for every citizen to be able to read. As an indication of her commitment to the cause, Bush published “C. Fred’s Story: A Dog’s Life” in 1984 and in doing so raised $100,000 for Literacy Volunteers of America and Laubach Literacy Action. (She was less verbose about entertaining as second lady, running what she described to WWD as “what Washington refers to as a ‘safe house’: no press.”)
Even Sunday’s announcement that the former first lady was in”failing health” and would not be seeking additional medical treatment seemed to relay a message. In a 2013 C-SPAN interview, Bush said, “I have no fear of death, which is a huge comfort because we’re getting darn close.”
Brent D. Glass, director emeritus of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, said, “The sense of humor for a first lady certainly was refreshing, and authentic. She was a New Yorker by birth and had that New York sensibility about humor. Of course other parts of the country have that too, but that always came across with her. There was also that timing for saying something that was humorous but also insightful. She also reveled in that role of being a grandmother.”
Bush’s leadership in literacy helped the issue nationwide, and her daughter-in-law Laura helped to uphold it as a priority. “The family has always had a strong commitment to reading, literacy and civic engagement – and making that connection between being literate and being a citizen,” Glass said. “Through military service, George H.W. Bush is among the Greatest Generation. I think people often forget about the role that spouses play in that generation. It’s important to honor those people.
“The diplomacy side of his pre-presidential career involved her a lot — at the U.N., in China, even as vice president and president, she played a really important role. That outgoingness and down-to-earth stye made her seem very approachable. That has to be a plus in a diplomatic setting,” Glass said.
The Bush White House ushered in “Tex-Mex and Chinese cuisine, Coors beer, dove-hunting oilmen, pork rinds and Willie Nelson tunes, butterscotch sundaes, Chinese green tea, Yalies, Maine summer house escapes and chiseled Yankee values,” according to a 1988 WWD article. Essentially the Bush White House boiled down to “just the right balance good ol’ boy and old-school tie.”
Christopher Buckley, who wrote Bush’s vice presidential speeches, described Barbara Bush as being “like a nice headmistress,very much the den mother. She is very straitlaced on values and she has a girlish side. She wears Bill Blass clothes and she doesn’t mind being told she looks rather good in them.”
By the time the Bushes moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 1989, they had lived in Washington, D.C., off and on since 1964. But they also put down stakes all over the world, including China in the Seventies where George H.W. Bush was ambassador. Barbara Bush had met 67 heads of state before her husband took over the West Wing. She was known to be shrewd about diplomacy, always up-to-speed about what issues a head of state cared about and being strategic in seating for state dinners to help further those discussions. But Bush also made no qualms about leaving the side of a power player to speak with someone in need of attention or conversation.
Frank, feisty and down-to-earth, Bush valued family above all. On the campaign trail in 1988, she reminded WWD that Washington “is not the real world. It’s a media world.” Informational leaks topped her list of dislikes. “I always think it’s such a cowardly way. You ought to give your name and say it if you feel that way,” she told WWD in 1989.
Self-importance was not her thing. “I don’t think about how people estimate me,” Bush told WWD. Campaigning in the shadow of a six-person team (including Secret Service agents), Bush liked to pepper her rallies with winks, thumbs-up and OK signs and spontaneity. “The 1980 campaign was a lot different. Then I carried my own suitcase,” Bush told WWD in 1988. Her son Jeb also offered in that same piece, “I am kind of antisocial. I learned that from her. She dislikes phony formalities.” But through the years Bush never seemed to lose the fight. On the stump for Jeb in Derry, N.H., a few years ago, Bush wheeled her walker in a snowstorm before whipping out Jeb! stickers in the local diner.
After taking on the role of first lady, she established the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy a twofold initiative to enhance early childhood education for preschoolers and adult literacy for their parents. The dog-loving politico also penned a second book, “Millie’s Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush,” raising nearly $900,000 for her foundation through first-year sales of 300,000 copies. She also launched Mrs. Bush’s Story Time, a national radio program that stressed the importance of reading aloud to children. In 1991, Bush and fellow advocates celebrated the passage of the National Literacy Act, which created the National Institute for Literacy allowing libraries and other municipal properties to be used as literacy centers for adults at night.
Her commitment to literacy was something that she shared with Scaasi. At the time of Scaasi’s death in 2015, the former first lady said, “I loved Arnold Scaasi. He was a dear friend and a brilliant fashion designer who could make any woman feel like a princess. His dresses brought me great joy — whether they were for a state dinner or just a simple suit I could wear anywhere. We sometimes would fight a little about colors and styles, and he, of course, was always right. Arnold’s legacy will be on display forever, thanks to the gorgeous blue Inaugural [Ball] gown he made for me, now at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum.”
Post-White House, Bush supported such causes as AmeriCares, Mayo Clinic Foundation, the Leukemia Society of America, the Ronald McDonald House and the Boys & Girls Club of America. Her Foundation for Family Literacy, which she stepped aside from in 2014, has raised and awarded more than $50 million to create or expand family literacy programs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In the 1988 WWD interview, her friend Jessica Catto said of Bush, “If she can’t do something, she says so. If she doesn’t like something, she lets you know.” George W. Bush has put it another way, joking how people say he has “my daddy’s eyes and my mother’s mouth.” Years after the Episcopalian was nicknamed “first grandmother,” Bush was still inclined to speak her mind publicly from time to time. The fisticuffs that ensued forced her to swear off political interviews at one point.
Her 1990 commencement speech at Wellesley College seemed to be testimony to her own life. Bush said, “At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, 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.”
In addition to her husband and sons George W. and Jeb, Bush is survived by two other sons — Marvin and Neil — and a daughter Doro, 17 grandchildren (Barbara Bush, Jenna Bush Hager and Lauren Bush Lauren among them), and seven great-grandchildren.