US first lady – the wife of one president and the mother of a second – was a robust campaigner for the Republican cause and fierce defender of her family
Barbara Bush, who has died aged 92, was the wife of one US president and mother of another. Her brisk entry into American public life came when her husband, George HW Bush, after 16 years in the oil business, accumulated a large enough fortune to sell up and embark on a political career. When he became a Republican congressman in 1967, the family moved to Washington and Barbara was introduced to the complicated business of acting as a political hostess in a city where backstabbing and insincerity are the principal social graces. She was soon renowned for giving as good as she got, though usually she confined her waspish comments to Democrats.
As her husband moved through a rapid succession of appointments – American ambassador at the UN and later to China, Republican party chairman, director of the CIA, Ronald Reagan’s vice-president, and eventually, from 1989, president himself – Barbara supervised 29 relocations of their family of five children. She was also a robust participant in her husband’s and other Republican candidates’ political campaigns, travelling thousands of miles to preach the Republican cause. Though she was eventually dubbed “the nation’s grandmother”, her claws often came out in her relations with the media, which she regarded generally as a conspiracy of Democrats.
Barbara frequently commented vigorously about public events involving her offspring. In 1990, when her third son, Neil, was director of a Colorado mortgage firm that collapsed owing $1bn, she rounded on members of Congress who had sought information about the scandal. One of Colorado’s Democrats, Patricia Schroeder, intervened on behalf of constituents who had been seriously affected by the collapse; Bush accused her of “using Neil as a daily kicking bag”.
Barbara Bush with her eldest son, the 43rd US president, George W Bush, at a presentation about Medicare in Atlanta, Georgia, 2005. Photograph: Larry Downing/Reuters
In spite of her apparent ease with this confrontational way of life, she acknowledged in her autobiography, Barbara Bush: A Memoir (1994), that it had induced severeclinical depression. “Sometimes the pain was so great,” she wrote, “that I felt the urge to drive into a tree or an oncoming car. When that happened, I would pull over to the side of the road until I felt OK.”
Daughter of Pauline (nee Robinson) and Marvin Pierce, Barbara was born in New York into a well-to-do family; her father was a publisher of women’s magazines. She was brought up in the New York commuter suburb of Rye and, at 16, met her future husband at one of the many dances that punctuated middle-class American adolescence. Pearl Harbor had just been attacked by the Japanese, and within months the 18-year-old George Bush began training as a navy pilot (soon to become the youngest in the service). Shortly after their formal engagement he was shot down over the Pacific but quickly rescued. In January 1945 the couple married and Barbara began to adjust to the peripatetic life of a service wife.
Their wanderings did not last long. With the end of the war, George completed his studies at Yale University. In 1948, through family connections, he was recruited into the Texas oil industry and began a rapid ascent up the corporate ladder. Within two years, having built a wide range of industry contacts and with financial help from his uncle, he was able to start his own highly successful drilling business. By then the couple had three children, two boys and a girl. To their intense distress, their daughter Robin died in 1953 of leukaemia at the age of three. One of Barbara’s subsequent charitable campaigns was to work energetically for an organisation established in Robin’s memory to fund research into the disease.
Barbara Bush with her husband, five children and grandchildren in the White House, 1989. Photograph: David Valdez/Time & Life/Getty
Later, when her husband had become vice-president, she decided she must find a major charitable cause to support. Having previously discovered that her own children had dyslexic tendencies, she decided to campaign in support of literacy. “I realised that everything I worried about would be better if more people could read, write and comprehend. More would stay in school and get an education, meaning fewer would turn to the streets and get involved with crime or drugs, become pregnant, or lose their homes.”
She sustained this interest for the rest of her life. When she became first lady, she wrote two books, ostensibly from the pen of her pet dogs C Fred, a cocker spaniel, and Millie, a springer spaniel, in support of the campaign. The first did reasonably well and raised $100,000 for two independent literacy charities. The second, published to support her own literacy drive, had an extraordinary success. It shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list on publication and eventually sold more than 400,000 copies. It raised more than $1m for the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy that she had founded in 1989 and whose work continues today.
Barbara’s involuntary contribution to US history was to become the second American woman to have been the wife of one president and the mother of another. The first was the formidable Abigail Adams. Though born 180 years apart, the two were united by another curious coincidence – the bitter controversy that surrounded the accession of their eldest sons to the White House.
Barbara Bush holding the family dog Millie in 1988; she ghostwrote Millie’s memoirs to raise money in support of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP
Abigail, wife of the second president, John Adams, did not live to witness the uproar that engulfed John Quincy Adams after the 1824 election. Barbara lived through 35 days of political and legal turmoil before five of the supreme court’s nine justices broke all constitutional precedents to declare her son George the winner of the 2000 election. Up to the supreme court’s intervention, the outcome depended on 245 popular votes, which would determine which candidate had secured Florida’s 25 electoral college votes and with them the presidency.
The Bushes’ second son, Jeb (a 2016 presidential hopeful), was governor of Florida and thus able to pull most of the state’s vital political strings. A six-month investigation by the New York Times later showed that state and county officials had taken a far harsher view of doubtful ballots supporting Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, than of similarly suspect votes favouring George Bush. Only 20% of Gore’s tally was eventually accepted, compared with 60% of Bush’s. The New York Times inquiry concluded that, without such covert political assistance, Gore would probably have won the presidency by 202 votes. Uncharacteristically Barbara made no public comment: her view of the affair is locked in the voluminous diaries she maintained for most of her life.
- Barbara Pierce Bush, US first lady, born 8 June 1925; died 17 April 2018.