Paul Brandus: What made Barbara Bush remarkable


Former first lady Barbara Bush listens to remarks during the christening ceremony of the USS George H.W. Bush at Northrop-Grumman’s shipyard in Newport News, Virginia, U.S., October 7, 2006.

We come to know our first ladies because of their presidential husbands, of course. But consider that without these often remarkable women, some presidents might not have made it to the White House in the first place. Barbara Bush, who died Tuesday at the age of 92, was one of those women.

History may remember her as just one of two women who not only married a future president, but also gave birth to another (Abigail Adams was the other one). This alone makes Barbara Bush remarkable, but she was much more than that.

She wasn’t a firebrand, a social activist like Eleanor Roosevelt or glamorous trendsetter like Jacqueline Kennedy. She didn’t sit in on Cabinet meetings like Rosalynn Carter or take on the healthcare system like Hillary Clinton. She was more like Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy (again) or Nancy Reagan: her number one job was to support her husband, take care of the kids and run the house.

This Barbara Bush did. As her husband morphed from a West Texas oilman to politician—George H.W. Bush was a congressman, United Nations ambassador, chairman of the Republican National Committee, envoy to China and director of the CIA before becoming vice-president and, finally, president—she oversaw some 28 family moves to 17 different cities here and abroad. She raised five children, and suffered the loss of another—four-year old Robin—to leukemia in 1953. The stress of watching their beloved daughter die devastated the Bushes, and turned Mrs. Bush’s hair white, later giving her the affectionate moniker “silver fox.” She spent decades in the public eye, almost all of it flawlessly, thanks to her deep reservoir of grace, wit and goodwill, and a fierce determination to protect her husband and family.

Presidents get advice (or at least should) from a wide variety of people, but often their best advisor is the first lady. Like many of them, Mrs. Bush excelled at seeing through the daily BS and giving her husband unvarnished counsel about the issues, personnel matters, what was working, what wasn’t, or when someone, even him, was full of baloney. George H.W. Bush was always a good man and a good president. But Barbara Bush made him better still in both respects.

She was known as a tough lady—“the enforcer,” her own family called her—but what she enforced was certain standards of decency, class and compassion. When fear of and ignorance about AIDS was rampant, she visited a Washington, D.C. home in 1989 called Grandma’s House, which cared for abandoned, abused or neglected infants who were infected with the HIV virus. With the cameras rolling, Mrs. Bush cradled one child, kissed another, and hugged an adult AIDS victim. She intended to send a message, and did so loud and clear: “You can hug and pick up AIDS babies and people who have the HIV virus” without hurting yourself, she said. “There is a need for compassion.”

This is one of the most powerful things a first lady can do—focus attention on a problem and do so in a way that perhaps not even a president can match. She helped change the conversation; she reduced ignorance and made people think—and care. That 1989 hospice visit was a long ago moment, but one that encapsulated who the real Barbara Bush was, and how she should be remembered. In our current era of selfishness, cynicism and swamp-dwellers, the story seems all the more touching today; Sadly, over the next few days, her compassion and decency will be lauded by politicians who harbor little of it themselves.

Barbara Bush taught us other lessons, too. In 1990, she was invited to deliver the commencement address at Wellesley College, the elite, liberal all-female school in Massachusetts.

Some members of the class of ‘90 were unhappy with her selection, because she hadn’t had a “career” like the ones they were about to embark upon. But to those presumptuous young ladies, she had some pretty darned good advice—advice that not only holds up today, but is applicable for men, too:

“At the end of your life,” she said, “you will never regret not having passed one more test, not 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.”

She didn’t have a career? Oh yes she did.

Thank you, Barbara Bush.