Wife of the 41st US president and mother of the 43rd

Obituary: Barbara Bush became known for her straight talk, lack of pretension and self-deprecating humour

US first lady Barbara Bush was only the second woman in US history to have a son of hers follow his father to the White House. Photograph: Stelios Varias/Reuters

US first lady Barbara Bush was only the second woman in US history to have a son of hers follow his father to the White House. Photograph: Stelios Varias/Reuters


Born: June 8th, 1925; died: April 17th, 2018

Barbara Bush, the widely admired wife of one president and the fiercely loyal mother of another, died Tuesday evening at her home in Houston. She was 92.

Jim McGrath, a family spokesman, announced the death in a statement posted to Twitter.

On Sunday the office of her husband, former president George Bush, issued a statement saying that after consulting her family and her doctors, Barbara Bush had “decided not to seek additional medical treatment and will instead focus on comfort care”.

The Bushes had celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary in January, making them the longest-married couple in presidential history.

As the wife of the 41st president and the mother of the 43rd, George W Bush, Barbara Bush was only the second woman in US history to have a son of hers follow his father to the White House. (Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams and mother of John Quincy Adams, was the first.)

Another son, Jeb, the governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, was an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

During that campaign, he was repeatedly derided in personal terms by the eventual nominee and now president, Donald Trump, prompting Barbara Bush, who was never shy about expressing her views, to lash back.


“He’s said terrible things about women, terrible things about the military,” Bush told CNN. “I don’t understand why people are for him.”

Dedicated to her family and largely indifferent to glamour, Bush played down her role in her husband’s political success. But she was a shrewd and valuable ally, becoming a sought-after speaker in at least four national campaigns: in 1980, when George Bush was chosen to be Ronald Reagan’s running mate; in 1984, when the two ran for re-election; in 1988, when Bush campaigned for president; and in 1992, when he sought re-election.

She stepped into another presidential campaign in 2000, that of her son George, then the governor of Texas.

She was clearly a political asset. A 1999 poll found that 63 per cent of Americans had a favourable opinion of her and that only 3 per cent had an unfavourable one.

Barbara Bush pictured in 1984
Barbara Bush pictured in 1984

While first lady, from January 1989 to January 1993, Bush generally refused to talk publicly about contentious issues, particularly when her opinion was said to differ from her husband’s.

She was vocal, however, in championing causes of her choosing. Literacy was one, and so was civil rights; she had been an early supporter of the movement.

And she could be combative in news interviews, sometimes yanking off her glasses and tartly chastising reporters when she thought they were being overly aggressive.

Barbara Bush enjoyed a favourable public image throughout her years as first lady. She was regarded as unpretentious, a woman who could wear fake pearls, enjoy takeout tacos, walk the dog in her bathrobe and make fun of herself.

She was born Barbara Pierce on June 8th, 1925, in New York City. She was the third child of the former Pauline Robinson and Marvin Pierce. Her father was in the publishing business and eventually became president of the McCall publishing company. Her mother, the daughter of an Ohio Supreme Court justice, was active in civic affairs in Rye, New York, the New York City suburb where the family lived.

Dropped out

One of Bush’s distant relatives was Franklin Pierce, the 14th president of the United States.

She met George Bush in 1941 at a Christmas dance at the Round Hill Country Club in Greenwich, Connecticut. At the time, he was a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.

After graduating in 1942, George Bush enlisted in the navy and trained as a pilot. She and Bush, on leave from the navy, married in Rye on January 6th, 1945; the bride, not yet 20, had dropped out of Smith College at the beginning of her sophomore year. “The truth is, I just wasn’t interested,” she said in interviews. “I was just interested in George.”

After Bush was discharged he entered Yale. In New Haven, Connecticut, where the couple moved, their first son, George, was born in 1946.

A daughter, Pauline (known as Robin), was born in California in 1949 but died of leukemia before her 4th birthday.

In Texas, four more children were born: Jeb (John Ellis) in 1953, Neil Mallon in 1955, Marvin Pierce in 1956 and Dorothy Walker in 1959. Only George and Jeb went into politics; Neil and Marvin became businessmen, and Dorothy Bush Koch became a philanthropist.

Bush’s children survive her, as do her husband; her brother, Scott Pierce; 17 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

After she became first lady she started the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. Bush hoped her contributions would form a large part of her legacy.

“I want to be known as a wife, a mother, a grandmother,” she wrote in 1988. “That’s what I am. And I’d like to be known as someone who really cared about people and worked very, very hard to make America more literate.”

– (New York Times)