Bush, Barbara (1924—)

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Bush, Barbara (1924—)

American first lady from 1989 to 1993. Born Barbara Pierce in Rye, New York, on June 8, 1924; third of four children of Marvin (a magazine publisher of McCalls-Redbook) and Pauline (Robinson) Pierce; attended Smith College (1943–44); married George Herbert Walker Bush, January 6, 1945, in Rye, New York; children: George Walker Bush (b. 1946, governor of Texas); Robin (1949–1953, died of leukemia); John "Jeb" Ellis (b. 1953); Neil Mallon (b. 1955); Marvin Pierce (b. 1956); Dorothy Walker Bush (b. 1959).

Born in 1924, the third of four children, Barbara Bush spent a carefree childhood in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Rye, New York. Particularly fond of her father, she recalled walking with him to the train station in the morning, where he would catch the commuter to his New York City office at the McCall Corporation. She remembered her mother as a great beauty, known for her immaculate house, beautiful flower garden, and exquisite needlework. Bush described her mother as having left the world "a more beautiful place than she found it," but admits to not completely understanding or appreciating her until becoming a mother herself.

In 1945, at the age of 19, Barbara left Smith College to marry "the first man she ever kissed," George Herbert Walker ("Poppy") Bush. The couple had met at a dance four years earlier, and their lengthy courtship included a secret engagement, during which time George served as a Navy pilot in the South Pacific during World War II. One of the couple's first homes after the war was a married housing unit at Yale University, where George finished his education and Barbara gave birth to the first of their six children. Her life centered around the dictates of her husband's expansive career. From his early days as a Texas businessman to political posts as a Congressional representative, ambassador to the United Nations, U.S. Envoy in China, director of the CIA, and vice president, the Bushes had 29 homes in 17 cities. In her husband's absence, Barbara Bush shouldered most of the parenting duties; she also

blossomed from a shy housewife into a savvy political advisor and campaigner.

Yet, her image as matriarch was key. In a complete departure from the glamorous and aloof image fostered by First Lady Nancy Reagan , Barbara Bush arrived on the scene with a shock of white hair, undisguised wrinkles, and wearing a size–14 dress with a triple strand of faux pearls. Her down-to-earth demeanor and obvious devotion to her husband and family—including 11 grandchildren—embodied the new administration's focus on American "family values."

Barbara Bush has few regrets about her "husband-centric" existence, though she was called upon to defend it on a number of occasions. During an interview for the "Today" show, Jane Pauley caught her off guard: "Mrs. Bush, people say your husband is a man of the '80s and you are a woman of the '40s. What do you say to that?" Bush was both devastated and infuriated by the question. During her husband's bid for presidential reelection in 1992, his party's "family values" campaign brought her under fire from opponents who argued that the image promoted of Barbara Bush, the typical American stay-at-home mom, was misleading. Citing her privileged background, a parade of household help, and the time dedicated to being a political wife, they questioned just how much hands-on mothering Bush had actually done.

Community service and volunteerism had always been important to the Bush family and provided the basis of the Bush administration's "thousand points of light" volunteer campaign. Involvement in two of her causes was inspired by personal experience. In 1953, the Bushes lost their three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Robin to leukemia. As part of what Barbara Bush described as the painful but necessary "dance back to real life," the Bright Star Foundation was started in Robin's name. Bush also continued her work and interest in Sloan-Kettering, where Robin had received new and experimental treatment.

The long, frustrating struggle with her son Neil's dyslexia led to Bush's efforts on behalf of literacy and learning disabilities, which became her main focus while in the White House. During her husband's vice presidency, she attended 500 literacy events across the country, and as first lady established the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. With an intergenerational approach, the foundation attempts to keep illiteracy from being handed down from generation to generation. Proceeds from two of her books, C. Fred's Story and Millie's Book (insider books on Washington from the view of While House pets), have gone to the literacy foundation. No one was more surprised than Bush at the success of the second book. Selling more than 400,000 copies, Millie raised $1 million.

Bush considered the job of first lady as the best in America and, aside from a bout with the thyroid disorder Graves Disease, which was diagnosed during Bush's first year in the White House, she was energetic and well-traveled. In the first year alone, she witnessed the demolition of the Berlin Wall and lifting of the Iron Curtain, the American invasion into Panama, and chaos in Rumania. As the Bush administration confronted a number of domestic and foreign crises, Bush often accompanied the president on visits across the United States and abroad.

Although for the most part Barbara Bush was supportive—almost protective—of her husband, she maintained strong opinions on many controversial issues. More than once during her tenure, her opinions brought her outside the bounds of first-lady protocol, and she admitted to having to learn to "curb her mouth" by fielding questions of a controversial nature with the stock answer, "Let me tell you how George Bush feels."

The campaign for reelection brought serious attacks on administration policies, three national debates, and a bizarre chocolate-chip-cookie recipe contest between Barbara Bush and soon-to-be first lady Hillary Clinton . Through all the frustration and exhaustion, Bush believed that her husband was unfairly perceived as having more interest in foreign affairs than in the nation's struggling economy. Whatever the case, in the 1994 election, America opted for a Democratic president for the first time in 12 years.

For the most part, Bush takes pleasure in life after politics, with time divided between homes in Houston, Texas, and Kennebunkport, Maine. She admits to having less patience than her husband with drive-by tourists and the constant intrusion of well wishers. Plans for the house they built in Houston were changed to include a six-foot fence, and she is sometimes short with people who stop her when she is shopping or dining out. She fills her time with friends, family, travel, and a continuation of charitable work. Completing her biography, Barbara Bush: A Memoir (1994), she had remained active in her efforts on behalf of people with leukemia, the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation, and Boys and Girls Clubs. She is also ambassador at large for AmeriCares. Bush's number one cause, however, continues to be literacy.


Bush, Barbara. Barbara Bush: A Memoir. NY: Scribner, 1994.

Gareffa, Peter, ed. Newsmakers, 1989. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1989.

Paletta, LuAnn. The World Almanac of First Ladies. NY: World Almanac, 1990.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts