Former First Lady Barbara Bush Dies at 92

April 18, 2018, 12:20 AM UTC

Barbara Bush, the wife of one U.S. president and mother of another who embodied the old-fashioned sensibility that family comes before careers or politics, has died. She was 92.

She died Tuesday, the Associated Press reported, citing a statement from family spokesman Jim McGrath. The cause wasn’t immediately known.

Bush, who was in “failing health,” decided to no longer seek medical treatment and instead focused on “comfort care,” McGrath had said Sunday in a statement. Her 93-year-old husband, George H.W. Bush, has also had a series of health problems, including a bout of pneumonia that hospitalized him for two weeks last year.

The granddaughter of an Ohio Supreme Court judge, a distant descendant of President Franklin Pierce, the former Barbara Pierce set herself up for a globetrotting life within the Republican Party when she fell for Bush — “Poppy,” as he was known — in 1941.

Choosing marriage over a college degree or a career, she embarked on a course that would take her to the United Nations and China, the vice president’s residence in Washington during Ronald Reagan’s two terms as president, and the White House as first lady from 1989 to 1993. She would see two sons become governors — George and Jeb — and one of them follow his father’s footsteps to the U.S. presidency.

Personal Style

Bush learned to laugh easily at her own unglamorous profile, the white hair that she refused to dye becoming the emblem of her old-school tastes. She said her last effort to color it was in 1970, when a rinse called “Fabulous Fawn” ended up dripping down her neck during a hot day on the campaign trail. After that, “I decided to let nature take its course.”

Just as her husband represented the last of a breed — the World War II veteran as president — Barbara Bush exemplified a type of first lady who went out of style when she departed the political scene. Though she never expressed second thoughts about her chosen path — she’d dropped out of Smith College to get married and start a family — others sometimes did.

In 1990, 150 students at Wellesley College rebelled at news that Bush had been enlisted to deliver the commencement address. “Wellesley teaches that we will be rewarded on the basis of our own merit, not on that of a spouse,” the students said in a petition.

Proper Role

Bush went through with the speech, which included the line: “At the end of your life, 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.”

As Bush was finishing her memoir in 1994, she was watching her successor, Hillary Clinton, carve a new path for the first lady by heading up her husband’s attempt to implement a universal health-care system.

“I am not too sure that the American public likes the spouse to be too front-and-center,” Bush wrote. “She seems much the stronger of the two. Does it make him seem weaker?”

She largely blamed the press for her husband’s failure to win a second term, and she described as “agony” watching her eldest son run for president in 2000.

Singular Feat

Only one other U.S. first lady, Abigail Adams, was also the mother of a president. But unlike Adams, who died several years before the 1825 election of John Quincy Adams, Bush saw her son run, and win. And she saw another son run and lose: Jeb Bush, who was governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, lost his bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination ultimately won by Donald Trump.

For the spring 2018 edition of Smith College’s alumnae magazine, Bush wrote, “I have had great medical care and more operations than you would believe. I’m not sure God will recognize me; I have so many new body parts.”

She also wrote, “I am still old and still in love with the man I married 72 years ago.”

Barbara Pierce was born on June 8, 1925, in New York, the third of four children, and she grew up in suburban Rye, New York. Her father, Marvin, was assistant to the publisher of McCall — which produced publications including McCall’s and Redbook — and worked his way to company president.

Early Years

Bush was closer to her father than to her mother, Pauline Robinson Pierce, whom she described as a “striking beauty” who “knew how to keep an exquisite home” yet didn’t fully appreciate the blessings in her life.

Bush attended Rye Country Day School and Ashley Hall in Charleston, South Carolina — “a true square, making good marks and never breaking the rules.”

Home for Christmas in 1941, 16-year-old Barbara attended a dance in Greenwich, Connecticut. There, a friend introduced her to “Poppy” Bush — “the nicest, cutest boy,” she reported to her mom later that night. They quickly became a couple.

“I don’t know why but she seems so perfect a girl — beautiful, gentle, a wonderful sense of humor, so much fun,” the future president wrote in a 1942 letter to his sister.

George Bush joined the Navy when he turned 18 in June 1942. A year later, vacationing together at his family’s summer home in Maine while he was on leave, the couple secretly got engaged. Their intentions were announced in the New York Times in December 1943.

Postponed Wedding

The wedding, scheduled for late 1944, was pushed back to Jan. 6, 1945, after George’s plane was shot down in the Pacific. (He parachuted into the sea and was rescued.) Barbara Bush didn’t return to Smith College, where she had finished her freshman year.

Married, the couple moved to Michigan, Maine and Virginia as George’s Navy squadron trained for a possible invasion of Japan. After Japan surrendered, the Bushes moved to Connecticut, where George studied economics at Yale University and Barbara had the first of their six children — George W., the future president.

Moving his family to West Texas, George Bush began work in the oil industry. He entered politics in 1962, becoming chairman of the local Republican Party. He served two terms representing Texas in the House of Representatives from 1967 until 1971 but lost two bids for the Senate.

The Bushes moved in 1971 to New York, where George served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, then returned to Washington when he became chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Under Surveillance

During a 14-month stay in China, where her husband was chief of the U.S. Liaison Office, Bush became so convinced they were under surveillance that she put her journal-writing on hiatus.

Back in Washington after her husband became Central Intelligence Agency director in 1976, Bush endured a six-month bout of depression and felt too ashamed to seek treatment. Aside from George, “I hid it from everyone, including my closest friends,” she recalled.

Soon after her husband began planning a presidential bid in 1978, Bush learned that her appearance was a topic of family concern.

“They discussed how to make me look snappier — color my hair, change my style of dressing, and, I suspect, get me to lose some weight,” she wrote in her memoir. She said she “wept quietly alone until George told me that was absolutely crazy.”

Literacy Foundation

She settled on literacy as the cause she would pursue as first lady, even though, she later acknowledged, “I knew absolutely nothing about the subject.” A reduction in illiteracy, she reasoned, could improve numerous ills that concerned her, including homelessness, teenage pregnancies, hunger and crime. She wrote two books, “C. Fred’s Story” (1984) and “Millie’s Book” (1990), sales of which benefited reading programs, and started the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

Though she tried to steer clear of political disputes, she stumbled into the headlines on a few occasions.

The most famous occurred on Air Force II during the 1984 presidential race, as Reagan and Bush were being challenged by the Democratic ticket of Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro.

Joking with reporters, Bush described Ferraro — the first woman on a major-party presidential ticket — with these words: “I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich.” Bush said she thought the discussion was off the record and apologized to Ferraro.

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