She and Abigail Adams are the only women in history who hold the distinction of being the wife of one U.S. president and the mother of another. On Tuesday, April 17, 2018, Barbara Pierce Bush passed away peacefully at her home in Houston holding the hand of her husband, George Herbert Walker Bush to whom she was married for more than 70 years. She was 92.
Barbara Bush will always be remembered for her role as the matriarch of one of America’s most iconic political families. Her loyalty to her family was a key component of Mrs. Bush’s character. Sometimes, her devotion got her in trouble, like in 1984, when she said that her husband’s opponent for vice president, Geraldine Ferraro, was something “that rhymed with rich.” The comment reflected Mrs. Bush’s unrelenting love for her family. Years later, despite advancing age and poor health, she joined her son, Jeb, on the campaign trail extensively throughout his failed 2016 campaign for the White House.
Her down-to-earth demeanor won her more friends than enemies, though. She was open about the fact she wore fake pearls and her wit made her a top campaign surrogate in four national campaigns. Even though she was careful not to overshadow her husband, she won the affection of the nation and came to be known as America’s grandmother. It was a fitting role given that she was often surrounded by her own grandchildren while on the campaign trail.
Sarah King ’18, who wrote her senior thesis on the role of the First Lady, said she was deeply upset by Mrs. Bush’s death. “People often only associate Barbara Bush with her love story, which is surely a beautiful aspect of her life,” King said, “but I think of Mrs. Bush as the woman who held an infant with AIDS close to her chest, as the woman who won over a particularly difficult Wellesley crowd by calling for a female president, and fought for not only childhood but adult literacy.”
Mrs. Bush’s advocacy is a less-known aspect of her extensive time in the public eye, but it is an important part nonetheless. Throughout her husband’s four years as president, the First Lady traveled to classrooms around the nation to promote reading. It was a message her daughter-in-law, Laura Bush, would reiterate eight years later when Barbara’s son, George W., became the 43rd president.
In his statement on her passing, President Donald Trump acknowledged Mrs. Bush’s extensive work on the issue. “Amongst her greatest achievements was recognizing the importance of literacy as a fundamental family value that requires nurturing and protection. She will be long remembered for her strong devotion to country and family, both of which she served unfailingly well,” the president said in a statement.
Former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama also released a statement upon news of Mrs. Bush’s death. In their statement, they said they were “grateful for the way she lived her life – as a testament to the fact that public service is an important and noble calling; as an example of the humility and decency that reflects the very best of the American spirit.”
As news of Mrs. Bush’s death spread throughout the nation and Saint Anselm’s campus, Sarah King helped to frame Mrs. Bush’s legacy in the context of other First Ladies. “When it comes to First Ladies it is so easy to want to place them in boxes or pit them against each other based on personality, but Barbara Bush reminds us that it’s okay to defy those expectations. She was unapologetically herself from start to finish while never diminishing those around her.” Few would disagree.
According to a directive from the White House, U.S. flags will be flown at half-staff until Mrs. Bush is buried.
Cover image from KMOV.com; portrait image from the White House Historical Association.