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Obituaries

Matriarch, enforcer, commander: how America’s ‘first grandmother’ Barbara Bush stole the public’s heart

While her motherliness was genuine – her five children warmly attest to that – she had a sharp tongue and a steely side that surfaced in her fierce loyalty to her husband

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2018, 4:21pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2018, 8:50pm

Barbara Bush cast herself as an enthralled spectator of her husband’s rise to the presidency, but once in the White House, it was America’s “First Grandmother” who stole the public’s heart.

White haired and matronly, Bush, who died on Tuesday at the age of 92, was decidedly unfashionable, her signature large pearls notwithstanding.

But she honed that staid image shrewdly during George H.W. Bush’s tenure in Washington, and revelled in it again when their son George W. won the White House.

After leaving Washington she emerged as the matriarch of a hyper-powerful American clan.

“She’s an enforcer,” granddaughter Jenna Bush Hager said only on Monday.

But even as the United States grew increasingly polarised, Barbara Bush commanded affection across the political spectrum.

Her 73-year marriage to George, the longest of any US presidential couple, was one of the great love affairs in American public life.

When Barbara Bush had open-heart surgery in 2009, her husband said he was a “nervous wreck”. After she regained consciousness, in poignant comments that highlighted their dedication to one another, he choked back tears telling reporters “it was just a reunion of two people who love each other”.

“She’s in command – she is in control of our whole family,” Bush said.

While her motherliness was genuine – her five children warmly attest to that – the first lady had a sharp tongue and a steely side that surfaced in her fierce loyalty to her husband.

Among the better-known “Barbara barbs” was one thrown when Bush described her husband’s 1984 rival for the vice presidency, Geraldine Ferraro, as something that “rhymes with rich”.

Bush graciously apologised later, polishing her credentials as the consummate political wife.

I threatened no one. I was old, white-headed and large … I stayed out of my husband’s affairs
Barbara Bush

In that role, Bush propelled her husband though his two terms as a US congressman, to his posts as ambassador to China and head of the CIA, his eight years as Ronald Reagan’s vice-president and then four as his successor.

But after serving her role as wife and mother to two presidents, Bush flinched at the prospect of a third, son Jeb Bush, running for the White House in 2016.

“There are other people out there that are very qualified,” she said. “We’ve had enough Bushes.”

Barbara Pierce was born on June 8, 1925 in Rye, an affluent New York suburb, one of four children in a privileged family whose lineage included US president Franklin Pierce.

She idolised her father, president of the McCall’s publishing company, but admitted in her memoirs she was never close to her society mother who died in an auto accident in 1949.

George Bush spotted his prospective bride when Barbara was 16 at a dance, while both attended exclusive East Coast boarding schools.

They married three years later in 1945, while he was on leave from wartime service.

“I married the first man I ever kissed,” she was often quoted as saying.

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Bush attended Smith College, but left after only a year and happily wrapped herself in her husband and family. Though she vehemently defended the decision throughout her public life, she once admitted that at a rare low point in the 1970s, she had second thoughts.

“Suddenly, women’s lib had made me feel that my life had been wasted,” she said in 1989.

But Bush’s 1994 A Memoir generally describes a life of smooth sailing for the blue-blooded couple despite multiple moves beginning in 1948, when they headed west to make their fortune in the oil business.

The darkest hour came in 1953, when Bush’s infant daughter died of leukaemia after seven harrowing months which were said to have caused her hair to turn white in her early thirties.

Their public life began when George Bush was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1966 and then was appointed UN ambassador when he lost his seat in 1971.

Barbara contentedly entertained dignitaries and did charitable work – always for non-controversial causes – but said she was happiest in 1974 when her husband was head of the liaison office in China.

Upon their return to Washington, George Bush took over as CIA chief, and the transition to that confidential post was difficult for his wife, who was used to sharing every aspect of her husband’s career.

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In her ceremonial White House role, Barbara Bush contrasted sharply with that of her chilly fashion-plate predecessor, Nancy Reagan, and career woman successor Hillary Clinton.

Clinton thanked Bush for the “many kindnesses” shown to her and her family.

“Thinking about Barbara Bush’s legacy of service to our country and the extraordinary family she raised,” Clinton tweeted.

Bush attributed her phenomenal popularity to having kept in her place.

“It was because I threatened no one. I was old, white-headed and large,” she said in 1990, adding the key element: “I stayed out of my husband’s affairs.”

Bush hinted her support for abortion stand while her husband sided with abortion foes, and she once let it slip that semi-automatic weapons should be outlawed while he opposed gun control. But she mostly kept her views to herself.

She appeared to blossom in her return to private life, enjoying her brood of grandchildren and her summers at their holiday home in Maine.

For the past 25 years she was deeply involved in her charitable Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, which raised millions to support literacy programmes nationwide.