It was a memorable day at Wellesley College on June 1, 1990 . The graduates were stepping out into the world after completing their education at the traditionally women’s college and they were being addressed by First Lady, Mrs. George H.W. Bush – Barbara. She gave the graduates and the other honored guests an inspiring message of encouragement, then toward the end of her message added the words that were in keeping with her open, honest and genuine personality. “Who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse. I wish him well!”
While each First Lady has brought her own unique qualities to the position, there are always those women who whose personalities set them apart. Such is Barbara Bush. For while political wives traditionally present a placid and impersonal façade while avoiding public notice, that is certainly not the case with Barbara Bush. She perfectly represents the popular catch phrase – “what you see is what you get” for this wife of a former president and mother of a current president is ‘the real thing.”
Barbara Pierce was born in New York City on June 8, 1925 , from a family distantly related to President Franklin Pierce. Her father Marvin was a publisher who later became president of McCall’s Magazine, and with her mother Pauline and 2 other siblings hers was a close and loving family. She grew up with a special bond with her father; a connection that helped her develop her love of sports and sense of humor. She attended boarding school at Ashley Hall School in South Carolina.
At age 16 Barbara met her husband, the future president, at a Christmas dance in 1941 and they began corresponding as he returned to Naval Aviation training. When he asked her mother for a picture of Barbara, Mrs. Pierce sent him one taken several years earlier where she posed with her puppy.
“Poor Poppy!” Mrs. Bush wrote later, using a childhood nickname for the future president, “that picture made it look like he was dating a twelve-year old. Shortly after I had a graduation picture taken and at least it was without the dog!”
George finished his Naval Aviation training in 1943 and at Christmas that year they announced their engagement, shortly before George headed for the South Pacific. As Barbara and his family later heard, George was shot down in enemy action but was rescued by a submarine.
When he returned they were married on January 6, 1945 and for the next few months they followed his navy assignments around the country. Though they married young, it was a loving relationship that would last many years and cause Barbara to later joke: “My successful life is a result of marrying well!” Though a modern generation might find a loving union like that to be corny and old fashioned, Mrs. Bush was also honest enough to be amused at their reaction. “I married the first man I ever kissed,” she remarked one time, “When I tell this to my children, they just about throw up.”
At war’s end, George left the Navy and entered Yale University and soon their first child, future President George W. Bush was born in 1946.. “George and I were mad about our baby,” she wrote. “My mother said she hated to be in the room with the baby for if she took her eyes off him George [the new father] looked hurt!”
After graduation George accepted an offer to go to Odessa , Texas to work in oil related industry. After a while in West Texas , the family moved to California in 1949, and there was born their second child in 1949 a girl they named Pauline Robinson but called Robin. In 1950 they returned to Texas and joined a community of other young couples with young children. Along with the other young mothers of her circle, Mrs. Bush was active with church, and community as well as family activities. In 1953 a second son, named Jeb, was born.
About this time three year old Robin began to display a very unusual lethargy and medical tests showed she had leukemia. It was not a well known illness at the time and unfortunately at that time also incurable. Though local doctors were not optimistic, the Bushes decided to pursue further treatment at a big New York City hospital where they had family connections. Their circle of friends gathered around the young family in their crisis causing Mrs. Bush later to write: “I remember so being surrounded by love that I did not really believe what the doctor told us was true. She [the doctor] just had to be wrong but either way we knew had to do everything we could to save our beautiful child.”
Leaving their small sons with close friends, Barbara and Bush took Robin to New York for what would be several months of treatment. However there was still no hope and Robin died in October, 1953. From the experience Mrs. Bush realized how “lucky” they were when they saw others who were not blessed as they had been. There was also something else she realized that would give help them. “And one important thing – we believed in God and that made an enormous difference in our lives then and now.” They returned to Texas to their regular routine, but there were two lasting effects. First, they established a foundation to promote research, and the second was a new realization. “George and I love and value every person more because of Robin She lives on in our hearts, memories, actions and through the Bright Star Foundation.” They also had a third son, Neil, in 1956 and a fourth child, Marvin, born in 1956.
In 1959 George’s business meant a transfer to Houston and there Barbara settled into a busy routine of school, church, and sports (particularly with four boys). Their family was complete in 1959 with the birth of Dorothy, called “Doro.”
At about this time George began to be interested in local politics. He came from a politically active family since his father had been a U.S. senator from Connecticut and George and Barbara had been politically active in their previous home. In 1963 George decided to run for the Senate but was defeated. Then in 1966 when Houston got a new congressional seat George pursued that office and won. The family moved to Washington and settled into a busy new routine making new friends. In 1970 George again ran for the Senate, but even though he was defeated, he was then appointed by President Nixon as ambassador to the United Nations. Later he served as chairman of the Republican National Committee. After Nixon resigned in 1974 George felt a new president should have his own spokesperson at the party headquarters, so he resigned. Though he was offered and declined several prestigious diplomatic posts, he did accept a position as head of the American diplomatic office in the Peoples Republic of China . As Barbara wrote “It was a new adventure for us both.”
Since the U.S. did not have formal diplomatic relations with China, George’s official title was Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office to the Peoples Republic of China. With the children remaining in school in the U.S., George and Barbara set off with their other family member, C. Fred, a golden cocker.
In China Barbara played host to visiting dignitaries, took Chinese lessons and became acclimated to Chinese culture and customs. They discovered that dogs were not common in China because the government considered them improper for the average person, so when they would walk C. Fred he attracted a great deal of attention. When it seemed those they met thought he was cat because of his golden curls, Barbara wrote how she learned to say in Chinese that he was only a little dog and wouldn’t hurt them!
In 1975 they returned to the U.S. where George became director of the CIA, and they resumed their Washington routine. Barbara also put together a slide show and toured speaking to various groups about their experiences in China.
After George left the CIA, they returned to Houston where he worked for a bank and served on various corporate boards. He was also laying the groundwork for a presidential bid in 1980. As her husband toured to gather support, Barbara sought a cause of her own she could support and promote. She wanted to choose something that would involve a great many people, and decided to stress literacy. She felt that when a person could read, write and understand then that would help them deal with other life problems they might encounter.
However, 1980 did not seem to be the year for George Bush’s presidential aspirations since Ronald Reagan appeared to have more support. As the Republican convention began that year George was ready to encourage his supporters to go with Reagan but then his own name began to be discussed for the Vice President position. Though for a while it seemed another would be selected, at the last minute, Mrs. Bush wrote, Ronald Reagan called to offer him the VP slot. As campaigning began, Mrs. Bush reflected on the strange course of events. “In May we had bowed out of politics forever and six months later I was the wife of the Vice President of the U.S.A. ” Reagan and Bush swept to victory in 1980, bringing even more challenges and opportunities. “The eight years George was Vice President were I believe the busiest of my life, even more so than the White House years.”
As wife of the VP as well as later as First Lady, Mrs. Bush continued her promotion of literacy. “I wanted people to know we had a literacy problem and urge them to be part of the answer.” She wanted her audiences to realize that they could encourage literacy by donating time or money to the subject, or by just reading to their child or grand child.
George Bush was elected president in his own right in 1988 and Barbara began a heavy schedule of meetings, speaking engagements, and travel. “I knew one thing for sure, I had the best job in America . Every single day was interesting, rewarding and sometimes just plain fun.”
There were also times of worry and concern, not just for their family but also the world as the U.S. joined other nations in the Gulf War. Then in 1992 as the American people selected a new president, the Bushes returned to private live in Houston . However, there were new discoveries and realizations: “It’s been different,” Mrs. Bush described their new life. “I started driving again. I started cooking again. My driving’s better than my cooking. George has discovered Sam’s Club [A discount warehouse store chain].”
Through the trials, tragedies, as joys and accomplishments of their family and public lives, Barbara and George Bush have survived and become closer to each other and to America . Barbara sums it up by calling herself “Everybody’s grandmother” and says people often like her because “they know I’m fair, and I like children, and I adore my husband!”
A native of Kansas City , Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College , Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968). A freelance writer since the early 1970s, she has published in Christian and secular publications, has taught history on the junior college level, and has spoken at national and local writers’ conferences. Her book “Brittany, Child of Joy”, an account of her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter “Rainbows Along the Way.”