Tonight, Barbara Bush, passed away at 92 years of age. By any standards, Barbara Bush is one of the most extraordinary women who has ever lived. Either that or she is one of the luckiest. All around her people succeeded.
Historians like to point to the fact that Barbara Bush is the only woman, other than Abigail Adams, to have been both the wife and the mother to an American president.
But there is a big difference.
Abigail Adams never knew it. She died in 1818, having buried three of her children, including a promising young man who had become an alcoholic.
Barbara Bush not only saw one of her sons become president, she saw two of her sons elected as governors. George W. Bush became governor of Texas and the 43rd president of the United States. Jeb Bush became governor of Florida and a presidential candidate. Unknown to the public, at one time, Neil Bush was being groomed as a future governor of Colorado.
No other child of a president has ever been elected a governor, although many of them, Jesse Grant to FDR, Jr. have tried.
Barbara Bush did something right.
People sometimes tell me that she reminds them of their grandmother. In fact, she was more like a bawdy, outrageous aunt. She was very funny and as in the case of all great wits, her humor was at times risky.
Soon after winning the White House she hosted the American Catholic Cardinals on a private tour of the family quarters. I was along as a member of the staff. One by one she detailed the history of the rooms and described the subjects and details of the paintings on the wall. When we got to the Queen Mum’s room, she turned, somewhat stumped, at a painting of a beautiful, young lady.
“Well, I don’t know who that is but I think we can all imagine how she got up there.”
There was a brief moment of stunned silence and then, their Eminences broke into uproarious laughter.
Only once did her humor get her into public trouble. In the middle of the 1984 campaign she referred to her husband’s vice presidential opponent, Geraldine Ferraro, with a descriptive comment “I can’t say it,” she said, “but it rhymes with rich.”
Barbara Bush had a keen sense of politics and used her comments to expand her husband’s base of support. She combined this with a shrewd sense of people.
Once, In the middle of the 1988 presidential campaign, I was on a flight on Air Force Two. George and Barbara invited me up to the front cabin for dinner. When we were finished a member of the Secret Service brought up blueprints with some of the proposed improvements for their home in Kennebunkport, Maine. George Bush was soon engrossed in conversations about what changes would be made, when, and if, he was elected president.
Only Barbara Bush sensed the danger of such a conversation with a member of the political staff nearby. Her eyes suddenly locked on mine. “I don’t like talking about this sort of thing before the elections,” she said, “I’m too superstitious.” She knew such a story should not go public. And I got the message.
According to the numbers, George and Barbara Bush should not have had an enduring love story. They were married too young, separated too often and had more than their share of grief. It would spell disaster for most marriages. But their love survived it all and became an inspiration for others.
Once in the heat of the presidential campaign I somehow ended up right in the middle.
George H.W. Bush was headed to one campaign stop while Barbara Bush was headed to another. Late that night their two planes were parked near each other on an airport tarmac in Michigan. While the three of us waited in a limousine.
“I’ll get out of here,” I said, although I didn’t know where to go.
“Stay right where you are,” Barbara snapped. “I have to leave right away.”
So I sat there quietly, while George H.W. Bush and Barbara tenderly held hands and whispered to each other like teenagers.
The Bushes hated any suggestion that they were a political dynasty. As if by stopping the talk they could stop history itself but make no mistake, the Bushes, not the Kennedys, not the family of John Adams, not the Roosevelts, the Bushes, are the real political dynasty in American history. And Barbara Bush was its fountainhead, its most dynamic source.
Barbara Bush will surely be ranked as the greatest “First Mom” in American history and will rank with Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton as one of the three greatest First Ladies. The latter two because of their resumes, but Barbara Bush because of the power of her personality and the impact she had on the country through others, beginning with her husband, children and grandchildren.