By Kelly Bell
Only one other woman has been both the wife and the mother of an American president–Abagail Adams, and she did not live to see her son inaugurated. When George Bush was elected this country’s 41st president in 1988, his wife Barbara, took the first step in matching (and surpassing) Abagail’s distinction. Following George’s term in office he and Barbara saw their son George W. Bush assume the title of Chief Executive. Although their family dynasty was much less colorful, the Bushes managed something the Kennedys never accomplished–putting two members in the Oval Office.
Barbara Pierce was born in New York City on June 8, 1925. At age sixteen she was attending a boarding school in South Carolina when she met a dashing seventeen-year-old named George Bush at a school dance. Over the next eighteen months these turtledoves exchanged bushels of love letters and were engaged just before George reported for flight training in the U.S. Navy. He almost did not come home.
George Bush was the youngest pilot in the Navy, but never gave that much thought during his fifty-eight combat missions. He survived being shot down and was rescued by an American submarine. His exploits in the Pacific skies earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross. Completing his tour of duty, he returned home and married his beautiful Barbara in January 1945. They were just getting started.
Settling in Texas, they dabbled in the oil business before George entered politics. His new career kept him away from home for long stretches, but Barbara proved up to the task of being essentially a single parent. Her approach to child-rearing soon had her children calling her “The Enforcer.” Son George W later described her methods of mothering.
“We were a rambunctious lot. Pretty independent-minded kids. She had her hands,” he said in 2016. “Dad, of course, was available, but he was a busy guy and he was on the road a lot when he was campaigning, so mother was there to maintain order and discipline. She was the sergeant.”
Barbara did not allow herself to be devastated by the crushing loss of her daughter Robin from leukemia and was always there for her brilliant and ambitious husband as his political career gained momentum. She stood by her man as he served as a congressman from Texas, UN ambassador, Republican Party chairman, America’s ambassador to China, CIA director, vice-president and eventually President of the United States of America.
Easily identifiable by her trademark white hair, she spoke out on issues affecting all Americans–pursuing women’s rights, working to abolish illiteracy, avowing that abortion should not be a political issue, and encouraging young people to work hard to achieve their objectives. In 1990, she addressed co-eds at Wellesley College and advised them to aim high.
“Somewhere out in this audience there may be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse,” she said. “I wish him well.”
Following the Bushes’ departure from the White House, Barbara remained in the public eye, campaigning for her younger son Jeb in his ultimately unsuccessful run for the presidency. As time crept up on her and her mate the love between them never faltered. She made this clear in a recent interview.
“I’m still old and still in love with the man I married seventy-two years ago.”
Even as her health began to fail her, she stayed busy with her causes. She suffered from ulcers, thyroid and heart problems, and eventually it was more than even an enforcer could withstand. She breathed her last on April 17, 2018. George was holding her hand.