Barbara Pierce Bush lived a remarkable life. Of course, any life that extends for more than nine decades is remarkable. When Mrs. Bush was born, Calvin Coolidge was in the White House, Prohibition was the law of the land, and the hot consumer technology was the radio—a radio the size of a piece of furniture. Today, in this era of Donald Trump, legal marijuana, and Facebook, it’s hard to fathom the changes over the last decade, let alone the last 10 decades.
Yet Mrs. Bush’s life itself is noteworthy: for more than three quarters of her 92 years, she was married to her one and only husband, mothering six children, five of whom survive her. And she welcomed into the world 17 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. In a time of broken families and falling birth rates, the Bushes stand out for their mostly long and steady marriages, even as they account for their own baby boom.
Yet social trends aside, what makes Mrs. Bush so specifically interesting are the accomplishments of the family that she married into, and the deeds of the family she herself had. Her father-in-law, Prescott Bush, was a U.S. senator, and her husband, George H.W. Bush, served as the 41st president. Her eldest son, George W. Bush, became the 43rd president, while another son, Jeb, was the two-term governor of Florida. Moreover, Jeb’s son, George P. Bush, is now the elected land commissioner of Texas. Indeed, for most of the last half century, a Bush has been either holding high office or running for even higher office.
In other words, Mrs. Bush’s life bolsters the wisdom of the 1865 poem by William Ross Wallace: “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.” Of course, these days, such an assertion would be harshly judged by those who insist on looking at everything through the politically correct prisms of gender and patriarchal power. And so while Mrs. Bush happily embraced the title “matriarch,” feminist critics will insist that she was a victim, however unknowing, since matriarchy is, in their telling, just a subordination to patriarchy.
For her part, Mrs. Bush often saw herself as an activist in her own stead. She was a lifelong champion of literacy and from the White House authored two charming books in that cause—both whimsically “authored” by a family pet; she even created a literacy foundation that has raised some $110 million. Indeed, it’s been estimated that she and her husband raised more than a billion dollars for charitable causes.
So as we can see, it’s impossible to isolate the influence of Mrs. Bush from that of her family—and she herself wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Yes, it was generally thought that Mrs. Bush was more liberal on issues such as abortion and gun control than her husband and son. And yet she was never any kind of renegade.
Indeed, on the basic issues of social order, she was a pillar, not a protester, always comfortable within the mainstream of center-right thinking. For instance, the credo of her literacy foundation—“The American Dream is about equal opportunity for everyone who works hard”—is a familiar enough sentiment, likely to be judged by most Americans as true and unobjectionable. Nevertheless, the “woke” will regard Mrs. Bush’s words as blindly retrograde, proof that she can’t see beyond her own “white privilege.”
Still, Mrs. Bush’s public profile was mostly shaped by her husband and eldest son. And it’s through their political careers that we can learn more, not only about Mrs. Bush, but also about how her world changed during her lifetime, from the days of “Silent Cal” in the 1920s to “Twitter Donald” in the 2010s.
For instance, George H.W. Bush, born in 1924, undeniably benefitted from economic privilege. Yet young Bush knew that that the corollary to privilege was duty. And so in the middle of World War II, on his 18th birthday, he enlisted as a seaman in the Navy. Recognizing his warrior potential, the Navy commissioned him as a pilot, and soon he was flying combat missions in the Pacific. There, in September 1944, he was shot down, his two crewmen killed. And as he was floating in a rubber dinghy, a lone survivor, we wonder whether Bush felt all that privileged. If he did, well, he also must have known that he had paid his country back at the ripe old age of 20. In fact, Bush flew 58 missions in all, and for his heroism was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and honorably discharged in 1945.
In the meantime, he had married Barbara. After the war, the newlyweds made their life together in Texas, and, of course, the events of succeeding decades inevitably filled their lives. Yet it’s hard to escape the reality that the Bushes were, in the memorable words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “touched with fire.” That is, he on the battlefront and she as a worried yet supportive fiancé and wife on the homefront had the common experience of living through an epochal war. As Holmes, a Civil War combat veteran, recalled in 1884, “It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing.” The same was surely true of George and Barbara.
Yet famously, the Bushes were never much at communicating profundity and passion. They were both, in their own way, typical of the Greatest Generation—they weren’t talkers, they were doers.
This author came to know then-vice president Bush in the Reagan White House in the early 80s, and then went to work for him in 1985, where he also came to know Mrs. Bush. In that nearly eight years of service in Team Bush, he came to admire both of them, and yet he never once heard them say anything that would indicate they were personally hungry for admiration. That is, they were content to let their good works speak for themselves—everything else was private (which is not to say that they both didn’t have plenty of sharp opinions, again, in private).
Indeed, it was a running complaint of us staffers that we could never get the Bushes to “open up”; they simply wouldn’t join into the braggingly confessional spirit of self-advertisement. No Oprah Moments for them. And so even moments of revealing tenderness between the two, such as the death of their young daughter Robin in 1953, went mostly unremarked upon, even if it was never unfelt. That humanizing ingot of political gold always stayed buried.
In the meantime, a liberal and snarky media, riding high in those pre-Internet days, were doing their best to cut Bush down. In 1987, Newsweek put him on its cover, along with the words, “Bush Battles the ‘Wimp Factor.’” Their conceit was that a bunch of Baby Boomer reporters, who had never done anything braver than battle a deadline, would convince the American people that a certified war hero was some sort of sissy.
The following year, 1988, Bush won in a landslide. And yet still, all that media criticism had its cumulative effect. As we know, four years later, Bush was defeated in his re-election bid.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until 1998 that the film Saving Private Ryan showed Americans, with searing intensity, what it was like to fight in World War II. This moviegoer had the feeling that if the film had come out earlier, the ’92 election might have gone differently.
Another point: yes, Bush 41 had been through war and done his bit with distinction, but he was no fan. Combat was too real for him to regard it as anything more than an absolute last resort. And so, for example, while he was willing to order troops into battle to rescue Kuwait in 1991, he was unwilling to wage a larger war to “liberate” Iraq.
By contrast, as we all know, his son, Bush 43, had a different attitude. Almost exactly the same age as Bill Clinton, he had maneuvered just as diligently as Clinton to avoid Vietnam. And yet whereas Clinton was at least somewhat chastened by the experience—as president, he was notably reluctant to authorize interventions that risked major bloodshed—the younger Bush drew a different life lesson. In the White House, Bush let himself be convinced that his destiny was that of world-historical war leader.
We can only wonder what Mrs. Bush, deep down, thought of all this. Since her life was always defined by a sense of personal propriety and family duty, her true opinions about her two presidents, husband and son, while widely rumored, were barely reported and almost never confirmed. Still, it’s hard to escape the intuition that she knew she’d married a better man than she’d mothered.
Now that her lips are sealed forever, we’ll never really know what she was thinking as her hand held the hand of her husband, even as her other hand rocked that fateful cradle.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at TAC. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.