‘Ferociously tart-tongued’ first lady did not hide white hair and wrinkles

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Barbara Bush liked to keep it real and was as unashamed at telling people her pearl necklaces were fake as she was about white hair and wrinkles.

The wife of the nation’s 41st president and mother of the 43rd brought a plainspoken, grandmotherly style to Washington, displaying an utter lack of vanity.

“What you see with me is what you get. I’m not running for president, George Bush is,” she said at the 1988 Republican National Convention, where her husband, then vice president, was nominated to succeed Ronald Reagan.

Mrs Bush has died aged 92.

A funeral is planned for Saturday at St Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, which Mrs Bush and her husband, former President George H.W. Bush, regularly attended.

Then first lady Barbara Bush waves a park ranger hat to the crowd in 1991 (Jeff Robbins/AP)
Then first lady Barbara Bush waves a park ranger hat to the crowd in 1991 (Jeff Robbins/AP)

Saturday’s service will be by invitation only, according to the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation.

The Bushes, who were married on January 6 1945, had the longest marriage of any presidential couple in American history.

Mrs Bush was one of only two first ladies who had a child who was elected president.

The other was Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams and mother of John Quincy Adams.

“I had the best job in America,” she wrote in a 1994 memoir describing her time in the White House.

“Every single day was interesting, rewarding, and sometimes just plain fun.”

The publisher’s daughter and oil trader’s wife could be caustic in private, but her public image was that of a self-sacrificing, supportive spouse who referred to her husband as her “hero”.

In the White House, “you need a friend, someone who loves you, who’s going to say, ‘you are great’,” Mrs Bush said in a 1992 television interview.

Her appearance often provoked jokes that she looked more like the boyish president’s mother than his wife.

Late-night comedians quipped that her bright white hair and pale features also imparted an uncanny resemblance to George Washington.

Eight years after leaving the nation’s capital, Mrs Bush stood with her husband as their son George W. was sworn in as president.

Then first lady Barbara Bush strolls on the White House South Lawn (Barry Thumma/AP)
Then first lady Barbara Bush strolls on the White House South Lawn (Barry Thumma/AP)

Unlike Mrs Bush, Abigail Adams did not live to see her son’s inauguration as she died in 1818, six years before John Quincy Adams was elected.

Mrs. Bush insisted she did not try to influence her husband’s politics.

“I don’t fool around with his office,” she said, “and he doesn’t fool around with my household”.

In 1984, her quick wit got her into trouble when she was quoted as referring to Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice presidential nominee at the time, as “that four million dollar — I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich”.

“It was dumb of me. I shouldn’t have said it,” Mrs Bush acknowledged in 1988.

Daughter-in-law Laura Bush, another first lady, said Mrs Bush was “ferociously tart-tongued” from the start.

“She’s never shied away from saying what she thinks. … She’s managed to insult nearly all of my friends with one or another perfectly timed acerbic comment,” Laura Bush said in her 2010 book, Spoken From The Heart.

In her 1994 autobiography, Barbara Bush: A Memoir, she said she did her best to keep her opinions from the public while her husband was in office.

But she revealed that she disagreed with him on two issues: she supported legal abortion and opposed the sale of assault weapons.

“I honestly felt, and still feel, the elected person’s opinion is the one the public has the right to know,” Mrs Bush wrote.

She also disclosed a bout with depression in the mid-1970s, saying she sometimes feared she would deliberately crash her car.

She blamed hormonal changes and stress.

She said she snapped out of it in a few months.

Mrs Bush raised five children: George W., Jeb, Neil, Marvin and Dorothy.

A sixth child, three-year-old daughter Robin, died of leukaemia in 1953.

In a speech in 1985, she recalled the stress of raising a family while married to a man whose ambitions carried him from the Texas oil fields to Congress and then into influential political positions that included ambassador to the United Nations, GOP chairman and CIA director.

“This was a period, for me, of long days and short years,” she said, “of diapers, runny noses, earaches, more Little League games than you could believe possible, tonsils and those unscheduled races to the hospital emergency room, Sunday school and church, of hours of urging homework or short chubby arms around your neck and sticky kisses”.

Along the way, she said, there were also “bumpy moments, not many, but a few, of feeling that I’d never, ever be able to have fun again and coping with the feeling that George Bush, in his excitement of starting a small company and travelling around the world, was having a lot of fun”.

In 2003, she wrote a follow-up memoir, Reflections: Life After The White House.

Then first lady Barbara Bush at the Republican National Convention (Marcy Nighswander/AP)
Then first lady Barbara Bush at the Republican National Convention (Marcy Nighswander/AP)

“There is a difference between ease and leisure. I live the former and not the latter.”

Along with her memoirs, she wrote C. Fred’s Story and Millie’s Book, based on the lives of her dogs.

Proceeds from the books benefited adult and family literacy programmes.

Laura Bush, a former teacher with a master’s degree in library science, continued her mother-in-law’s literacy campaign in the White House.

In a collection of letters published in 1999, George H.W. Bush included a note he gave to his wife in early 1994.

“You have given me joy that few men know,” he wrote.

“You have made our boys into men by bawling them out and then, right away, by loving them.

“You have helped Doro to be the sweetest, greatest daughter in the whole wide world.

“I have climbed perhaps the highest mountain in the world, but even that cannot hold a candle to being Barbara’s husband.”

Mrs Bush was born Barbara Pierce in Rye, New York.

Her father was the publisher of McCall’s and Redbook magazines.

After attending Smith College for two years, she married young naval aviator George Herbert Walker Bush. She was 19.

After the Second World War, the Bushes moved to the Texas oil patch to seek their fortune and raise a family.

It was there that Bush began his political career, representing Houston for two terms in Congress in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In all, the Bushes made more than two dozen moves that circled half the globe before landing at the White House in 1989.

During the next four years, opinion polls often gave her approval ratings that exceeded her husband’s.

The couple’s final move, after Bush lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton, was to Houston, where they built what she termed their “dream house” in an affluent neighbourhood.

The Bush family also had an oceanfront summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine.

After retiring to Houston, the Bushes helped raise funds for charities and appeared frequently at events such as Houston Astros baseball games.

State schools in the Houston area are named after both of them.

In 1990, Barbara Bush gave the commencement address at all-women Wellesley College, though some had protested her selection because she was prominent only through the achievements of her husband.

Her speech that day was rated by a survey of scholars in 1999 as one of the top 100 speeches of the century.

“Cherish your human connections,” Mrs Bush told graduates.

“At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal.

“You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent.”

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