Former First Lady Barbara Bush Dies At 92 : The Two-Way Barbara Pierce Bush died Tuesday at the age of 92. Her death was confirmed by a family spokesman. She promoted reading skills across America and was also a best-selling author.
NPR logo

Former First Lady Barbara Bush Dies At 92

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/200470972/603429429" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Former First Lady Barbara Bush Dies At 92

Former First Lady Barbara Bush Dies At 92

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/200470972/603429429" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Former first lady Barbara Bush has died. She was 92 years old and had suffered from heart problems. Mrs. Bush opted to discontinue medical treatment over the weekend and focus instead on comfort care. That's according to the office of her husband, former President George H.W. Bush. A statement from her son, former president George W. Bush, called her a woman unlike any other who brought levity, love and literacy to millions.

Mrs. Bush will go down in history as one of just two women in the United States to be both the wife of a U.S. president and also the mother of one. NPR's Tovia Smith has this look back at her life.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: From the moment she moved into the White House, Barbara Bush made it clear she was going to be a different kind of first lady than her very glamorous predecessor, Nancy Reagan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARBARA BUSH: And speaking of glamour, I want you all to look at me very carefully.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: She was as famous for her undyed hair and fake pearls as she was for her self-deprecating humor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: Please notice the hair, the makeup, designer clothes.

(LAUGHTER)

MYRA GUTIN: Barbara Bush certainly wasn't afraid to laugh at herself. And I think she worked very hard to show that she was just a real person. She was not Nancy Reagan, who's a size two.

SMITH: First Lady biographer Myra Gutin says it's why Bush was so popular. She was a throwback to old-fashioned values, and she pushed back against popular conventions of beauty.

GUTIN: One time she said to a reporter, my mail is telling me that there are a lot of fat and overweight ladies in this country who are really happy that I'm going to be in the White House. That's vintage Barbara Bush.

SMITH: Her down-to-earth image was all the more remarkable for someone who grew up in a suburb of Manhattan as part of the aristocracy and married aristocracy as well. The daughter of a magazine publisher and granddaughter of a state Supreme Court justice, Barbara Pierce was home from boarding school at a Holiday dance when she met George Herbert Walker Bush, son of a U.S. senator from a prominent Yankee family.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: Sweet 16 and never been kissed has been written about me, and it was true.

SMITH: In her memoir, Bush describes falling head over heels.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: I floated into my room and kept the poor girl I was rooming with awake all night while I made her listen to how Poppy Bush was the greatest living human on the face of the Earth.

SMITH: They got engaged just before Bush shipped off to war. And she dropped out of Smith College when he returned to become Mrs. George Bush. She would then make some 30 moves following her husband through naval training to Yale, where she delivered the first of their six children, George W. Bush, and then to Texas, where Bush would start his career in the oil business. Political aide and family friend Chase Untermeyer says that was a formative experience for this elite young woman from the East.

CHASE UNTERMEYER: No matter what your background is, if you go to dusty West Texas in the late 1940s, you are very much down-to-earth 'cause the earth is all around you. There wasn't much fanciness about that lifestyle, and it was a great leveler.

SMITH: Barbara Bush spent her 20s and 30s in the traditional role of wife and mother. When her husband dove into politics, she dutifully took on the role of political wife and campaigned for him, though longtime family friend Rob Mossbacher Jr. says her supportiveness should not be mistaken for submissiveness.

ROBERT MOSBACHER JR: She was as far away from a Stepford wife or some sort of mamby-pamby (ph), you know, sweetness and light that you could get.

SMITH: Indeed known as the Silver Fox, Barbara Bush could be as tough as she could be charming. The rough-and-tumble of politics roiled her at times, especially, she said, when attacks were aimed at her son, George W. Bush. Her grandkids named her the enforcer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: Sometimes I just want to give people a piece of my mind.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

BUSH: But of course, as George would say - wouldn't be prudent.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: When her other son, Jeb Bush, first considered running for president, too, Barbara Bush demurred, we've had enough Bushes. But in 2015 when he jumped in, she changed her tune. And at 90, she hit the campaign trail to try and elect a third President Bush.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: He's everything we need in a president.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

SMITH: True to her character, Bush couldn't hold back when she was asked by CNN about Jeb's then-bitter-rival Donald Trump, who had called her son dumb as a rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: I'm sick of him. I don't understand why people are for him.

SMITH: Perhaps her best-known barb was aimed at her husband's 1984 vice presidential opponent, Geraldine Ferraro, who was attacking George W. Bush for being rich and out of touch. Mrs. Bush shot back that she couldn't say what Ferraro was, but it rhymed with rich.

CRAIG FULLER: It was just kind of spontaneous quip that might best not be made public.

SMITH: Former Bush aide Craig Fuller...

FULLER: You didn't find her backing down. I would say that was pretty characteristic.

SMITH: On policy issues, however, Mrs. Bush treaded more lightly. For example, she was said to privately support abortion rights but on the record would hold her tongue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: I believe if you are an elected official, you can speak up, but if you haven't run for dogcatcher - never publicly.

SMITH: Mrs. Bush also tried to avoid making waves in selecting her pet cause of literacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

BUSH: (As herself) Hello. Nice to see you again, Big Bird.

CAROLL SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Oh, it's nice to see you, too.

SMITH: She tirelessly promoted literacy as a way to help solve everything from teen pregnancy and inner-city violence to AIDS.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: That if every man, woman and child in America could read, write and comprehend, we could find easier answers to so many of our other social problems.

SMITH: Mrs. Bush was also a bestselling author beloved for the books she wrote in the voice of her dog Millie. But her role as first lady, wife and mother also sparked something of a backlash when she was picked to speak at Wellesley College commencement in 1990. Students protested that a woman most famous for her husband's career was not a good role model. But true to form, Barbara Bush took no prisoners, telling grads that families should trump career.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: 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.

SMITH: Mrs. Bush's personal life included challenges, including the death of a 3-year-old daughter from leukemia and, years later, a bout of depression that left her feeling, as she put it, like driving into a tree. But all in all, Barbara Bush considered herself blessed, especially, as she's often said, for who she married.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: George Bush gave me the greatest life ever any living human could have ever had, truthfully.

(APPLAUSE)

SMITH: Tovia Smith, NPR News.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.