March 28, 1990 12:00 PM

It’s hard to imagine Nancy Reagan carrying a toddler on her hip (what hip?) or describing her wrinkles (what wrinkles?) as “furrows so deep you could plant potatoes in them.” One can imagine Rosalynn Carter gardening in khakis, but not sprawling on the White House lawn to cuddle friendly, floppy-eared Millie. Yet somehow Barbara Bush knows how to be as folksy as all next-door without jostling a jot of her dignity.

The Silver Fox was reared in the kind of high WASP style that Bronx-born Ralph Lauren has made his nouveau niche. Daughter of the publisher of McCall’s and a housewife, she developed in affluent New York suburbia the admirable qualities of fortitude, forbearance, self-deprecating humor and engaging, never gushing, maternal warmth.

The Barbara Bush style is not just white gloves for the inauguration, not just royal “Barbara Blue” (now dubbed one of the hot hues for the ’90s), not just the triple strand of fake pearls that has proved so popular that Kenneth Jay Lane has begun designing them for pooches. It’s all that and less. Barbara’s way of conveying conviviality while neither prying nor pressing unsought intimacies strikes the right balance after a decade of heedless excess. The woman respects privacy—another tenet of WASP style.

She is, in short, not out to impress anyone. The family home in Kennebunkport is kid-proof—equipped with comfortable, dog-frequented furniture, the residue of 28 moves in 45 years of marriage. There, Barbara, 64, wears T’s and sweats mailed in by admirers, and the annual Fourth of July bash has always included townspeople and staff.

What Barbara has done is make gracious-ness stylish again. Her secret is that it’s no act. She really seems to enjoy scrawling the generous personal notes that fly from her desk and keeping up the 60 family scrap-books as well as the intimate network of girlfriends from stages past. And she really seemed embarrassed when she remarked at an inaugural luncheon, “Please notice the hairdo, the makeup, the designer clothes. You may never see them again.”

That promise proved impossible to keep—there’s no time for shopping at Talbot’s now. But with it, millions of women breathed a collective sigh of relief. As designer Arnold Scaasi puts it, “Having Barbara as First Lady means that women who weren’t buying a new dress because they were a little overweight are buying new dresses now. It means you don’t have to try to look like your daughter anymore.”

A more relaxed style is prevailing at the White House too. Barbara brought along the needlepoint rug that took her eight years to finish. The Lincoln guest room is occupied almost nightly by kith or kin, and George is forever bringing official visitors home from the office for “burgers and bloodies.” Nancy Reagan’s former beauty salon is now a puppy-whelping room and scrapbook store-house; her private gym has become a guest room for visiting grandchildren. “Mrs. Reagan was a perfectionist,” Barbara says, “and I’m not.” That’s perfect all by itself.

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