By Garry Clifford Paula Chin
November 21, 1988 12:00 PM

Eight years ago, at the dawn of the Reagan Administration, Barbara Bush met with a group of aides who urged her to adopt a higher profile by championing causes that would capture some headlines. She listened attentively as they spoke their minds, then firmly made up her own. “I’m not going to overshadow Nancy Reagan,” she said emphatically. “I’m the second wife. My time will come.”

With George Bush’s lopsided victory last Tuesday, that time is now close at hand. On January 20, standing beside her husband as he is sworn in as the 41st President of the United States, Barbara Pierce Bush will assume a role for which she has spent a lifetime in training—and for which she may be better prepared than any First Lady in the modern era.

Indeed, the move to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue fulfills a dream Barbara Bush has pursued every bit as vigorously as the President-elect. No stranger to personal sacrifice for her husband’s career, she has followed George Bush from Wyandotte, Mich., to Houston, to Beijing—17 different cities in all—while he moved up from nascent businessman to Texas Congressman, to chief of the U.S. mission in China, to head of the CIA. As wife of the Vice-President, she has logged a million miles on Air Force Two, visiting 50 states and 68 foreign countries. Assigned an endless round of official duties that ranged from the stately to the faintly ridiculous—including an upcoming eighth mission in a cherry picker to set stars atop the national Christmas tree—she has turned in a flawless performance. She was no less impressive while handling the personal pressures of the 1988 campaign: Confronted with persistent rumors of Bush’s supposed extramarital affairs and stung by mean-spirited gibes at her white hair and matronly figure, she deflected the attacks with breezy self-assurance—all the while tirelessly tending to her husband’s reputation.

By her own admission, Barbara, 63, is the quintessential political wife—unassuming, deferential, fiercely loyal to her family—and she vows to remain so as matriarch of the White House. “She will be totally noncontroversial,” predicts one member of the Bush team. “Things will be low-key. There will be less show and glitter, a broader mix of people and politicians at state dinners, and best of all, there will be 10 grandchildren running through the White House halls again.” When it comes to matters of national policy, Barbara will neither wield the persuasive, behind-the-scenes power of Nancy Reagan nor possess the aggressive, hands-on influence of Rosalynn Carter. “I am not a wavemaker,” says Barbara, who insists that while she will freely voice differing opinions in private, she won’t pressure George about his decisions. Her longstanding commitment to fighting illiteracy, which she calls “the most important issue we have,” is certain to remain a top priority. “If we can get people to read,” she says, “we can get them out of jails and shelters and off the streets, and get them back to work.”

That worthy goal, and her singular devotion to her husband, spring in part from the values she learned during a privileged childhood in the affluent New York City suburb of Rye. Her father, Marvin, a publisher of McCall’s magazine, and her mother, Pauline, the daughter of an Ohio Supreme Court justice, insisted that Barbara and her three siblings always show consideration for others. “We were brought up to look after people’s feelings,” she says. When she met George Bush at a Christmas dance in 1942—she was 16, a junior classwoman at Ashley Hall in Charleston, S.C., and he a best-at-everything 17-year-old senior at Andover—Barbara knew immediately that she wanted to become his wife. They were engaged a year later, just before George went off to war as a Navy fighter pilot. In 1945, while he was home on leave, Barbara dropped out of Smith College during her sophomore year, and they wed in a lavish Presbyterian ceremony in her hometown. “I married the first man I ever kissed,” she says. “When I tell this to my children, they just about throw up.”

A self-described “nester” who longed to put down roots, Barbara assumed that she and George would settle in New England, sending the children to the same schools and country-club dances that they had known in their youth. But after George graduated from Yale in 1948, he moved Barbara and their 2-year-old son, George W. (Georgie), to Odessa, Texas, where he hoped to make his fortune in the booming oil business. “I didn’t want to go at the time,” she says, “but a day after I got there I thought it was really exciting.” In 1949 a daughter, Robin, was born, and four years later a second son, Jeb. Meanwhile, George had founded a drilling-equipment firm and was well on his way to becoming a millionaire. It was a time of growth and plenitude, save for one devastating loss, Robin’s death, of leukemia, in 1953. “I nearly fell apart. I couldn’t put my right foot in front of my left,” says Barbara, “but George didn’t let me retreat.” Nor she recalls, did her eldest son. “One day I heard Georgie tell a friend, ‘I can’t play today because I have to be with my mother—she’s so unhappy.’ That’s when I realized you either pull together, or you shatter.”

In 1959 the Bushes pulled up stakes and moved to Houston, George’s base for an unsuccessful race for the Senate. This time around, Barbara, pregnant with daughter Dorothy, was even more reluctant to uproot her family, which now included sons Neil, 5, and Marvin, 3. But once again she was able to adjust. Then in 1966 George was elected to Congress, and the burgeoning Bush clan resettled in Washington, D.C. While George put in two terms on Capitol Hill, Barbara played supermom, serving as Cub Scout mother, car-pool driver and Sunday-school teacher. “Dad was the chief executive officer, but mother was the chief operating officer,” jokes son Jeb, a Florida real estate man. “We all reported to her. She did a good job of keeping the family intact.”

Barbara would preserve those family ties despite an increasingly nomadic lifestyle. She moved to New York when George was appointed ambassador to the United Nations in 1971, shuttled back to Washington when he was named Republican National Chairman in 1973 and then, in 1974, found herself in Beijing as wife of the new U.S. envoy to China. “I loved it there,” says Barbara, whose nearly grown children stayed behind in the States. “I had George all to myself.” But that halcyon period, too, was short-lived; a year later her husband was summoned back to Washington by President Ford to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Returning to the U.S., Barbara felt a profound sense of dislocation. The women’s liberation movement was moving at full speed, and for the first time Barbara was isolated from her husband’s work by a veil of secrecy. “I felt inadequate and that I hadn’t accomplished enough,” she says. “But I got over it, thank heavens.” She assembled a slide show on China and began touring the country, raising thousands of dollars for St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, where she had taught for several years. And when George entered the 1980 presidential race, Barbara leapt into the fray, taking to the hustings for her husband’s cause and later for the Reagan-Bush ticket.

But it was during this fall’s campaign that Barbara truly came into her own. Many of Bush’s advisers, who would have preferred a more glamorous, telegenic wife for their candidate, were astounded by Barbara’s ability to win votes despite her no-frills style. Barbara also won over the press corps with an irreverent and self-deprecating sense of humor. Angered by Robert Dole’s criticism of her husband during the 1988 Republican primary season, Barbara was ready to retaliate in kind—until she remembered her one and only flub during the 1984 campaign. Responding to Democratic attacks on the Bush family’s wealth, she called Geraldine Ferraro a “$4-million—I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich.” This time she resisted the temptation to characterize Dole, joking, “I better get back to my seat. The poet laureate has retired.”

That is not to say there aren’t chinks in her armor. Barbara, who swims or uses her exercise bike daily, admits she has been bruised by criticism of her grandmotherly appearance and even by the advice of well-wishers that she should dye her hair, shed some weight and swap her brightly-colored, off-the-rack dresses for more subtly shaded designer labels that would flatter her 5’8″ frame. “People can be so rude about the fact that George looks so young and I look so old,” she says. “It’s not nice.” Most painful of all are reports of George’s alleged affairs with both a widowed family friend and a longtime aide. While Barbara has coolly dismissed the charges as “insidious,” campaign staffers say the rumors left her feeling deeply “hurt and angered.”

Both George and Barbara insist their love has grown steadily over the years—”I couldn’t live without her, and she couldn’t live without me,” he has said—but they don’t ordinarily make a public show of it. In the old-moneyed, Yankee social circles of their background, public displays of affection (known as PDAs) are perhaps even more to be avoided than the L word. A rare exception to that rule came during the final months of the campaign when the Bushes, seeking to close the domestic-affection gap that had been opened by Mike and Kitty Dukakis, took to stealing kisses and hand-holding in open view of the press. Now that the pressure is off, some friends expect the couple will keep their playful romance pretty much to themselves. “I remember once riding in an elevator with them when it got stuck between floors,” says former Bush speech-writer Christopher Buckley, son of conservative gadfly William F. “The two Secret Service agents were going crazy—and the Bushes started pinching each other’s bottoms. He pinched her, then she leaned over and did the same, saying, ‘Hi ya, fella!’ ”

As Barbara Bush prepares to move into the White House, there is only one ambition that still eludes her: a permanent home. During the long months of campaigning, reporters sensed that Barbara was ambivalent about the future; her close friends believe she longs to spend more time with the family at the Bush residence in Kennebunkport, Maine, where she likes to hold barbecues and, in private moments, dig into a good mystery book or best-seller like Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. “That house has come to mean roots,” Barbara has said. “When I’m in my garden there planting peonies that will last a hundred years, I’m doing that for my children and grandchildren.” Now, after her triumph, she will have to postpone that dream. As always, she will do it cheerfully, with no outward show of regret. “Don’t make it out like it’s been a hardship,” she says. “I love my life. I consider myself the luckiest woman in the world.”

—with Paula Chin in New York