October 23, 2000 12:00 PM

In the last of our five-part series on former First Ladies, we profile Barbara Bush, now 75. A blue blood like her husband, she was seen by many as lovable and grandmotherly. She was indeed wholly devoted to husband and family, but when either was threatened, she gave insiders a glimpse of the fiercely protective matriarch she is.

George and Barbara Bush were finishing lunch recently on the veranda of their stone-and-shingle house overlooking the Maine coast when a visitor brought up a touchy subject—the upcoming first presidential debate. “I can’t watch it, I just can’t!” proclaimed Barbara. The Bushes had brokered a treaty for the tense final weeks before the election. George would don earphones to watch the TV news in their bedroom, and Barbara, who believes the media has favored Al Gore over her son, the Texas governor, would immerse herself in a book or vacate the room. “I just can’t take the pressure when people lie about him,” she says. “So I have to get up and leave to keep the marriage [going] after 55 years.”

If George W. wins on Nov. 7, Barbara Bush will be the only First Lady ever to see her son become President. (Abigail Adams died six years before the 1824 election of her son John Quincy Adams.) “Do you know how much I care about that?” she says. “Zero. I don’t feel like a First Lady at all. I feel like a mother and a friend.”

She may not feel like a First Lady, but judging by the thousands of letters she received each week during her four-year stay in the “White House, Mrs. Bush was one of the most popular presidential wives ever. And the woman known as the Silver Fox claims to know why. In her best-selling Barbara Bush: A Memoir, published in 1994, she describes a 1990 conversation with Raisa Gorbachev, wife of the Russian leader, in which she explained her appeal: “I told [Raisa], as honestly as I could, that I felt it was because I threatened no one—I was old, white-headed and large. I also told her that I stayed out of my husband’s affairs.”

Coming after Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush was praised for her homespun virtues and common touch. Unlike the couture-clad Nancy, the frugal Barbara wore $29 shoes (though they killed her feet) to her husband’s 1989 inauguration. And while Nancy, who was often at odds with her children and mingled with socialites like Betsy Bloomingdale and show-business luminaries like Frank Sinatra, Barbara immersed herself in family and needlepoint. “Short of ax murder,” said former Bush spokeswoman Sheila Tate, “I think she could get away with anything. She’s so benign.”

Well, yes and no. The truth is, Mrs. Bush wasn’t the Betty Crocker she was made out to be. She was “intense, irreverent, funny, a lot tougher and more combative than her public image suggests,” says Bill Minutaglio, author of First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty. She may not have sat in on cabinet meetings à la Rosalynn Carter, but she was a player behind the scenes. She was especially prickly when someone messed with her man. In 1984, when Democrats claimed that Vice President George Bush, now 76, enjoyed the special tax breaks of the wealthy, Barbara took aim at the Democrats’ VP choice, Geraldine Ferraro, saying there was a word to describe her—”It rhymes with rich.”

Nor did Barbara really keep her nose out of George’s business. In her own way, she may have been as potent a force as Hillary Clinton or Nancy Reagan. While calling Mrs. Bush “the epitome of class,” former Bush campaign aide Mary Matalin observes, “She never missed a trick. If you screwed up, she knew it. She didn’t have to say anything, merely lift an eyebrow.”

Sometimes she did a good deal more. Minutaglio tells how George W. used to play the role of his mother’s loyalty cop: “W said she would call him and say she didn’t think somebody was serving his father, the President, very well. She’d say, ‘I want you to go issue some corrective measures.’ ” A culprit in point was Bush adviser Lee Atwater, who had been photographed in Esquire with his pants around his ankles. Ever protective of her husband’s image, says Minutaglio, Barbara dispatched W to chastise Atwater and suggest he apologize. (Atwater, who died in 1991, did.)

Since leaving the White House, Mrs. Bush has hosted events at the George Bush Library at Texas A&M University and given speeches around the country. But mostly she has focused on family matters. “We’ve got 14 grandchildren and love spending time with them,” says Barbara, who regularly welcomes the extended clan to the Bushes’ waterfront compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. “Last summer we brought home 12 grandkids after the convention. They go to the beach. They boat, play tennis and swim for hours.”

During quieter times at their two-story brick home in Houston, Mrs. Bush routinely rises at 5 a.m. “I can’t help it,” she says. “I sneak out and walk Sadie, get back into bed, have coffee, read the paper. I write in my diary, do scrapbooks, play with my digital camera, have lunch with friends. We’re having fun. Life continues to be an adventure.”

The latest adventure, of course, has been her son’s run for the Presidency. Mrs. Bush, though, claims to have had little to do with W’s campaign. “They don’t need me,” she says. “I did what they asked, which was some fund-raising and rallying of the troops. We’re another generation. We’re out of it.”

The fact is, W’s famous parentage is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the elder Bushes—Barbara, especially—have a following. On the other, GOP strategists worry about charges that W’s success has come largely because he is his father’s son. “The campaign’s whole effort,” says Dave McNeely, political editor of the Austin American-Statesman, “is to project George W. as his own man.” Barbara is regarded as a secret weapon who could be rolled out if W dives in the polls, where he remains in a neck-and-neck race. There is always the possibility, though, that the irrepressible Barbara—whom W calls the “ultimate lion mother”—will roll herself out. “I don’t want to hate anyone,” says Barbara. “But I find myself not so pleased these days with the reporting and the opposition. I don’t think that’s just a mother talking.”

Born on June 8, 1925, Barbara Pierce was raised in suburban Rye, N.Y., in a spacious five-bedroom brick house attended by servants. Barbara adored her father, Marvin, a publisher who became president of McCall’s. “He spoiled me rotten,” she says. Her mother, Pauline, was another story. The daughter of an Ohio supreme court justice, she was a “striking beauty,” Barbara writes in her memoir, who was unable to see the beauty in her own life—that she had “a husband who worshiped the ground she walked on, four loving children and a world of friends.” Pauline spanked the kids with a hairbrush or, shades of Joan Crawford, a wooden hanger. “It was a chemical thing with me and my mother,” says Barbara about her difficulties with Pauline. “It took me a long time to realize this.”

It was in 1941 that 16-year-old Barbara, home from finishing school for Christmas break, attended a country-club dance in Greenwich, Conn., and met 17-year-old George Bush, a senior at elite Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. Though Barbara was insecure about her looks, in part because of her mother’s criticism, George was smitten. “I don’t know why, but she seems so perfect a girl,” he wrote his sister Nancy. Says Barbara: “The children always say to me, ‘How do you know when you’re in love?’ I always tell them I knew because I couldn’t breathe when George was in the room. They all throw up, of course.”

When George joined the Navy in 1942 and became a pilot, Barbara entered Smith College. They married three years later, after his plane was shot down in the Pacific and he was rotated home for Christmas. George blazed through Yale in 2½ years, and in 1948 headed for West Texas with Barbara and 2-year-old George W. “They didn’t give a darn in Texas who was your mother or father,” says Barbara. “It was, ‘Can you produce?’ And George Bush produced.”

In 1949 daughter Robin was born, followed four years later by a second son, Jeb, now 47 and governor of Florida. By 1953 George was becoming a millionaire in the oil-drilling equipment business. Then tragedy struck—Robin died of leukemia. Barbara was shattered, lost in grief, until one day she heard little George tell a friend he couldn’t go out because he had to play with his mother. “We get so wrapped up in ourselves and the pain we forget the other children,” says Barbara. “My son made me realize that.”

The coming years brought three more children—Neil, now 45, Marvin, 43, and Dorothy, 41—and, as Mrs. Bush recalled in a 1985 speech, a period of “diapers, runny noses, earaches, more Little League games than you could believe possible, tonsils and those unscheduled races to the hospital emergency room.” In the eye of the storm, she sometimes experienced a “feeling that I’d never be able to have fun again.” As George rose in the world, becoming rich in business, then famous in politics, Barbara began to feel like the neglected homebody. After George was tapped in 1975 to run the CIA, she sank into depression.

It was a watershed moment. The children were gone, and for the first time George could not talk to her about work. Barbara felt a sense of emptiness that she says was exacerbated by menopause and by the women’s movement, which seemed to question the ideals of motherhood and family to which she had devoted her life. “I’m glad I went through it,” she says. “Now when people say they are depressed, I know. I used to say, ‘Pull yourself together and get out and do things for people.’ Now I’m a nicer person, slightly.”

In 1980 George Bush became Ronald Reagan’s Vice President—though Barbara would never warm to Nancy. “Barbara never forgave Nancy for treating them like the help,” Reagan biographer Edmund Morris told Talk magazine. In November 1989, Bush won the top job himself, soundly defeating Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, and his wife was greeted as a breath of fresh air. “When reporters asked her at a state dinner, ‘Whose dress is that?’ she’d always say, ‘Mine,’ ” says former press secretary Anna Perez. As First Lady, Mrs. Bush chose literacy as her signature issue and remains committed to it today. “She is not a figurehead,” says Benita Somerfield, executive director of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, noting that Mrs. Bush still raises money and supports reading programs across the U.S.

By 1992, declared CBS newsman Dan Rather, Barbara was “the most popular Republican in America.” Alas, it didn’t help George. When he was drubbed by Bill Clinton at the polls, recalls energy tycoon Robert Mosbacher, Barbara said, “Thank goodness. I’m going to the grocery store and live a normal life.”

To some degree, she has. Whether she is in Maine or Texas, Mrs. Bush continues with her needlepoint, her gardening and her golf (although she has been slowed at times by a hip replacement and, recently, back surgery). She listens to music ranging from Pavarotti to the Oak Ridge Boys, savors movies such as Life Is Beautiful and My Dog Skip and gallantly fights the battle of the bulge (“I’m on the Sugar Busters diet”). Nearly always, she keeps a discreet distance from the people she calls “Bush watchers,” who assume that because she was once First Lady they still have some claim on her.

“They are over there,” she says, pointing to tourists with cameras and binoculars gathered on the cliffs across the water from the house in Maine. “The funniest thing,” she says, “is that people come up to me and ask, ‘Are you Barbara Bush?’ I say, ‘No, I’m not Barbara Bush. She’s much older than I am.’ ”

William Plummer

Jane Sims Podesta in Kennebunkport, Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C., Gabrielle Cosgriff and Laurel Calkins in Houston

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