Inside Barbara and George Bush's 73-Year Marriage: He Still Said 'I Love You Barbie' Every Night

As news broke that First Lady Barbara Bush would not seek further medical treatment despite her failing health, some of her dearest friends are bracing for goodbye -- and looking back on her 73-year marriage to husband George H.W. Bush

As news broke that First Lady Barbara Bush would not seek further medical treatment despite her failing health, some of her dearest friends are bracing for goodbye — and looking back on her 73-year marriage to husband George H.W. Bush.

John Sununu, the White House chief of staff under former President Bush, tells PEOPLE of the former first couple: “This is a couple that married young, stayed in love through their whole life.”

Mrs. Bush, now 92, was just 16 when met her husband at a Christmas dance. The pair soon became engaged and wed on Jan. 6, 1945.

Bonnie Steinroeder, the Bush’s longtime friend and former pastor at the First Congregational Church in Kennebunkport, Maine, previously told PEOPLE of the couple, “They were so happy together and so committed to each other. They were always so kind to one another. They’ve been role models in a lot of ways.”

George Bush Presidential Library and Museum

George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush’s wedding

That sense of commitment stayed strong through the Bushes’ years in the White House, from 1989 to 1993.

Says Sununu, “When we in the White House thought of them, we thought of them as a team. Although she didn’t make her presence known in the White House, it was obvious to all of us that the president relied on her, listened to her advice, and considered her an important part of the process he went through on all the tough decisions.”

George H W Bush 1988
AP Photo/Mark Duncan

George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush

The president wasn’t the only one who depended on Mrs. Bush’s wit and wisdom. As the matriarch of the Bush family, “Barbara Bush was always the rock of the family, she was the one they all depended on to keep everything together,” Sununu says.

One of those who also benefited from her advice was actor and former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, who paid tribute to Barbara on Twitter.

“She’s strong, she’s smart, she’s classy, and she’s unfailingly kind and giving. She is a public servant in every sense of the word,” he wrote. “I will always be grateful to her. She welcomed me and treated me like family, she motivated and advised me, and she was always there for me.”

Calling her a “great American” the star said she could have quite easily been the country’s first female president, “she might be best known as the wife of one President and the mother of another, but those of us who know her well know that she could have easily done the job herself.”

Sharing a story about the time Barbra broke her ankle while sledding at Camp David, Schwarzenegger said she always put others first.

“She refused to let any of us go with her to the hospital and demanded that we keep enjoying ourselves,” he tweeted. “That’s Barbara in a nutshell, and I can imagine her saying the same thing right now. Barbara, your friendship means the world to me. Thank you for your never-ending inspiration.”

The Bushes’ longtime friend Ambassador C. Boyden Gray, who was White House counsel to the former president, agrees that Mrs. Bush, 92, is “the glue that holds the family together” and adds that “she was enormously helpful to President Bush when he was president.”

President Bush's Family Portrait
David Valdez/White House/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush with their family at the White House in 1989

In a statement Sunday from the office of the former president, a spokesperson said that “following a recent series of hospitalizations, and after consulting her family and doctors, Mrs. Bush, now age 92, has decided not to seek additional medical treatment and will instead focus on comfort care.”

The statement continued, “It will not surprise those who know her that Barbara Bush has been a rock in the face of her failing health, worrying not for herself — thanks to her abiding faith — but for others. She is surrounded by a family she adores, and appreciates the many kind messages and especially the prayers she is receiving.”

RELATED VIDEO: Jenna and Barbara Bush Share The Books That Changed Their Lives

Barbara Bush’s granddaughter Jenna Bush Hager said Monday that her grandmother was in “great spirits” in the wake of the announcement.

“We are grateful for her,” said an emotional Jenna in an interview with NBC News’ Today. “She the best grandma anybody could have ever had — or have.”

HBO Documentary Special Screening Of "41"
Michael Loccisano/Getty

George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush

Jenna added that her grandmother is “with my grandpa, the man she’s loved for over 73 years and they are surrounded by family.”

“I think fact they are together in this and he still says ‘I love you Barbie’ every night is pretty remarkable,” she said.

In a previous interview from January 2017, as the couple celebrated their 72nd wedding anniversary, Sununu told PEOPLE that the Bushes’ love for each other was always evident to those around them. “They are warm and considerate and really just wonderful people,” he said at the time.

Steinroeder tells PEOPLE today that she believes the former president’s faith will get him through this difficult time.

“I am sure it is devastating for him, but I will say they are people of exceptional faith,” she says.

Though Mrs. Bush has apparently left her fate in God’s hands as she transitions to comfort care, Gray says he believes she is “not quite ready to sign off.”

“She’s still answering all of her phone calls herself,” he says with a laugh.

Related Articles