Barbara Bush: See the Former First Lady and Family Matriarch's Extraordinary Life in Pictures
Former first lady Barbara Bush, who died two years ago today at 92 years old, is best remembered for her quick wit, devotion to literacy and 73-year marriage to George H.W. Bush
Bush was born Barbara Pierce on June 8, 1925, in New York City. She was raised just outside the city in Rye, N.Y., by her parents, Pauline and Marvin Pierce, and her father was the president of the magazine publisher McCall Corporation. As such, Barbara and her siblings — two brothers and one sister — grew up very comfortably, attending private and boarding schools throughout their childhood.
At just 16 years old, Bush met her future husband, George H.W. Bush, at a dance while they were both still in high school. Just as they were introduced, a waltz started to play. But since George didn't know how to waltz, "we sat the dance out," he said. "And several more after that, talking and getting to know each other. It was a storybook meeting." Within a year and a half, and with George set to begin his naval service in World War II, they got engaged. While overseas, George named three of his planes in honor of his bride-to-be.
While George was away at war, Bush studied at Smith College in Massachusetts, though she dropped out by the time he returned to the United States on leave in early 1945. It was during this leave that they wed at the First Presbyterian Church in her hometown of Rye. She was 19 years old at the time. George did not go back overseas, but instead was stationed at naval bases around the country. Bush followed her new husband to these appointments, which took the couple to states including Michigan and Maine, foreshadowing a future that would involve plenty of moves.
The couple welcomed their first child, the future 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush, in 1946. Three years later, Bush gave birth to their second child, Pauline Robinson — nicknamed Robin. During these years, George Sr. was a student at Yale University.
The Bushes faced tragedy early on in their marriage, with the death of their daughter Robin at just three years old from leukemia. The memory of Robin's death stayed with Bush over the years: In 2012, she told her granddaughter Jenna Bush Hager she has happy memories of her daughter. “Robin to me is a joy," she said. "She’s like an angel to me, and she’s not a sadness or a sorrow.”
Despite the harrowing loss of their daughter, the Bushes continued to expand their family after she was gone. The same year as Robin's death, Bush gave birth to son Jeb, and sons Neil and Marvin, and daughter Dorothy followed in 1955, 1956 and 1959, respectively. The family eventually settled in Texas so George Sr. could work in the oil business. He quickly built up a successful career, founding the Zapata Corporation. It was in 1963 that their future took a political turn: George Sr. ran for Harris County Republican Party chairman and won. The next year, he ran for U.S. Senate, though he lost the race.
That 1964 race didn't keep George Sr. down for long. In 1966, he was elected to the House of Representatives. Though Bush supported him on the campaign trail, she spent most of her time at home with her children and volunteering with local causes, as well as supporting leukemia and cancer charities. Over the next few years, George Sr. climbed the political ladder, serving as Chairman of the Republican National Committee and United States Ambassador to the United Nations. (He accepted the former position despite his wife's urging him not to due to the looming Watergate scandal.)
A major change came for the couple in 1974, when President Gerald Ford appointed George Sr. to run the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing, China. The couple were often seen riding bikes together around the city. They eventually returned back to the United States in 1976 so George Sr. could start a new job as the head of the CIA. This time was a tough one for their marriage: Because George Sr.'s work was so classified, he couldn't discuss it with his wife, creating a disconnect between the couple. She suffered from depression during this time.
After a few years back in Texas, the couple was thrust into the political spotlight when George Sr. announced his run for president. Bush herself drew attention for expressing her support for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights — both views that were not commonly found in the Republican party. George Sr. didn't end up as his party's nominee for president, but was made the vice presidential nominee alongside Ronald Reagan, who of course won the White House in 1980, making Bush Second Lady.
Her tenure as second lady is perhaps best remembered for her work with literacy organizations. It was Bush's son Neil's diagnosis with dyslexia that prompted her interest in and involvement with the cause.
As Reagan was finishing out his second term in office, George Sr. announced his second candidacy for president to succeed him. At the Republican National Convention, she became only the second spouse of a candidate in history to speak at their party's convention. (The first was Eleanor Roosevelt.) His run this time around was more successful, and made Bush the First Lady after his win in 1988.
As First Lady, she continued her work in literacy issues, and launched the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, which she remained chair of long after leaving the White House, until 2012. She even appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss the topic. In 1989, she was also diagnosed with Graves' disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid.
The family only stayed in the White House for one term after Bill Clinton defeated George Sr. to win the election in 1992. During that campaign, Bush made waves once again when she spoke out about abortion and gay rights, saying that she didn't believe they should be part of a political campaign: "The personal things should be left out of, in my opinion, platforms and conventions."
Just seven years after leaving the White House herself and moving back to Texas, Bush was back on the campaign trail for her son, then-Texas Governor George W. Bush, who eventually won the presidency. When he did, he made his mother only the second woman in American history to be the wife and mother of two presidents — the first was Abigail Adams.
Throughout her son's presidency, Bush and George Sr. lived back at home in Texas. In 2008, Bush was admitted to the hospital as she underwent surgery on her small intestine.
Despite saying in 2013 that she didn't want to see more of her family members in the White House, telling NBC, "we've had enough Bushes," she changed course in 2016 to campaign for son Jeb Bush. She also spoke out against the eventual Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, specfically calling out his comments about women: "I'm not crazy about what he says about women."
In January 2017, both Barbara and George H.W. Bush were hospitalized within days of each other — she for bronchitis and he for pneumonia — but the couple rallied and the following month the pair were on hand to preside over the ceremonial coin toss at the Super Bowl.
At 92 years old, Bush was suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and congestive heart failure, and announced her decision not to seek further medical treatment. “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,” a representative for the Bush family said in a statement.
Just prior to the announcement, Town & Country magazine shared a preview of photographer Claiborne Swanson Frank’s new book, Mother and Child, featuring four generations of women at the family's summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine. “You could tell Maine was their happy place,” Frank told the magazine. “Where they’re most free, most comfortable, where they take the time to enjoy each other and the focus is on the family.”
Barbara Bush's death was confirmed on April 17, 2018.