Barbara Bush has died, at the age of 92. She was very much a woman of her time and place, which have since passed away, and led the sort of life that the 21st century is ill-equipped to memorialize. But it was quite a life, one that left its mark on America and (more importantly, to Mrs. Bush) on her family, and a life she ultimately left in peace. She was a lady of the old school, but of the sort who should not be mistaken for a shrinking violet: strong-willed and sharp-tongued, nobody ever doubted that she was a formidable presence of her own.
Barbara Pierce Bush was a distant relation of our famously unsuccessful 14th president, Franklin Pierce (they were descended from a common ancestor) and was raised as a conventional upper-crust WASP in Rye, New York (in Westchester County), in the years of Depression and war. She married George H. W. Bush on January 6, 1945, when he was still active in the wartime Navy but assigned to a training post after having been shot down over the Pacific; he was 20, she was 19, and they started a family immediately. After he graduated Yale, she followed him to Midland, Texas, a world away from their privileged New England upbringings, to share the hardships and risks together as he pursued his fortune in the oil business. They would ultimately make that fortune, but there would be trying times along the way, and they lost a daughter at age 3 to cancer in 1953, a tragedy that left a permanent mark on George, Barbara, and their oldest son, George W.
Unlike her husband, who would always be more a skilled diplomat and organization man than a gladhander, Barbara raised two sons who would go on to considerable political success: both George W. and Jeb would become two-term governors of traditionally Democratic states (in 1994 and 1998), and at this writing, neither state has gone back to the Democrats since. Overall, in her lifetime, the Bush family went 3-2 in Republican presidential primaries and 4-1 in national elections, an admirable record notwithstanding its spectacular failures in 1992 and 2016. I met her once, for a photo op in 1992, when the Bush campaign was adrift enough to send the First Lady to Massachusetts. As I noted on Twitter the other day, my last, vivid memory of Barbara Bush is a photo of her doggedly pushing her walker through the snows of New Hampshire to campaign for Jeb’s already-doomed presidential bid:
News that Barbara Bush is nearing the end at age 92 is a reminder of one of the best pictures from the whole crazy 2016 election: Mrs. Bush campaigning for her son in the snows of New Hampshire. pic.twitter.com/5UhC6TsX7l
— Dan McLaughlin (@baseballcrank) April 15, 2018
Political success was only one marker of the strong family that Mrs. Bush nurtured. That wasn’t always easy to do, raising children with so many advantages they could take them for granted; as George W. said in his convention speech in 2000, “Growing up, she gave me love and lots of advice. I gave her white hair.”
Her generation was more reserved than ours, even to the end: The family statement the other day about her abandoning further medical treatment never explicitly said she was dying or how, not that the former needed to be said out loud or that the latter mattered much, at the age of 92.
Like most people in politics — and in life — Mrs. Bush was human and fallible; her acid wit and fierce loyalty to her family sometimes led her to insensitivities, political gaffes, and misjudgments. She was out of step with demonstrative social conservatives and populist enthusiasms. But she always lived by the values of her time and her social class: love of country, devotion to family, loyalty to those who are loyal in return, and an obligation to public service. And as she approached the end, she was happy to tell anyone who would listen — in her own, dignified way — that she was ready to move on to her eternal reward.
Rest in Peace.