David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a former Washington-based national political correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.
It was a splendid day in Kennebunkport, Me., August of 1989, three decades and seemingly a world ago. The sun shimmered off the shallow, pale-blue waters of the Gulf of Maine, the hamburgers sizzled on an outsized grill presided over by, well, the President of the United States. A festive feeling prevailed. The controversial tax bill that would split the Republican Party for a generation and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that would set in motion so much anguish were both two years away.
Suddenly, amid this midsummer revelry, there was a loud noise and, this being the vacation home of the President, a terrible shock wave of dread cascaded across the summer scene at Walker’s Point. This was a moment of assassination anxiety, seldom far away with any president, even on this sylvan promontory of southern Maine. And above it all bellowed a voice, strong, firm, determined:
Where is Barbara Bush?
It turned out that Barbara Bush, who died Tuesday at age 92, was only feet away, chatting with some of the news reporters she held in silent skepticism, and the noise was probably the backfire of a boat. But for anyone who was there, one inescapable, ineluctable and incontrovertible insight was seared into memory: In moments of crisis, danger, threat or uncertainty, George H. W. Bush’s first instinct was to find Barbara Pierce Bush.
Mr. Bush, 93, first found the young Barbara Pierce at a Christmas holiday dance. She was 16, athletic, a bit saucy, but cultivated in the way that gals – the phrase of the time, freighted with sporty overtones and connoting madcap pranks and Madras shorts – from Rye Country Day School were cultivated. The young Mr. Bush was a big shot, handsome and lean, with the polish that Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., applied with ease. He later went to war, she to Smith College. That was what was done then: Men and women of their class went to sea or the women’s colleges of the Seven Sisters in those fraught days of emotional farewells and desperate hopes and fears.
Swiftly they became engaged, beginning three-quarters of a century together in which they would give fresh shape to one of the signature families of the 20th century, and then, with Mr. Bush in various important appointed posts and then the vice-presidency and the presidency, shape modern views of political dignity that grew ever more cherished by the American people as American culture became ever more coarse.
‘’One of the reasons I made the most important decision of my life … to marry George Bush … is because he made me laugh,’’ Mrs. Bush said at the Wellesley College commencement in 1990. ‘’It’s true, sometimes we’ve laughed through our tears … but that shared laughter has been one of our strongest bonds.’’
With a strand of pearls that would become known as the Barbara Bush look and with the sort of withering look that could relieve even the most powerful of their pretenses, Mrs. Bush established a style that was emulated widely and a mystique that was analyzed constantly.
“At a time in American history when straight talk is especially welcome, Barbara Bush will be remembered as highly respected and greatly admired,” former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, who spent most of the last two dozen Labour Day weekends with the Bush family in Maine, said in an interview. “She was a unique personality in America today.”
But behind those Pierce piercing eyes there was tragedy. She was mother to six children, one of whom, daughter Robin, died of leukemia as a child. It was a loss that she carried to her grave, but also a loss that shaped the rest of the family. George W. Bush, a prankster before a president, made it his special chore to cheer up his mother, once telling friends he couldn’t go out to play with them because he had to play with his mother, who so often seemed lonely. ‘’I was thinking, I had to be there for him,’’ she once said. ‘’But the truth was, he was being there for me.’’
It was George W. Bush’s only success for many years – the 43rd president was, like Ronald Reagan, a classic late-bloomer – but it was a vital one, comforting his mother and giving meaning to his own life.
In some ways, Mrs. Bush was the classic woman of her age, following a high-ambition husband to the untamed West (the Texas that the Bushes set out for to make their fortune had no resemblance whatsoever to Rye, N.Y., in leafy Westchester County); then to Washington (where she became a congressman’s wife, a role heavy on teas but light on taxing conversation); and then to Peking, as it was known then, as a diplomat’s wife (and where she was known for tooling around a city of bicycles on Raleigh two-wheelers, hers with a big rectangular basket affixed to the handlebars). And she endured her husband’s thankless positions in the 1970s as director of Central Intelligence and, worse yet, as chairman of the Republican National Committee at a time when Richard Nixon was sinking into the Watergate morass. Those were years when her friends despaired for her.
She had an indomitable spirit and, within the family, never was dominated. Once George W. Bush came into the couple’s bedroom and sat down to talk. Mrs. Bush told him that she didn’t care if he were President of the United States, he should take his feet off the coffee table. It was not an exaggeration that her family called her The Enforcer. Mr. Bush sometimes referred to her as The Silver Fox. Mostly, he called her Bar.
Her cause was family literacy, a natural for a woman whose youth was filled with books and who wrote some herself. She was well-read, to be sure. But she also was – another phrase from another time – well-bred. She was a first lady, but first she was a lady.
Back at that Kennebunkport cookout 29 years ago, we handed our 17-month baby, Elizabeth, to Mrs. Bush for a picture. These were the days when cameras had film, and when the last frame in a roll often didn’t come out. So we downed our hamburgers, replaced the film in the camera and, about an hour later, circled back to Mrs. Bush to take another picture, just to be sure we captured the moment. My wife extended Elizabeth to Mrs. Bush, who backed away and then barked: ‘’I already held that baby.’’ We didn’t get the picture, but we got an unforgettable memory. Unforgettable, in the phrase of one of the songs of her time, in every way.